New Clause 4 — Sustainable drainage and automatic right to connect

Part of Water Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 6th January 2014.

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:45 pm, 6th January 2014

In the time available I shall seek to respond to as many points as I can. The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Miss McIntosh, has been a strong advocate of and campaigner for sustainable drainage over many years, and the Government are pressing ahead and implementing the requirement to secure approval for sustainable drainage systems for new developments under schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Regrettably, it is looking increasingly unlikely that we will be in a position to ensure that the scheme comes into force this April, which was our preferred date for implementation as stated previously. I accept that that will be a great disappointment for the hon. Lady and other hon. Members, but I remain committed to introducing the legislation at the earliest opportunity. I plan to lay the relevant affirmative regulations by April, to underline the Government’s commitment to addressing flood risk.

I share the hon. Lady’s frustration that the process has been so protracted, but we are working with developers and local government to develop the processes, standards and guidance that are an integral part of a new SUDS approvals and adoption regime, rather than just imposing them. That takes time, but it is time well spent if the end result is an approach that is fair to all parties and successful from the outset because local government and developers are fully prepared to take on their respective new responsibilities.

Amendments 1, 2 and 3 address flooding on highways or that caused by the run-off from highways. The causes of flooding can be complex and it is difficult to make a general statement about them. There are already legislative powers to ensure that highway surface water drainage does not pollute or flood, and section 100 of the Highways Act 1980 enables the local highway authority to take action related to the drainage of highways—for example, it can construct drains or erect barriers on the highway or adjoining land to divert surface water into an existing drain.

The majority of new road drainage systems are not connected to the public sewerage system. Typically, they discharge under designated conditions, either to a watercourse or a storage pond with controlled exits to a watercourse, or alternatively soak into the ground in a designed manner. A decision to connect new highway surface water to a combined or foul public sewer can be made only subject to an agreement with the receiving water authority. There is no automatic right to connect new highway drainage to the public sewerage system. We recognise, however, that in some cases local flooding may be exacerbated by drainage from existing highways, and as I have said, the 2010 Act places a duty on lead local flood authorities to develop a local flood risk management strategy for their area. I hope hon. Members will be reassured by that.

Let me seek to address the points raised by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about flood insurance, and amendments 5, 6 and 7, which relate to small businesses. Flood Re has been specifically designed to recreate the current cross-subsidy in the domestic home insurance market. There is little evidence that the same type of cross-subsidy applies in the commercial insurance market, and the majority of business insurance policies are already priced to risk. A recent English business survey of more than 9,000 businesses in England found that fewer than 1% of businesses had experienced difficulty getting property insurance in the last year due to the risk of flooding, and that no businesses had been refused insurance cover due to such a risk.

As outlined by the Association of British Insurers in its evidence session, businesses tend not to face the systematic issues that householders experience. We must also remember that Flood Re is funded through a levy on all household insurance policies. We have deliberately set that at £10.50, which the ABI estimates is the same as the current cross-subsidy. Widening Flood Re to include small businesses would significantly increase costs. We do not want someone living in a council tax band A property, for example, to subsidise the cost of insuring a private company that potentially earns up to £1 million a year. I am also mindful of the need to comply with state aid rules. Government intervention to support business would be carefully scrutinised and at greater risk of rejection—I know the hon. Lady is familiar with that issue.

On flood insurance and amendment 8, which was tabled by the same group of hon. Members, we are clear that we are talking about a one-in-200-year annual loss, not a one-in-200-year flood event. If Flood Re is legally responsible for claims above a one-in-200-year level, the cost of the liability could be prohibitive. Likewise, if the Government took on a liability beyond a one-in-200-year level, we could expose the taxpayer to extremely large and unpredictable costs. In such a catastrophic situation, many more homes than would be insured by Flood Re are likely to be affected. That is why the memorandum of understanding says that the Government of the day would work with Flood Re and representatives of the insurance industry to decide how any available resources should be distributed to Flood Re customers if flooding exceeds such a level.

Government amendment 58 is a technical one. On the issues raised by Joan Walley, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee—we discussed them in Committee—the Government remain convinced that the existing provisions would be helpful enough in terms of the checks on companies’ financial probity and their technical ability.

However, she rightly raised issues that could be addressed following Lord Krebs’s intervention in his letter. I am pleased to hear her calling for things such as betterment, meaning better quality reinstatement, and more information to customers, for which Lord Krebs has also called. Many hon. Members would like to include that in discussions with the ABI.

On misconnections, Mr Love is aware that local authorities currently have the power. We are not convinced that giving the power to companies would be helpful. His points are on the record and it is right that the Government take account of what he has said. I am happy to talk to him in future to see that we get the right response.

There is only a very little time for me to respond to all the points hon. Members have made on abstraction. My predecessor as Minister, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, has rightly said that there is agreement in the House that we want progress. Action is taking place under the existing regime—the Environment Agency has changed 77 licences since 2008, returning around 75 billion litres of water per year—but we need to go much further. That is why we are consulting. The process is under way and will lead to legislation, hopefully with the support of all parties, to reform that complicated system. However, we need to do that properly. I do not believe it is appropriate to do it in the way suggested in the new clause.

Finally, Government amendments 55 to 57, which I have tabled, seek to clarify the resilience duty. We want to make it absolutely clear to hon. Members that we are covering environmental sustainability. I hope the changes we are making to the resilience duty will reassure hon. Members who believe that we need to elevate the sustainable development duty that we are looking at environmental resilience as well as social and economic resilience.