Amendment 194AA

Environment Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 7th July 2021.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

194AA: After Clause 91, insert the following new Clause—“Flood risk report(1) Within 6 months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on flood risk.(2) The report under subsection (1) must contain—(a) an assessment of the number of—(i) people, and (ii) householdscurrently at risk of flood,(b) analysis of the expected impact of measures contained in this Act (including but not limited to those relating to planning) on flood risk, and(c) proposals for further policy or legislation to mitigate or reverse flood risk.(3) In preparing the report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must seek advice from—(a) the Committee on Climate Change,(b) the Environment Agency, and(c) any other persons the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on flood risk, with a particular focus on whether (and to what extent) measures in this Act will help to mitigate or reverse it.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, Amendment 194AA is in my name and those of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on flood risk, to help realise the potential of the nature restoration intended to be delivered by the Bill and to reduce flooding risk. Disappointingly, “flood” appears in the Bill only once, on page 188, in Schedule 10, relating to enforcement powers. It is a huge omission that an environment Bill is not seriously addressing flood risk, leaving many communities woefully unprepared to tackle flooding.

The new office for environmental protection, created by the Bill, is responsible for scrutinising government policies to safeguard the environment, but it has no powers to improve measures to tackle flooding. In the Agriculture Act, the environmental land management schemes include provisions to tackle flood risk, but this is not an issue just for farmers and landowners to manage. For example, planning and development can have a serious impact on increasing flood risk, as can how we manage our reservoirs. Currently, water companies have to manage reservoirs and take drought into account—we know that drought reports have to be prepared—but not flooding or flood reports.

The UK has a legacy of development within areas at risk of flooding from river water, surface water and groundwater. Continued development of rural and low-lying areas has led to about 6 million properties being at risk of flooding. In addition, a Defra report has predicted that this number is set to increase and identified flooding as the greatest risk posed to the UK by climate change—so why is flood risk not a central part of this section of the Bill?

The Minister may well refer to the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework, which requires local authorities to demonstrate that the issue of flood risk has been considered as part of the planning process, through the flood risk management hierarchy. Alongside the NPPF, the planning practice guidance on “Flood risk and coastal change” sets “sequential” and “exception” tests and thresholds to protect property from flooding, which all local planning authorities are expected to follow. Where these tests or thresholds are not met, new development should not be allowed. But none of these recommendations means that developments or redevelopments in flood risk areas will not be approved. The planning process is there only to ensure that flooding is taken into account in development proposals.

In your Lordships’ House, in response to a Written Question in February 2016, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, said:

“Development can not be ruled out in high flood risk areas”.

I know of too many cases where a developer has been able to build in flood risk areas, despite serious local concerns, offering mitigations to ensure that the development would not flood. However, flood waters have to go somewhere, and the outcome is too often the flooding of properties that have never experienced this before.

I am particularly concerned that the Government’s new planning proposals will only increase the numbers of homes being built in areas of flood risk—a number of noble Lords mentioned this concern in earlier debates. We could end up with new houses and other developments being built in the wrong places, and, once built, they will present a long-term and continuing flood-management problem. Government must make sure that planning policy keeps up with climate change and that, despite the housing shortage, planning must take increasing flood risk into account in deciding where new homes should be built.

A key problem in effectively managing flood risk is the lack of an integrated approach to catchment management and the number of regulatory bodies: the Environment Agency is cash-strapped, the water companies are regulated by Ofwat—with a focus on keeping bills down—and farmers are regulated by Defra and incentivised through the CAP and now ELMS. The Environment Bill is an opportunity to pull together all the different strings of the water sector to have an integrated catchment approach to tackling flood risk.

Floods happen; they always will. The question is how to limit their impact. When serious flooding occurs, as it did in 2015 in the community where I live, and in many others around the country, everyone works flat out to do whatever they can during the crisis. Government praises everyone involved and promises the moon—but terms like “unprecedented” and “climate emergency” do not alter the fact that the current approach to tackling flooding and future flood risk is clearly not fit for purpose.

Understandably, the main focus when extreme flooding happens is its impact on human lives and livelihoods, but it is also an environmental disaster. Floods increase surface run-off, exacerbating erosion and introducing more soil, organic matter and pollutants into watercourses. Studies have shown that plant biomass and the abundance of both vertebrates, such as fish, and invertebrates can be dramatically reduced by extreme floods. Noxious hydrogen sulphide fumes and lead poisoning are among the threats from floodwater contamination. Many animals are at risk of being poisoned by floodwater redistributing pesticides and toxic chemicals from industrial sites. Hibernating bumblebees, ground beetles and caterpillars are at risk of dying at greatly elevated rates because the floods and heavy rainfall are drowning them and interfering with their hibernation. Hedgehogs are already undergoing a national decline, and floods just put extra pressure on them: unless they get to areas of high ground, they drown.

We need an integrated approach to flood management that works with the environment to manage land and water in ways that benefit both people and our ecosystems. Why are the Government not using the Environment Bill as the opportunity to deliver this? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am delighted to speak to and support Amendment 194AA, on a “Flood risk report”. Too often, where there have been major floods, as there were many times in the 2000s and since, people tend to forget and Governments fail to take major action once the flood waters have receded, so I echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said in moving her amendment.

I make a plea to my noble friend the Minister, particularly on the issuing and updating of planning guidance. I mentioned earlier the fact that, at the moment, developers are building on flood plains and not making the buildings secure, flood-proof and resilient to floods. It is only when the householder makes a claim that they find out that it will not be met, in part or in full—particularly if they bought without a mortgage, in which case they probably have no idea that they are not covered by insurance.

On many occasions, in both the other place and here, we have tried to make it a requirement for developers to have regard to building sustainable drainage systems—SUDS—to take surface water away from sewers and combined sewer outflows. This amendment is an opportunity to ask my noble friend if the Government have moved on this and whether they plan to update and amend planning guidance to make SUDS the preferred option for managing surface water in all new developments.

I make the simple suggestion of empowering sewage undertakers to discharge rainwater downpipes, with nothing nasty in them, into local soakaways, as opposed to the current legislation, which requires a new public sewer to be provided to take the flows away, immediately mixing them with sewage—this seems a wanton wastage of resources and infrastructure. I hope that my noble friend will look favourably upon this.

Such a flood risk report as this amendment would allow for would give the opportunity for my noble friend and his department to review the partnership approach. As he mentioned earlier, the environmental land management schemes—ELMS—will allow flood prevention schemes to take place, and so allow the Government to do an audit in that regard. That is another reason I hope that, if not in this amendment, the Government will look favourably on some way of monitoring flood risk going forward.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, whose comment about building on flood plains reminds me of the simplest, clearest explanation of why this should not happen: a flood plain is not beside the river; it is part of the river. I greatly appreciated her focus on sustainable urban drainage schemes.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for tabling Amendment 194AA, and I commend the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bakewell, for supporting it. Indeed, I would have done so myself, had I not simply missed it. We are talking about joined-up government here, with two critical issues that have a huge impact on people, businesses and the natural world coming together: the environment and flooding. We know that the Government talk about joined-up government thinking and nature-based solutions, but it is a great pity that, up until this point, we have not seen this added into the Bill.

In this context, last month the Committee on Climate Change released its new five-yearly independent assessment of climate risk, which showed that, of 61 risks and opportunities, more action is needed now on 34 of them—one of which is relates to flooding. We need not just talk from the Government, but action. The National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England, published last year, shows that 5.2 million homes and businesses are at risk. With the reality of our climate emergency, rainfall is expected to increase by 6% by the 2050s and from 8% to 13% by the 2080s from a 1981-2000 baseline.

We absolutely have to address these great risks and long-term issues now. It is worth noting that there are excellent things happening, but they are pilots or on a local scale, not on the landscape or nationwide scale across England that we need to see. I note that Stroud, in particular, has been a real leader in this area. The rural sustainable drainage project, which was initiated by community groups after areas of Stroud were flooded in 2007 and 2012, covers 250 square kilometres of the catchment of the River Frome and its tributaries. It was from that project, through the excellent work of the former Green county councillor Sarah Lunnon, that I learned a great deal about leaky dams and the really wonderful environmental and flood impacts that they can have.

At the other end of the country, the Committee on Climate Change highlights the Stockdalewath natural flood protection management group, which again followed flooding affecting the Roe Beck and the River Ive catchments near Carlisle. It shows joined-up thinking around measures that are good for the environment and agricultural productivity, and which reduce flood risks. Again, we are talking about leaky damns, as well as hedgerow restoration and the fencing-off of watercourses.

Another very different project, also highlighted by the CCC is in Medmerry, West Sussex. There are new flood banks on a coastal area which protect the community but also create 300 hectares of wildlife habitat, which is of principal importance under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan—there are mudflats, reed beds, saline lagoons and grassland. This is really crucial for meeting European directive targets.

Finally, while I am talking about positive things—I like to focus on the positives, at least some of the time—I cannot conclude without mentioning the growing understanding of the positive impacts of beavers. There was an excellent study a year ago by a team of scientists, led by Professor Richard Brazier from the University of Exeter, which was specifically on the beavers that mysteriously arrived on the River Otter. The beavers had huge positive benefits for eco-tourism and ecosystem services, including flood alleviation. The beavers are slowing the flow of floodwater, reducing peak flows during flood events. What we are doing here—and must do much more—is to allow nature to fix what we have broken. That is why this is so crucial in the Environment Bill; the law must be framed explicitly to allow this to happen.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:00 pm, 7th July 2021

My Lords I have put my name to this amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Hayman of Ullock. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has comprehensively introduced this amendment. I have added my name as someone who was once leader of a council, which had and still has large areas of flooding on a regular basis. In some cases, the same land and businesses were flooded year after year.

I will not rehearse the details of the flooding during the winter of 2014, but I mention that, after action was taken by the Government and Environment Agency, major works took place in an attempt to prevent flooding of such a serious nature in future. This is welcome, but is of little comfort to those who lost everything from flooding in the first place.

Flooding from rising water is devastating. It can be immediate, with a town or village and properties being submerged in a matter of minutes from catastrophic water flow from continuous rainfall and run-off from higher ground. It can also be slow and insidious, as in the case where rainfall has swollen the local rivers, and householders and the Environment Agency watch the rising water with trepidation, knowing that at some stage the banks will be breached, the muddy waters will engulf their homes, the sewers will overflow and drinking water will be contaminated. We have all seen the television coverage of such incidents, but we may not have experienced the smell, nor had to wade through the slime covering the floor of our lounge or kitchen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, asked why flooding does not have greater prominence in the Bill and I share her concerns. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, spoke of the hazards of developments on flood plains which, if built since 2009, are not covered by insurance. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also raised the dangers of building on flood plains. It is time that developers in this process provide their own insurance to those living in homes that they have built on flood plains. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also gave some excellent examples of flood protection measures, including beavers—some have been introduced into Cornwall.

The amendment is extensive. Flood risk reports are important. The areas liable to flood are well documented and it is now possible to assess the number of people and households at risk from flooding and to take action to mitigate the risk, thereby reversing the possibility of flooding. The Committee on Climate Change, the Environment Agency, local drainage boards and others on the ground in an area should be consulted to share their first-hand knowledge with the Secretary of State in preparing flood risk reports.

The Government must take action, as this matter is very serious, and so bring some reassurance to flood risk areas that they are not forgotten and that measures are being taken to help protect them. Catchment plans are a vital tool in flood prevention measures, which are needed to protect people.

I fully support this amendment and look forward to a favourable response from the Minister on this critical issue.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, flooding incidents have an utterly devastating impact on communities. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for raising this important issue in her Amendment 194AA and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her thoughtful introduction.

The Government are committed to ensuring that our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges that a changing climate brings, including flooding and coastal erosion. The Government are taking a holistic and wide-ranging approach to flood risk, including through, for example, the England tree strategy, which will have a direct impact on flood prevention if trees are planted in the right place or if land is allowed to naturally regenerate in a way that slows the flow of surface water and increases the ability of land to absorb water. Likewise, our peat action plan will be crucial in reducing flood risk and showing that communities downstream of restored peatland are better protected and that, again, the land’s ability to hold water is improved.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will agree that nature-based solutions can play a vital role in meeting flood resilience objectives in addition to so many other objectives in the Government’s 25-year environment plan at the same time. I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for the examples she gave. I very much share her enthusiasm about the introduction of beavers, which has had the most extraordinary impact already.

The combination of green, blue and traditional grey infrastructure, which we discussed in detail earlier, will minimise the number of households at risk of flooding. The Bill takes important steps to help achieve this. It amends the Land Drainage Act 1991 to make it easier to make new internal drainage boards, which play a key role in managing water levels, reducing flood risks, supporting local growth, and protecting critical infrastructure in urban and rural areas.

Furthermore, by placing a statutory duty on sewerage companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans, we are addressing long-term drainage planning and capacity, which helps to address sewer and surface water flooding. Section 13(1) of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 already requires risk management authorities, including sewerage companies, to co-operate with other risk management authorities such as the Environment Agency and lead local flood authorities. But we will also make secondary legislation to ensure that the preparation of a drainage and sewerage management plan is captured as a flood risk management function to ensure that the new plans form part of a holistic response to flood risk.

I should be clear that the Bill has not been designed with the sole intention of addressing new flood risk legislation. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010, for instance, sets out the legislative requirements for flood risk management. It includes a duty on the Environment Agency to produce a report in relation to flood and coastal erosion risk management under Section 18. The Environment Agency report on flood and coastal erosion risk management is published every year and includes information on flood risk and progress to tackle that risk.

The Government are also taking ambitious non-legislative action to address flood risk. I mentioned the tree plan and the peat plan earlier, but we are also investing a record £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years. This will better protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. In addition, the Government are investing a further £170 million to accelerate the building of 22 flood schemes across the country.

Alongside this, a further £200 million is being invested in the flood and coastal resilience innovation programme, which is helping over 25 local areas to take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. Pioneering projects, led by local authorities and delivered over the next six years, include apps which alert residents to flooding, permeable road surfaces to improve drainage and schemes to protect vital sand dune beaches.

Last July, the Government also published a policy statement setting out the Government’s long-term ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal risk. This aims to reduce the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy, and aims to ensure that our country is better protected and better prepared to reduce the likelihood and impacts of flooding and coastal erosion. It was informed by advice from the National Infrastructure Commission and the Committee on Climate Change.

The Government also have a statutory duty to respond to the Committee on Climate Change’s annual progress reports. The most recent report by the committee, published on 24 June, acknowledges that the government’s policy statement provides

“the required policy basis for increasing the level of ambition in tackling flood risk.”

The policy statement includes five policies and over 40 supporting actions which will accelerate progress to better protect and prepare the country against flooding and coastal erosion. Alongside the record investment I mentioned earlier, we are strengthening the reporting of progress towards the Government’s goals by spring 2022 so that it is clearer and more accessible.

The Government are also developing a national set of indicators to monitor trends over time to better understand the impact of policies. Indicators and reporting will include the local picture, providing the information needed to further drive progress at a local level and recognising the different challenges faced in different areas.

I hope this has reassured the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have spoken passionately about this issue that the Government share their concerns, and that we are already taking significant steps to deliver on our plan for greater resilience to flooding. I respectfully ask that she withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for her kind words and support and for the concerns she raised about new development, which I worry greatly about. She also mentioned insurance, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I know this does not come under the Minister’s brief, but it is worth saying that Flood Re, which is designed to cover properties that flood, does not cover new homes built after 2019. It does not cover multiple occupancy of more than 10 homes. It does not cover businesses, which is particularly a problem in areas such as Cumbria, where I live, for small bed and breakfasts. The reason that it does not cover new homes built after 2019—I know this following a meeting with the chief executive of Flood Re—is because it was considered that planning rules meant that no home built after 2019 could flood, because the rules would stop homes being built in areas that would flood. That is absolute nonsense; homes built after 2019 flood. This really needs to be looked into. I know it is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but I would be grateful if he could raise it with his colleagues in the appropriate department.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the impact on both people and the natural world. That is a really important balance we need to get here. We really need joined-up thinking in government because there are a huge number of homes at risk. My concern, and my reason for tabling this amendment, is not just the damage to the natural environment, but the increasing concerns about new homes being built and more people being put at risk of flooding in their homes.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for her very supportive speech. She said that flooding is absolutely devastating. When you live in a community that floods regularly, you know that there is not just the immediate impact of the flood but a long-term knock-on effect on people’s mental health and businesses. Cockermouth, which is near where I live, flooded appallingly twice in six years and the town has still not got over that. If we have another flood like that, it will start to undermine the local community in a way that is hard to imagine if you have not witnessed it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, also talked about the importance of bringing local knowledge into flood risk reports. Again, that is hugely important. Local communities understand their neighbourhood; local farmers understand their land, and should be part of any developments. She also talked about how catchment plans are vital to protect people; I agree with her very much on that.

I appreciated the Minister’s very thorough list of what the Government are doing, planning to do or are developing policy on around flooding, whether tree-planting strategies, restoring peat or looking at the new drainage and sewerage management plans we have been discussing in some detail today. But there are some practical things we could do. For example, why do water companies have to look at drought plans but not flood plans? Water companies should be much more central in how this is managed.

The thing I find most frustrating, and one of the reasons I wanted to emphasise the fact that this should be covered by the Bill, is demonstrated by what the Minister said: there are bits here, there and everywhere, but there is no coherent strategy on how we genuinely tackle flood risk in this country and what has to be done long term for the future because of the threat of climate change.

Mitigating flood risk needs to be right at the top of the Government’s agenda as part of their climate change strategy. Not having it as central within a Bill as important as this risks it being set aside when looking at planning objectives. That is what concerns me really deeply. I urge the Minister to look at how that can be taken forward but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 194AA withdrawn.

Clause 92: Biodiversity gain as condition of planning permission

Amendments 194AB and 194AC not moved.

Clause 92 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:15 pm, 7th July 2021

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 194B. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.