[Relevant Documents: The Sixth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2008-09, on the Draft Flood and Water Management Bill, HC 555-I, and the Government response, Cm 7741 .]
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, sends his apologies to the House, because he is at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels, where important fisheries negotiations are taking place today. We all wish him well. May I also draw the House's attention to the publication today of the latest progress report on the implementation of Sir Michael Pitt's recommendations?
I thank Mr. Jack and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill that we published in April. The Bill that is now before us has benefited from their thorough and close examination, as well as from more than 650 responses to the public consultation. It is shorter than the original Bill, for reasons that the House will understand, but we remain committed to taking the other measures forward when time allows.
As all too many Members in the Chamber will be aware, the origins of the Bill lie in the devastating floods of 2007. It is never possible to attribute one particular event to our changing climate, but what happened then was a stark reminder of our vulnerability to the force of nature. Important parts of the Bill owe a great deal to Sir Michael Pitt's "lessons learned" report. I am sure that the whole House would wish once again to express its thanks to Sir Michael for the work that he has done. We have responded to many of his recommendations.
I have read the Bill once-I hope that that is sufficient-I cannot see any provision to give the fire and rescue service a statutory duty to deal with flooding, which was one of the Pitt review's recommendations. What do the Government intend to do about that, and when?
The Government's view is that it is not necessary for such a duty to be put in legislation because the fire and rescue service already provides a very good service in rescuing people. It has built up capacity. As the House will be aware, we have provided funding and other support to enable it to undertake those duties even better in future. It was not the view of the Government's then adviser, Ken Knight, that such a change was necessary.
The Secretary of State knows that I support the Bill, and I thank him for introducing it. He will have heard the Deputy Speaker talking about the presentation of private Members' Bills tomorrow, and may have seen on today's Order Paper that I will present a Bill to require local councils to take account of Environment Agency objections to building on the flood plain-a highly relevant matter. Will he consider whether that very simple but very necessary measure could be added to this Bill?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come to that precise point in a little while. He raises an important issue about the way in which we take decisions about planning applications.
Mr. Knight referred to the fire and rescue service. Will the Secretary of State put on record his thanks for the work that it did in the summer of 2007 and, more particularly, the outstanding work that it has done in recent weeks in Cumbria, backed by a very influential local Member of Parliament?
With the greatest of pleasure. I know that I speak for all Members in the House in saying that we are full of admiration and respect for the outstanding work of the fire and rescue service, but also, to be honest, that of everybody who helps out in times of need and emergency. A lot of people owe a great deal to their skill and determination.
Since the summer of 2007, we have completed 106 flood defence schemes protecting more than 63,800 additional homes in England, we have invested £60 million to help to tackle surface water flooding, and some 140,000 more people have signed up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales. In addition, we have set up the new flood forecasting centre-one of Sir Michael's recommendations-which provides a single forecast, including an extreme rainfall alert. During the floods in Cumbria, it played an important role in giving emergency responders early warning of heavy rainfall as well as expert advice on the risk of flooding. Thirty-six hours before the flooding occurred, the flood forecasting centre indicated a high risk of significant property flooding and a danger to life in Cumbria. That shows the benefit of this change.
What we saw in Cumbria reminds us of the devastating effect that flooding has on homes, on businesses, on communities and, above all, on people's lives. Our sympathies go out to all those affected, as do our thanks to all those who responded with such selflessness and determination. Equally impressive has been the tremendous resolve of the communities affected to get back on their feet.
The 2007 floods affected great swathes of the country, as many hon. Members here today know only too well-from Sheffield, Doncaster and Hull to many communities in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, the Thames valley and elsewhere. Thirteen lives were lost, 55,000 homes and businesses were affected, and £3 billion-worth of damage was done. For individuals, businesses and home owners, recovery is not quick. We know from previous flooding that getting back on one's feet can take many long, hard months.
The rainfall in Cumbria was truly exceptional, and that in 2007 very unusual, but this may not be the case in future, as climate change will make what are currently extreme events more frequent. Sea levels are also expected to rise. According to the most recent projections by the UK climate impacts programme, that rise could be 36 cm in London before the end of the century.
The Secretary of State will know that the source of the River Severn is in my constituency. He mentioned the floods of 2007, many of which were directly related to that river. Does he agree that if the Bill is to be effective, we will have to find ways to mitigate the speed at which water enters the watercourse and comes down the river? To achieve that, we have to find upstream and uphill solutions to increase the absorbency of the mountains. Simply building higher walls will not be the solution.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and one important purpose of the Bill is flood risk management. Of course defences are important, which is why we have been investing more money in building them, but we also need to think about other ways to handle the flow of water.
Further to the point that Lembit Öpik made, flood alleviation programmes work well upstream in places such as Milton Keynes and Bedford, but create major problems in constituencies such as mine. In effect, a different value is placed on the life of people who live in my constituency from that of people who live upstream. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Bill must ensure that the whole length of the river system is taken into full account, so that everybody has an equal chance of alleviating the flood problems that we suffer from?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we have catchment flood management plans for precisely that reason. He makes the point that what we do in one place can have a beneficial or negative consequence somewhere else. That is why we have to consider where the water comes from, how it moves and where it ends up, so that we can take the right decisions. Choices have to be made, as I think the House recognises.
When we are talking about choices, we have to talk about funds as well. Understandably, the majority of funding is directed towards dealing with river and coastal flooding, yet many of our constituents face problems of ground and surface water flooding. How can we get the balance right so that we put in place not only the plans but the funding to make a difference to people's lives?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Particularly in Sheffield and Hull but also in many other places, surface water flooding was the problem. That is why one of the purposes of the Bill is to make it absolutely clear for the first time who has lead responsibility for taking account of the matter, which will be unitary or upper-tier authorities. They will bring together all the people responsible for the different drainage systems, private culverts and highways and byways that take water away.
We must ensure that we do not add to the problem. I shall turn presently to sustainable urban drainage, and we have made a practical change to planning permission that does not cost any money. Previously, someone could pave, tarmac and concrete over their front garden without needing to ask anybody. Now they have to apply for planning permission if they use non-permeable paving, but not if they put in place permeable paving. Front gardens tend by definition to drain off into roads. That is a very simple change that we have already put in place at no cost, and it shows that although the solution is about investment, it is also about how we approach the problem. Nobody took responsibility in the past, and if we put the Bill on the statute book we will ensure that somebody has responsibility in future.
From the assessment that we have made, to which I shall turn in a moment, we are certainly confident that the transfer of responsibility for private sewers to the water companies, which we intend to put in place, will free up resources. I will be perfectly frank and say that we need to have a discussion with local authorities about funding in the medium to long term, and I undertake that we will do that to ensure that the costs are fully funded.
Two weeks ago we awarded £11 million to 15 local authorities for pathfinder schemes to help them deal with coastal change. They are in the best position to understand what is needed, and the projects will support a range of activities from the creation of new sand dunes and the building of boardwalks to buy-to-let schemes for properties at risk and land purchase for rebuilding.
"The Welsh Ministers must consult the Secretary of State" on such strategies
"so far as the strategy may affect...England."
Will the Secretary of State say more about how he would adjudicate what is right or wrong? Tewkesbury is very much affected by what happens in Wales.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point. The holder of my office will have responsibility for trying to weigh up proposals. In the end, what we are seeking to do with this legislation-one of the other purposes of these changes-is to get all parties that have an interest in and responsibilities for such things, including duties placed upon them by the Bill, to work together. As we have already heard in interventions from Members on both sides of the Chamber, what one body does has an impact elsewhere and what happens in one place has an impact elsewhere. The Bill is constructed to ensure that people come together and work co-operatively.
The Environment Agency has justified its position on where it puts flood alleviation schemes in economic terms, confirming that it is complying with the Treasury's Green Book. It states:
"Current Government policy for investment in flood defences favours densely populated areas over rural and agricultural areas and at the moment it does not take account of, for example, future food security".
Is that fair?
It is certainly true that a formula is used to make a judgment about where the priorities are. That is a combination of where people live and the economic impact. The House and the nation could have a different set of priorities, but even with the additional investment that we are putting in, choices have to be made on where we are going to spend money. As we know, in the east of the country, coastal erosion is a natural process that has been going on for thousands of years.
On that point, does the Secretary of State nevertheless agree that it would not be a sensible strategy explicitly to aim to flood large swathes of, for instance, Montgomeryshire, to protect downstream towns-in other words, to cause problems upstream that are just as expensive and damaging as those downstream? If he can assure me that the Government will not embark on such an insane strategy, I promise not to interrupt him again.
That is a very generous offer. The hon. Gentleman illustrates the point that the House acknowledges, namely, that there are choices. I have seen for myself a really good washland scheme protecting Lincoln. When there are high levels of rainfall, the water is diverted into a farmer's fields, with his agreement, and it comes out two, three or four days later. It works well. When I asked the farmer, he told me that the type of crops he grows can cope. It all depends on the circumstances, but there is not always an easy answer to such choices.
I am going to make a little bit of progress.
It is precisely because one in six homes in England is already at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea, or indeed surface water, that we cannot move every community away from flood risk. That is why we set out a rigorous test in planning policy statement 25. The expert advice of the Environment Agency on flood risk and new buildings is now followed in 98 per cent. of cases, according to the latest figures that I have. I think that shows that altering the guidance and requiring the agency to be consulted has had an impact.
We can also do more to make individual properties resilient and resistant if the water gets in. A recent example of that was when homes and businesses in Appleby got through the flooding because of the Government grant funding that enabled 46 of them to buy and fit protection equipment. We expect to see more work of that type in future. The Bill defines risk, sensibly, as the combination of likelihood and consequence. The Bill will therefore encourage both resistance and resilience as ways of managing the consequences of flooding. That is important, because where properties are at risk we can also work with the insurance industry so that insurance cover remains widely available. Our agreement on a statement of principles with the Association of British Insurers is intended to do this. The ABI wants to see our record investment in flood defence-£2.15 billion in the current three-year period-and it also expects the Bill to help to overhaul how we better manage the rising risk from flooding. It has urged all of us to work together to ensure that the Bill becomes an Act as quickly as possible.
One of the principal purposes of the Bill is to ensure that organisations know what bit of flood risk they are responsible for managing and that local people know that, too, so part 1 of the Bill will enable a wider range of approaches to flood and coastal erosion risk management and clarify responsibilities for all sources of flooding. The Environment Agency will take a strategic role, including developing a national strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk in England, and a similar role in Wales will be taken by Welsh Ministers. County and unitary authorities will take the lead in ensuring the management of local flood risk and developing plans to deal with it. Resilience and other approaches that minimise the impact of flooding and coastal erosion will be an important part of the plan, and the Bill makes it clear that all authorities can use these as well as, of course, providing flood defences and flood warnings.
As I have already indicated, I will say something in a moment on that very point. I know that it is a source of concern that local authorities have raised.
The lead local authorities will also take on responsibility for surface water flooding, which is a responsibility assigned for the first time in law-for sound reasons that I am sure the House will accept. That is really important, as the Environment Agency estimates that in 2007 two thirds of the 55,000 properties affected were damaged as a result of surface water run-off overloading the drainage system, as opposed to rivers overflowing.
The Bill will encourage all local authorities, the Environment Agency, water companies, internal drainage boards and others to work together in tackling flood risk. Part 1 will introduce duties on those bodies to co-operate and share information and will provide for improved accountability through local authority scrutiny committees.
Will the Bill, in its somewhat reduced form, still enable water companies to take the lead on enforcement against illegal connections? Problems in my area are often caused by an illegal connection of clean water to the foul water sewerage system, or vice versa.
No, it will not, because we have had to shorten the Bill so that we can get the most important things through.
Part 1 of the Bill also recognises the important role of district councils and internal drainage boards. They will retain their works powers in relation to ordinary watercourses. Part 1 will also place duties on the flood risk management authorities to contribute to sustainable development when managing flood and coastal erosion risk, and regional flood defence committees will have their remit extended to coastal erosion. Schedule 1 to the Bill will give new powers to local authorities, the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards in England and Wales to protect physical features that they do not own, but which can play an important role in flood protection or in avoiding coastal erosion.
On the issue of internal drainage boards, I welcome the increased flexibility that the Bill will introduce. Those boards are advantageous because of their localness and their knowledge. If there is any way at all in which we can boost their influence and their ability to deliver, this is the right time to do it. Will my right hon. Friend take that on board?
I acknowledge my hon. Friend's comments about the work of the internal drainage boards. Over the summer, we consulted on other changes, as he will be aware, but they are not in the Bill, for the reason that I gave earlier.
Schedule 3 to the Bill will help to manage the risk of surface water flooding by encouraging the construction of sustainable drainage systems-or SUDS, as they are known-for new developments and redevelopments. County and unitary authority approval will be required for the drainage proposed for any new development, and the approving body will then be responsible for maintaining the SUDS on new developments serving more than one property.
All net new burdens on local authorities will be fully funded. As I indicated a moment ago, on funding SUDS maintenance in the long term, we will publish a clear way forward that takes account of the circumstances faced by local authorities and developers, and that will happen in time for the implementation of this Bill. The aim is to reassure local authorities that they can implement SUDS in the knowledge that there will be no gap in funding.
My right hon. Friend is being generous; I apologise for interrupting his flow. Recommendation 39 in the Pitt review stated:
"The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty."
Why has that statutory duty not been included in the Bill?
I explained earlier to another hon. Member why that was the case: we do not think it necessary simply because, first, fire and rescue services already provide that function-we saw that during the 2007 and 2009 floods-secondly, because the Government's then adviser, Ken Knight, did not think it necessary, and thirdly, because we have given additional support, finance and training assistance to the fire and rescue service so that it can continue doing the very good job that it does, which is to help people when they are in difficulty.
Local authorities will need to build their skills to carry out these new roles, so we are working closely with local government, professional bodies and training providers, investing more than £1 million to support that effort.
The House will recall the awful moment, during the 2007 flooding, when there were fears that the Ulley reservoir might fail. Schedule 4 will introduce a risk-based approach to reservoir safety to improve the way we handle such matters. I am conscious of the concerns that reservoir owners and users have expressed, but the aim is to provide proportionate regulation that reflects the danger that reservoir failure might pose to human life-that must be the overriding consideration-regardless of the use to which the reservoir is put. In many cases, however, we expect to reduce the regulatory burden.
Part 2 of the Bill will give powers to the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards to undertake environmental works related to flood risk that are in the best interests of nature conservation, the preservation of cultural heritage or people's enjoyment of the environment.
A more variable climate has implications not just for flooding. Members will recall the very recent years of drought in the south-east. It is important that we consider how we can manage a shortage of water as well as too much of it. The remainder of part 2 therefore deals with the most important and urgent matters relating to water management. It will enable the Government to review and update water companies' powers to prohibit or restrict certain non-essential domestic uses of water in times of drought. It will also provide for new regulated entities to finance and deliver the very large, or unusual, water infrastructure projects that we might need in the future to address the challenges of climate change and population growth. That will ensure that water customers are protected from new risks associated with the delivery of such projects.
Schedule 5 will amend the special administration regime for the water industry to align it with the general insolvency regime applicable to other companies. The Bill will also fulfil the Government's commitment to legislate to protect community and religious groups and sports clubs from unaffordable rises in their water bills because of unreasonable surface water charges. It will allow water companies to introduce concessionary schemes.
My right hon. Friend will know of my interest in horticultural businesses, as secretary of the gardening and horticulture all-party group, and I declare an interest accordingly. On draught and the problems associated with the last one, would it not be sensible to introduce a code of conduct to protect the industry and gardeners from what was seen last time as a blanket ban? It could, and should, have been a phased ban.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, and I know of his close interest in the horticultural industry. The purpose of this part of the Bill is to give us clearer powers to do the right thing in the right circumstances. However, I can give him an undertaking that we will wish to consult those affected, as necessary, according to the circumstances.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department's excellent work in dealing with usurious charges of water companies against community groups and for the help he has given to churches and scout groups in my constituency. Will he give me an assurance that he will not hesitate to use his powers, under clause 42(5), with regard to water companies that level usurious charges against groups such as the Birch community group in my constituency? That would enable such groups to benefit from the excellent work done by him and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind words, which I echo, about the DEFRA civil servants, and I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has worked very hard on this matter. Given the united view in the House and country, I find it hard to imagine that water companies will not do as desired. It is not a problem in some cases because there are some sensible schemes in place, but where there have been problems, the Bill will make it clear that there is a solution.
Part 2 of the Bill will abolish the Fisheries Committee in Scotland, ending the duplication of functions and removing an unnecessary burden on business.
I am most grateful. Before the Secretary of State moves on to the Scottish Fisheries Committee, may I take him back to the previous point? The affordability issue in respect of certain social activities within our constituencies has been fixed, but the Bill still lacks a response to Anna Walker's report. One issue that continues to trouble people in the field of water is affordability. Will the Secretary of State tell me what steps his Department will take-if necessary, outwith the Bill-together with Ofwat to continue to pursue issues connected with water affordability, particularly in relation to the further development of social tariffs?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. As he will know, we have only just had the final report of Anna Walker's review. There is a great deal for us all to think about, including the Government, and we shall respond in due course. I am acutely conscious of the issue that he raises and the impact that it has on many people, and I shall be happy to talk to him further about how we might pursue the matter, once we have formed a view on what to do.
Part 3 will provide for existing legislation to be amended, by way of secondary legislation, to simplify procedures and standardise provisions within different statutes. That is to pave the way for consolidation and for the single unifying Act for floods legislation that was explicitly recommended by Sir Michael Pitt and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
As Members will be aware, owing to the shortness of this parliamentary Session, it has been necessary to prioritise. However, when taken with the regulations implementing the EU floods directive, the Bill will implement the most important provisions on flooding, including the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt's report that require legislation.
I am grateful for the broad support expressed for the principles in the Bill, and it will no doubt be carefully scrutinised in Committee. However, the most important thing we can do is to ensure that it proceeds as quickly as possible, so that the House and society can show that we are doing all we can to help to prevent flooding. That is why the Bill matters, and I commend it to the House.
The whole House has seen on the television images of flooded landscapes, but as many hon. Members and the Secretary of State know, it is perhaps only when we see for ourselves the devastating effect of flooding on people's homes and businesses that we truly understand its impact. Man takes charge of so much nowadays that it is sobering to see the awesome force of nature that flooding represents.
Nature's power was evident most recently in the flooding in Cumbria. Although it was inspiring to see the emergency services working so effectively, local communities coming together and people helping each other, that flooding was a timely reminder that it remains the primary duty of the state to ensure the security of the public whenever it can. That will increasingly mean ensuring our environmental security, which is ultimately what the Copenhagen summit is all about. Although we must try our best to secure a deal to mitigate greenhouse emissions, our climate is already changing. The adaptation agenda is just as important, as I said in my response to the Gracious Speech.
The Bill is about enhancing our environmental security and adapting to climate change through better flood risk management. Ultimately, it is about protecting people and their homes. We must never forget the human consequences when we fail in that duty. One victim of the 2007 floods said:
"It was horrendous when the flood arrived. Nobody knew what to do...There was sewage running through the house which caused an awful smell...there was water everywhere, so we had to wade through the street to find somewhere above water."
That experience has been repeated in Cumbria, as hon. Members are only too aware.
Nor must we forget the duty that we owe to help communities to recover from flooding when it occurs. The national media may move on, but communities such as those in Cockermouth, Keswick, Workington and Kendal have only just begun to rebuild their lives and move back into homes and businesses. We must ensure that political attention does not desert them in the months ahead. That is why I will be visiting the affected areas again later this week to meet displaced families who will be out of their homes for Christmas, and I know that the Secretary of State has done the same thing recently.
I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will want to continue to express their concern for the area, and that we will want to pay tribute to the ongoing clean-up and recovery efforts of local authorities and voluntary organisations, which are working hard to make Christmas bearable for the flood victims. There was unprecedented rainfall in Cumbria, but it is important to recognise the good work of the authorities, especially the Environment Agency, which were better prepared because they had learned the lessons of the Carlisle floods in 2005.
As the Secretary of State said, difficult choices will no doubt have to be made, but I have said that I believe it to be the first duty of the Government to ensure the security of the people, and that means ensuring their environmental security as well. There will be an ongoing need for investment in flood defences at a time when public spending choices will be difficult, and I think that the whole House recognises that.
We are at increased risk of flooding. Already one in six homes is at risk, and with climate change this risk will increase. Events such as that seen in Cumbria will become more frequent, as will floods on a larger scale. The most devastating floods were those of summer 2007, which constituted the largest peacetime emergency since the second world war. As the Secretary of State reminded us, 13 people died and more than 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded, at a cost of more than £3 billion. Despite the outstanding response to the Cumbria floods, we need an improved national response to protect families and their homes from flooding, and to better manage floods when they occur.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the operation in 2007 was the largest in peacetime, but will he speculate on how much worse the situation would have been if the flooding had gone that little bit further and the entire county of Gloucestershire had lost its electricity, which it almost did? That is a measure of how serious the situation was.
I take my hon. Friend's point. The Secretary of State alluded to the potentially catastrophic effects if a reservoir had been affected, and the same could be said of the impact on critical infrastructure, including the electricity system. Many of us will remember the images of the emergency services desperately trying to protect the sub-station. That is a lesson for us all, and I want to come to the issue of critical infrastructure in a moment.
The Bill takes forward recommendations from the review into the 2007 floods by Sir Michael Pitt. It is now more than a year since the Pitt review reported, with a comprehensive set of more than 90 recommendations. The Conservative party supported those recommendations and we are glad that we have the opportunity to consider legislation to implement many of them. I have consistently urged the Government to introduce legislation, so we welcome the Flood and Water Management Bill.
All Members will be aware that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested that the Government should wait until the opportunity arose to have a comprehensive flood and water Bill. However, my view-and, I think, that of most hon. Members-is that we should not delay implementing essential measures, and the Government were right to bring the Bill forward. The recent floods in Cumbria sealed that view. We will therefore work constructively with the Government to ensure that the Bill is strengthened and reaches the statute book as quickly as possible.
There are some key measures in the Bill that Conservatives have called for and that we will seek to ensure are sufficiently clear and robust. First, the confusing and overlapping roles of central Government, agencies, local authorities and the emergency services, which were evident in the 2007 floods, must be brought to an end. The Chief Fire Officers Association described the "institutional confusion" that beleaguered the recovery effort then. The Pitt review called for people and organisations to be held to account and for simple structures and clear outcomes. We must have clearly defined responsibilities. We therefore welcome the provisions in the Bill to give the Environment Agency strategic oversight and to spell out in law that, in most cases, the lead local flood authority with clear responsibility for flood defence will be a unitary authority or county council. In fact, that is something that the Government first advocated nearly five years ago, in their "Making space for water" document.
We also welcome the measures to improve urban drainage and create requirements for new developments to incorporate sustainable solutions. For too long there have been barriers to establishing such systems, which, as the Conservative party's quality of life review highlighted, have the potential to reduce flood risk from surface water. By requiring new development to focus on permeable paving, ponds and soakaways, we can help to respond to the pressures of climate change, which will lead to more spells of prolonged rainfall.
We also welcome the emphasis on information sharing, so that local flood authorities can better co-ordinate their responses. We will want to ensure greater transparency on flood information, so that local households and businesses get the information that they deserve. We also support the provisions in the Bill on reservoir safety, although we must ensure that they are framed in a way that does not impose unnecessary burdens on owners of small reservoirs, many of which pose no risk to people at all as they are sited on agricultural land. That is an issue that we will need to attend to in Committee.
We broadly support the provisions on infrastructure in part 2 of the Bill that require large projects to be open to competition, which has the potential to help reduce costs to water customers. We are particularly glad to see clause 42, which deals with the problems of charging for surface water drainage-the so-called rain tax-that have caused so much difficulty for scouts, guides, places of worship and other community groups, which were faced with unacceptably high bills. The oversight role of the regulator still needs to be looked at, but overall the proposal is welcome. Back in July, we called on the Government to give companies the discretion that they needed to protect such groups and ensure that new charges were properly monitored by Ofwat. It took Ministers a long time to act, but I am glad to have encouraged them, because they got there in the end and I congratulate them on that.
There are, however, some aspects of the Bill on which we seek clarity from the Government. Some legitimate concerns have been raised by third parties about whether the Bill, in seeking better to co-ordinate the response to flood risk, is too centralising. The National Farmers Union, for instance, has argued that the Environment Agency's role is "power heavy" but "duty light". The Environment Agency gains a strategic oversight role for flood risk management, which is certainly right in principle, but in practice we must ensure that it is framed so as not to sideline local concerns. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee argued, a national strategy is important, but it must not come at the expense of local knowledge, not least because flooding is, in essence, local. The Committee warned against over-centralising measures, stating:
"We are concerned that the draft Bill establishes a rigid vertical structure, which potentially precludes pragmatic cross-boundary area-based approaches that accommodate local people's views and knowledge."
Flooding is a national concern, but it always impacts locally. That is why, for instance, local drainage boards are so important in harnessing local expertise and concern. It is therefore vital that we get clarity on how the national strategy will be drawn up and on how it will be approved. The Bill requires the Environment Agency to consult widely when drawing up the strategy, and requires the strategy to be laid before Parliament. Democratic oversight of the process will be crucial to public confidence, however, and ensuring accountability for such an important framework will be vital. We would therefore like Ministers to explain more about how they envisage the process of approval working. Will the EFRA Committee be able to scrutinise the strategy before it is agreed, for example?
With regard to how the national strategy is applied, the Government need to be clearer about how it will fit in with local strategies devised by lead flood authorities. The Bill puts a responsibility on local authorities to develop their own local flood strategies, but it also requires those strategies to be consistent with the national strategy. In that case, how much discretion will local authorities have to diverge from the national strategy set by the Environment Agency?
We also want further clarification on the measures in clause 38, which give the Environment Agency the responsibility to weigh up the competing interests of conservation and people's enjoyment of the environment, and the potentially harmful consequences of increased flooding or coastal erosion. That is a difficult balance to strike, but we must ensure that local people are involved throughout the decision-making process and that the process is fully accountable.
We are also keen to consider in more detail schedule 1, which relates to the designation of features that could have a significant effect on flood management. The Bill enables the Environment Agency, a lead local flood authority, a district council or an internal drainage board to designate a structure if they believe that its existence or location affects a flood or coastal erosion risk. Following such a designation, the owner of the feature may not change it without the consent of the responsible authority. It is right that assets that could have a serious impact on flooding should be properly accounted for and managed responsibly, but we need to look closely at the implications of the Bill's drafting. Network Rail, for example, has raised concerns about the designation of its assets, and we will be keen to ensure that proportionality is maintained so that this process does not become complex or costly, and that an appeals procedure is in place.
Beyond concerns over where the Bill might prove too centralising, we also seek clarity on the costs arising from certain provisions. We will seek more details from the Government of the costs that will fall on local authorities in taking on their new responsibilities, because that is worrying them. With council finances stretched, local authorities will need reassurance that additional duties can be afforded without increasing the burden on council tax payers.
Similarly, we have questions on how the additional cost of maintaining sustainable urban drainage systems will be met. Ministers have said:
"We recognise that longer term funding must be in place from around 2018, and are considering a number of options to address the funding of SUDS maintenance in the long term."
They have also said:
"The Department will ensure that any increased costs to local authorities are fully funded to avoid upward pressure on council tax."
Despite assurances that medium-term costs will be covered by plans to transfer private sewers to water companies, it is by no means clear that that is the case. The Local Government Association has said that these assumptions are based on seven-year-old data from only 12 per cent. of local authorities, and so are hardly reliable. The provisions might also lead to water companies being hit twice: once for the cost of the sewer transfer and again for the long-term costs of maintaining sustainable urban drainage systems. These are sensible proposals to help to manage the risk of flooding posed by surface water drainage, but in the current economic climate, the Government need to give more detail on how they will be funded, rather than simply relying on historical and incomplete data, and on potential solutions that might emerge in the future.
We welcome this legislation, but, in some respects, it does not go far enough. It will fall to a future Government to bring forward further legislation to cover those aspects that have not made it into this Bill. It was clear from the draft Bill, when it was published in April, that Ministers originally intended to legislate for elements of the Cave and Walker reviews into competition and affordability. The consultation paper said:
"Where they believe it necessary to legislate to implement any changes as a result of these reviews they each intend to do so as part of this Bill."
But that has not been possible, not least because the Government started the reviews too late, and have therefore left themselves with no time.
Many of Professor Cave's recommendations on abstraction trading, competition and legal separation will require legislation. Over a year after his interim report, which made a number of recommendations-accepted in full by Ministers-it is disappointing that this rare opportunity to legislate for them is being missed. The recently published Walker report contains a number of recommendations that link directly with the aims of this Bill, particularly the elements relating to efficiency, which could help to change the way people think about their water use and help to reduce the risk of the severe shortages that would require the temporary bans legislated for in the Bill. Referring to the consultation on the draft Bill, DEFRA implied that greater efficiency measures, including duties on companies, could be forthcoming in the Bill, but it will fall to future legislation to introduce them.
The water industry is desperate for measures to tackle the rising problem of water debt, which the whole House should be concerned about. The problem disproportionately impacts on those low-income families who pay their bills and subsidise non-payers by £12 a year. Simple measures in the Walker report to provide for a named bill payer could have been introduced in this Bill, and would not have unduly slowed its progress or jeopardised the vital flooding measures.
Such confusion firmly underlines the need for a new, joined-up approach to the water industry, which is why we are committed to introducing a White Paper to bring together the Cave and Walker proposals and take the opportunity of the current break in the regulatory cycle to make sensible changes to the way in which water companies are regulated, and put customers at the heart of the industry.
We need to do more between floods, rather than just reacting to them when they happen. Reviewing our natural water flows and cycles, and slowing water down, will help to reduce flood risk. We therefore support calls made by many non-governmental organisations, including WWF, for an approach to flood management that places a much greater focus on the use of natural processes. That can have great benefits, as it can increase the storage capacity of the land and act to slow water down, both of which are important in militating against flooding.
I support the Government's measures in this respect, but I shall come in a moment to some of our caveats.
In my constituency, the Pulborough brooks serve as a natural flood defence. The River Arun's flood defences failed earlier this month, but because the brooks have been preserved as a nature reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the water has been allowed to dissipate, keeping it away from residential areas, roads and infrastructure. Systems such as those, reliant on environmental measures, have the added benefit of improving our ecosystems and providing new habitat for wildlife.
Given the connection between natural flood defence, river management and wildlife, I appreciate the concerns of bodies such as WWF and the RSPB when they argue for a greater emphasis on the water framework directive in the Bill. The wildlife trusts have estimated that a greater use of natural systems, alongside hard defences and appropriate development, could save £30 billion by 2080. However, using natural systems to help to alleviate flood risk cannot be code for abandoning coastline communities or for casually allowing productive farmland to be sacrificed, especially without proper consultation. We must protect valuable farmland.
My hon. Friend is making a fundamental point. In my constituency in Lincolnshire, a significant percentage of the agricultural land is either grade 1 or grade 2, yet some of it might be left to go back to the sea. That would have a detrimental impact on productivity yields, and on the levels of food that can be produced in this country for consumption in this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend's concern. As food security becomes more important to us, we must remember that allowing the degradation of important coastal flood defences will have an impact on coastal communities and result in the loss of highly productive farmland. That is a huge issue to the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association and a matter of concern to local communities. We will want to probe that issue further as the legislation develops.
We must protect valuable farmland and continue to find innovative ways of managing coastal erosion. Consistent with our belief in devolving power, more autonomy should be given to allow coastal communities to defend against the sea when they can. I recently saw the work at Bawdsey in Suffolk, where landowners donated farmland to a specially formed trust, which in turn sold the land for housing, raising £2.2 million to fund the strategically important new sea defence. Thanks to Suffolk Coastal district council, which was supportive, the project was successfully completed earlier this year at relatively low cost, defending a headland that in turn protects many hundreds of acres of farmland. That is a good example of a local scheme in action, and we will need to see more of them.
As I have said, despite the impressive response in Cumbria, this legislation is essential.
I want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's Canute-like stance on this issue and ask him to set limits to this extraordinary attempt to defy the natural processes. We will have to surrender land to the sea on the east coast-there is no alternative strategy in some cases-and we really must be more honest with some of our citizens who may think otherwise for perfectly understandable personal reasons.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talk to the communities concerned and put that point of view to them. Their belief is that not enough is being done to protect communities, their houses or farmland and that more could be done at relatively low cost if communities were empowered to take such decisions themselves. I believe that we should take those decisions seriously. Above all, people feel that they are not properly consulted on decisions taken about the maintenance of coastal flood defences and they want to be involved in those decisions and empowered to protect themselves if possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are exceptions for constituencies such as mine, which suffer from coastal erosion, and for parts of the fens, which are below sea level and suffer from flood alleviation programmes upstream? Does he accept that constituencies such as mine do not yet want to be rotten boroughs?
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to represent a rotten borough. It is true that decisions taken about whether to defend one bit of coastline or to let the defences go have an impact not just on the communities affected but further downstream or down the coastline. That shows the importance of adopting an integrated approach, but I am arguing that we need to be more respectful of local communities in taking such decisions.
In making communities more resilient to flooding, we cannot rely solely on legislation. Indeed, the majority of the Pitt recommendations do not require legislation. Some, such as the proposal for a strategic, long-term approach to investment in flood risk management, need political will. As the Pitt review said:
"Change will only happen with strong and more effective leadership across the board."
On the issue of critical infrastructure, which my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson raised with me, the Government have been too slow in taking forward Pitt's recommendations to protect such infrastructure from future flooding, so as to ensure that essential utilities are not at risk during times of floods as they were in 2007. Despite being one of Pitt's urgent interim recommendations, a national emergency framework produced to provide information for all tiers of government is not now due until summer next year. The natural hazards team was established only in May this year. Today's progress report on Pitt, which the Secretary of State has just published, lists 171 at-risk sites, but perhaps he will tell us when he winds up when he expects the full audit of critical infrastructure to be completed.
Many of us also have concerns about ongoing construction in areas at risk of flooding. It simply cannot make sense that one in 10 new homes are being built within areas of "high flood risk". We need some foresight by planners and sense from developers, and we must be certain that sufficient flood prevention and flood mitigation measures are in place if any development is to take place in flood risk areas. None of that requires legislation, but it does require sustained attention and focus from government at all levels. The sobering fact is that a year after the 2007 floods, almost 5,000 households were still in temporary accommodation, living in caravans or on the top floor of their homes.
The work of the National Flood Forum in helping communities and raising awareness has been invaluable, and its recent work highlighting the problems of victims of floods or those in at-risk areas in obtaining insurance helped to draw attention to that other significant problem. We must ensure that, when the spotlight turns off an area affected by flooding, the work continues.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand the dilemma when a community is waiting for a strategic plan to be put in place and measures to be introduced, as there is not much of an incentive for them to build in their own resilience? The dilemma is that sometimes the cost-benefit analysis may not bear out all the physical work, so all we end up doing is putting people at greater risk in the future without that built-in resilience. Is that not a message that we should all put forward?
The hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense. I was simply making the point that, if at all possible, we need to get people back into their homes quickly and not lose focus on those issues. After all the attention given to the floods of 2007 and to the Cumbria floods, I fear that there is a risk that, as the House moves on, we forget that hundreds-and in the case of Cumbria, thousands-of people are still unable to live in their homes. I am simply arguing that we need a concerted attempt to get them back into their homes as soon as possible, which is a matter not for legislation but for effective action.
The need for legislation reveals something of a paradox. Climate change is affecting our weather patterns and we can expect a future where our winters will be wetter, with increased river flows and higher sea levels. That will lead to more extreme weather and more flood events. At the same time, we will see more water shortages as demand on this precious resource grows. Not only is it essential to ensure our communities are more resilient to flooding so that we can cope better when we have too much water, but we must all start to conserve and value water more so that we can adapt to the reality of having less of it. That calls for better management of water at every level.
As we look to improve the Bill in the weeks ahead, we must ensure that we are making it easier for people to manage water. Frequently, that will mean allowing local communities to use their local knowledge and expertise to minimise flood risk. By its nature, water is difficult to manage and defending against flooding can be expensive. With huge pressure on resources in the years ahead, difficult decisions will need to be taken. Sometimes it will mean ensuring that adequate hard defences are in place to provide security for the long term.
At the invitation of the Environment Agency, I recently visited the Thames barrier to see the excellent work that goes on in protecting this capital from flooding. When the designers originally agreed the project in the 1960s, future rising river levels were anticipated, so it was deliberately over-engineered. As river levels have risen, barrier closures have increased through the decades. The barrier was closed four times in the 1980s and 75 times in the current decade. That is a testament to British engineering skill and planning foresight, and on latest estimates the barrier should keep London safe until at least 2070.
The barrier is also a symbol, however, of the growing threat from flooding and of defence and the foresight we need to help protect our communities. We have a duty to ensure this country's environmental security and this Bill is a sensible step in that direction.
I would like to add my welcome to this Bill, which is an important measure that follows on from a series of reports published after severe flood events going right back to the late '90s. I remember being involved in the 2000 floods and in the Carlisle floods, where my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew played a distinguished role, as did my hon. Friend Tony Cunningham during the recent floods in his area.
While it is certainly true that one extreme does not prove a climate change, what we have seen is an increase in the number of extreme events in this country and an increase in periods of severe rainfall. It is certainly the case that the percentage of properties flooded by surface water run-off seems to have increased. In that context, I think that the Select Committee's report, along with the Pitt report and the Bill, makes very sensible proposals.
In general, floods have been dealt with very efficiently. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement, and it is not to say that there has not been some confusion, particularly over who is responsible for non-main water courses and for surface flooding. I know that the Select Committee has considered that issue before, and it is addressed in the Bill. There has been a much more enlightened move towards a range of options in regard to flood and water defence.
We have already discussed "soft defence". I am not sure whether Nick Herbert was saying that a future Conservative Government might divert money from people's homes and properties to defend farmland. There will of course be choices to be made about the allocation of budgets, but that does not mean that farmland cannot be used to defend people.
My constituency contains Alkborough Flats, Europe's largest managed retreat. The land was bought by the Environment Agency, but it is still farmed by the local farmer and his work force. It is designed to flood once in 20 years in the event of a surge down the Humber, the Trent and the Ouse. The crops would be lost in that particular year, but in the meantime it can operate productively. In the Ancholme valley in my constituency, where there is a serious flooding problem, the Environment Agency proposes that farmers should unite. It is possible that their crops will be flooded every few years, but they could receive compensation in those years. Various formulas could enable them not only to continue to operate commercially, but to play their own role in flood defence.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of appropriate managed retreats-there is one at Freiston Shore in my constituency, which he has visited-but is he aware that many farmers do not think there is enough emphasis on the importance of protecting grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land for our food production?
I have heard all the arguments. Farmers in my constituency make similar points. It is a question of balance, is it not? It must be said, in all fairness, that there have been changes in farming practice over the decades. In some instances, there has been a move away from sustainable traditional farming, particularly in wash lands and water meadows where there used to be summer grazing, towards extensive drainage pumping and a shift to monoculture. All that, incidentally, has taken place at public expense: all those pumps and drains were financed by the taxpayer. But a balance must be struck between sustainable agriculture-the importance of food production-and sustainable flood management, and I believe that the Bill paves the way for that. There are issues that it needs to address further, but it is a welcome step forward.
Surface water was a major problem in my constituency in 2007, when there was extensive flooding in the town of Kirton in Lindsey. Let me record my appreciation for the funds that the Government provided for recovery following those floods. The additional funds for North Lincolnshire council enabled it to increase the number of drains, to replace inadequate drains, and to install a proper outlet in the surface water drains at the bottom of the hill, where the town is. That could not have been done without those extra funds from the Government.
There are people on North Lincolnshire council with experience of flood management, but there are not many of them, and they are nearing retirement age. I agree with the suggestion by the Local Government Association that if local authorities are to play a more proactive role in flood management and flood planning-which I strongly support-there will have to be some support for skills, so that there are people to deal with surveys, flood risk assessments and engineering advice. My council had to bring in consultants to handle some of the technical problems, and it would be much better if that could be done in-house.
I do not have a strong opinion on two-tier councils. My local authority is unitary and therefore has responsibility for these matters, and I think that that works very well. However, where there are two-tier councils I believe that district councils need to be involved as much as possible, not least because they are the planning authorities and planning cannot be divorced from flood management. That will require some thought.
I am pleased to note the commitment given to sustainable urban drainage, of which I have always been a great supporter. I have seen one or two schemes around the country, and I think that they work very well. I believe that it is possible to gain environmental enhancements from SUDS. They can make an area look nice: green space can be used, soak-away areas can serve as paths or cycleways, there can be ponds, and there can be all sorts of different designs. There is, however, the issue of who pays for the maintenance, and it is one of the issues that have blocked the development of SUDS.
It was a great step forward to create a committee to approve and supervise SUDS, but I am still not clear about who will pay for their upkeep. There are various options, but the issue will need to be clarified in Committee. One suggestion is that those with SUDS will not have to pay drainage charges to the water companies, but someone will have to pay for the upkeep in one way or another, whether it is the water companies-which have the advantage of maintenance skills-local authorities or developers.
Along with others, I warmly welcome the clause that deals with the question of lower drainage charges for community groups, which has been raised by many Members and in the all-party parliamentary group on water, of which my hon. Friend Linda Gilroy and I are both members. I am glad that the Government have responded and are dealing with the problem. The Scunthorpe bridge club, which has tremendous support from the community-it is an ideal community group-recently moved into a former factory with a large car-parking area, and received a very large bill for drainage. Community groups are not really in a position to deal with bills like that.
There are many omissions from the Bill, but I understand the reasons for that. I am glad that it has been presented, and that it is being given its Second Reading now so that it can be included in the business programme. I know how difficult it is to secure slots in the programme, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done very well to ensure that it has reached this stage so early.
I know that it is impossible to produce a comprehensive Bill dealing with a number of controversial issues in a short period, but there is one issue that I hope my right hon. Friend will consider: the issue of water bill arrears. It would be possible to introduce fairly simple changes to give water companies the right to know where people had moved to so that they could pursue arrears. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said that the Conservatives would support such a move, so it is clearly not controversial. I do not think it right for the arrears of people who can pay, but will not pay, to be added to the bills of the majority of water customers. A simple measure allowing water companies to track down customers who could pay but have not done so would be very welcome.
Overall, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Bill. I also welcome the report of the Select Committee, which went into the issues in great detail. I believe that these measures will help flood and coastal management. Although it is impossible ever to stop floods, it is certainly possible to minimise the risk.
It is also impossible ever to stop coastal erosion, and, as my hon. Friend Mr. Todd observed, people should not be misled by suggestions that it is possible to defend the whole of our coastline. Not only, in some cases, is it not cost-effective-we should not duck that issue-but in some cases there is no technical solution, and we must recognise that. Instead, we should be working with coastal local authorities and communities and looking at how we can minimise the impact on them. Sadly, however, that does not necessarily mean there is a solution for every part of our coastline; we should be honest about that.
I greatly welcome the Bill, and I hope that it receives support from both sides of the House and enjoys a speedy passage through its Committee stage.
My test of the Flood and Water Management Bill is whether it will help Warden Hill. It is important and right to sympathise with people in Cumbria, to remember the loss of life and to celebrate the extraordinary response of the emergency services, volunteers, friends and neighbours to both the recent floods and previous ones. We all share those sentiments. However, the real test for this Bill is whether all the strategic overviews and lead responsibilities-the national risk management strategies and flood risk management functions-will actually deliver for people in Gloucestershire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and all the other parts of the country that have now experienced severe flooding not only from river flooding but from surface and ground water flooding, or that now face increased flood risk.
We must make no mistake about this: the risk will increase. The Secretary of State has been in Copenhagen, pressing, I hope, for a tough deal to tackle global climate change. We should all thank him and other delegates from all over the world, and wish them well in their efforts and hope that they succeed, but tough deal or not, we have to face up to the reality of the effects of climate change that are already locked into the system. Scientific evidence to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear. It says:
"Basic theory, climate model simulations and empirical evidence all confirm that warmer climates, owing to increased water vapour, lead to more intense precipitation events even when the total annual precipitation is reduced slightly, and with prospects for even stronger events when the overall precipitation amounts increase. The warmer climate therefore increases risks of both drought-where it is not raining-and floods-where it is".
With the world struggling to limit rises in global temperature to 2°, it is clear why our Environment Agency has concluded that flood events currently expected once every 100 years could be happening once every three years by the end of this century. Let us imagine the events at Cockermouth, Tewkesbury, Hull, or even Cheltenham with its 600 flooded properties, repeated in town after town, year after year, and the strain that that will put on residents, the emergency services, local authorities and those responsible for critical infrastructure, as well as on insurance companies, water companies and the Government's flood alleviation programme, and therefore on the bills, premiums and taxes we will all have to pay. The 2007 floods alone cost the United Kingdom £3 billion; the cost to the economy of much more frequent flooding would be unimaginably high. It is absolutely critical, therefore, that in the time we have available now, before the situation reaches that level of perpetual crisis, we sort out all the problems that have been highlighted by the extreme flooding events of recent years-and not just flooding, of course, but droughts, water shortages and coastal erosion from tides and storm surges.
In tackling all these issues, it is essential that we work with nature, not against it, and I have to say that I share other hon. Members' concerns that the Conservative approach set out by Nick Herbert sounded rather Canute-like in its defiance of natural forces.
For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and other Members who have commented on my remarks, let me explain that I said that there was an opportunity for locally conceived schemes at lower cost that could defend coastal communities, and I gave the example of one in Suffolk. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that community, which took action that would otherwise not have been taken, behaved in a Canute-like manner? If it had not taken that action, the result would have been loss of farmland and other such consequences,
I obviously welcome local action to defend communities against flooding, but that was not the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's overall comments. He was clearly suggesting that trying to work with nature and not against it was the wrong approach. That was my impression, and, I think, the impression of other Members.
Not on that point, I am afraid.
The natural environment can be our ally, and our tutor, in providing more space for water, better flood risk management, more intelligent planning, more cost-effective strategies and more secure supplies, and in the process we should take the opportunity to enhance and defend native species and landscapes and biodiversity, and serve a wider environmental agenda.
The residents of Warden Hill do not just want less water flooding into their streets and houses and more flood defences-although I should thank Cheltenham borough council for the funding it has managed to obtain for those that are currently planned. Residents want affordable water and insurance bills, a pleasant and sustainable natural environment around them, and future development that does not make their problems worse and necessitate even more expensive flood defences in future, diverting increasingly precious taxpayers' money from other services. Ideally, they also want a bit more warning next time.
How much does this Bill contribute to all these objectives? We might think that after two and a half years of multiple reviews and consultations, extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and expert advice, we would have a truly outstanding and comprehensive piece of legislation-a veritable torrent of good ideas. Sadly, however, what we have in this water Bill is more of a trickle than a torrent. It is flowing in the right direction, but there is not much of a current. It is not big enough or strong enough to tackle many of the problems highlighted by the events of the last few years. It is better than nothing after such a long wait, but it is still a disappointment.
Let us not be churlish, however. The Bill does helpfully define a flood as an event in which
"land not normally covered by water becomes covered by water."
Well, phew, at least we have covered that one. As many hon. Members have mentioned, clause 42 rightly addresses the issue of the rain tax and community groups such as scout groups. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs claimed that as a Conservative win, but I have to say that I do not remember him spotting this any more than the rest of us did when area-based charging was first introduced. This loophole was, in effect, highlighted as a result of a very bad bit of implementation by one water company. Members on both sides of the House supported this revision, and the clause is most welcome.
The Bill takes forward some ideas from the Pitt review. We have national oversight-a "buck stops here" responsibility-for the Environment Agency. We have local lead responsibility for local authorities. Both of these measures are welcome, but although I noted the Secretary of State's brave claim that all new net burdens on local authorities would be fully funded, back in the real world it is far from clear how exactly these provisions are to be resourced, and whether the Bill will truly sort out the bewildering tangle of responsibilities that surfaced in the floods. These are issues that the Bill Committee must explore in a lot more detail.
The issue of the maintenance of watercourses, drains and sewers has been raised time and again by local residents in many Members' constituencies, and certainly in mine. In particular, we should explore whether the linked issue of unadopted sewers is being adequately addressed. Cheltenham resident Bridget Sansom e-mailed me saying that
"during the summer of 2007 floods, there was a backflow of sewage via the washing machine into the kitchen. This is the result of unadopted sewerage and still has not been solved two years on."
She asked for my "comments, support and help." Let me start by asking about the Government's current plan for the water companies to adopt private sewers. Has that been properly accounted for? The Government recently claimed that water bills in many areas would be going down by a few pounds per household, yet the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs impact assessment on sewer transfer predicted a cost to water companies for that transfer ranging from £4 to £12 per household, and this is not included in the price review 2009 figures. This will more than offset the decrease in water bills that was claimed. So which is the truth? Are water bills going up and not down, or are the Government planning to dodge this crucial issue?
The Bill talks a lot about risk management, but the definitions appear quite limited on first reading. There is, for instance, no explicit reference to risks associated with critical infrastructure. This was a particular issue in Gloucestershire, where the loss of the Mythe water treatment works to the floods meant the loss of fresh water to thousands of people for up to two weeks, and where the absolutely catastrophic loss of electricity supply-not just, as my constituency neighbour, Mr. Robertson pointed out, to Gloucestershire, but to more than 500,000 people, and as far away as Wales-was only narrowly averted by the quick, co-ordinated action of gold command, Gloucestershire constabulary and the Army and other emergency services. I must declare a personal interest here, as my wife was a member of gold command.
A key Pitt recommendation was that we address this issue of critical infrastructure and, with some prescience, it referred not only to power and fresh water but to transport infrastructure. I am sure that the people of Cumbria, who have lost road and other communications, would agree with that. Pitt's recommendation 53 stated:
"A specific duty should be placed on economic regulators to build resilience in the critical infrastructure."
The Secretary of State has issued guidance on this issue to the regulators and yet more consultation is promised, but guidance and consultation have been issued before-as long ago as 2004-and we were still terribly exposed in 2007 and again in 2009. Work is being done to address the specific risks in Gloucestershire, and that is very much appreciated-such work may well be done in Cumbria too-but we need to consider whether or not the legal duty that Pitt recommended is necessary to protect the rest of the country and whether or not the Government are, once again, using consultation as a substitute for action.
We must also consider the personal cost. I am talking not only about the trauma and disruption of having flood water destroy and pollute one's home or business, and the human impact of homelessness and lost possessions; after the flood water has gone and the property has been replaced or repaired, the insurance will need renewing. One of my constituents found that not only had his insurance premiums skyrocketed but the excess for flood damage had risen from £50 to £5,000. I have heard figures as high as £20,000 cited by others and in some cases flooding has been excluded as a risk altogether. That is not really insurance in the sense of a collective scheme to pool risk and protect all of us from extreme events. What added insult to injury in my constituent's case was that since the floods the Environment Agency had spent thousands erecting a flood wall to the rear of his property, protecting him and his neighbours from a repeat of the event that flooded their houses in 2007. The insurance issues were resolved in that case, but it raises a number of questions.
First, should insurance take account of work, either at household or local level, that has reduced the risk of flooding? Secondly, should insurance companies be allowed to claim that they are insuring almost everyone and then impose such punitive premiums, excess charges or exclusions that they render someone's policy virtually useless? It makes good business sense to sell well-targeted insurance to those at almost no risk and very little insurance to those at any risk, but that has a high social cost. In a previous decade, some insurance companies used to exclude people who had taken an HIV test. As happened then, do we not now need a collective solution that takes account of a social need? Do we not, thus, need a solution that excludes from insurance only those at a genuinely very high risk of repeated flooding where no steps have been taken to defend them or their property, and that supports the good principle of shared risk for everyone else?
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that insurance companies should not be increasing the premium to the extent that they are doing and increasing the excess? As he rightly points out, if the excess is as much as £10,000 or £15,000, people are, in effect, not insured. They are going to pay for the damage in any case, so why does the premium have to go up too?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. These companies are getting a double benefit, especially if flood defences have, in the meantime, reduced any risk of the flood being repeated.
I complete a triumvirate of Gloucestershire MPs. One of the other problems here is the myth that somebody can shop around elsewhere for insurance cover. We all know of examples where people have been flooded and although their existing insurance company has stayed with them-of course, putting the premium up as it does so-no other insurance company would ever touch them. Such people are entirely reliant on that remaining insurance company, which can be deleterious to their position.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and the situation he describes reinforces the need for some kind of intervention in the market. All these steps make business sense for individual insurance companies-in a sense, they are only doing what businesses do naturally-but we clearly need to find a better collective solution.
The last question that all this raises is what is the long-term plan for those who really cannot be defended against flood, coastal erosion or natural hazard. In fairness, I could not possibly suggest that the insurance industry and its other customers continue to pick up the tab for properties that we now realise are not going to be viable in the long term, but are their occupants simply to be left uninsured with a property of collapsing value? My hon. Friend Norman Lamb has been a tireless champion of the rights of people placed unexpectedly in this kind of situation from faster than expected coastal erosion in his constituency. As the Secretary of State has mentioned, an innovative approach to householders at long-term risk will now be tried there and elsewhere in which householders sell and lease back their homes. My hon. Friend seems to have secured social justice for his constituents, with the support now of the Government and of the Environment Agency, but what about other people's constituents who are facing unexpected long-term risk and who are not on the coast? On that issue, as on the others I have mentioned relating to insurance and household risk, the Bill is silent.
Another way in which individual risk could be reduced and the insurance bill minimised is through a better, faster and much more specific system of flood alerts. The Government have instituted the new flood forecasting centre, which is an impressive office in Clerkenwell, bringing together expert skills from the Environment Agency and the Met Office. That is a very impressive start, but the Met Office's modelling and tracking of rainfall is advancing in leaps and bounds and can now predict very heavy rainfall on a very localised basis, down to a resolution of just 1 km. The current flood alert system is based on much broader, generalised flood alerts, delivered-as I remember from 2007-for days in advance. They are obviously a good thing, but a much more specific and targeted warning, even a few hours or less before a localised high rainfall event, would give people vital minutes in which to save their personal possessions. I would like to hear the Secretary of State's views on flood alerts and on whether or not the Bill should include a mandate for a much more ambitious scheme that could save individual property and save us collectively millions of pounds.
May I also ask whether other Government policies are not actually making the situation worse? Let us return to my Warden Hill test. I have in my possession a flood catchment study map that clearly shows the contribution that nearby green fields in Leckhampton make to the retention of water in the landscape. Expensive flood defences are being built in Warden Hill, but how crazy would it be to build on those green fields and create an even greater flood risk all over again? Yet after a local visit lasting only a few minutes, Government inspectors included precisely that area in the Communities Secretary's proposed changes to the draft south-west regional spatial strategy and earmarked it for thousands of houses. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, will know that in Tewkesbury, which is not far away from the area I am discussing, a whole new housing estate at Wheatpieces has already been given the green light in a very high flood risk area.
In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend Tim Farron, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. Austin, confirmed that 135,000 dwellings have been built in flood risk areas in the past 10 years. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, across the country 27,000 hectares of green belt land is at risk of development. By definition, such land is right next to urban areas, and years ago the Foresight study rightly identified creeping urbanisation as a key factor in increasing flood risk. In one of his less robust moments, Sir Michael Pitt suggested that the current planning guidance, planning policy statement 25, should be maintained but kept under review.
We need to go much further than that, because PPS25 is hopelessly site-specific. The Environment Agency is often placated by a balancing pond here or there, and even when it does maintain opposition to a development, its advice is often ignored or overturned. We need to introduce planning policies that are created by local authorities working together, with the involvement of local people, including farmers-not by regional quangos. We need policies that address water issues on a landscape scale and with real force in planning law. The sustainable drainage provisions in the Bill are welcome, but they are wholly inadequate to deal with the scale of problem we face. As the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out, the piecemeal approach in the Bill is simply not ambitious enough and the connected issue of spatial planning must be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman is touching on a subject that I have addressed in the past: whether or not the Environment Agency should, in effect, be given the powers that the Highways Agency has in relation to planning applications that have a bearing on a highway for which it is responsible. Where it objects, the application may not be determined; it cannot simply be placed before the local authority for a decision. Would a similar power, admittedly one backed up by a rather more robust Environment Agency-I have concerns about the firmness with which inappropriate developments are resisted in my own area-not be a helpful addition to the armoury?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point. The interlocking responsibilities and the right of appeal against decisions by national authorities such as the Environment Agency and the Highways Agency are important. There is an important emphasis, however, to be placed on local decision making and local formulation of these policies, too, and that is what I am trying to express.
Landscape-scale planning policies developed at a local level could include targets for the protection and restoration of water channels, rivers and wetlands. They could help to defend prime agricultural land for local food production, which has been mentioned several times already, for biodiversity and for landscape features such as moorlands and ancient forests. They could make a really important contribution to upstream management of water in the landscape, working with nature, as my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik, who is no longer in his place, rightly pointed out in an earlier intervention. Such a radical change to planning law would obviously require more thought and, yes, more consultation, so it would be challenging to incorporate it into this rather limited little Bill.
At the very least, the Bill could give local authorities clear powers, robust enough to be defended at planning appeals, to stop new developments in flood risk areas that they believe would contribute to flood risk. If they choose to give the go-ahead to buildings in flood risk areas, they need the power to impose planning conditions to increase resilience. We have a code for sustainable homes, but why is it still possible to build houses on flood plains with power sockets in the skirting boards? That is just one small example of how we have failed to make even quite simple, limited changes that are necessary. Incidentally, amendments to that code to enforce water efficiency and rainwater use are also long overdue.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is mentioning this point. Not only should we not build in places that will increase flood risk but, if we are going to build in an area that is likely to have a propensity to flood, it makes sense to design buildings that are resilient. Sometimes, only a minimal change is needed-a few extra feet added to the base structure, for instance, can make an enormous difference to the resilience of a building. For heaven's sake, they knew that in prehistoric times. The lake village in Meare in Somerset records knowledge of how to build on wetland and not have a flooded house. Why have we forgotten?
I knew that my hon. Friend had long experience of such matters, but I did not realise that it went back quite that far. He is absolutely right to identify this issue. We know from long-held experience that we should build sensibly, and we seem to have abandoned that needlessly. The Association of British Insurers predicts that, unless Government policy changes, a third of the 3 million new homes that the government wants to see by 2010 will be built on flood plains and:
"Hundreds of thousands of homes could be uninsurable and uninhabitable".
The toxic combination of inaction on planning and inaction on insurance could create a lethal cocktail. The Government's hope that somehow voluntary agreements and the goodwill of the insurance industry are adequate to deal with this threat is just not good enough.
More is also left out of the Bill. It is a water management Bill as well as a flood Bill, but with spectacularly unjoined-up timing, it seems to have missed the opportunity to address the issues of either the Cave or Walker reviews, and it is too late to influence the water pricing regime or water companies' plans now being put in place until 2015. It contains no reform of Ofwat's remit, which is badly needed.
To be fair to Ofwat, it did not write its remit. It is a scary leftover from the high water mark of Thatcherism, when the only sustainability that counted was commercial and the interests of the consumer were regarded as purely economic. Issues such as the environment or social cohesion were simply not part of the equation. Other regulators, such as Ofgem, have already allowed-or been allowed to allow-sensible measures such as social tariffs to help the least well-off customers. It is high time that Ofwat was told to do likewise.
Anna Walker's review rightly pointed out that water poverty was already becoming an issue and that it would become more of an issue if water bills had to rise, if metering became widespread and if the costs of environmental measures such as leakage control and sewage transfer were greater than expected. Walker says that we need
"A package of help...closely targeted on customers with low incomes" and asks the UK and Welsh Governments to consider updating the guidance to Ofwat. That cannot come soon enough. We do not have to design the whole social tariff system for this Bill, but I hope that it is not too late to, at the very least, change Ofwat's remit to stop it preventing water companies from introducing social tariffs as it does at present. The Secretary of State is looking sceptical, but he should ask the management of Dwr Cymru about their experience of Ofwat in this respect.
I have put on the record many times my views and those of my party on Ofwat's remit. We have published party policy, which I shall happily send to the right hon. Gentleman.
Ofwat also needs to be told that the environment can no longer be considered a subsidiary responsibility of its economic duties. The economy exists within the environment, not the other way round. We have to learn to live within environmental constraints and an obvious first step would be to break the link between resource use and company profit. It would not be rocket science to design an environmentally-friendly tariff whereby increased water use compared to historical household levels earned the household a higher bill, but the increased revenue went not into the water company's coffers but straight into water efficiency or environmentally friendly water management measures.
All in all, the Bill is a bit of a drip when we needed a good shower. It does take welcome steps in allocating clearer responsibilities and addressing issues of sustainable drainage and flood risk management, but it leaves untouched major issues of insurance, planning and environmental issues that need to be addressed. The emergency services, the Army, the NHS, volunteers, friends and neighbours have all played their parts brilliantly, and I join the Secretary of State and others in thanking them all. However, the time has finally come for us to do our part, too. The residents of Warden Hill and of the rest of Cheltenham, as well as the residents of Gloucestershire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and the rest of the country deserve nothing less.
I welcome the Flood and Water Management Bill. I am pleased that it will receive a Second Reading this evening and I hope it is not long before it is on the statute book.
At this moment in time, the eyes of the world are rightly focused on Copenhagen and the world climate change summit. I hope that we can decide on substantial and sustainable reductions on carbon emissions this weekend. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his excellent ministerial team will do all in their power to get the right deal at Copenhagen.
I am aware that some Members of this House and others outside deny climate change and that others are sceptical about the science. I am not one of them. I accept that climate change is taking place. Instead of having the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn, it seems to me that we are moving towards two prolonged seasons: spring and autumn. That assessment is, I accept, much too general, but we do face climate change.
I agree with Nick Herbert that we might not be able to blame climate change for the floods that took place in 2007 and for the floods that took place in 2009 in Cumbria. However, unless we address climate change, it is likely that flooding will become a major problem in the future. That is important to me because the most defining geographical features of my Weaver Vale constituency are the River Mersey, the River Weaver and the River Dane, the Bridgewater canal and the Weaver navigation canal.
Water is a significant feature of my constituency, and the old historic town of Northwich has a long history of flooding. In November 2000, we had floods in the town centre where the River Dane and the River Weaver come together. The measures in the Bill will make it more unlikely that we will be visited by floods in the future. I therefore welcome the provisions in the Bill to strengthen flood defences.
It is right that the Government have addressed the proposals brought forward by Sir Michael Pitt following his review of the 2007 floods. Of significant interest is the fact that the Environment Agency is to be given responsibility for developing a national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. Dovetailing with that, quite rightly, will be the Bill's requirement that unitary and county councils should take the lead in managing the risk of all locally caused floods, and again I welcome that requirement.
In my constituency, that means that Cheshire West and Chester unitary council and Halton borough council will perform that important task. That is a step in the right direction, and I am confident that Halton borough council will play a full role in developing plans to manage risk for all locally caused floods. I have a word of caution for hon. Members, however, about the new Cheshire West and Chester unitary authority. Sadly, that council has all too quickly developed a reputation for not doing much and not listening to what local people want. Its inaction over the redevelopment of Northwich town centre following the completion of the £35 million Government-funded town stabilisation project is a case in point. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will include measures to enable the Environment Agency and DEFRA to scrutinise the council's progress on its important role of managing floods.
I shall now turn to what has become known as the rain tax aspect of the Bill. I was glad that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said in July that the Conservative party was calling for action on the issue, although I am sure that that was not a result of the ten-minute Bill that I introduced on
The introduction by United Utilities of surface area and highway drainage charges signalled a large increase in the water bills faced by scout and guide groups, places of worship, sports clubs, village halls and the like. The changes were introduced following the review by Ofwat of how water companies should charge for surface water drainage. It concluded that the fairest approach was to charge non-household customers based on the size of the site that they occupied, and that charge is called site area charging.
Astonishingly, Ofwat did not examine the impact of the change on voluntary community groups, although it warned water companies that surface area charging might have a negative impact on sensitive properties such as schools, hospitals and places of worship. In general, it warned that water companies would need to take account of the scale and speed of any changes to determine whether they were reasonable and acceptable to customers. United Utilities took Ofwat's advice by bringing in surface area charging, but it did not take any account of the scale and speed of the changes in charging, and whether they would be reasonable and acceptable to customers.
Following reports in the media of the impact of the changes, it was not long before I was visited by community groups such as churches, sports clubs and scout groups. They had also received representations from their parent organisations warning that the way in which United Utilities had approached the situation would mean that they would be faced with seriously high drainage charges. Before the charges were introduced, such organisations had been granted significant discounts on their water bills because of their charitable status. Their bills had been based on the rateable value of the properties that they occupied, which were either zero-rated or heavily discounted.
I have previously given the House two examples of what has happened, the first of which was that the 1st Halton scout group in my constituency saw its water bill increase by 424 per cent. A church organisation has also had a problem. St. Marks church and Bethesda church, which are part of the Hallwood ecumenical parish in Runcorn, are jointly billed for water. In 2007-08, they did not pay any water rates at all, but in 2008-09 they received a charge of £181.76. That charge was set to rise to approximately £2,000 in 2010-11. The Hallwood ecumenical parish could not afford such a massive increase, so I am pleased that there has been some movement in how the matter will be dealt with. Every pound that such organisations spend on surface water drainage is one pound less for them to spend on the services they provide for their parishioners and members, and the communities they serve. Hon. Members representing all parties have rightly criticised these charges on the Floor of the House. Even Ofwat has joined in the criticism-surprisingly, because it was the author of the change itself.
In early 2009, Ofwat announce that United Utilities had agreed to a one-year moratorium during which surface area charges would be frozen at 2008-09 levels for faith buildings, community sports clubs, scout groups and guide associations. At face value, that measure was greatly to be welcomed, but I was concerned at the time that a one-year moratorium would only delay the implementation of surface area charging and would not result in a change to the charging policy that would be both acceptable and fair to these organisations that serve their communities well.
I was concerned that Ofwat made it clear to United Utilities that it should use the one-year moratorium to work with customers, to communicate the need for the new charges, and to offer advice on how customers could implement environmental improvements that will help them to reduce their costs significantly. It also said that United Utilities would use the moratorium to create a new time frame for the implementation of surface area charging by spreading the remaining charge over a longer period to give customers time to put in place measures to offset future costs and benefit the environment.
On that basis, at the beginning of 2010-11, places of worship, community sports clubs, scout groups, Guide associations and village halls would have been faced with substantially larger bills for drainage. Simply altering the implementation date for surface area charging was not the solution that those organisations were looking for. They wanted a scheme that would put them back in their position prior to the change.
To complicate things-and to make matters worse-Ofwat made it clear to water companies that it would not approve any tariffs for surface area charging that involved cross-subsidies, that were based on rateable values or that involved exemptions. It also instructed all water companies that their tariffs for surface area charging would have to be approved by November 2009. Conversely, it did not say what types of charges, other than surface area charging, would be acceptable.
Throughout the whole exercise, the Government kept a close eye on proceedings. I pay particular tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, who has dealt with the problem fantastically. I was also delighted when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in his party conference speech in late September that he would bring forward measures to address the problem. I therefore welcome the Government's decision to bring forward the Bill, which will give water companies the power to introduce concessionary schemes for surface area drainage charges for amateur sports clubs, scout groups, places of worship and other community groups.
Will my hon. Friend join me-and, I am sure, others in the Chamber-in sending a message to the water companies that if they do not take advantage of the discretion now, they will risk not only driving such organisations into the ground but reducing their customer base?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I am about to address his point about the water companies' introduction of the concessionary scheme.
I hope that confirmation will be put on record during the wind-ups that the Government envisage that the community groups covered by the Bill will include guide associations and village halls, because it is important that they are included in its provisions.
The Bill could end the unfair rain tax, but it will do so only if it contains a mandatory requirement for the water companies to provide concessionary schemes for surface area water charges for community groups. I understand that the powers on concessionary charging are permissive, not mandatory. I will be looking to the Government to bring forward measures, either by amending the Bill in Committee or through the guidance that will be issued with it, to make it compulsory for water companies to introduce concessionary tariffs for community groups if they want site area charging for surface and highway drainage.
Having established the principle of concessionary charging for surface water, I believe that the Bill will need to go further if it is to achieve its declared aim of getting rid of the rain tax. The Government need to define, either in the Bill or in guidance, what constitutes a fair and affordable charge for drainage so that the concessionary charges will be fair and affordable. The Bill will not achieve its aim of scrapping the rain tax if water companies are permitted to levy unreasonable charges on community groups for surface water drainage. To lock the concessionary scheme into place and ensure the compliance of the water companies in getting rid of the rain tax, I believe that Ofwat should be given statutory powers to oversee the implementation of the concessionary charging scheme. That would make Ofwat part of the solution, and stop it being part of the problem.
I want the Government to go one step further. Under the scheme that meant that water bills were calculated on rateable values, scouts and other groups benefited by receiving considerable discounts. I would like the water companies to be given the power once again to offer scouts, guides, places of worship, amateur sports clubs, village halls and other community groups discounts on their surface water drainage bills, over and above any concessionary tariffs that is charged.
This flexibility, which is being called for by the scouting organisations and others, would ensure that the rain tax would really become a thing of the past. Scouts, guides, places of worship, amateur sports clubs, village halls and other community groups would then be able to get on with their primary function of providing top-quality services for their members and the communities that they serve.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to Stella Creasy of the Scouts Association for the excellent work that she and her organisation have done on the important issue of putting an end to the inequitable rain tax.
I commend the measures to the House.
This may well be the last speech that I make on a piece of environmental legislation before I retire at the next election. I have the honour of chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we have done a number of reports on flooding and the implementation of the Pitt review. We have also been involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill, so I felt it only right to make a final and modest contribution to this debate.
I am grateful for the kind words from the Secretary of State acknowledging the work that the Committee has done, and I should like to begin by putting on record my appreciation of the work done by the Committee's staff. The Clerks, the inquiry managers and our special advisers are the unsung heroes of parliamentary scrutiny work. They do not get the headlines or the opportunity to speak in debates like this, but pre-legislative scrutiny of the quality that we have been able to achieve would not take place without their efforts.
Perhaps controversially in the light of observations made in the debate so far, our report recommended a delay in introducing this legislation. That was not because we did not want the Environment Agency and others to take on an important co-ordinating role in developing a flood-risk strategy, especially given the failure of the surface water arrangements that was exposed in 2007. We want that strategy to come into force, but our report was a way of putting down a marker. As so many contributions have already suggested, the issue of water cannot easily be disaggregated into a lot of little bits and pieces. As the Secretary of State's own policy document, "Making space for water", acknowledges, all the functions have to be integrated.
For example, we must take account of Anna Walker's review of how water should be paid for, and how we can optimise its use and minimise its waste. We must also heed the other work that has been done on competition in the water industry, and the question of who is responsible for what in any aspect of the management of water. That inevitably means that this is a big and complex matter-as witnessed by the fact that the original Bill had 269 clauses. In contrast, the Bill before us today has been reduced to 49 clauses and four annexes. That is a remarkable piece of editorial activity, and I congratulate the drafters on their achievement.
I will give way to my hon. Friend in just a moment. The other reason for the Committee's approach was to put down a marker that made it clear that whoever forms the next Government will have to undertake to return to this matter early in the new Parliament. By that time, the new Government will have had a chance to digest Anna Walker's findings in particular. They will also have had a chance to address the question of affordability, and to learn from debates like this about some of the many issues that have not been touched on.
I give way to my hon. Friend David Taylor, who is an honourable member of my Committee.
I thank my right hon. Friend, as I shall call him, for giving way. He has been an excellent Chair of the EFRA Committee. Like him, I am standing down at the election and the last few years on his Committee have been very rewarding indeed. Does he recall the visit that the Committee paid to Lyons to look at the integrated approach taken there to flood prevention and management? Is he concerned that one possible flaw in this welcome Bill is that the local authorities that will take on a great deal of the local responsibility for these matters will have inadequate resources, skills or knowledge to be able to do so effectively?
My hon. Friend brings me on to two points that I wanted to touch on. The first is that I think that all of us must be honest with ourselves and with the public about what can be afforded, and what cannot. The Secretary of State will no doubt remind the House when he winds up that the Government have increased spending on flood-prevention measures. I think that the total will be £1 billion by 2011, but the Association of British Insurers has suggested that expenditure should be as high has £1.5 billion. When the implementation of the Pitt proposals was costed, Pitt himself indicated that there was an inadequacy of funding.
We must be realistic. In the current circumstances, we cannot, for example, protect everything by means of hard-engineering solutions. One of the outcomes of the work to be done on risk assessment and the development of a strategy should be to fulfil the objective set out in clause 3, where it speaks of
"preparing, gathering and disseminating maps, plans, surveys and other information" for communities. Communities must be informed about the risks they face. More importantly, they must be informed about what risks can be dealt with-and, more importantly still, what risks cannot be dealt with.
The subject of resilience has already made an appearance in this debate, and quite rightly so. I do not think that we spend enough time on that. One of the most impressive groups of witnesses to come before the Committee came from the National Flood Forum. The forum operates something like a British standard that delineates what equipment works and what does not, but it also has a great deal of experience in giving people in communities guidance on how to make things resilient.
The tragedies of Cumbria and Boscastle have made me wonder whether people in those communities were aware that there were risks that could not be engineered away. If they were so aware, could they, with adequate notice and advice, have prepared themselves better to protect their existing properties?
All that is notwithstanding the observations that have been made about building new properties above flood-risk areas. I very much agree with the observations that many hon. Members have made already about planning and building in flood plain areas. We need to be much harder with ourselves and work to stop increasing flood risk.
My hon. Friend the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire made a very good point about our trip to Lyons. The city lies at the confluence of two of France's major rivers, and it is very interesting to see how the authorities there have integrated their flood defences both regionally and locally. They have built massive sustainable urban drainage schemes, and the integration of those SUDS with the protection of the built environment is very impressive. It provides some very important lessons for how we might do the same here.
However, when we look at how the Bill is drafted, there is a subtlety about clause 3 and the way that it integrates with clause 7. We as legislators must read the definition of "risk" with care, and I hope that the Committee that succeeds the one that I chair will examine carefully how all those tasked with developing the new strategies deal with that definition. We must make rigorously certain that "risk" incorporates all the things that have been mentioned in the debate so far, and that a response to those risk elements is part of the Environment Agency's strategy. If we do that then, with the right degree of scrutiny and pressure from parliamentarians, we can use the subtlety of the drafting to ensure that we can at least have the right shopping list, so to speak, of the things that must be responded to. Thereafter, we can examine critically way whether we have the resources and the wherewithal to deal with any problems that might arise.
One thing that worries me is whether we have, in sum total, the right degree of expertise, especially with regard to engineers skilled in the management of water. The Environment Agency has taken steps to address that issue, but it strikes me that those particular talents will be in very great demand, especially among the local authorities at county level that will be in charge of implementing some of these strategic matters.
Water does not recognise political boundaries. I hope the Committee will examine carefully whether, in developing strategies on political boundaries, we have the mechanisms for catchment areas to knit things together. One of the problems arising from the truncated Bill is that the flood risk management plans that are part of the EU floods directive implementation process are dealt with by statutory instrument outwith the scope of the Bill. I understand why, for legislative reasons, the Government are doing that, but the danger is that the legislation implementing the European directive remains outside the integrating function of the Bill. I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State in his winding-up speech that the gluing together of the parts will take place.
One of the things missing from the Bill is the requirement for the Environment Agency to prepare river maps showing who is responsible for what. That seems to me to be part of the requirements of the EU floods directive. We can immediately see the complexity and the problem of integrating all the parts so that the strategy developed by the Environment Agency will work in reality. I hope the Secretary of State will address the issue in his winding-up speech or when the Bill goes into Committee.
We have talked a great deal this evening about SUDS. Our Committee looked, for example, at highway drainage. When the 2007 events occurred, our highways became the drainage channels to rivers in such a way that the rivers could not accommodate the water running off so quickly. "Slow water" is a phrase that has been used in the debate this evening. Anything that slows things down is a good idea. The integration of sustainable urban drainage solutions for highways is jolly good but, as the Government said:
"We recognise that there is currently no incentive for highway authorities to install sustainable drainage systems because the cost of highway drainage is met by water customers."
That is the kind of risk factor which, if it is teased out at the planning stage of the development of the risk strategy, we might be able to mitigate, but it requires a burden shift in terms of funding. We see the same questions recurring about resources and who has the money to deal with these complicated issues. In Committee some of the real-world challenges posed by flooding should be tested out.
In the Bill, the implications of climate change are a feature to be examined in the context of the development of the strategy. One of the things that increasingly worries me, and which the sad events in Cumbria underscore, is that a once in 1,000-years event can occur. I was asked about this in the context of our existing flood defence systems. In a city such as London, the highway drainage system is scoped to deal with a one in 30-year event. What would happen in London if a once in 1,000-years event occurred? We would have catastrophic flooding, but can we afford to scope up our drainage system by a factor of 30 to cope with that? The answer is probably no. That is why we must be honest when we look at what we can and cannot do, and prepare accordingly.
The Bill is silent on the critical infrastructure but-coming back to the question of risks and picking up the point made by Martin Horwood-that can be incorporated in the risks and therefore encompassed by the strategy of the Environment Agency. If the Bill deals with the risks of reservoirs, the question of the integrity of bridges needs to be re-examined.
Cumbria taught us a rude and painful lesson. Structures which we thought were impervious to the effects of flooding certainly were not. A new dimension of community disruption occurred which none of the previous flooding events in this country had illustrated. Although the Bill is silent on that, the powers and the responsibilities, particularly of county highway authorities, should be re-examined to make sure that there is a duty upon them to re-examine bridge structures regularly to determine whether they are capable of withstanding the type of event that occurred in Cumbria.
One of the aspects that we should reflect on, which emerged from the evidence that we received, is that in the areas that we represent, all of us have a much more articulate constituency of members of the public who are now infinitely better informed about every aspect of flooding. They know about water courses, they have local knowledge, and they are vociferous in arguing their corner. They are a very important part of the process that the Bill deals with. If we as politicians do not recognise the human dimension-the public dimension-all our discussions about flooding, water charging and so on will be the poorer. We must acknowledge the role of the informed member of the public and make certain that they are properly involved in the consultation processes for which the Bill provides as part of the strategy that the Environment Agency is to introduce.
I conclude by saying that I, too, am delighted that the Bill deals with the surface area water charging regime. However, I have one concern. The Bill rightly identifies one group of people who can benefit from positive discrimination. I support that, but on the issue of the affordability of water, individual citizens may look slightly jealously at that part of the Bill and say, "What about us?" In supporting the intent of the Bill, I hope that whoever forms the next Government will return to the question early in the next Parliament and complete the task that the Bill begins.
Order. Before I call Paddy Tipping, I should give notice that after his speech, the limit will be reduced to 10 minutes in an effort to ensure that those who have been waiting will get a chance to contribute.
The Government have been criticised tonight, first for not acting quickly enough on the Pitt recommendations, and secondly for not having a broad enough Bill. I think the Government have brought forward a Bill that is well focused and important. Above all, it can be passed within the next 12 parliamentary weeks; it is important to do the business.
Those who have spoken about the Cave and Walker reports should reflect on the fact that affordability and competition are difficult issues. Those who have been involved with abstraction licences for many years, such as my right hon. Friend Mr. Morley, know how difficult they are and how difficult it is to get a response from the National Farmers Union allowing them to go forward.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Such issues would be difficult to tackle in total during the passage of the Bill, but would he not accept a simple amendment of Ofwat's remit to allow water companies to produce social tariffs to help some of our least well off constituents? That would be a simple measure which I am sure we could manage in the months ahead.
That would not be a simple amendment, and social tariffs are not an easy issue. Those of us who will be involved in the Energy Bill know how difficult it is. Such issues will be dealt with not in Committee, but by secondary legislation. The EU flood regulation measure is before the House by way of a statutory instrument. It includes maps and assessments of flood risk, and it is disappointing that it looks as though the House will not have the opportunity to discuss those matters.
The essential point of today's debate has been about the 2007 floods. They focused our attention not on river flooding, which had been the discussion in the past, but on surface water flooding. Right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have made it very clear that there are no easy solutions to the problem, but in the course of my work either in Nottinghamshire or on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee people have said to me, "Oh, it's simple: you just keep the drains clear." Given the volume of intense rain, however, drains will not be able to cope in the future. We are living in a different world and in a different environment, and that is why the points that the right hon. Member for Fylde made-about being clear with people, working with them and giving them an understanding of the risk-are so important.
It is also important to introduce a set of responsibilities, and the Bill defines them. I am a great supporter of the Environment Agency, and I believe that it has the flexibility not to act in a centralising way, because people in their areas know the problems. If they are allowed to work together, they can find the solutions, too, so the notion of lead authorities is important. In my local authority of Nottinghamshire, the county council, as the agency with responsibility for highways, will take the lead, and I know that it will work closely with the district councils. In some areas, local authorities are able to propose solutions, but it is important that they have the resources to do so. I am not as confident as some of my Front-Bench colleagues that the measures in the Bill-the savings that will be made from the adoption of private sewers-will be sufficient to enable local authorities to make major progress. Nor am I confident that local authorities have the skills, because many councils lost those skills at the time of water privatisation, so there is a big training responsibility that needs to be taken forward.
It is important also to mention the two types of bodies that have been an unsung presence in today's discussion. They are the regional flood and coastal committees and the internal drainage boards. The best internal drainage boards are really very good, but the pattern throughout the country is patchy. The strength of internal drainage boards, however, is that their members know the solutions, and if they are prepared to engage and work with other parties, they will make progress.
I am pleased that regional flood and coastal committees are going to continue. There had been some discussion about their future, but their levy power is important, because it provides the committee with a sum of money that belongs to itself, enabling the introduction of innovative solutions and steps that the Environment Agency would not be able to take. In the Trent valley in Nottinghamshire, for example, funds from the regional levy have enabled the introduction of adaptation measures, which would never have been on the Environment Agency's list of priorities.
Another important issue, which has been characterised in today's debate, is the notion of working with the environment. We must continue to move away from the belief that concrete is the solution to everything. Farming practices can make a real difference, and we need to work in upland areas to ensure that peat bogs are not denuded but are the sponge-the moss-that soaks up water. The notion of working with the environment really is important.
However, it is also important that we recognise the power of the environment-the power of the sea. I was slightly concerned by the comments of Nick Herbert, who seemed to imply that one could always protect the coast. That is quite manifestly wrong. The notion of managed retreat will have to be discussed openly and rationally with local people, who clearly have major concerns. It is no good saying to them that there will be environmental and conservation benefits from such an approach. There will be, but we will have to talk to people very openly about the cost and the fact that things are going to change. It is no good promising that all farmland can be protected. It helps nobody at all, and if that is the Opposition's policy they need to reflect on it.
I have long been an advocate of sustainable urban drainage systems. They can make a big impression on and difference to the landscape, but we need to remember that SUDS are very different: there are high-technology solutions and softer, grassland solutions. We need to be aware of the connection between SUDS and the existing drainage system, too. There is not an either/or choice, because the two interrelate. We must have further discussions with people such as the Home Builders Federation about that relationship, and we need to be absolutely clear that SUDS will continue to cost money in the future. We need to make it clear also that local authorities should be responsible for SUDS, because they have the planning powers and they are good at looking after recreational areas and open spaces. None the less, there is an argument for involving water companies, but they are conspicuously absent from that aspect of the Bill.
I promised to keep my remarks brief, but I shall say a few words about sewers, which have not been discussed today. Clause 41 makes it clear that new developments will have to involve the adoption and maintenance of sewers of a sufficient standard. Members with a long memory of the issue will remember that we had a voluntary arrangement, but that simply has not worked, so the statutory powers in the Bill are quite important. We must ensure that there are no problems in the future, and the clause includes a new code of practice, but it needs to be discussed with others. It is not an easy issue; it is a technological issue. There is a view among builders and developers that it has not been sufficiently discussed, and, as we are talking about introducing the measure next year, in 2010, such discussions need to take place.
My final point is about the adoption of private sewers, an issue that is conspicuously absent from the Bill. I have been campaigning for almost 20 years for the adoption of private sewers.
My hon. Friend has heard it all before.
I do not want rhetoric; I want reality. I want action on the issue, and the Secretary of State promised action. We need it, because all over the country, including in my constituency in Nottinghamshire, householders are affected by private sewers. When their houses and gardens are flooded by foul sewers, it is a dreadful experience.
We need to ensure that those sewers are adopted. The Secretary of State says that he will do so, and he will, but he needs to get on with it. We were promised not only a consultation on private sewers, but their adoption by 2011. However, I say to my right hon. Friend, at whom I am pointing to reinforce my statement, that that consultation has yet to appear, and we were promised its appearance by Christmas. I want private sewers to be adopted by 2011, but unless the Secretary of State and his officials put their foot down, that deadline will retreat into the distance.
This debate might be my final chance to discuss environmental issues in the House, as it might be for the right hon. Member for Fylde. I have campaigned for more than 20 years to have private sewers adopted, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has helped me. I therefore say to the Secretary of State: make my day, make the promise, publish the consultation tomorrow and ensure that private sewers are adopted by 2011.
It is an honour to follow Paddy Tipping.
I should like to start by thanking the Secretary of State-I suppose belatedly, although I am sure that I said the same thing at the time-for all the help he gave to and interest he took in Tewkesbury at the time of the floods. He was extremely helpful. He readily came over to visit and was always available on the phone. That help was much appreciated by my constituents, and again I thank him for it.
I am not taking it personally that I am the first speaker on the Conservative Benches to have his time curtailed; I think that it is probably because I spoke in the Queen's Speech debate on this issue. However, I make no apology for returning to it today because it is so very important.
I want to run through a few aspects that are lacking from the Bill or that I would like strengthened. Of course, as has been said from the Front Bench, Conservative Members support the Bill. We welcome its early introduction after the Queen's Speech in the hope that we can get it through before Parliament is dissolved for a general election. However, if we are to take advantage of its introduction, there are changes that should be made; I am sure that those decisions will be made in Committee.
We have heard a little about house building. I entirely agree with Mr. Heath, who said that we should not build houses in the wrong places. He also mentioned the way in which houses are built. The famous and iconic picture of Tewkesbury abbey surrounded by water was seen everywhere; people remember it in countries that I have been to all over the world. It is important to point out that although the abbey was surrounded by water, it did not flood. The Normans started to build the abbey at the end of the 11th century. People knew where to build and how to build in those days; it seems that we have forgotten about those skills. We must try to build houses that are not only flood resistant but do not displace water and cause problems for other houses. I am not sure whether it is entirely possible to do that, although I know that new drainage systems are being discussed; sumps have been mentioned tonight. We must also start to build houses to take account of the power that they will require in the light of climate change. I know that that is a different subject, but we have talked a lot about it, so it is relevant.
Above all, we have to ask ourselves why my Tewkesbury constituency suffered so badly. The regional spatial strategy proposes to build 14,500 extra houses in what is clearly a flood risk area. Those figures are based on what the south-west regional assembly is suggesting and on the Government's projection that we need 3 million more houses by 2026, but there is no scientific basis for making those estimates. When this Government came to power, they said, correctly, that they were going to end the "predict and provide" approach to housing, but they have not only reinforced that approach but regionalised it, thereby taking the decisions away from local people. That is much to be regretted. Martin Horwood, who kindly mentioned several places in my constituency, including Warden Hill, Leckhampton and Wheatpieces, was absolutely right to suggest that those new build figures should be revisited. I believe that they should be scrapped and we should think again about where we are going to build houses. In that respect, I am not satisfied with the Bill because I do not think it will stop the building of houses on flood risk areas.
Another important issue became evident during the fight to save the area-I do not think that it is too dramatic to describe it as such given that some people lost up to three weeks' water supply, we almost lost the county's entire electricity supply and, tragically, we lost three lives. It became obvious to me that it was extremely difficult to pinpoint which organisation was responsible for maintaining a waterway or water feature, whether it be a culvert, a stream, a brook, or whatever we want to call it. As a result, there was a delay in clearing or repairing that waterway, which created great difficulty. One of the reasons why people did not want to accept responsibility for a given waterway was that they would then have the responsibility for fixing it, which costs money. I am glad that several hon. Members have made that point. When we set out to give responsibility to different organisations, as we should, we must ensure that we identify who is responsible for which waterway and that they are sufficiently funded to carry out the work that we require them to do. I am not sure that the Bill goes far enough to satisfy me in that respect.
As has been noted, it is not enough to act only in emergencies. Welcome as that aid is at the time, it is too late by then. We need to ensure that all the waterways are maintained throughout the year. As I said in the Queen's Speech debate, if we drive cars, we should, if we are sensible, have them serviced regularly and not let them break down before we do anything with them. It is the same with waterways: we must ensure that they are cleared and maintained. We must also ensure-this was not happening before the flooding-that riparian owners of certain waterways carry out their maintenance. As far as I can see, local authorities have not been doing that.
As I said, we lost the water supply and almost lost the electricity supply; some people lost electricity for a while. We need to provide alternative sources of utilities. People in my constituency and, I am sure, in other constituencies, had an extremely difficult time in going without water for so long. The heroic efforts of the armed forces, the emergency services and ordinary volunteers, including children, to get water supplies to houses warmed the heart; nevertheless, we do not want to have to go through that again. I hope that alternative supplies of water and electricity can be set up; at least, we should ensure that places such as Mythe waterworks and Walham electricity substation are properly protected.
There are many other issues that I could raise, but alas I am running out of time and cannot do so in any great detail. On insurance, of course, as I said in an earlier intervention, we must appreciate that insurance companies are businesses that must make profits; we require them to exist, so they have to be financially solvent. However, in some cases they have been unduly harsh on many of their customers by increasing excesses to as much as £10,000 or £15,000-even £20,000 in a case that I have heard of-at the same time as increasing premiums. If somebody has an excess of £10,000 or £15,000 for water damage, they are effectively not insured against that, so why do they have to pay an increased premium? That is most unfair. Although it is welcome that flood defences are undertaken in so many places-several schemes have been completed in my own area-that can sometimes make things worse as regards getting insurance. One or two companies may say, "Oh, that is a flood risk area. Those people are in danger-we won't insure them or we're going to put the excesses up." That is very unfair. I know that the Government have expressed concern about that practice, and I hope that they will carry on talking to insurance companies about it.
I first put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department for working closely with me over the past few years on flood solutions in my constituency. Like many MPs who represent former mining communities, since the closure of our collieries and the underground watercourse base, I have seen increased flooding in small mining communities year in, year out. By 2002, that culminated in flooding in my constituency not once every 70 years but once, twice or three times a year, affecting the same communities, families and small businesses. Some 90 per cent. of small businesses affected by sewer water flooding never reopen their doors, and they are totally lost to the family and the community. Increasingly, communities had come to feel besieged by their inability to get investment projects that could provide solutions to the problems that they faced. They consequently found it increasingly difficult to get support for the insurance and reinsurance of their properties.
In 2004, the situation got to a point at which a radical solution had to be found. United Utilities, the local council and the Environment Agency, with the support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, came up with a co-ordinated plan to reorganise and re-engineer the way they worked-the establishment of a local community flood forum, elected by and on behalf of the community and funded and resourced by United Utilities. That body was important in developing an investment plan to deal with all the flooding problems. Investment needs were identified for engineering solutions or, where those were not possible, for mitigation solutions. The forum engaged with and involved the community at every stage.
This year we have not had a major flood in the community, because of the multi-million pound investment that has taken place with the engagement and involvement of the community, United Utilities, the local authority and the Environment Agency. Next February the next phase will take place, following further consultation with the community flood forum. There will be a further range of investments to improve even further the potential of engineering and mitigation solutions in communities where flooding is likely in the next few years. That next phase is preventive.
All that was achieved with the help of my right hon. Friend Mr. Morley. When he was a Minister, he and I persuaded Ofwat in 2005 to change its arrangements and take sewer water flooding in communities more seriously. Frankly, however, Ofwat has not had its eye on the ball in the past decade. On every occasion, it has underestimated the number of houses that can be affected by surface and sewer water flooding. It has not taken seriously enough the capacity of the insurance industry to turn a blind eye to the continuing problem on many occasions.
The Bill is important in ensuring that we implement much of Sir Michael Pitt's inquiry. I gave him written and verbal evidence about the experiences of our community in Wigan. In 2005, as a Minister, I wrote a report on how we should better co-ordinate investment in Carlisle following the flooding, to ensure that there was a structure to deal with flooding from the River Eden and to bring together all the investment strategies of Cumbria county council, the city of Carlisle, the regional development agency and the Government. That all needed to be put together in a co-ordinated way, with the involvement of the community and under the leadership of the city council, not only so that there were preventive measures for the future but so that from the carnage that took place in Carlisle in January 2005, there would come restructuring, reinvestment and reinvigoration in the city.
It is important that the lessons are learned from all such events, including those in 2007 and this year. The Bill must ensure that each and every community has the ability to ensure that it has all the agencies working together effectively. We must consider the potential of using the model of community engagement and involvement that we have created in Wigan, and seeing whether it can be effectively replicated in other areas to ensure that communities have ownership and control in all circumstances. They must have a way of engaging with the utilities, local authorities and the Environment Agency to handle these matters.
There is much to be said, and I reserve the right to return to many points on Report, but I know that other colleagues wish to contribute, so I shall finish with insurance. I know that the Government came to an agreement with the Association of British Insurers on a code of practice and all that goes with it. Welcome though that is, I have constituents who are still being refused access to insurance products. We still do not have a system of shared risk in place in Britain. There is shared capital risk, for instance through my constituents supporting people in Carlisle and Cumbria, and quite rightly so, but there is no shared insurance risk. The greater the risk of properties flooding, the more individuals and communities are left bereft of proper coverage.
In 1982, as a young local councillor, I helped persuade my council and the insurance industry to introduce a tenants and leaseholders insurance scheme. It was the first in the country, and now hundreds of schemes on that model are operating effectively and providing insurance cover for every tenant who wants it, paid through their rent in an affordable and accessible way. As the years go by, we have to find a way of having an affordable and accessible insurance system paid through people's water rates, so that we can share the risk. The ability to pay must be paramount, and people must have insurance cover in all circumstances so that we share the risk and the cost of investment. Unless we have such a system in place, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will be unable to be insured in the decades to come, through no fault of their own. We need such a radical solution.
I have made a written submission about that scheme to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Dan Norris, and his officials are coming to my constituency soon to meet tenants and the local authority to discuss how it operates. If we can operate it effectively now for housing insurance costs, without undermining the marketplace, why can we not do it in relation to the flooding problem? What problem do ABI members have with doing that now? The problem will not go away, and it will be exacerbated in the years to come.
Everybody should have the right to affordable and accessible insurance, and the risk should be shared. If the Bill cannot ensure that, we should be looking to find other means of ensuring that it happens. Without it, the cost to the public Exchequer of uninsured properties and families will be not millions but billions in the years to come. We need to sit down with the insurance industry, be tougher and come up with a workable set of proposals. Although Sir Michael Pitt decided in the end against the introduction of such a scheme, the evidence is there in his report that it can and will work. We must ensure that we introduce it. If my hon. Friend cannot give us a decision about it this evening, I hope that we can return to the matter at some stage during the Bill's passage and put pressure on the ABI. What has happened so far is welcome, but it is not radical enough and does not go far enough. It will no go far enough until every community has affordable, accessible insurance so that if it is flooded, the consequence is not a total loss of business or family income and a disaster that takes years and years to recover from.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill will be very helpful if the Government listen to the comments and thoughts in hon. Members' contributions and take them forward for further consideration in Committee.
I wish to focus my comments on flood risk and water management in the planning process. It is absolutely right that they have a prominent place in it, and the Bill gives us the opportunity to develop it further. Many of our constituents assume that the availability of water and the ability to dispose of waste water are part of the process, and that the importance of not building on flood plains is integral to the process when it is decided to build new houses or commercial developments. It is right that the Bill looks at how we can put the emphasis on the prevention rather than the cure for such problems, although that does not take away from the comments that have been made tonight on the losses suffered by families and communities who have experienced the dreadful nature of flooding, particularly in recent months.
The Bill provides an opportunity to make water and flood management integral to the planning process. Clause 9 provides the opportunity for lead local authorities in England to develop, maintain and monitor a strategy for local flood risk management in their areas, which includes
"surface runoff...groundwater, and...ordinary water courses" and to put in place an assessment of local flood risk management-clause 10 does the same for Wales. However, a number of questions have been asked about that enhanced role for local authorities, particularly on the apparent rigidity within the Bill concerning the boundary areas within which local authorities can operate their new ability to look at water and flood risk management. Additionally, the Select Committee said that the way in which the Bill was currently drafted potentially precluded a more pragmatic, cross-boundary approach to planning when it comes to water and flood issues.
In my own constituency in north Hampshire, infrastructure management is not bound by borough or district boundaries or hemmed in by county boundaries. We regularly look at how we can plan our infrastructure management across not only one county boundary but two. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack, the Chairman of the Committee, said in his contribution today, water knows not political boundaries. Will the Minister say how we can ensure that the important provision in the Bill to help local authorities to have a more active role is not curtailed or hemmed in? There is probably a need to think further about how the Bill can be more flexible to reflect existing local operations.
The importance of local knowledge is another matter that hon. Members have spoken about in the debate. The encouragement of borough and county councils to be involved in flood risk planning will give councillors and their local residents the ability to ensure that proposed plans include local knowledge, including a community's experience of floods over many generations.
Does the Minister feel that, within the devolution of responsibility for flood and water management to local level-borough or county-there is a lack of read-across between the Bill and the policies of some of his colleagues in other Departments? I am thinking particularly of his colleagues who set house building targets in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is good that the Bill devolves the management of such important issues to a very local level, yet house building, which is one of the things that flooding most impacts, is still primarily dictated by his right hon. and hon. Friends in Whitehall-I am talking about decisions on the number of houses that are going to be built and where they will be built. I have experience of that in my constituency.
Obviously, if house building is dictated centrally, it is difficult for local authorities to avoid building on greenfield sites, which results in the flooding problems that other hon. Members have talked about. Indeed, building on flood zones is very much against the will and wishes of local councillors and local residents, including in the east of Basingstoke in my constituency. There is also very little that local authorities can do about building on brownfield sites, which can be the cause of so many problems, including surface water run-off. Those problems read across to other areas of Government policy, and they need some firm consideration before the Bill passes through the House.
As the Secretary of State said, the Bill has to be in a slimmed-down form so that it can progress speedily, but we should not let it be a missed opportunity on insurance-other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned that. There needs to be a better alignment between insurance companies' perception of flood risk and the actual flood risk. Perhaps the experience of my constituents living near Petty's brook in Chineham, a ward in my constituency, is not atypical-other hon. Members will have had the same problem. Insurance companies perceive that there is a greatly enhanced risk of flooding, even though people in that area have had quite rigorous reassurance from local authorities and the Environment Agency. Will the Minister consider whether local authorities could have a role in monitoring that and in pressing insurance companies to ensure that they are correctly assessing risks and not inflating them in a way that is not in the best interests of our constituents?
Clause 27 deals with the incredibly important issue of sustainable development. The Government could provide some important clarity on this matter. The clause requires lead local authorities to take account of the natural environment when ensuring that development is sustainable. There is an opportunity in the clause for the Minister to issue guidance on how local authorities might interpret that and clarify what they mean. Some clarity could be found in the consultation, which mentions the opportunity better to link planning and water quality management under the water framework directive. There is an opportunity for a more integrated approach to water management, which Mr. McCartney touched on. We cannot think about one aspect of water without thinking about the others-we cannot look at supply without looking at disposal-yet the Bill does not explicitly deal with that. I am sure that the guidance provides an opportunity to do so.
The reason why the Bill is particularly important in my constituency is that we have just undertaken a water cycle report at the request of the south-east regional authority. The level of house building in my constituency was called into question because of the inability of the River Lodden to deal with the considerable levels of pollution within it. Unfortunately, the report shows us that the level of house building will do nothing to reduce pollution in the river. Such things need to be taken into consideration far more in future house building targets. The Bill gives an opportunity to make it clear that local authorities have an obligation in their new role as managers of implementation. That would add to the impact of the Bill in our communities.
I should have liked to comment on a great many other measures in the Bill, not least the privatisation of sewers and the implications of that for local authorities, which is important, and the aspects that relate to local community organisations, but I shall draw my comments to a close there.
I wish to return to the statutory duty for flood rescue, which I raised when I intervened on the Secretary of State. I apologise if he addressed it-I was hanging on his every eloquent word, but I may have nodded off or been distracted.
It is important when we frame legislation such as this Bill that we take into account the views of those who will be at the front line of implementing it. I am one of the founding members of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. I have therefore tried to consult the FBU on its concerns about the legislation. It is important to take on board its views following the 2007 floods. The FBU met those of its members who had been on the front line dealing with the floods and undertook a detailed consultation on their experiences on the ground. The report that the FBU published as a result said:
"The health, safety and welfare of fire crews were put at risk during the floods through insufficient planning, equipment and training. Firefighters should not have had to wade through contaminated water wearing unsuitable protective equipment and exposing themselves to health hazards."
Another aspect that came up in the discussions with fire crews was confirmation that they
"have not been trained consistently to the standards necessary to deal with the range of water-related incidents they have to tackle."
After the consultation the FBU undertook with its members on the 2007 floods, it concluded that the Government should introduce a statutory duty on fire and rescue authorities to respond to significant water-related events such as flooding, and make the necessary resources available to meet these obligations. That was confirmed by the Pitt review which made the recommendation that I quoted earlier-that there should be a statutory duty placed on fire and rescue authorities for flood rescue in particular. Pitt went on to reject non-statutory alternatives. It said:
"The Review strongly believes that a statutory duty is the best means to achieve these outcomes."
It said that other non-statutory, voluntary approaches
"do not provide the certainty the public expect and the Review believes is needed."
Interestingly enough, the Government seemed to concur with those views, and have done so for some time. In the regulatory impact assessment in 2007, the Government backed a statutory duty. The RIA stated that
"relying on FRAs' discretionary powers, even where they receive central funding, means that they could still decline to use the specialist resources to aid other authorities"- in major incidents-
"or in future decide to stop maintaining the capabilities provided by Government."
So the Government were concerned at that time that without a statutory duty they could not rely on the fire and rescue authorities to respond effectively or to maintain the capability of that response. The RIA also said that
"authorities have an incentive due to immediate local pressures to make provision for likely local needs, rather than ensuring that collectively there is provision for very unlikely large-scale incidents. This could, over time, reduce national resilience to such disruptive incidents".
Many, particularly in the FBU, would concur with the Government's view at the time, especially in a financial climate of budgetary pressures on fire and rescue authorities to focus on local needs rather than the strategic investment needed to confront major incidents.
It is also interesting that in 2007 the Secretary of State proposed a statutory duty for flooding as a core duty in section 9 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, but it was not eventually included in the order when it was published in March. The response of the Secretary of State today suggested that the Government have failed to include it in this Bill for three reasons. First, there are existing powers on which the Government can rely to place a duty on fire and rescue authorities. There is a slight difference between awarding a power and placing a duty on an authority, but from the point of view of the practitioners-the front-line workers and fire fighters who were called out time and again in 2007 and again this year-the existing powers are not satisfactory and do not place an adequate duty on fire and rescue authorities. As a result, they worry that once attention is turned away from the issue of flooding, local pressures will prevent the long-term consistent investment required by fire and rescue authorities.
Allied to that is a secondary issue, which affects both the FBU and such fire and rescue authorities as Greater Manchester that are ringed by reservoirs, and that is the lack of transparency and engagement with them over reservoir safety regimes. They are not sure that this Bill will make them technical partners in ensuring reservoir safety, instead of some sort of grace and favour arrangement.
That is another argument for statutory clarity, with statutory duties placed on authorities on flood rescue in particular, but in other areas as well, so that we know who has responsibility for what and who has the duty to provide. Budgetary pressures at a local level, especially in this financial climate, will be critical. We have had talk of the Thames barrier and the GLC's role in completing it. I was the chair of finance and deputy leader on the GLC when that happened. It was a cross-party project, but we had to beg the Government for funding consistently. In a different financial climate, it would have been difficult to achieve a consistency of investment that would have enabled us to complete that project. Eighteen months after the completion of the Thames barrier, Mrs. Thatcher abolished the GLC, but that is another story.
The second argument against the inclusion of a statutory duty was that Sir Ken Knight, the national adviser on such issues, was not convinced of the need for it. Much as I respect Sir Ken Knight, I do not confer on him papal powers of infallibility. Many other experts on fire and rescue authorities do support a statutory duty, especially those who experienced flooding in 2007 and 2009.
The final argument was that at least the legislation will introduce national standards that will be monitored by the Government. I welcome that. In fact, since 2003, the FBU has discussed with the Government their concerns about the retreat of fire and rescue services from national standards. So this is a welcome approach, but the national standards in the Bill will be best monitored if there is a duty on the fire and rescue authority with regard to flood rescue. In that way, everyone would be clear about the role that they have to play and the nature of the required investment to ensure that the authorities fulfilled their duties.
I urge the Government to reflect on the views put forward by the FBU and I would welcome further ministerial meetings with the FBU parliamentary group during the passage of the Bill to discuss potential amendments on Report to introduce the Pitt recommendation of a statutory duty for flood rescue to be placed on fire and rescue authorities.
I come from, and represent, a very wet place. Flooding is something that we in the levels of Somerset have to deal with regularly, and certainly on an annual basis. Indeed, many of the village names in the area-Isle Abbots, Isle Brewers and Muchelney, which means "big island"-reflect the history of the place and the fact that those were island communities surrounded by wetland. We know what flooding is about. I am increasingly worried about the fact that these once-in-25-years, once-in-50-years and once-in-100-years events are now happening regularly. That leads me to suppose that the assessments based on historical data need to be revisited.
I welcome the Bill not least because, as Mr. Jack said, the definition of flood risk-and therefore that which informs strategy-will, I hope, allow us to provide a comprehensive response to flooding difficulties. I suggest that those difficulties fall into three principal areas-prevention, mitigation and resilience, and response-and I want to deal rapidly with all three.
Many people will consider prevention to be a matter of flood defences, which can go so far but are not the answer to all our flooding problems, whether in terms of engineering or costs. They might play a part in the response in some areas, but we cannot approach the problem simply by building higher and higher walls and bigger and bigger flood defences.
The maintenance of ditches-or rhynes, as we call them in Somerset-to allow surface water to flow away and to increase the capacity of watercourses is also important, but again those who consider the maintenance of waterways and drainage to be the answer are deluding themselves. The requirement goes far beyond the capacity even if the maintenance is perfect, which it certainly is not. I have my criticisms of highways authorities not paying attention to, for instance, road drains and the effect of constant surface dressing, which often reduces ditch and drainage system capacity, but nevertheless I think we need to look at the matter anew.
We certainly need to consider the control of flow. We desperately need the co-ordination of agencies such as the Environment Agency and local authorities, but we also need to incorporate the highways authorities, developers and the Highways Agency, which is responsible for major trunk roads, such as the A303, which is a major flood concern in my constituency. In some places, its construction allows too much water to pass underneath, and in other cases, it holds it up and produces some of the problems, as was the case in the villages around Wincanton and Anchor Hill at Holton.
Bridges have the same capacity issues, and we have talked already about the vulnerability of bridges. That should not come as a surprise. I remember that, when I was a lad, the bridge at Pensford, which is probably in the Minister's constituency, washed away. It was a major issue at the time. Bridges are a vulnerability; but often they are pinch-points for water too, because the arches under them do not provide sufficient capacity. We need therefore to look at the management of water flow and bridge capacity. I would also like a much greater emphasis placed on the whole river catchment area approach, which we started experimenting with on the River Parret, in Somerset, way back in the early 1990s when I was a county councillor. That is the only way of managing water flow effectively through a whole river catchment area.
Planning in connection with mitigation and resilience has been mentioned already. I made the point that we do not plan properly, but I was not just talking about building houses in the wrong places. We have a wonderful supermarket on the flood plain in Frome that was put there by a Government inspector against the advice of local people and authorities. It has impervious surfaces, of course, and a flood alleviation scheme attached to it. We hope that it will be successful, but nevertheless it is a risk.
I simply do not understand, however, why we do not build houses more resilient to flooding. It does not take a genius to realise that if the garage or wet rooms, such as the utility room or kitchen, are put downstairs and rooms that might be damaged by water are put upstairs, the house will be more resilient to flooding. Foundations, too could be lifted by just 2 or 3 feet. I know of a house in Queen Camel that is subjected to regular flooding, but which does not flood, despite the fact that the neighbouring houses do, because its foundations are 3 feet higher than those of the surrounding houses. It is a very simple recipe.
We need to consider community defences more and to encourage communities to take their own action where they can. The community of Stoney Stratton, in my constituency, knows what the problem is, where the water flow is and how to deal with it; what it does not have is the advice to help it to do it and the necessary resources which, as a community, it is prepared to provide via the parish council. I hope that we can encourage more local activity of that kind to provide that resilience.
We also need much more local and voluntary effort, which will require advice and co-ordination. There are some wonderful initiatives in my constituency-for instance, in West Camel, which is regularly flooded, but where people are now fitting water gates at the doors of their properties. They are fitting pumps that are responsive to flooding and provide that initial help at the point at which goods are salvageable. They are also using waterproof paint for surfaces up to the flood level in houses. That is the sort of initiative that ought to be taken in flood-vulnerable areas. There is good practice out there and good advice at the household and community levels. When people take such measures, that ought to be reflected in the insurance premium, as my hon. Friend Martin Horwood said.
I want to deal now with the response. The emergency services must have the training to enable them to cope as best they can. We should remember that in rural areas it is often retained fire officers we are expecting to do such work. Warnings are important. More localised forecasting would be extremely helpful, as would having audible warning systems, not just the phone line, which has been successful and which I welcome. For a flood event in the middle of the night, it would be great if people knew that there would be a siren or even that a police car or a fire engine driving through the village with its siren going meant that they had to be on the alert for difficulties. Local readiness, encouraging volunteering, identifying vulnerable people in a parish council area and developing cascade systems are also important, as is developing community resources, even if that just means having a single dinghy available, so that people know where it is, who has to be collected and what the response has to be. Those are all things that need to be encouraged in the strategies.
Lastly, I want to deal with those resources that one might term community resources, including local authority buildings such as schools. I have already mentioned the Countess Gytha school in Queen Camel, which has repeatedly flooded and which I visited again yesterday morning. We need to have a new school. The school must be re-sited. We have the site; what we do not have in the local authority is the cash to make that happen. If we are taking flooding seriously, local authorities must have the resources to take sensible actions and find better sites for key buildings such as schools, hospitals and elderly people's homes, rather than simply continually decanting children out and refurbishing buildings.
However, that needs co-ordination between the Secretary of State's Department and other Departments, so that those resources are made available. I will be seeking a meeting with the Minister for Schools and Learners in the near future about that school, but I wish I knew that I had the support of DEFRA in saying that this issue-ensuring that community facilities that are regularly at risk of flooding will be supported by the Government's funding mechanisms to be moved to more appropriate places-is an urgent matter.
The Bill is a start in the right direction. I can see it has enormous potential in developing the strategies, but there is a huge array of issues that it needs to encompass if it is to do so successfully.
Before I begin, let me thank the Secretary of State for all the work that he has done in Cumbria over recent weeks. It really has been appreciated. We welcome the solidarity that he has shown, the efforts that he has undertaken on our behalf and the decisive action that he has demonstrated from day one. It is absolutely right to bring the Bill forward now. It could not have waited any longer, and in that regard its length is self-explanatory.
May I also associate myself with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend John McDonnell? Anecdotally at least, the experience of the Fire Brigades Union in Cumbria right now certainly echoes the comments that he made about fire and rescue efforts in previous disasters.
As a west Cumbrian Member of Parliament, I cannot say for certain that any Bill or Act could have prevented the recent flooding in west Cumbria. It is almost impossible for any Act of Parliament to cater for a one-in-1,000-year event. Let us bear in mind that Parliament is not yet 1,000-years-old. However, living in and among the areas affected by the floods, I would say that my guess from the ground is that the Bill could have helped.
We are all settled, I hope, on the principles of the Stern report. It will take hundreds of millions of pounds to put right the damage in west Cumbria. However, the cost of the cure, not to mention the economic consequences of the flood damage and the effect upon people's lives and communities, will surely dwarf the cost of prevention.
In the four and a half years that I have been in this place, I have routinely worked alongside communities in my constituency that have suffered from flooding. If the Bill had been enacted sooner, it would certainly have made a huge difference to those more ordinary events in places such as Parton, Beckermet, Braystones, Egremont, Holmrook, Cleator or Keswick. The organisational and accountability changes envisaged in the Bill would have made a difference-in some circumstances, a life-changing difference-to the lives of the people in those communities. As I have said recently in this House, I have seen the effects of flooding on those communities for myself.
As the people of Parton taught me four years ago, it takes only a little water to cause a flood and so make a huge impact upon the life of a family. A foot of water can ruin a home, and everything in it. Floods take away so much that can never be replaced. This issue is one of the most difficult to face us as a nation. Flooding is likely to happen more, not less, and we need to be able to meet the challenges that it poses in practical and policy terms. Improvements to the present system can be effected through legislation, but, inescapably, increased public spending on flood defences and water management will have to be at the heart of our effort. This might not be a universally popular clarion call right now-although it is in some quarters, at least-but it is a fact that must be faced up to.
I hope to be able to serve on the Bill Committee that will scrutinise this legislation following today's Second Reading. In the hope of being able to serve on that Committee, I will be asking as many flood action groups as possible in the affected areas to help me to undertake some pre-Committee scrutiny of the Bill, with a view to making their detailed views known. One of the strengths of the Bill is that it places valuable information germane to flooding and coastal erosion in the public domain, thereby massively increasing accountability and, therefore, action. The bitter experience of many of my constituents is that there is all too often no accountability with regard to flooding issues. There is consequently no ownership, no action and no improvement. I cannot stress strongly enough the anger and disenchantment that this causes.
In one local village, which can act as a microcosm for the many communities-particularly semi-rural coastal communities-facing flooding throughout Cumbria and the rest of the country, there are long-standing flooding problems caused by a variety of factors. The first is geography. The village in question is by the sea at the bottom of a large steep hill in the western Lake district, and the hill contains natural watercourses, streams and culverts. The second is infrastructure. The village is a little over a mile from a water treatment plant which discharges into the sea. In addition, it is an historic mining village surrounded by deep mineworkings. It also contains some railway bridges.
The third factor is development. Fine period Georgian housing sits alongside traditional terraced housing and some modern housing. Sometimes, the enforcement of planning decisions is incredibly difficult due to the problems in determining the ownership of land, culverts, drains and waterways, and there is a profound lack of accountability. The village is served by three tiers of local government, which presents its own unique difficulties. Furthermore, rainfall is increasing and the sea levels are rising.
That village could be one of many throughout Cumbria, the north or Scotland, but its problems are there now and they are very real. As the county that contains the Lake district and is next to the Irish sea, Cumbria requires unique help. I was speaking to one of the village residents on Friday night, and she told me that she and her husband take it in turns to keep watch whenever it rains through the night, such is their fear of flooding.
I remind all hon. Members that flooding is not uncommon in this country, and that we are living in the world's fourth largest economy at the start of the 21st century. Speed is of the essence. Those people are incensed by the lack of accountability, but they are not beaten by it. The village now has its own flood defence plan. If necessary, they will alert each other at 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and strategically place their sandbags, create their own waterways and fit their own flood defences to protect their property and their village. It is a remarkable village, with great people, and I commend their civic-mindedness, which is genuinely inspirational. But I want the Bill to change their lives quickly and for the better. Can the Secretary of State assure me that this will be the case?
As I mentioned, that community is a microcosm of the whole of Cumbria. We in the west of the county live by the sea and are surrounded by the fells. My constituency is home to England's deepest lake and tallest mountain. I would also suggest that it is the most beautiful in the country, and I urge hon. Members to visit it. But in a county such as ours-with a population of fewer than 500,000-how can local authority revenues ever support the infrastructure developments and improvements that need to be made? Even if set at punitive levels, the tax take would never be sufficient to undertake the necessary works. It is therefore clear that, in areas such as Cumbria, organisations such as Cumbria county council and Copeland borough council need to be the recipients of dedicated additional public money, over and above what we can raise ourselves, particularly if they are designated as a lead local flood authority, as envisaged in the Bill. Can the Secretary of State provide some indication of the Government's thinking on that?
On the subject of accountability, many people, myself included, are inclined to believe that the flooding problems we face, which are compounded by environmental change and increasing rainfall, have been exacerbated since the privatisation of the water boards in this country. I make no ideological point at all, as there are benefits to both private and public ownership models and each one works to different ends in different ways. However, since privatisation, our water drainage and management networks appear to have sharply deteriorated. Do we know what the situation is? Is there any benchmark against which to measure this? Can the Secretary of State tell us in the House today, or in Committee or on Third Reading precisely what the situation is?
It may well be that significant revenue could be raised here to help with this problem. If-and it is a big if-there has been a proven and demonstrable decline in the network since privatisation, a windfall tax, ring-fenced for flood prevention measures, may well be called for. Will the Secretary of State explain precisely and in more detail what this Bill will mean for water companies in the country?
As I went around the flooded areas in the wake of the recent floods in west Cumbria, there was real concern about the role of water companies, their infrastructure investments and the nature of their accountability. I hope that we can hear some answers from the Secretary of State, so that my constituents and I will know whether it is right to push for fundamental change with regard to the responsibilities of water companies. In the same way, will the Government give further detail not simply on the Bill's ability to legislate to improve our ability to cope with the risk of flooding, but also on the heightened risks of other dangers caused by flooding?
I shall now bring my remarks to a close because other Members want to speak. In short, prevention is better than cure, and we need to act exceptionally quickly.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Reed, who is absolutely right to highlight the importance of accountability, the dislocation that exists between accountability and responsibility, and the frustration that many people feel that there are insufficient structures that cover those particular issues. I contribute tonight because my constituency lies entirely on a flood plain, the vast majority of which is below sea level. Most of it has been reclaimed from the sea over the years, primarily by the Dutch, but it began as long ago as Roman times.
I think the Government were absolutely correct to respond to the 2007 floods, to instigate the Pitt report and initially to accept all its findings, but I am sure that the Government would accept that the Bill is not as comprehensive as was originally envisaged. Whoever form the next Government after the next general election-I obviously hope that it will be the Conservatives-will have to return to this issue to develop and build on some of the themes missing from the Bill.
Maps were provided by the Environment Agency to all Members of Parliament. Mine shows that if the flood defences failed, my whole constituency would be under water as a result of the combination of failing coastal flood defences and those dealing with precipitation and fluvial flooding. There have been problems in east Lincolnshire, most notably back in 1953, when significant floods along the whole of the eastern English coast took place. Homes and businesses were destroyed, people lost their lives and significant tracts of agricultural land were salinated.
The fact that there has not been a serious flood in Lincolnshire since 1953 is, I think, a reflection of the investment that has gone into coastal defences and the excellent workings of the internal drainage boards in the county. Clearly, with climate change, the risk of flooding will be exacerbated, so we need to ensure that we are ready for any particular climate change that may impact not just in Lincolnshire but elsewhere in the country.
It is important to give the House a feel for the scale of the drainage schemes in Lincolnshire. There are 11 internal drainage boards, which manage water levels over 1.3 million square miles, and 171 operating pumping stations, maintaining 3,450 miles of managed drainage channels protecting more than 500,000 properties. Although I do not criticise hon. Members for their earlier comments about the necessity to be wary of development and building in flood plains, if a complete area is a flood plain, a much more sophisticated approach than a blanket ban is required. In my part of Lincolnshire, we cannot just allow economic and residential development to atrophy, as there would be no job creation and no wealth creation over the next 20 or 30 years. That said, we must ensure that the detail is worked through thoroughly and properly in respect of the Environment Agency and the new structures put in place by the Bill. For example, there are 26,000 caravans between Mablethorpe and Skegness.
Moreover, different types of coastline and the different types of flooding that may affect them give rise to different needs. My constituency contains open coast that stretches from Gibraltar Point up to the Humber. That area is very different from the area of the Wash, which surrounds the coastal area of Lincolnshire but also that of Norfolk. The Environment Agency is doing very good work, particularly on offshore dredging, beach nourishment and dune maintenance. Its funding levels need to be maintained to ensure that that work continues.
I agree with everything that was said by my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack in his excellent speech. However, I feel that we should take a more nuanced view of the information provided by the Environment Agency. It is important for the agency not to frighten people, especially when-in my view-insufficient research has been undertaken and disproportionate weight has been given to the likelihood of flooding. I have seen maps produced by the agency according to which the whole of my constituency and everyone in it would be flooded in certain circumstances. I sincerely hope that that will not happen, but the current level of uncertainty cannot continue in Lincolnshire.
That is not to say that we should not consider-as was suggested by Mr. Morley-a range of options, including managed retreats. However, we should not simply accept that all agricultural land will be flooded in preference to other risk management options. The protection of people and property and of valuable and productive agricultural land is essential. I should point out that 89 per cent. of farmland in the fens is grade 1 or grade 2. It provides 37 per cent. of vegetable production, 25 per cent. of potato production, and 17 per cent. of sugar beet production, and employs 27,000 people. It is not waste land. It is not land that the country can do without. It also saves billions of pounds of imports and incalculable food miles, ensures food security and reduces carbon emissions. The loss of such land would have extremely detrimental consequences.
In the limited time available to me, I want to highlight the issues that I think should be examined in more detail in Committee. There clearly needs to be a review of any plans that are established, but the dates involved must be very specific, as must the synchronisation of national and local revisions, in order to remove any uncertainty. The review of the shoreline management plans and the coastal strategy is causing enormous problems in relation to economic diversification and job creation in Lincolnshire.
I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us how the proposals in the Bill relate to European Union directives, particularly the water framework directive, and what is meant by local plans being consistent with national plans. I hope that that does not mean an imposition from the centre that conflicts with local desires and priorities.
As other Members have said, internal drainage boards fulfil an integral and focused role in providing drainage to protect not just agricultural land but people and property. I was delighted to note that the Government had listened to, and acted on, the suggestions in the pre-scrutiny report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and had withdrawn their proposals for the redefinition of responsibilities, governance and funding arrangements for the boards. However, there is continuing concern about any future plans to move to proportional membership. Relating membership to funding streams would give much more power to the county council and other local authorities and less to those who farm and produce the food. Local farmers and their representatives must continue to play a key role.
The drainage levy also needs to be examined. It used to be reimbursed 100 per cent. by central Government, but that is no longer the case. There is concern about, in particular, the possibility that boards will not be able to manage and maintain their assets and their plans for capital programmes, especially when it comes to replacing or upgrading vital pumping stations. If there is insufficient funding or-I do not think that this will happen in Lincolnshire, but it may happen elsewhere-local authorities find ways of moving funds back to other central funding mechanisms, particularly given the present macro-economic climate and the fiscal deficit, we could experience severely detrimental effects such as reduced spending on drainage, reduced maintenance of waterways, little effort to keep local rates down, and a loss of local knowledge, expertise and input.
I must inform the Secretary of State that he did not respond adequately to my intervention on the reimbursement of local authority funding. He did make the point that the cost of sustainable drainage systems will be reimbursed by central Government, but he did not go further than that, so perhaps in his winding-up speech he will put on record whether the costs of all the additional responsibilities being put on local authorities will be met by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or whether local authorities will have to meet the costs themselves or reduce services elsewhere.
As highlighted by the Conservative party spokesman, my hon. Friend Nick Herbert, there is real concern about clauses 38 and 39 and the apparent ability of the Environment Agency to override local concerns and compulsorily to purchase land that may be valuable agricultural land without there being any appeal mechanism in place. I very much hope that this will be looked at in Committee.
It is essential that the Government take into account Members' concerns, ensure that proposals are fully funded so that there is no additional burden on the council tax payer, and insist that local solutions form an integral part of all flood-risk management strategies.
I welcome the Bill as a constituency MP, for reasons that I shall touch on later. However, I am also chair of the all-party group on water, and we have produced our own report-it came out slightly before "Future Water". Other Members have referred to Pitt, Cave, the price review 2009 and the Walker report. I am pleased that this Bill has been brought forward before the Christmas recess, as that gives it a strong chance of reaching the statute book, and it must do so.
This Second Reading debate is taking place in a week in which there are important discussions about the change in our climate, which we see, and different and volatile patterns in water management, flooding and drought. That the Bill is to be given a Second Reading now is also a just tribute to the recent events in Cumbria.
The Bill covers flood issues, and other Members have referred to the fact that it will enable the Environment Agency to create national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategies. Under clause 9, lead local flood authorities will be able to create flood risk management strategies. For reasons to which I referred in the Queen's Speech debate, that will be very welcome in my constituency, as it will be in all the other constituencies already mentioned in the debate. The Bill gives the EA and local authorities powers to carry out flood risk management works more easily.
In respect of drought, the Bill will enable water companies to control non-essential usage of water more easily. In particular, it contains provisions on the use of hosepipes for activities such as washing cars and gardening, which are particularly relevant in the summer months when water is scarce.
The Bill also tackles surface drainage issues. My right hon. Friend Mr. Morley waxed lyrical about that, as other Members have done on other water matters. The Bill will enable water companies to offer relief to community groups on surface water drainage charges, which has been much campaigned for. I welcome that for my constituency, as much as other Members have done for theirs.
My hon. Friend Paddy Tipping waxed lyrical about private sewers and sewerage-if one can wax lyrical about that topic. The mandatory build standards outlined in the Bill are greatly to be welcomed, but I heard what my hon. Friend said, and I hope that Ministers will have heard his pleas.
Other Members have mentioned a variety of other topics, and future contributors will no doubt mention still more. No doubt, a further Bill will be forthcoming in future years to deal with the need for the sort of consolidating legislation that others have advocated. That is not an excuse for failing to introduce this measure. It is narrower in scope, but it is significant, particularly at this point in the legislative cycle. If this Bill had not been introduced, my Front-Bench colleagues would have been harangued by people from all parts of the House for not doing so, especially in the context of events in Cumbria. It is good that we are getting on with these measures.
I would like the Bill to cover one issue arising from the Walker report. Hon. Members who know well the campaign of 20 years' length that I and other Members have fought would probably expect me at this point to mention the south-west's unique affordability charges. I shall mention those in passing, although the Secretary of State will be pleased to hear that that is not the issue that I expect to see in the Bill. I simply acknowledge that Walker stated:
"Having looked at the particular economic, social and geographical circumstances of the South West Water area, the review team concluded that:
Current high bills in the South West Water area relate to the poor state of the sewerage assets at privatisation".
This is to the tune of £650 million. The report continued:
"Dealing with the historic issues would address the root cause of the issue directly and could be addressed through a specific one-off adjustment or through annual transfers funded by government or, with a different set of fairness challenges, other water customers" across the country. These are big issues that someone needs to examine. Anna Walker rightly said:
"Ofwat would be best placed to consider the options for implementing a one-off or other adjustment, and advising ministers accordingly".
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, for having referred this speedily to the regulator, so that it can get on with examining the matter.
However, the issue that I wish to discuss in the minutes available to me has been raised by a number of other Members-I am talking about water debt. Unpaid water bills last year resulted in water debt of more than £1.25 billion, which was an increase of more than 13 per cent. on the previous year. About 44 per cent. of household water debt is held by customers in rented accommodation and a high proportion is a result of what the industry terms as "leavers"-people who have gone. There is no requirement on tenants or landlords to provide information on the user of the water-the person responsible for the water charges.
The final report of the Walker review recommends:
"As a priority, the Water Industry Act 1991 should be amended to provide for a named customer and clarify who is responsible for paying the water bill; the 'liable person' should be the property owner unless they discharge their liability to the water company by providing tenancy information correctly and in a timely manner".
That recommendation could help to deal with the significant problem of debt from household customers, which costs the rest of us, including many low-income customers in my constituency and across the United Kingdom, £12 on every bill.
Debt in the energy sector is about one fifth of that in the water sector, despite the considerably higher bills. In comparison, the levels of debt in the electricity and gas sectors have remained broadly static, according to Ofgem. The number of energy customers repaying a debt at the end of 2008 was 1.3 million in respect of electricity and 0.8 million in respect of gas. In the water sector, more than 5 million customers are in debt, which suggests that as well as there being some people who struggle to pay those bills, particularly in my water area, many simply will not pay.
There is something that can be done about it: we can give better powers to the companies to follow up those debts. A key problem is knowing who to bill, especially with short-term private rental properties. Landlords could be required to provide information on their tenants and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will listen to the number of views that have been expressed on both sides of the House. The Government as well as water users who are paying for this debt could benefit from the measure, simply because there will have to be an interim review to take account of the expected investment of taking on private sewers-I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has returned to his seat. The cost will be considerable and has not been factored into PR09, and there is therefore a win-win situation for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if he ensures that by the time we get around to such an interim review, the matter of debt is on its way to being resolved by what should be a fairly straightforward amendment to the Bill.
I am sorry that I missed the first two speeches of the debate, including that of the Secretary of State, but I was in the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. I want to make a few brief comments arising out of the catastrophic floods in many parts of my constituency in 2008. Of course, we had a rather worrying reminder of them in 2009, which was fortunately not so bad.
The catastrophe was worst in Rothbury. Most people were aware of the situation in Morpeth, of course, because it featured so much on the national television, but in Rothbury large numbers of people were out of their homes for many months as a result of the floods. Other communities, such as Powburn, Warkworth, Kirknewton and Felton, were affected. Many farms and farm businesses were flooded, with nearly 1,000 animal carcases requiring removal. Many roads were blocked and communities in the Ingram valley were virtually cut off.
I want to emphasise the significance of the key element of the Bill, which I see as the role of the Environment Agency in taking the lead in dealing with the management of floods and with the flood threat. At times, that would not have been easy to say, because the Environment Agency has not always been popular in my constituency, particularly when people have seen it as the body that stopped them doing the simple practical things that they felt would reduce the flood risk to their properties, such as moving gravel banks or putting in barriers. However, as a consequence of what happened in the floods in our region, the agency has changed its approach in a helpful way and has combined its efforts with those of other agencies to move things forward.
Nothing is achieved in this area unless a wide range of bodies work together. Natural England is crucial, because the body that was refusing consent for practical works was often not really the Environment Agency; it was relaying the views of Natural England. Initially, Natural England seemed distant from the whole process, but as we got it into joint meetings and meetings with local communities, it began to realise the importance of listening to local people, who could often tell its representatives a great deal that they did not know about the sites of special scientific interest and flood phenomena in the area.
The local authority, Northumberland county council, has a key role both as the highways authority and through its flood responsibilities. So do the national park authority and local people. It is only when we get all those people together, as we have done in village halls and school halls in places such as Ingram and Rothbury, that we can make some progress. People start to have confidence in each other and in the contribution that they can make.
It is important that there should be an appeal mechanism against some of the very controversial decisions that will have to be taken on flood alleviation measures. If a farmer could lose large areas of land, for example, when floods take place-because of deliberate flooding of an agricultural area-there has to be some appeal mechanism to ensure that that is a sensible decision and that the terms offered to the farmer are reasonable.
Generally speaking, it is important that we have a strong lead body that is prepared to take action, because we need large-scale flood alleviation schemes, as are planned for the River Wansbeck, although they are not yet approved for funding. We will also need such schemes on the River Coquet, if Rothbury is to be protected. Alongside those bigger schemes, however, we will need many small, practical, local measures in places such as Rothbury, the Ingram valley and the Glendale area that will significantly reduce the flood risk faced by particular groups of houses. Those small measures require much more modest financing than the major flood alleviation schemes and the big defence works, which can be funded in only a limited number of places where a significant amount of property is affected. It is crucial that organisations work together to bring forward such schemes, and there are genuine signs that all the key authorities in Northumberland are showing that willingness. There is still momentum behind the efforts to recover from the last round of flooding and to prevent a similar impact in the future, and I am determined that that momentum and co-operation should be maintained.
It is a pleasure, as secretary of the all-party group on flood prevention, to make a modest contribution to the debate. We might have heard the last words on this subject from my right hon. Friend Mr. McCartney and my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping-the same applies to Mr. Jack-but each speech was certainly a tour de force that contributed to our proceedings.
In my 13 years in Parliament, my name has, to my knowledge, been mentioned only once in Cabinet. My sources tell me that a slide presentation was made to the Cabinet earlier this year on flood defences and the work of the Environment Agency. Perhaps minds were beginning to wander by slide 27, but then they reached the final slide, and who should appear-modesty does not forbid me from saying-but the hon. Member for Selby, sitting on top of the flood defences in Selby on the occasion of their opening. Those flood defences are worth £18 million and protect 3,000 people. I am told by my informant that one or two members of the Cabinet made comments on that last slide; I do not know what they said, but perhaps it was how well deserved the money was, given my constant record of support for Ministers over the past decade.
In return for such confidence from Ministers, I put on record that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessors have ensured that there has been a continual increase in flood expenditure over the years, which has not always been easy. While I take on board all the criticisms that have been made about the current insurance arrangements, some European countries do not have any insurance arrangements at all, so the maintenance of our arrangements represents an achievement, although I wish that the insurance industry was much better at enforcing the terms of the codes. It was also crucial that the Bill came before the House before Christmas so that it could make progress, and Ministers are to be commended on those three issues.
I want to make three points about the Bill, all of which have been referred to, although perhaps not in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood talked about the regional flood defence committees. It is important that those committees continue, so I am a little alarmed by clauses 22 to 26, which deal with such committees. The functions of the committees will be changed and they will become more advisory and less executive. Ministers will also take greater powers to appoint the committees' members. At the moment, about half the membership of a committee is made up of local authority members chosen by individual local authorities. If we are to give local authorities much more responsibility for local management and co-ordination, the least that we can do is maintain their influence.
There is no evidence to suggest that that influence has been malign at a regional level. One marvellous phrase in the Government response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is:
"the Department wishes to strengthen these committees by ensuring their members are of the right calibre and standing and able to provide effective local input."
I read that as meaning that the man from Whitehall knows best who should represent local authorities on the regional flood defences committees. Alternatively, perhaps it is a way of ensuring that the local authorities are unable to have a good block vote.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came up to Yorkshire some years ago, and since then he has become an honorary Yorkshireman and a champion of local democracy. When he looks at this matter, I am sure that he will realise that it will be much better if Yorkshire's regional flood defence committee makes the final sign-off on flood defence schemes and so on, and not some anonymous bureaucrat in Whitehall.
My second point is again inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. I may go a little further than he did, although I am not about to suggest any windfall taxes, as my hon. Friend Mr. Reed proposed. That must be a first for him, but I shall be measured in my remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood suggested that water companies, however they are regulated or owned in the future, could have a greater role to play with regard to SUDS. I think that he is on to something there, because the water companies' greater role in terms of private sewers and so on means that they have the engineering experience needed for SUDS. It would take many local authorities a long time to build up that expertise, so there is a logic in the suggestion that water companies and water authorities should have a greater say about SUDS. A strong case can be made for that.
My third and final point has to do with the basic thrust of the Bill. Those of us who have been affected by flooding know what it is like. There are 88 settlements in Selby, and well over half of them have been flooded at some time during my years as the local MP. I am sure that all of us representing areas that flood have seen people suffering terribly when their houses get flooded. We will have looked at all the various agencies-the Environment Agency, the local authorities, the drainage boards and the water authorities-and wondered which of them was in charge.
I play a small and modest part in the co-ordinating role in my area. Every six months, I chair a meeting at which representatives from the villages affected by flooding have half an hour to talk about the problem as they see it. We sit there all day and between us we try and co-ordinate action and so on.
It is quite a tough job, and I shall give the House one example, involving the village of Saxton in the heart of Yorkshire. A few years ago, the village was repeatedly flooded by surface water flooding. The people there made good use of the discretionary funding from the regional flood defence committee and they put together, from various sources, a pot of money amounting to nearly £100,000. However, they then discovered that improving the drainage in the village meant that they had first to get round the pipes and other equipment blocking the drains that had been put in place by the various local utilities.
We are now making an appeal to the various utilities to remove their services by the time that England play their first game in the World cup against the United States on
I compare the task facing local authorities with the one that faced them when, in the early days of this Government, the co-ordination of crime prevention became a local authority function for the first time. Local authorities had to do lots of things that they had not done before, and they also had to talk to lots of people whom they had never talked to before. That is the scale of the challenge that we are facing with this Bill.
The all-party flood prevention group was formed after the experience of the floods of 2000. I was a relatively new MP at the time, and I will never forget watching hundreds of troops pass sandbags along a line one Saturday night in a desperate attempt to keep Selby's flood defences from failing. That brought it home to me how big an issue this is for many communities, and I am very pleased that the Bill is before the House tonight. May it have a fair wind in the new year.
I am delighted to make a short contribution, following my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan. The Bill is important. As a member of the Select Committee, I could make an argument for delay so that we got the totality of the Bill, but it is important that we prioritise the flooding aspects of the earlier Floods and Water Bill and deal with some aspects of water management.
I approach the Bill from three standpoints. First, the Select Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny was a detailed exercise. I have tried to read the papers. We have done our homework and carried out our scrutiny role properly. Secondly, as my two constituency neighbours explained in graphic detail, Gloucestershire will be renowned for the 2007 floods. All of us who were involved in those dreadful days will always remember what that meant for some people and their representatives. As we know, some of the problems continue. I was dealing with floods only a few weeks ago. Thankfully, they were not major but they were still significant. The problem is not ever-present, but it has not gone away.
As a result, my third point of influence is through the work of the people who formed action groups. I shall mention four, although there are more in my constituency-the Painswick Stream group, the Slad Brook group, the Bridgend group in Stonehouse, where I live, and the Shorn Brook group in Hardwicke. Each of those groups has lobbied me and kept me directly in touch with all developments. I have learned that the problem is ongoing. More than anything, we must be honest with people. I shall say more about that shortly.
To me, there are four aspects that we should try to bring together. There are issues of leadership, particularly leadership from the centre, but also at a local level, funding, responsibility and deliverability. The two Pitt reports did an immense service by highlighting a series of recommendations. Pleasingly, the Government are turning the clock forward and bringing into statute the very things that Michael Pitt asked us to do, although most of the recommendations did not require legislation.
At the centre of these efforts we have the double-headed hydra-the Environment Agency and the lead local authority. The decision-making mechanism can be criticised for its vertical structure, but as other hon. Members have said, unless there is clarity, there will always be confusion about who does what.
I welcome the way in which the Government have set about trying to deal with the charging of voluntary and community groups. Some of us felt that that campaign might not be successful, but the Government have listened. Although, as my hon. Friend Mr. Hall said, we must make the campaign stronger, I am proud that I can go back to my Stroud groups and say that we have listened and we will do the right thing.
I shall expand on three points that have been mentioned. First, I spend my life trying to persuade people that, far from being a problem, internal drainage boards are a valuable addition to the way in which we organise things at a local level. I think I understand what the Government want us to do through the legislation-to widen the IDBs' realm of activity and to deepen their ability to co-ordinate their activities so that an IDB does not need to be too locally based. We miss a trick if we do not recognise the value of those people on the IDBs, given the way in which they can apply their skills, knowledge and, certainly, local understanding to any flooding situation. I do not mind levying the cost at all. I will go to any of my parish councils and tell them that we should levy a charge so that those IDBs can function, because the preparatory and preventive work that they are so able to carry out is very important.
We have ducked riparian ownership, because it is an immense issue. We have not mentioned it, because, despite including it in the draft Bill, we cavilled even there at the possible repercussions of taking away responsibility from owners. We cannot duck the issue completely, however, and I shall concentrate on one simple aspect that has caused me enormous problems-when the riparian owner has not only failed to do the work, but has been obstructive and unhelpful, and other people have been flooded as a result. The riparian owner may have barricaded their land, built it up so that other people subsequently flood or, in one case of which I know, just refused to operate the sluice gates. When one sees a neighbour being flooded after they have desperately tried to get on to somebody else's property, which has barbed wire around it and barred gates, that is the most depressing thing. I therefore want the Bill to make it clear that we can prosecute such people and use enforcement, so that they at least get the message that that is not good neighbourliness. They should be held responsible for either their inactivity or their improper actions.
We have also skated over the issue of critical infrastructure. People have mentioned the railways, and they are crucial to the issue, because they are a huge conduit for water. If we do not include the railway system and Network Rail, in particular, alongside the water boards, the Environment Agency and all the other public bodies, we will fail to realise how important they are. It has not always been easy to get such bodies to take responsibility. The situation has improved in my area, but some households flooded when the railway organisations failed to take responsibility for their cuttings, so I shall look very carefully at how we can co-ordinate activities and make the strategies more coherent.
I shall leave my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to puzzle over my final point. It is about our raising expectations by putting in place a strategic plan, which in this case is the local surface water management plan. I am very pleased that the Government have encouraged the 70-odd areas that are working through the issue to come up with such plans, but once they are in place it behoves us to find the money to deal with any subsequent problems.
There is a need for honesty. If we are to put in place a plan and the money to fund the action, we should tell people. But, if that is not going to happen for any reason, we must, as I said in an intervention earlier, tell people and households that they will have to look at their own resilience and take their own measures because we cannot guarantee that, in every eventuality, they will be safe from flooding.
That may be a sour note on which to end my contribution, but the worst thing of all was when we met people who thought they had been promised protection, and it was not possible to deliver that. We need complete honesty in how we go about these matters.
I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Drew. I congratulate the Secretary of State on his staying power. The one missing element in the debate was the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies; we wish him very well in his negotiations on fisheries. I look forward to working with him constructively in the forthcoming Committee proceedings. I echo the warm reception that the Bill has received across the House, although all those who contributed took a cautious approach, and I think that there is room for improvement.
The Secretary of State set the tone by relaying the events of the summer 2007 floods. I echo his tributes, and those of all hon. Members, to the emergency services-the police, fire and ambulance services, as well as the Environment Agency, local authorities and the armed forces, and in Cumbria, most recently, the mountain and fell rescue service. In the visits that I have made, I have been struck by the importance of the visibility of those who walk the streets, particularly those from the Environment Agency; they wear a uniform with a badge. It is also important that we recognise the resilience of local communities, most recently in Workington, Cockermouth and Keswick in Cumbria, as well as parts of the Copeland constituency.
The Vale of York is distinctive in that it is about 65 per cent. flood plain; sadly, we are all too experienced in serious flooding. I should like to declare an interest in that I hope that the Secretary of State will soon allow our modest little scheme for Thirsk to go ahead through the Environment Agency. I would like to hold him to account for a comment that he made about the additional funds that were given in 2007 and, most recently, for the Cumbrian floods. Following the summer 2007 floods, our exercise proved that £50 million in out-of-pocket expenses was incurred by local authorities. I have questioned the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends about that. I hope that Cumbria and other communities that may well suffer in future will not be left with such high expenses.
I should like to draw together some of the strands of the debate. My right hon. Friend Mr. Jack, who spoke very eloquently, referred to the definition of risk and the continuing role of adaptation. I would like to add to the list that he and others gave. We need a review not only of bridges and other critical infrastructure, which I understand has not yet been completed, but of all main roads and trunk roads. The M1 came very close to closing as a result of the summer 2007 floods. In a visit to the constituency of Tony Cunningham, I was shocked to see the damage to one small road in Cockermouth, before a full audit was done.
I think that everyone welcomes the strategic overview and role that the Environment Agency will be given, but it is very prescriptive. The fact that there is no appeals mechanism in relation to some of its prescriptive roles and powers is worthy of exploration in Committee. We must also consider how the draft strategy that the agency is to publish will link in with other elements. My hon. Friend Mrs. Miller talked about the need for a more integrated approach between the county and unitary authorities, and said that the district councils must not be excluded because they were the planning authorities. I am a particular fan of the internal drainage boards. I must declare that I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, an appointment of which I am particularly proud. Those boards have the necessary local expertise and skills, and, recently, the funds. We need to explore ways in which the internal drainage boards, the Environment Agency and the water companies can work more closely together.
The Secretary of State may think that I am playing devil's advocate here, but while my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State set out clearly our role and that of local communities, I believe that there are certain matters on which the water companies have a further role to play. One is sustainable urban drainage systems, and I hope that the Secretary of State is minded to agree to our proposal to adopt the Scottish law definition of SUDS. I do not see any reason for having one definition north of the border and another south of the border, given that it is comprehensive. It is important that we identify where SUDS are, who currently owns them and who maintains them. That has not yet been achieved in the Bill, and we need an audit. From a cursory first reading of the Bill, I believe that the water companies have a prominent role to play in taking the lead responsibility for SUDS once we have established those facts. They have the skills and resources to do that in a way that local authorities may not.
I entirely endorse what Paddy Tipping said about sewers, which we cannot talk about often enough. I pay tribute to Mr. Morley for his work on sewers when he was a Minister. We need a definite plan and proposal for the adoption of private drains and sewers, and again, we need an audit so that we know where they are and who owns them. It comes as a bolt from the blue when householders find out that their drains are private. They often find out only because their drains are flooded. We need a deadline for that, and I hope that the Secretary of State will oblige.
It is right that the water companies should adopt private drains and sewers and be made responsible for them, but regrettably the Secretary of State and the Department are completely wrong in their sums. I do not believe that the savings that they have estimated are accurate or that local authorities are currently paying out anything like the sums that they believe. We need to be grown-up and revisit that, and water companies need to be prepared and know exactly what they are in for.
Pitt was extremely clear about the ending of the automatic right to connect. The regulations under planning policy statement 25, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned, cover building on flood plains. I believe that water companies should have the badge of statutory consultees, but also that their advice, like that of the Environment Agency, should be acted upon. There should be some comeback when a planning authority proceeds to ignore that advice, if water companies are adopted as statutory consultees under the Bill.
To recap, I believe that water companies have a key role to play in sustainable urban drainage systems, planning changes to end the automatic right to connect and the adoption of private drains and sewers. I welcome the opening up of the tendering process to bodies other than water companies in clause 36, but I do not understand the logic of excluding water companies. I hope that the Secretary of State will review that.
There have been a number of contributions about sustainable development, natural alleviation schemes of water retention and working with nature. I pay tribute to the pilot scheme that has been authorised in Pickering. I have aspirations to represent Pickering in a future Parliament, so it is particularly close to my heart. Other pilots have also been rolled out, including by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe in his previous ministerial capacity. If the Pickering scheme is deemed to work, with mini-dams along the railway line, trees upstream and bottlenecks removed downstream, it will be a great way forward and other parts of the country will benefit.
I have great sympathy with those who have said that river catchment area management needs to be examined more closely, and there is work that we can do on that. As regards the crucial role of the fire and rescue service and statutory responsibility, which John McDonnell and others mentioned, Pitt recommendation 39 was very clear that the Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with fire and rescue authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty. We are not quite there yet, and I hope that the Secretary of State sets out exactly where we are when he responds.
The Bill's provisions for information sharing should be more specific. There should be much more access to the various mappings. I understand that the Secretary of State is prepared to open Ordnance Survey mappings, but what about those of the Met Office, the insurance industry, district councils and water companies? However, there should be a provision setting out confidentiality criteria-the confidentiality of anything that is commercially sensitive should be respected.
Resource, funding and skills are causing great alarm-witness the contributions made this evening. We need to look again at what the balance between local government, local authorities, the Environment Agency and water companies should be. The Secretary of State is aware that I do not believe that either the Environment Agency or the local authorities can find the necessary resources from their existing funds. That matter is causing great concern, and I hope that he addresses it this evening.
On resilience and the British Standards Institution's issuing of the kitemark, if a product is proved to be fit for purpose, will a householder or business property owner be able to sue the BSI or the product maker when a product allows water in? What comeback is there and how can we ensure that home owners and property owners in general have the confidence to increase their resilience? What happens if a product is demonstrated to be unfit for purpose? A great consensus is building on amending building regulations to increase resilience to future floods. It is not acceptable that home owners are returning to properties that still have electrical sockets at ground level. When a property is prone to future floods, that simply stores up more problems.
The Government need to be much clearer what priorities there are between the arbitrary house building policy of one Department and DEFRA's guidance not to build in inappropriate places. The Secretary of State needs to be much clearer on the relationship between the Environment Agency's strategic overview and the regional spatial plans-my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson and others showed what future flooding problems there could be in their constituencies.
On insurance, my hon. Friend Nick Herbert said in setting out the Conservative position at the beginning of the debate that there was a discrepancy between the £1 billion that the Government would be paying next year and the £1.5 billion for which the insurance industry is still calling. The Government need to address that, the need for accessible insurance for all, which Mr. McCartney and others addressed, and the fact that premiums and excesses are going up. In my constituency, excesses are well in excess of £10,000. They need to be affordable; otherwise, the taxpayer is left with the cost of picking up uninsurable losses. I should like the Secretary of State to go further and to write a duty into the Bill-we have prepared a little amendment to help him in this regard-for the Environment Agency to come forward with an annual programme for maintenance, which will be reported to both Houses and debated, to ensure that it is at all times maintaining and dredging the main water courses, so that as long as internal drainage boards are doing their bit, the water does not back up.
I should like to take credit for one measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs threatened to amend the so-called rain tax, but the Government have done so in clause 42. That was included only after the official Opposition persisted in saying that we would act if the Government failed to do so- [ Interruption. ] I am delighted that the House supports us.
We still need a full audit of critical infrastructure. I deplore the fact that the flood risk regulations have gone through without proper scrutiny and, I understand, without proper consultation. With the reservation that several issues that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening are worthy of further debate in Committee, we wish the Bill a fair wind and we hope that it will be even better than it is now once it leaves Committee.
With the leave of the House, I wish to respond to the debate. It has been an extremely good one, because without exception hon. Members have spoken with local knowledge, insight and a clarity of commitment to using this legislation to deal with the problems of flooding and enable society to cope with it better.
I am grateful to Nick Herbert for his support for the Bill. I was slightly puzzled by his reference to the emergency response in 2007 because having visited a lot of places and talked to a lot of people, I have to say that it does not reflect my view or, in fairness, what Sir Michael Pitt had to say. On the balance between the national and the local, about which the hon. Gentleman and several others spoke, I hope that on reflection they will agree that the Bill does provide the necessary flexibility to allow the right arrangements to be put in place. The hon. Gentleman asked about Cave, and-as I am sure he is aware-we are consulting on those recommendations. I thought that the example he gave of a local community protecting itself was a really good one, and shows clearly that it can be done without the need for additional legislation.
On national infrastructure, I can inform the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who raised this issue, that the Cabinet Office has now screened nearly 1,000 critical national infrastructure sites and identified 171 across nine sectors that are in areas that could be flooded by rivers or the sea. The lead Departments in all cases are preparing sector resilience plans, which will be produced by the end of this year. If time allowed, I could give several specific examples of steps that have been taken, but I shall refer to just one. The National Grid has invested more than £1 million in flood defence capability, including buying 1.2 km of flood defence barriers, which it can take to places that are under threat.
On the scrutiny of the national strategy, it would be for the Select Committee to decide what it wished to do. I always welcome its interest and attention. On the water framework directive, a statutory instrument establishing a power for the Environment Agency to improve the physical characteristics of water bodies was laid on
My right hon. Friend Mr. Morley spoke with great authority because of his experience, and he made a powerful point about the need to strike a balance, including when it comes to agricultural land. Those who argue that greater protection should be given-and I understand the arguments that are made-must be equally honest about where the resources, which will always amount to a certain sum, will be found to achieve that.
Martin Horwood said that he did not want to be churlish just as I was about to intervene and say that I thought he was being a tad churlish in some of his comments. On private sewers-which my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping also mentioned-we already have the powers to make the change, and the House should not worry about that. Yes, there will be a small cost, but the argument for it is that this is in effect a national insurance scheme to protect householders who have no idea that they would have to bear the cost-
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I was generous in giving way to him earlier, and I want to try to respond to as many points as possible.
Insurance is a problem, and we have to have an answer to it. On more precise flood warnings, we do not need legislation to do that. Indeed, as the capacity of the flood forecasting centre at the Met Office improves and gives better and more accurate flood warnings, the House may rest assured that those will be issued.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Hall, who has played a significant role in highlighting the unfairness of surface water charges and gave some striking examples from his area concerning United Utilities. As for who will be covered, he will have seen clause 42(4)(c), and of course guidance will be issued as well.
I hope that today was not the last time that Mr. Jack talks on such matters, because he has chaired the Select Committee with distinction, enormous insight and great courtesy. I echo his thanks to the staff of his Committee. I thought that he spoke particularly eloquently about the need to be straight with each other. That has been a theme in this debate, and I agree with it. On the floods directive, I can assure him that we will, when necessary, stitch the bits together so that if changes are made to the Bill, they can be reflected in the regulations. Bridges should certainly be regularly inspected. He also talked about informing members of the public. One of the striking things about this matter-this came across in Sir Michael Pitt's report-is that we all have a personal responsibility. When a flood warning is issued, it means something and we have to pay attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood reminded us that the internal drainage boards are good in some places, but not so good in others. Regional flood defence committees have an important role to play, and I agree with him completely. I liked his phrase about the environment acting as a sponge. He, too, said in respect of coastal erosion that we have to be honest with each other, and that includes everybody involved taking responsibility for the problem, because we cannot get into a situation where people start to say, "Well, the EA is the harbinger of doom and bringer of bad news." This is everyone's problem, and we all have to pitch in and do something about it.
Mr. Robertson was kind in his expressions of appreciation. When it comes to building on flood plains, the responsibility is clear: it rests with the local planning authority. The question is whether we can guard against flood risk. Indeed, we meet and debate here on a flood plain that is protected by the Thames barrier. On alternative supplies, he will be aware that the Mythe defences have now been reinforced and that Walham has a flood defence. However, there is an alternative water supply, as we saw with the distribution of bottled water, which worked well. There were problems with the bowsers, but those were eventually sorted out.
I know from the terrific constituency work done by my right hon. Friend Mr. McCartney that when he speaks about the importance of community consultation and involvement, he means it and lives it. I have seen that for myself through the great work done in his constituency dealing with contaminated land. The most striking thing about that was getting people involved. That is another aspect of sharing responsibility. If we say, "Hey, we've got a problem. What are we going to do about it?", people tend to respond, as he knows well. My hon. Friend Mr. Drew made exactly the same point. On insurance, we need ideas and to think about it, and my right hon. Friend made a powerful point about affordability.
Mrs. Miller was right to talk about prevention. I say to her what I said to the Opposition spokesman. The Bill has the flexibility to enable local authorities to work together in a way that will suit them. In the end, it is up to the local authorities to enter into the spirit of that flexible provision in the Bill and to make it happen.
My hon. Friend John McDonnell asked about training for fire service staff. We have offered assistance with physical material by ensuring that the right training is in place. He is right to say that those who are putting their lives at risk should have the right equipment and knowledge to undertake their important work.
Mr. Heath talked about the need for a better understanding of risks and local warnings. Better technology will allow that. He is also right to say that we will have to think about bridge design, especially in the light of experiences in Cumbria. The right hon. Member for Fylde made this point as well, and the natural hazards team is looking at that very question.
I pay tribute to the role that my hon. Friend Mr. Reed has played in the current difficult circumstances, as well as that of my hon. Friend Tony Cunningham, who really has been at the sharp end and has been quite magnificent. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland made a powerful case for accountability. Let me assure him that the water companies will be under a duty to act consistently with the national flood strategy. They will be required to co-operate with flood risk authorities, and the Secretary of State will be able to direct water companies or other authorities to carry out flood risk management functions if they fail to do so themselves.
Mark Simmonds has more reason that just about anybody in the Chamber to be concerned about coastal erosion and rising sea levels. It is not a question of the EA trying to frighten anybody; there is a problem and we have to share it. The important point is the spirit in which that is entered into.
My hon. Friend Linda Gilroy talked about the Walker review. She is a powerful advocate for her constituents in the south-west and chairs the all-party group on water with great energy. She raised the question of arrears, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, and if she is on the Committee, I suspect that it will be returned to.
I was glad to hear what Sir Alan Beith said about the change that had taken place, because that was where a different approach had been adopted. We will make provisions for appeals, through the relevant provisions in clauses 38 and 39, based on existing provisions in the Water Resources Act 1991.
My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan chairs the all-party group on flood prevention, also with distinction. I agree with him about regional flood defence committees. As for water companies and sustainable drainage systems, the body giving the approval should also have the responsibility to maintain, because that will make it think about the decision. However, water companies will also be statutory consultees.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talked about riparian owners. Assets will be registered under clause 21, which will enable the lead local flood authority to identify the cause of a problem and speed its resolution, should it arise. On the choices that have to be made, they will be a combination of collective defence, where possible, and greater resistance and resilience, but also individuals thinking about how they can protect the properties in which they live.
I pay tribute to the careful interest that Miss McIntosh takes in these matters and the expertise with which she contributed from the Dispatch Box this evening. On the expenses faced by local authorities, as she will be aware, there is support under the Bellwin arrangements, which we have again extended to 100 per cent. cover above the threshold, as we did in 2007. There is also other support available, through various different schemes. On the role of the Environment Agency, I would simply say to her that-how shall I put it?-when it comes to responsibility, one person's prescription is another person's clarity. The Bill is right to make it clear where the EA has responsibilities. The SUDS definition is the same north and south of the border, and existing SUDS are likely to be designated under clause 30 and schedule 1.
Finally, I want to come back to the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, who speaks for the Opposition. This is a week in which the world's leaders have been gathering in Copenhagen to try to bring home an agreement, which is essential if we are to deal with the consequences of a changing climate, one of which-flooding-we have been talking about this evening. This is a world in which we will have to live within our means. That includes nature's ability to accommodate human beings-our settlement and our activity-and we will have to do that with due respect for nature's power. What we are doing this evening represents a really important step towards helping the people who have been so badly affected by flooding in recent times. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.