Flood and Water Management Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Video recordings bill – in the House of Commons at 6:28 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Labour, Scunthorpe 6:28 pm, 15th December 2009

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.

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