Ickford: Flood Risk

– in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrea Jenkyns.)

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham 7:11 pm, 23rd November 2021

I wish to make the case for a complete and total overhaul of the way in which flood risk is assessed and taken seriously in the planning process, using the circumstances of the village of Ickford in my constituency as a case study to highlight the horrendous deficiencies in the system as it stands.

I need not remind the House that the devastating effects of flooding can be seen year on year. The Environment Agency’s October 2021 report projects that double the number of properties in England will be on floodplains by 2065. New build housing increases the risk, further exacerbating the issue. Four million people and £200 billion-worth of assets are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. The effect of flooding, not only economically but traumatically, on individuals, families and businesses is both terrible and long-lasting. Flooding goes right to the heart of our communities. It is a risk that must be taken seriously and that I know the Government want to take it seriously.

Acting ahead of a flood event is the most effective way to reduce the risk of flood-water damage. Typical improvements include low-cost resilience measures such as upgrades to plaster and flooring, self-closing air bricks, the sealing of brickwork and the installation of flood doors—all proven to reduce damage from flooding. Fundamentally, though, we must ask ourselves how on earth new build homes are granted planning permission in areas where literally everyone—other than, it seems the authorities—sees that it is obvious they will flood or exacerbate the risk of flooding to existing homes and businesses.

We need—in fact, communities across my constituency demand—much greater consideration of flood risk in the planning process. That is principally what I am arguing for: amendments to planning laws that will force the system properly to undertake flood risks, and changes that mean decisions on development are taken as locally as possible and that make flood risk a central principle in any new planning legislation.

We need to ensure that developers and the construction industry do not add to the problem and that local authorities do not see building on flood-prone areas as an easy way to meet housing quotas. This need was made urgently apparent to me as a result of events in the village of Ickford in my constituency.

In August 2020, a development of 66 properties in the village of Ickford, now being built out by Deanfield Homes, but started by CALA Homes, was given permission by the planning inspector. It was an absolutely ridiculous decision given that part of the rationale was a totally bogus and irrational claim that flooding would not be an issue. Residents of Ickford were told that flooding would be a once-in-100-year occurrence, which was an offensive claim given the number of times that the village has flooded in the past 18 months alone. Indeed, when I visited the site in January this year, half the site was substantially under water. I am not talking about a couple of small puddles or a patch of lakeing, but widespread, deep flooding.

More than 80 residents of this beautiful small Buckinghamshire village objected to the development, and their main objections were all consistent. Their primary complaint was flood risk. As I have said, the village already floods frequently during periods of heavy rain due to surface water run-off, and the development site is higher than most of the village. Much of the lower areas are in the flood plain of the River Thame. Even now, quite amazingly, Deanfield Homes, the developer, has not accepted the indisputable proof that the development site floods. Or has it? For when I was standing in the flooded waters of Ickford, I was not the only one seeking a solution. Of course, my solution was simple—do not build on this field, but the developer seemingly had different ideas. “If you build it, they will come” has suspiciously become, “If you raise it up, they will still sell.” A field of dreams is becoming a field of nightmares for the villagers.

Indeed it is beyond parody that, while continuing the public “It’ll be fine” narrative on flooding, the developer is in fact now building those homes 1.1 metres higher than planning permission was previously given for, and we can all guess why. Residents have told me—and I have witnessed it—that lorries full of aggregate and hardcore are being delivered throughout the day, mounting curbs and putting children on their way to school in danger. Building that site so much higher means that Ickford has a new development on an island, which makes the threat of flooding to the rest of the village, especially properties on Worminghall Road and Golders Close, extremely high.

The developer’s new sparkly CGI graphics boards on the entrance to the development even show the rear gardens with huge grass slopes, which means that all surface water will now flow directly towards the existing housing. It is not even trying to hide it. I have suggested to the developer that if it is so confident that flooding will not be a problem, it should build a tanked brick wall around the development, but so far there has been no response and no agreement to my request for a meeting.

What the developer has done is to alleviate the situation for itself but compound it for the rest of the village. This is equally all part of the blatant disregard it has for the village that it is devastating. The impact on biodiversity, for example, has been equally staggering. Residents have shared with me images of trees being cut down and hedges removed despite being protected, and the developer is not willing to hear their concerns.

Compounding the issues, the village also has an inadequate sewerage system. During periods of heavy rain, the Thames Water network simply cannot cope due to surface water ingress, so raw sewage bubbles up into the roads. I have been pushing Thames Water for a solution. To be fair, it agrees that something needs to be done, but no works have yet taken place. I am sorry to say that the chief objections about flooding and sewage were laid aside as part of the planning process.

I have been told by residents who attended that the inspector’s hearing was conducted in such a way that the inspector failed almost completely to control the hectoring by the developer. At the outset, residents were allowed only to make brief speeches in support of their objections, and were shouted down. The residents who attended left the hearing in a state of shock at such an undemocratic process, and went home utterly disheartened. The inspector did visit the village on the last day of the hearing and talked to a few residents, but from his report it is clear that he paid scant regard to their concerns, although he did pay lip service to them.

Surely when any planning application comes forward we must put local people at the heart of flood risk assessment. Those who live and work in an area know exactly what happens in heavy rainfall or even light rainfall—not some bureaucrat perusing Google Maps.

Sadly, the inspector’s report, which was published in August, granted permission for the development. Residents who had opposed the development launched a campaign to protect the village; they called it the Ickford Residents Group. The group sought legal advice, but learned that because their main objections had been set aside, they could not challenge the inspector’s decision with any hope of success. Since that time, the group has been proved right, beyond any shadow of a doubt; all its objections were valid. Thames Water has accepted that its advice at the time was wrong and is carrying out reviews, but despite constant pressure from myself and residents, we have seen no action. The group has also campaigned to obtain reforms to the processes so that other localities may not suffer as Ickford’s residents have done.

On behalf of Ickford residents—and indeed all communities threatened by flooding and rogue developers —I am today calling for the way in which flood risk is assessed as part of the planning process to be seriously beefed up. My view is simple: we cannot keep building homes in areas liable to flooding. It will just keep making matters worse. Change is needed, and needed urgently.

First, the Government should, as part of its review of planning policy, establish to what extent flood risk is increased by the lack of scrutiny given to the cumulative impacts of smaller and permitted developments. A stronger and direct presumption against developments in floodplains is also needed. This requires changes to the national planning policy framework to close loopholes that allow developments in flood risk areas.

Consideration must also be given to future insurance costs in planning and development decisions. Mortgage lenders in the UK generally require mortgage holders to purchase buildings insurance that includes cover for flooding. Therefore, if new homes do not provide an appropriate standard of genuine and real flood mitigation, the ability to get insurance cover, and for people to become homeowners, will be diminished.

New standards could be set through building regulations that build on the industry code of practice for property flood resilience. Other measures, such as flood performance certificates, should also be considered to incentivise responsible development planning and property flood resilience measures. I fear that additional spending on flood risk management will equally be required, and flood resilience measures need to be incentivised.

The village of Ickford illustrates the incredible inequality that is created when developers with very deep pockets come up against councils and local residents. Unless proposed reforms can overcome this undemocratic situation, the unfairness will continue unabated. The setting aside of Ickford’s residents’ chief concerns was due to an almost complete lack of local knowledge, or testing of that knowledge, by the authorities involved. We simply must make improvements.

As I said earlier, every single one of the concerns residents set out has proved to be real. Ickford was devastated by floods last winter and part of the land that developers are building on was flooded. The claim of a once-in-100-years occurrence almost became once a week in reality. We simply have to look at this again. We have to learn the lessons of what we have seen in the village of Ickford, understand the threat that the existing home owners and existing properties in that village now face from this new development, and ensure that it can never happen to any other village—or town, city or hamlet—in our country ever again.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 7:25 pm, 23rd November 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Greg Smith on securing this Adjournment debate on a very important topic to all residents of Buckinghamshire but particularly to his constituents. He is a doughty and industrious campaigner on behalf of the people of Buckingham, and tonight, the people of Ickford. I congratulate him on his speech.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that because I have a quasi-judicial role as planning Minister, it would not be appropriate for me to discuss in any detail individual planning applications or individual local plans. However, I am concerned to hear from him that the developer in question has not engaged sufficiently with the local community, or with him. I encourage that developer—indeed, all developers—to make sure that they do engage effectively and properly with elected representatives, as well as the communities concerned.

The Government recognise that flooding presents a risk to people and to their homes, villages, towns and cities, as my hon. Friend says. The devastating effects of flooding can be seen every year and the Government take it very seriously. The national planning policy framework is very clear that flood risk assessments are needed for all areas where development is proposed that are at risk of flooding from all sources, both now and in the future. Appropriate design and risk considerations that include allowance for climate change need to be included in any flood risk assessment. Allowances that consider future impacts of climate change on flood risk incorporate a precautionary risk-based approach for more vulnerable areas. This means that increased levels of resilience are—indeed, must be—factored in.

The national planning policy framework sets out a clear, overarching policy on flood risk. It states that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding, whether an existing or a potential risk, should be avoided, and alternative locations at lower flood risk should be identified where possible; this is known as the sequential test. Where development is necessary and there are no suitable sites available in areas at less risk of flooding, the proposed development should be made safe without increasing flood risk elsewhere; this is called the exception test. Where these strict tests are not met, new development should not be allowed.

Three national flood zones are identified by the Environment Agency’s flood map for planning. I encourage my hon. Friend to raise his concerns about this matter with the Environment Agency, and specifically about its flood map. Flood zone 3, which is commonly referred to as high risk, is split by a local council into two separate zones, 3a and 3b, where 3b is classified as functional floodplain and has the highest likelihood of flooding. Large parts of many major towns and cities comprise land classified as flood zone 3. Sub-category 3a covers land having a one in 100 or greater annual probability of river flooding, or land having a one in 200 or greater annual probability of sea flooding—possibly not something that my hon. Friend’s constituents in Buckingham are at particular risk of, but I understand his broader concerns.

I must stress that building on land assessed as high risk is not the same as building on functional floodplain. Even then, building in flood zone 3 is not common, as less than 0.2% of land use in flood zone 3 is residential. Flood zone 2 is classed as a medium possibility of flooding, and flood zone 1 is classed as a low probability of flooding and covers land having a less than one in 1,000 annual probability of flooding from rivers or the sea. Areas at the lowest risk of flooding can still experience localised flooding—for example, following a very heavy downpour. That is why we have prioritised the use of sustainable drainage systems for all developments in areas at risk of flooding. The framework is also clear that sustainable drainage should be incorporated in all major developments—commonly schemes of 10 or more homes—unless there is clear evidence that it would be inappropriate.

The framework is also clear that a site-specific flood risk assessment should accompany all proposals in flood zone 1—the lowest risk—that involve sites of 1 hectare or more, land which has been identified by the Environment Agency as having critical drainage problems, land identified in a strategic flood risk assessment as being at increased flood risk in future, or land that may be subject to other sources of flooding, where its development would introduce a more vulnerable use.

Lead local flood authorities must be consulted on surface water drainage considerations in applications for all major new developments. Their comments and advice should inform the local council’s decisions on planning applications and ensure those applications are in line with the NPPF on flood risk. That ensures that local councils have access to appropriate expert advice on the sustainable management of drainage and localised sources of flooding.

For any major developments within flood zones 2 and 3 where the EA raises objections on flood risk grounds, the local council is required to consult the Secretary of State if it is minded to grant planning permission against the agency’s objections. This provides the Secretary of State with an opportunity to call in the decision.

My hon. Friend asked what we have done and called for a major overhaul of the system. I can tell him that we updated the NPPF in July this year to ensure that planning policies support climate change mitigation and adaptation, and that includes tackling flood risk. As part of the update, the framework was amended to require that all sources of flood risk are considered—including includes areas at risk of surface water flooding due to drainage problems—and that future flood risks are taken into account to ensure that any new development is safe for its lifetime, without increasing the risk of flooding elsewhere. The framework is clear that areas at little to no risk of flooding from any source should always be developed in preference to areas at a higher risk of flooding, as I have said.

The framework must be taken into account in the preparation of local plans, and it is a material consideration in planning decisions. My hon. Friend will know that as part of our wider planning reform considerations, we want to put local plan making at the heart of development and ensure that we engage more local people and stakeholders. I assure him that we will be looking at that and the issues he raised as we advance those proposals.

I should also tell my hon. Friend that, as can be seen from the recent update to the NPPF, the Government are not standing still on the issue of flood risk. Last year we published a policy statement setting out the Government’s long-term ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk. The policy statement outlines five ambitious policies and more than 40 supporting actions, which will accelerate progress to better prepare and better protect our country against flooding and coastal erosion in the face of more frequent extreme weather as a result of climate change. We want to ensure that we are better protected, to reduce the likelihood of flooding and to increase resilience.

This year the Government also published their review of policy development in areas at flood risk, examining key elements of planning policy relating to flood risk and development. It concluded that the Government have robust measures in place to protect people and property from flooding, which all local planning authorities are expected to follow. The review outlines the findings and sets out the actions the Government will take and have already taken, which includes further clarifications of policy.

Mindful of what my hon. Friend has already said, as part of our wider ambitions for an improved planning system we intend to review the NPPF to ensure that it contributes as fully as possible to climate change mitigation and adaptation. I will take careful note of his suggestions in that regard. We are also in the process of reviewing the planning practice guidance section on flood risk to provide further clarification.

We are also investing to improve our country’s resilience to existing flood risk. This year we have made a record investments in flood and coastal defences, doubling the size of the flood and coastal defence programme in England to £5.2 billion, providing around 2,000 new defence systems to better protect a further 336,000 properties. The aim is to reduce national flood risk by up to 11%, helping to avoid £32 billion of wider economic damage and benefiting every region of the country, including his own.

Furthermore, the Government have committed to undertake a review of the case for implementing schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 concerning sustainable drainage systems. The review will look at the benefits and effects of implementation, as well as alternative methods for ensuring that sustainable drainage systems are incorporated in future developments. It will engage a range of stakeholders, and I encourage my hon. Friend and his friends to be some of them. As well as providing for statutory build standards for sustainable drainage systems on new developments, the schedule would make the right to connect surface water to foul water conditional on local planning approval of the developer’s proposed drainage system. The review commenced in October this year and we expect to publish the outcome in August next year.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in pursuing this very important matter on behalf of his constituents. I hope it is clear to him that the Government take the issue of flooding very seriously and expect it to be an important consideration in the planning system. We also take his views and his concerns very seriously too.

The NPPF is clear that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided. Where development is necessary, as I say, it should be made safe and resilient, without increasing flood risk elsewhere. National planning policy applies to all sources of flood risk, including surface water, overwhelmed sewers and drainage systems, as well as future risk. We are committed to reducing the risk that flooding poses to our communities. We acknowledge that climate change will increase the risk of flooding, and that is why we have strong protections in place, including the £5.2 billion of investment that I referred to, and we will work hard on our further reforms to ensure that we further protect our communities against flood risk.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on behalf of his constituents in Ickford and elsewhere. I trust that the developer to whom he referred is listening and will engage with him and the communities that are affected at the earliest opportunity. I congratulate him on his debate, and I look forward to working with him in future to ensure that flood risk in all of our communities is effectively mitigated.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.