Flood Prevention (River Severn)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 7th December 2005.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 2:30 pm, 7th December 2005

I should like to begin by apologising for my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson. He particularly wanted to be present, but he is involved in a fisheries debate in the main Chamber.

I am pleased to have secured this debate. It has created a great deal of interest in my Shrewsbury constituency. Flooding is a serious issue; it has affected our town for many years. I have not come here to criticise the Government at all. There is a new spirit, and I want to follow my new leader's policy of co-operation with the Government when co-operation is required and appropriate. I wish to use the debate merely to inform the Minister of certain things that are happening in Shrewsbury, and to urge him to act on certain proposals in Shropshire.

Shrewsbury was flooded terribly in 2000, and the Prime Minister duly came to the town, along with the Deputy Prime Minister. They went around in their wellington boots to see what the problems were. There was a great deal of media coverage; the press and TV were there. The Prime Minister promised that he would help Shrewsbury in respect of flooding. That was on the front page of all the newspapers: "Prime Minister promises to help Shrewsbury to prevent flooding in the future."

I must say that some progress has been made, but in Shrewsbury all that there has been is a small flood defence in a place called Frankwell, which protects the council offices and 80 homes. The people who work in the council offices are fine, and the people who live in the 80 homes near the council offices are protected. However, large parts of Shrewsbury continue to flood, such as the areas by the English bridge. I met residents there in 2003: young couples with buckets in their hands trying to save their homes from flooding. They were in great distress. Our football stadium on the Gay Meadow is also prone to flooding. That disrupts numerous football matches. I have no doubt that we would be higher in the league if our football stadium did not flood so frequently; that is another reason why I want better flood prevention in Shrewsbury.

During floods, many businesses close down for long periods. As well as the problems that that causes, the flooding issue leads to investors having long-term concerns about Shrewsbury. They know that the town floods, and a major company that wants to build a facility somewhere will think twice about building it in a town that is prone to flooding.

Another area of concern is affordable housing. As the Minister knows, there is tremendous pressure on local authorities to build affordable housing. However, Shrewsbury is running out of appropriate space, so the council and developers are being tempted to build on flood plains—on areas around Shrewsbury that repeatedly flood. The costs involved in that are astronomical. The purchasers of the homes will have to bear the brunt; extra measures will have to be taken to protect the homes in that area.

I want to mention a couple of individual cases. There is a company in Shrewsbury called Chase Tyres and Exhausts. It is a garage, and it repeatedly floods. The owner said to me, "Every time we flood, we don't get any compensation from the Government; although I have to close my business down, there is no financial help." The Government go out of their way to help other businesses in times of crisis. When the Rover plant tragically had to close, the Government responded quickly with financial assistance. I should like to hear the Minister's views on what further help can be given to businesses facing the crisis of flooding and shutting down for long periods.

A lot of agricultural land is flooded, but farmers do not get the publicity that major businesses receive, and although their land is flooded and they lose business, which has a devastating impact on their production, little is mentioned about them. I should like to hear the Minister say what help can be given to farmers when their land is flooded.

One of my constituents in the village of Pentre loves their home so much that they spent £80,000 of their own money building a dyke all the way round their property. Again, there was no financial assistance for that from the Government.

Flooding is a tremendous misery. Two weeks ago, I visited Underdale road in Shrewsbury, an area that floods repeatedly, and the residents took me in to see their homes. In the kitchens their washing machines, fridge-freezers and all the appliances were built on stilts in preparation for the next flood. The residents were on the Floodline hotline all the time to find out when their homes were going to be flooded. I was there two weeks ago, when the water was coming right up to their homes.

The Minister will know that if a road is prone to flooding, people living at the top of the road where it does not flood will still find it almost impossible to get insurance for their home, and if they get insurance, the insurance company will charge an astronomical amount because they are, unfortunately, in a particular postcode.

I do not normally get passionate, but I am passionate about the proposal for a wet washlands scheme. I believe in listening to the professionals. I have visited the Environment Agency, based at the Oxon business park in Shrewsbury, on numerous occasions and asked, "How would you solve the problem of flooding, not just in Shrewsbury, but along the whole of the River Severn?" The answer from the Environment Agency—the professionals whose job it is to look at such issues—is that it wants to create a wet washlands project, meaning that 200 hectares of agricultural land in my constituency, near the village of Nesscliffe, would be flooded.

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I like the idea of helping to prevent flooding and also creating wetland habitats which would be valuable for instance to wading birds. This would also attract people who enjoy watching wildlife. Another tack might be to protect or increase woodland because I believe that woodland acts like a sponge, slowing the entry of water to rivers when the rainfall is heavy.

Submitted by Chris Davies Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Farmers in my constituency are concerned, because although they understand that measures may need to be taken to protect the city of Gloucester from flooding, if their farmland is sacrificed and will flood more frequently, they expect proper compensation to be given. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that later.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I agree. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. The farmers that I have spoken to in Nesscliffe are happy to come to some arrangement with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whereby they would be paid to have their agricultural land flooded. Given the crisis that my farmers are facing at the moment—particularly dairy farmers—I think that that is a marvellous project, because the farmers would be paid to flood their land, thus protecting their income, while helping to manage the flooding on the River Severn.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the passion that he is showing for the new scheme.

Kettering has a connection with the River Severn, because the River Avon rises in the village of Naseby and joins the Severn at Tewkesbury, so, in a way, I feel partly responsible for flooding incidence in the Severn. I join my hon. Friend in advocating the scheme, because it would help alleviate the flood risk and recompense farmers.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I thank my hon. Friend for admitting that his constituency partly contributes to the problem.

The wet washlands scheme would mean storing the water on the 200 hectare site. The project would cost £36 million, but the benefits would amount to £70 million. I spoke to someone at the Environment Agency today and asked what savings of £70 million meant and how I could justify the project to the Minister. He said, "The benefits are twofold. First, the Environment Agency has calculated that from all of these towns not flooding, all the homes not being destroyed and all the fridge-freezers, other appliances and everything else not being destroyed and having to be replaced, the savings would be £50 million. Secondly, there would be a £20 million saving in terms of environmental gain."

What does that mean? The Minister will recall the 1992 Earth summit in Rio. As part of the conclusions of that, the Government came up with something called the biodiversity action plan, which seeks to protect 391 species of plants and animals in 45 habitats. The plan is the blueprint for conservation in Britain, protecting birds such as snipe, redshank and lapwing.

This single project in Nesscliffe, involving the 200 hectares, would fulfil 100 per cent. of the Government's biodiversity action plan for the conservation of those birds and different plants. At times of the year, the wet washlands would be only a soggy marsh. That would encourage wildlife and birds, particularly in the breeding season, by providing more food. At other times, the wet washlands would have up to 1 m of water. That is where the water would be stored and thus it would not go into the River Severn and go further down the river.

I have spoken a lot about Shrewsbury, but there are obviously other towns on the River Severn. The Environment Agency says that the benefits of the scheme will extend all the way down to Worcester. The levels of water in Shrewsbury would be brought down by 1 m during flood times and in Worcester the figure would be as much as 0.25m.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an important debate for his area, which has implications for the rest of the country. He obviously has a great depth of knowledge on this matter. Would he be surprised to learn that in my area, thousands of homes are being built on a flood plain because of the pressure from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? I am fearful that my constituents might face some of the problems that my hon. Friend has described. Does he have any advice for the planners?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Nice try, but the hon. Gentleman is way out of order. The motion is very specific indeed.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Bone for the point on affordable housing, which I mentioned. My council has a target of 500 affordable homes. It is extraordinary to imagine the amount of extra land that would be freed up for construction if the scheme was implemented. This is strategic, long-term thinking on behalf of the Government. If they make an investment of £36 million, the net gains to them—in extra land for affordable housing, and letting all these towns on the River Severn save extra money for themselves—would be incalculable.

I acknowledge that there are financial pressures and that it is easy for an Opposition politician to call for extra funding for their constituency. However, I and my constituents genuinely feel passionate about this. I urge the Minister to look seriously into any way that his Department could work alongside the Environment Agency to examine the scheme and see whether, with the Government's backing, it can proceed—and thus save Shrewsbury from all the misery that flooding creates.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. It is apparent that a considerable number of hon. Members wish to take part. Originally, four expressed a written interest and, as is the custom, I shall give them priority. Thereafter, it is a question of how brief each hon. Member is prepared to be. We have looked carefully at the map and I understand that every hon. Member present has some form of riparian interest in the Severn. We will do our best, but it really is up to hon. Members.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office 2:46 pm, 7th December 2005

I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing the debate. However, I warn him off using that excuse for the performance of Shrewsbury Town football club. We use it in Worcestershire for the performance of our cricket club, whose ground regularly floods. He cannot copy that excuse all the time.

However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the misery caused to home owners affected by flooding. I have had no more sobering experience as a result of becoming a Member of the House than that of visiting people who are wading through their flooded homes in wellington boots. The sight of fridges or freezers on bricks or breeze blocks is not uncommon in those properties.

You may not know this, Mr. Gale, but after the floods of autumn 2000, the River Severn group of MPs formed an inaugural grouping to tackle the issue of flooding along the river. Because of interest shown by other hon. Members, that group became established as the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention. I have the pleasure of chairing that group, while Dr. Taylor is one of its vice-chairs. It is all due to flooding along the River Severn that we have established that all-party group.

The Severn, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, has been flooding for years. In the worst flood in Worcester, in 1947, the river rose to 5.58 m above its normal summer level. That level of flooding affects 200 properties in the city of Worcester. While not wishing to be partisan, because my comment is not, I can understand why the Government's eye was taken off the ball regarding flood prevention, given the rather cyclical nature of flooding as it affects Worcester.

To take the Hylton Road in Worcester as an example, that floods at 4.2 m above normal summer level. In the five-year period between January 1955 and 1960, the river flooded six times. Then, between January 1965 and 1990, a 25-year period, the river flooded six times more. However, between January 1995 and 2005, a 10-year period, the river flooded nine times at that point—a considerable change in the frequency of flooding. That cyclical pattern has really drawn attention to the need to deal with flooding in places such as Worcester and Shrewsbury and the towns in between.

I too have worked with the Environment Agency to tackle flooding in the city, and have looked at the options that it has proposed. One attractive option is upstream storage, along the lines described by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. If I may use a pun, I do not want to pour cold water on his idea, but for Worcester to be protected by upstream storage so that the city of Worcester did not flood, it would require upland storage capacity of 127 million cu m of floodwater, which is two and a half times the volume of the Llyn Clywedog dam. That requires a huge expanse of land, but it is not available to be used to protect the city of Worcester.

I understand how an upland washland area could protect parts of the town of Shrewsbury, but once that river water comes down towards Worcester, there is no capacity above Worcester for the same level of upland storage. It would require something huge further upstream to deal with the problem. However, some policies can be tackled by the Government and the Environment Agency. Will the Minister explain what scope exists for the use of washlands that could mitigate some effects of flooding along the River Severn?

Let us consider other changes in upland land management, especially afforestation, that could reduce the flow of the rain falling on the Welsh hills and finding its way quickly into the River Severn. If we can slow down the progress of the rainfall, it might have a reduced impact on flooding. We must also deal with barriers that hold back the water, some of which are buildings that are constructed in flood plains. What changes are being proposed in PPG25 to stop councils erecting houses on flood plains and storing up misery for the residents in years to come?

Another policy that is often flagged up as the saviour of Worcester and other towns and cities is dredging. If it were to be a solution for Worcester, the river bed would have to be excavated to a depth of between 4 m and 5 m for the length of the river from Worcester downstream to Gloucester. It would make the river at Worcester tidal, which would affect water supplies because our drinking water comes from the River Severn. Admittedly, it is clean before it reaches us, but such measures would affect the habitat and the environment generally. Frankly, dredging is not an option that would solve Worcester's problems. That has been confirmed by Dr. Ian Maddock of University college, Worcester, who concluded that

"dredging would be a very costly attempt to reduce flooding that is not viable on either economic or environmentally sustainable grounds".

We can put to bed the argument about dredging.

Let us now consider permanent flood defences. They would be options for parts of the city. Worcester has 11 identified areas that are known as flood cells, each of which is examined to see technically whether defences can be built. They are then assessed using cost-benefit analysis to see whether it is financially worth while to invest in them as a defence. Permanent defences cost a fortune because we have to sink them down to the bedrock before they are built up to prevent water going underneath the defences. As the hon. Member for Wyre Forest knows, huge costs were incurred when the Bewdley defences were installed.

In Worcester, five of the 11 flood cells have a positive cost-benefit analysis. In theory, that is good news. However, on the priority scoring system, they score between four and six points out of a maximum score of 44, which means that they will not be dealt with in the short term. Perhaps the Minister can write and explain to me and those residents who will be defended by the systems when it is likely that the Government priority score will come down into the region where the permanent defences can be built.

Photo of David Wright David Wright PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Minister of State (Cabinet)), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Does my hon. Friend agree that a significant problem occurs when there is a small number of properties within each cell, as a result of which the cost-benefit analysis often means that properties are not defended? It is a particular problem when the buildings are of historical significance within a cell. I am thinking of the Boat inn at Ironbridge, a popular local pub which floods regularly. Indeed, markings on the wall show the levels to which floods have progressed through the property over the years. Such property needs defences even though, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, the flood cells structure would not lead to its having defences at the moment.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend's conclusions are right. That is exactly our experience in Worcester, with five cells including those comprising 24, 19, 14 and 18 houses. They are small cells. It means that the system does not help us to score highly on the priority list.

There is some good news, with the use of temporary defences in Worcester and further upstream. They have been a phenomenal success. While it is desperate to walk inside people's houses in one's waders, with water and other things floating around, it is a surreal experience to walk along a perfectly dry road when the river level is 1 m above, held back in Worcester's case by pallet barriers. It is such a simple idea that I cannot believe that someone did not come up with it earlier. It has worked effectively for the businesses and properties along Hylton road.

Are the Government satisfied with the trial that was conducted along the River Severn, and do they intend to extend it to other parts of the country? I can assure those constituencies prone to flooding that it is such a simple system that road traffic still uses the road. It is defended against flooding and so are the properties.

I should like to extend the debate to include some of the Severn's tributaries that flow through the city of Worcester. Such places as Barbourne brook, Astwood brook and Duck brook in the city are more prone to flooding when the River Severn floods. In April 1998, Barbourne brook was the scene of about 100 flooded properties. It is a housing estate built on a flood plain, with a brook culverted underneath the estate, so one would not know that it was a flood plain area. To see an inshore lifeboat rescuing people from the first floor of their homes is a sight that one does not want to deal with every day.

I should like to place on the record my tribute to the Environment Agency for the way in which it has taken over the management of the watercourse at Barbourne brook, creating extra upland storage and clearing the culvert, so that even though there have been periods of heavy rain since it has taken over management, properties on the Blanquettes estate have not flooded again. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency staff for the way in which they deal with people whose properties are prone to flooding and explain the systems available, and for the vigour with which they tackle flooding issues.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in a debate that I do not think will become politically rancorous. Does he share my concern that in drawing up flood defence schemes, the Environment Agency can be over-bureaucratic, which leads to delays?

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would prefer the Environment Agency to take its time when coming up with a flooding solution that works and does not have adverse and unforeseen consequences on other parts of, for instance, the River Severn. When the left bank of the river at Bewdley was protected, there were concerns that it would increase the flood risk on the right bank. I would prefer the agency to take its time to show that that will not happen.

The same is true in such places as Worcester, where we have temporary defences. Before they were put up, I was assured that they would not adversely affect any other property in the city. If it takes time to do that, I do not mind. I do not agree that the agency is over-bureaucratic.

I should like to ask the Minister for his assessment of the capacity of the agency to deliver additional flood defences, particularly in terms of staff recruitment and the retention of skills and expertise of existing staff. I acknowledge and place on the record my belief that the extra investment given by the Treasury via DEFRA to the agency is welcome. I should like the Minister to reaffirm his Department's commitment to maintaining that level of investment, which not only protects homes and businesses, but conforms to the requirements of the Association of British Insurers, which insures those whose properties are prone to flooding. The extra investment is needed to ensure that those people remain part of the happy group that is starting to see solutions to the flood problems that have affected us for centuries.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest 3:00 pm, 7th December 2005

I too congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on raising this issue. I join him in welcoming what is perhaps a new, co-operative stance on the part of the Conservative party. However, I am slightly alarmed that it might be taking over my unique position of telling the Government when they are right and when they are wrong.

I am delighted to take part in the debate, because it gives me a great opportunity to thank the Government and the Environment Agency for everything that they have done in my constituency. I remember the November 2000 floods, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The water in Bewdley was 5.6 m above its normal level and huge chicken sheds were floating down the river, along with tree trunks as big as submarines. The Prime Minister came to Bewdley, and I observed him from the crowd—I was not an MP then—as he paddled over to the bit of the bridge that one could just get on to. The road was closed. The water was 4 ft up the doors of houses just up the river. The roads on the other side of the river were completely blocked and graceful swans were swimming in the middle of them.

During the floods just a couple of years ago, the demountable defences were up and they were magic. As Mr. Foster said, people can walk on the towpath and the quayside, and the water is 1.5 m above them. There is an eerie quietness. One looks into the drains and, to one's amazement, they are empty, because the underground flood defences and the pumps are working magnificently. I am also pleased to welcome the pallet-type defences on part of the Wribbenhall side of the river. They will not be trialled, because they have been trialled in other places, and they will be erected at the first warning of a significant flood. They will cause a certain amount of disruption, but we are very grateful for them. The underground works, the sewer connections and the pumps for the drains are all in place and ready.

I think that I can stray slightly from the Severn, Mr. Gale, and go precisely three miles, which is not as far as others have strayed, up one of its tributaries. The River Stour, which runs through Stourbridge, enters the Severn at Stourport. Above Kidderminster, a wet washlands has been established and it works brilliantly. A bund has been built across the area previously called Puxton marsh, which had sites of special scientific interest on it. A bridge with a relatively small hole through it has been built over the river. I have walked over the bridge when the river is low, and there is just a small flow through the bottom of the hole. I have also walked over the bridge when the river is in flood, and the hole is completely full of water, and the river is backing up above the bridge, restoring the wetland that used to exist at Puxton marsh. We are lucky that that land has never been valuable from the marketing point of view; in fact, only Belted Galloways, which are rather tough cattle, have been able to live on it because they can eat rougher stuff. Those issues are therefore no longer causing trouble, and the amount of water that can now flow through Kidderminster town centre is strictly limited and flooding will not occur.

I now want to ask some questions and I hope to get some answers. Members of the all-party flood group, which the hon. Member for Worcester mentioned, very much welcome the Norwich Union flood maps, which go into tremendous detail. Some parts of the country are covered with metre contours, while others are covered with half-metre contours, which means that there is the theoretical possibility of completely avoiding postcode flood risk. Is that approach working yet? For example, do people in the DY12 postcode, who are 400 ft above the river, no longer have to pay the same extortionate insurance premiums as those who are still liable to be flooded? Do households that are now effectively protected pay lower premiums?

The other spin-off of the tremendous flood mapping is the possibility of allowing people who want to sell their houses to make it clear that they are in an area that is completely free from flood risk. I hope that that is being implemented.

Finally, we have heard from hon. Members about isolated properties and farms where people have built dykes round their property. In parts of Stourport, it is extraordinarily difficult to protect an industrial estate and a residential area. Will there be support for people with houses that cannot be protected to make the adaptations to their houses that make them relatively resistant to floods—for example, suitable flooring, plastering and cavity wall insulation? During the flood in Worcester that the hon. Member for Worcester mentioned, no one expected part of the area to flood and the cavity wall insulation used meant that people were kept out of their houses for ages.

The National Flood Forum ran many fairs to tell people how to adapt their houses and I hope that they will continue. I pay tribute to Gill Holland of Bewdley who was a director of the National Flood Forum and was instrumental in running many of those fairs. I understand that she has just had a hip replacement and, while off sick, found that her job had disappeared. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some answers on insurance and unprotectable properties.

I thank the Minister, the Environment Agency and Severn Trent Water for all their work in my area.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 3:07 pm, 7th December 2005

I took careful note of what you said, Mr. Gale, and will try to keep my comments short.

I welcome the debate and congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing it. We shall shortly leave for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to discuss this and other issues and we will be meeting the Environment Agency tomorrow morning. I pay due respect to my hon. Friend Mr. Foster and Dr. Taylor for their work with the all-party flood prevention group, which has always been informative and has given us an opportunity for dialogue with different agencies.

I want to make a few general comments about the River Severn and then speak about a specific case, which I hope the Minister will be able to advance. I then want to come to an open-ended conclusion on some of the issues relating to how we treat water, which is directly relevant to the River Severn.

In the main, I support the Environment Agency and allied organisations, including the water companies. They are now treating the threat of flooding more seriously and I am pleased that we are consulted almost to death in attempts to engage with MPs, councillors and other representatives. We wait expectantly for the final presentation of the lower Severn scheme, which I believe will be available in the new year. I have been able to take part on a number of occasions in the consultation on how that is being put together.

The Government have put many more resources into the problem. The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment has on a number of occasions shown that the Government are serious about the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester mentioned the need for new planning guidance. Monday's announcement by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was an advance on that. We hope that that will now be taken forward and will provide clarity on the planning process.

I largely support the Environment Agency and what it is trying to do. There has been greater clarity in the cost-benefit analysis so we now understand which particular parts of the catchment area around the Severn are likely to get works and which are not. My area tends to flood in extremis. We have an unusual situation, as the area is tidal and water also comes down the Severn. However, when we get hit, like the constituency of Mr. Harper, we get hit badly. That was the case at the end of the last millennium, which resulted in a large part of the north of my constituency flooding.

As a result, the Environment Agency spent considerable sums on bringing up to scratch the flood protection measures, which largely take the form of banks. The banks were reinforced and taken back to their current level. We did not ask for them to be increased because, as I will make clear, that is a zero-sum game, as has already been alluded to. If someone has their area protected more, someone else will get the floods. I would be happier if we were able to say that we had a coherent strategy rather than for the area that was the last to ask the Minister for extra money or to approach the Environment Agency to be landed with the problems.

We are not asking for physical schemes. Indeed, apart from where there are clear requirements, such as in an urban situation where a large number of properties are at risk, we should not look for physical schemes. We should use the river, understand that it has its organic way of doing things and learn not necessarily to love it but to live with it.

Slightly contrary to what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, DEFRA grants are already in place for farmers who are willing and able to allow their land to flood. As we go into a regime of rural development regulations, there should be more opportunity for that. I am glad to agree with the hon. Gentleman; I do not see this as anything other than a good move. If we are to pay farmers to do something that is of tremendous value to a wider population, let us pay them and use the skill that comes with them as the guardians of it. I welcome that move, and we should link with it ideas such as reed beds.

We cannot concentrate simply on the pure aspects of flooding; sewerage is an issue as well. The idea that we can physically build our way out of all the problems is a myth. The sooner we understand that and consider low-technology answers, the sooner we will all be happier. They are cheaper and, in the long run, they are sustainable and better. I hope that we will do that.

I come on to a particular problem. I am not a provocative person, as the Minister knows, but it has been gnawing away at the back of my mind for some months. It is a difficult problem, which concerns an area called Frampton on Severn. It was identified in the famous flood maps, which have largely been useful, as an area subject to flooding. It has flooded in the past but not recently. The problem is that Frampton on Severn's coastal protections—the Severn is effectively coastal in that area—have largely eroded.

The Environment Agency's response has been that the Gloucester-Sharpness canal is a flood protection device if the water comes over the coastal protections, which, as I said, are badly eroded. Although British Waterways will not say categorically that it is not a flood protection, it will not agree—certainly not on paper—that it is. There are two obvious reasons for that. First, it could end up with the bill. The canal banks, which are not strong enough to withstand a huge volume of water, have fallen in in the past. More particularly—Steve Webb will have a view on this—the canal supplies water to Bristol Water, which provides the water that some of his constituents drink. It is not terribly clever to have a flood protection device that is likely to have an impact on the water supply.

Along with the parish council of Frampton on Severn, I have been trying to get some answers and therefore ask the Minister to take up the issue. We want clarification on whether the canal is a flood protection device. The answer cannot go both ways. In effect, two public bodies are each looking in their own direction and trying to avoid the issue. There is no problem until a flood occurs, but if that happens and there are questions about who was right and whether there was an effective flood protection device, it could be too late.

Things got so bad that the parish council felt that it had to submit a freedom-of-information inquiry to the Environment Agency to try to get clarification. That is not good enough. This is an important issue, and I hope that the Minister will provide clarity. I do not expect an easy answer or one that necessarily has the agreement of all sides, but there must be a statement on paper about a flood protection device in that area.

To conclude, I am pleased that the Environment Agency has been working with the water companies. They should not be excluded from discussions about the Severn area, the implications for water supply and, indeed, the quality of water, in which I have become increasingly interested. We should do much more to understand the microbiological issues relating to water.

I hope that the Minister will take on board these general comments. I would like us to think about water a little more holistically. A bid was made for EU LIFE funding to examine the water catchment area not just of the Severn but of the River Frome tributary, but, sadly, the bid has not gone anywhere. I hope that the Government are serious about considering how these different issues can be brought together so that we can get a much better understanding of the water chain and manage all these things more effectively. Finally, as always, I ask for a real explanation of what is happening about flood protection around Frampton on Severn.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Will hon. Members keep an eye on the clock, please? I need to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.25.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 3:18 pm, 7th December 2005

Thank you, Mr. Gale. I shall try to keep my comments to an absolute minimum. I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski on introducing the debate and to say—it is not only in the interests of the new consensual atmosphere that we do not want to score political points—that the problem we are dealing with on the River Severn is an incredible natural phenomenon.

I am very familiar with that phenomenon, as I have lived around that area all my life and have even surfed on the river on occasion. The river is remarkable because it has the second highest tidal range in the world, which means that, several times each year, we experience the phenomenon of the Severn bore. The amount of water gushing up the Severn is so great that it forms a wave and takes the entire tide behind it. One minute it is low tide, the next it is like being on an elevator.

The Severn bore leads to problems further along the estuary, which is the area that I am particularly concerned about, as it is adjacent to my constituency. It has been subject to flooding since Roman times, and there has been a flood defence of some sort there since then. The flood defences have gradually been raised as development has increased.

As I said, the river has a remarkable tidal range. During the past 20 years or so, there have also been surges on top of very large tides. A tidal surge is a water level that is much higher than that which the tides suggest, and on two occasions in the past 15 years, the tidal surge has come up to the level of the flood banks. If the tidal surge ever comes on top of one of the highest predicted tides, the water level will be 1 m over the flood banks. That has been known for several years.

As I said, on two occasions—in 1983 and 1990—the water level was at the top of the banks and coming over. There is already a huge amount of development in the area—housing, factories and schools—and a lot more is planned by Newport borough council on the sites of the old Llanwern steel works. That will be a very big housing development. For 10 to 12 years, there have been calls for the Environment Agency to do something about the flood bank and flood defence scheme from Cardiff to Chepstow, in my constituency. The Environment Agency has said that it will do it, but there have been various delays, some of which I think result partly from reorganisation of the local flood defence committees, although they would deny that.

The works are scheduled to start in 2007, but it is possible that building work will continue before that. It is not being apocalyptic to suggest that because of the natural phenomenon there could be a very bad flood in the area. That is not only possible, but, statistically, almost certain to happen at some point—it could be tomorrow or not for another 50 years. However, there will certainly be a water level far higher than the current flood defences can cope with.

I urge the Minister to investigate what the Environment Agency is doing between Chepstow and Cardiff, and particularly between Chepstow and Newport, as work has started on a section between Newport and Cardiff. I also urge him to get an assurance that, if the work must wait until 2007, it will definitely start in that year. I have nothing more than that to say, because we are all committed to ensuring that we do not get a repeat of the problems of 2000.

The problems with the River Severn can also cause flooding elsewhere, on tributary rivers. The Severn is tidal as far as Bigsweir. Living in Monmouth, where there were terrible floods in 2000, I believe that that has an impact on rivers such as the Wye and the Monnow that flow into it, although the Environment Agency denies it. The agency has been responsible for helping to agree a flood defence scheme for Monmouth to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2000, but it has not been my experience that it dealt with that as quickly as one would want, although it is going ahead now. We all agree that we need to do more to solve such problems, and I hope that the Minister looks into the matter and obtains assurances.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Health 3:23 pm, 7th December 2005

I admit that when the debate came up and we started looking for a Liberal Democrat Front Bencher to speak about the River Severn, we discovered that our leader had not appointed one. Someone noticed from the map that my home is 2 miles from the Severn bridge, so I was held to have some interest in the subject. When someone said, "What we really need is a Severn bore," my name came up again.

Wearing the spokesman's hat for this debate on behalf of my party, I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on bringing this important issue to the House. Clearly, from the number of hon. Members who have attended and taken part in the debate, it is of considerable concern across the party divide. However, it would be wrong to say that nothing has been done. Things have been moving, and the hon. Gentleman properly paid tribute to the work that has been done. I agree about that.

Parenthetically, I always believe that in such matters prevention is better than cure, and, understandably, we have focused our remarks on dealing with the consequences of flooding in the Severn area. Will the Minister comment briefly on his Department's views about the causes of increased flood risk? There are those, for example, who say that the problem we are discussing has its origins in climate change. Is that the Department's view? Does the Minister think that, as well as putting up higher and higher defences and trying to find somewhere for the water to go, central Government have, critically, more of a role to play earlier on—upstream, one might say—in the process? Perhaps they should do more to limit the problems that we are talking about. However, there is clearly a problem to be dealt with now, whereas many of the issues that I am referring to are long term.

The debate has been structured very cleverly by you, Mr. Gale, as you called first Members concerned about tidal flooding further up the Severn—more broadly to the north—while the later contributions came from the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who discussed the parts of the Severn that suffer from flooding and tidal flooding, and in some cases from a combination of the two. The issues that relate to the two sorts of flooding are different, and the defences that work in one case will not necessarily work in another.

I was encouraged by the effectiveness of the temporary flood barriers, about which the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) spoke warmly. I have a copy of the Environment Agency's February 2004 evaluation of temporary flood barriers in the Severn valley. I shall quote from a local newspaper, with no prospect of any possible gain from featuring in it. In February 2004, the Shropshire Star said:

"People have always said nothing can be done. From this week the mindset has been totally changed forever."

The rules have changed, and

"the old consensus that nothing can be done was replaced by the knowledge that something can be done."

That is encouraging to hear.

How far will the Minister's Department press the Environment Agency to expand those temporary flood defences? The cost-benefit analysis in the economic appraisal of the trials is overwhelmingly positive. The ratio of benefit to cost of the temporary barriers in Shrewsbury is 10:1. It is just over 2:1 in Worcester, so Shrewsbury should obviously be the priority. I say that in deference to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Despite those powerful arguments in favour of the temporary barriers, the tenor of the document is quite cautious:

"This sort of high profile trial is bound to raise expectations of residents. Clearly this has been the result . . . The tremendous media coverage has also ensured other residents and communities, currently not enjoying target standards of flood relief, will also expect to see temporary defences evaluated as an alternative to 'do nothing'."

That is clearly the case. How far is the use of temporary barriers integral to the Government's strategy? They are more flexible, and are popular and effective. Is that the direction in which things will go?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

My hon. Friend knows, as do other hon. Members, that the source of the Severn is in my constituency, and that I have a passion for—and, perhaps, an intimate interest in—weather forecasting. [Interruption.] Yes; think about it.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Thank you.

Does my hon. Friend Steve Webb accept that the difficulty with temporary barriers—and, indeed, permanent structures—is that they often unload the problem further downstream? Therefore, we still need to look at other ways of mitigating the river flow. The big question involves not dredging, but whether there is some way to employ the farming community to assist, on an incentivised basis, by preventing the water from turning up in those urban and high-flood-risk areas.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The general tenor of the remarks made so far is a warm welcome to the idea—a warm front, one might say—of using farmland and farmers, particularly given the troubles that many of our farmers are having. The idea is that they should be effectively compensated and enabled to contribute to tackling the flood risk.

I note that the Government strategy on this issue goes under the euphemistic title, "Making space for water", which water seems to have a knack of doing for itself. I quote from a project officer in the Environment Agency, Loreta Adams, who says that engineering alone—sticking up defences—

"cannot protect people and the environment from all floods. We need to balance our investment in defences with efforts to develop innovative ways of managing floods, so that we can minimise the risk of flooding into the future."

That has been one of the messages of today's debate.

On a slightly critical note, I want to raise with the Minister the issue of urgency. The original basis for the debate, in the interests of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, was the flooding in 2000. I am worried that things have drifted a little, although there have been individual cases of action. I have here a document called the "River Severn Strategy", which was produced by the Environment Agency in 2000 and which says that it would start a tidal Severn strategic study in 2001 to address flooding between Gloucester and Avonmouth. Yet, towards the end of 2004, we heard that there would be a consultation lasting until March 2005 on the River Severn flood management strategy for the tidal section of the river—that is five years on.

Will the Minister say how far have we got in five years, particularly with regard to the tidal section of the Severn? Five years is quite a long time. Given the risks we are talking about, how soon will it be before the strategy documents and consultations result in effective action?

The role of the Environment Agency is critical. We need it to respond promptly when local authorities are assessing planning applications to build on flood plains. That point has been raised by a number of hon. Members. There appears to be some criticism that the agency is not always doing that. Worcester was mentioned as one council that has had to deal with the agency's taking too long. Other authorities have criticised the agency. It is reported that the agency has accepted that in a fifth of cases in which local authorities have made decisions without it, it is the agency that is at fault for not giving sufficiently prompt feedback.

Will the Minister reassure us that—perhaps in the context of the review of planning policy guidance note 25, which has already been raised—the Environment Agency can be enabled or encouraged to respond more promptly? When local authorities are trying to assess planning applications for flood plain areas, clearly the Environment Agency's perspective is critical. When local authorities are minded to resist applications, but do not have the teeth of the Environment Agency behind them, that can make things difficult, particularly when there is so much pressure to accept house building in particular areas. The local authorities need the Environment Agency to be there and to speak out strongly. I hope the Minister can assure us that he will ensure that the agency acts more promptly.

To draw my observations to a close, can the Minister say something about what scale of spending on flood management and flood defences will be up to the task? I am aware of the £570 million a year that the Department says it is spending on those areas, but my impression from talking to my hon. Friend Norman Baker, who shadows the Department, is that its own assessment is that it needs to spend more than that. In a sense, the budget is obviously constrained, but the Department's assessment is that it needs additional resources to manage the flood risk. Perhaps it is being thwarted by the Treasury. If the Minister agrees, we can work together and lobby the Treasury in a non-partisan spirit. Clearly, there is a question whether the Department feels sufficiently resourced to tackle the problems we are talking about.

We have heard eloquent testimony from a number of hon. Members about the inevitable problems that flooding creates for businesses and residents. If flooding is becoming more prevalent, long drawn-out consultations, strategic plans and all the rest of it are all very well, but there is an urgency to the matter, which I hope I have been able to convey to the Minister.

We welcome the steps that have already been taken and some of the innovations that have been made, but many of us who represent areas along the Severn still feel that our constituents are vulnerable and that we need action on defences and managing water in other ways, as well as, fundamentally, action on the causes of the increased flooding risk—an area in which the Government could be doing a great deal more.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:33 pm, 7th December 2005

I recognise that I do not have any direct constituency link to the River Severn, but I have shadow responsibilities. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski about my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson, who would have been here had he not been speaking in the Chamber. Not only would he have spoken from a constituency point of view, he probably would have done the job that I am doing in speaking on behalf of the Opposition.

During the debate, much has been made of the issue of the new, consensual approach to politics. I entirely support it, but it is not actually new as far as I am concerned. I think that the Minister would agree that, during the time we have been working opposite each other, our approach has been largely consensual. Indeed, I have gone so far as to say that DEFRA has in him an excellent Minister; albeit it has taken eight years to find one. In all fairness, I must say that it is equally unusual to hear the Liberals accepting responsibility for anything, so to have Lembit Öpik metaphorically hold up a sign and say, "The flood starts here," was welcome.

To be serious, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, as others have done, on what I understand is his first debate in Westminster Hall. It is on a subject of great importance not only to his constituency but to the many other constituencies affected by the flooding of the Severn. It also raises issues that are common in many other constituencies; indeed, flooding is not unknown in my area, a third of which is below sea level. We are familiar with the fen washes, which were designed 400 years ago by Vermuyden to take the surplus water and to expel it from the area. My home is only 7 ft above sea level, so I am fully familiar with the problem.

Some key points have been raised in the debate. First, many hon. Members referred to the huge cost of flooding—not only the financial cost but the emotional cost—to individuals, businesses and communities. Secondly, some have mentioned the overall trend, which shows an increasing incidence of flooding. Mr. Foster referred to different time scales and demonstrated a cyclical approach. If he took a longer time scale, he would find that that trend is towards an increasing number of incidents. The Office of Science and Technology estimated that without action to tackle climate change, the cost of flooding could rise twenty-fold during the present century. That partly answers the point raised by Steve Webb.

It is not climate change only that is at the root of the problem. As hon. Members have said, new developments speed run-off. The Environment Agency published its flood maps just over a year ago. That was a significant step forward, but the maps were probably insufficiently detailed. The Norwich Union maps referred to earlier were considerably better but even they were not accurate enough for many individual properties. I can tell Dr. Taylor that although 0.5 m is a detail on a map, it is significant when seeking to discover whether a property is at risk of flooding. I know of many property owners who have had insurance problems whose properties have never been flooded, even though a property just down the road had been. It is crucial that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should ensure that development does not take place on flood plains. Like the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to hearing what will happen to PPG25.

I shall address some of the specific issues raised during the debate. I generally support the principle of catchment management plans as developed by the Government. It is the right way forward, as it takes account of all the water in a catchment area. I strongly support the principle of what I call soft protection—soft management—in preference to the sort of hard defences mentioned today. I fear that the country has far too many concrete channels that no longer have sufficient capacity to take the high-speed run-offs from upstream, which has resulted in urban flooding.

If you will permit me to digress for 15 seconds, Mr. Gale, whenever I welcome constituents or friends to the House I show them the chart by the steps up to St. Stephen's entrance. The chart shows what has happened to the Thames over the years, and it shows that Parliament is built on what used to be the river. It shows how the sea wall has moved over the centuries to where we now enjoy it; beyond the Terrace. That shows how development is constantly expecting the channels that remove the water to take ever more. Squeezing watercourses like that is unnatural. As Mr. Drew said, it does not reflect the natural dynamism of rivers or watercourses. Those aspects need to be taken into account. Those who have lived near rivers in the countryside have seen what has happened over the years and understand the problem.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I would rather not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind; I am trying to keep to time, as we all want to hear what the Minister has to say.

Soft defences are obviously not enough; as hon. Members have said, hard defences and temporary defences are essential. Indeed, I was interested to hear about the temporary defences; I had not heard of pallet barriers before. Like many other hon. Members, I believe that reform of the common agricultural policy and the development of pillar II money will create a significant opportunity for flood management to be better integrated into our general land use policies. Although as an individual I am averse to destroying good agricultural land, which over the past 40 or 50 years we have been paying farmers to reclaim from marshes so that we can produce more and better food, it seems a bit strange quickly to reverse tack and suggest developing wetland marshes. Nevertheless, it is sensible to develop flood plains, and if we can use rural development money to do so, that seems wise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, in addition to flood prevention, the development of flood plains has significant conservation and biodiversity attributes.

I shall certainly not use this opportunity to suggest one or other solution to the problems of the Severn. The one lesson that we can draw from this debate is that there is no single solution; there are a number of solutions for different parts of the route of the Severn and for different communities. However, before I embrace the idea wholeheartedly, I want to challenge the Government and ask the Minister what work has been done on other options apart from the use of water catchment on flood plains and marshlands. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire would have made these points if he had been present.

In particular, what work has been done on collection further upstream, into the genuine uplands, where, to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Worcester, reservoirs may be appropriate to retain water, but may also be used, as they traditionally were, as a source of water? That may not necessarily be in the area of the Severn, but—if I may be parochial, Mr. Gale, and you may well agree with me, not that you can—may be in the south-east, which, because of the rush to development, faces serious water shortage problems. I suspect that it will not be many years before there will have to be a much greater water transfer between the west of the country and the east. Therefore, water catchment for consumption is also an issue.

There is also the possibility of using uplands reservoirs as a source of hydroelectric power, again given the consensus that we need to move further towards renewable energy; water would be preferable to wind power. However, here we bring together different aspects of Government; not just the Environment Agency but the ODPM and the Department for Trade and Industry because of its responsibility for energy. Hon. Members will no doubt think of other Departments that should also be involved. Therefore, although the wetlands strategy is attractive, it is not down simply to the Environment Agency to produce the solution; other organs of government must be involved.

The people of Shrewsbury and Atcham, who I am sure will appreciate their MP's debate and the fact that he has taken the initiative, and all the other people in the towns and villages along the course of the Severn will look to the Government for action. Not to be too critical, my own experience of the Environment Agency is similar to that of my hon. Friend David T.C. Davies; speed is not necessarily the first attribute that one would give it.

Most important, we need action. We have got used to lots of reviews, strategies and plans, but they do not prevent flooding, although they might produce a pretty massive physical barrier if they were all stacked up on top of one another. It is important to turn them into action. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has produced some ideas. He has taken the Environment Agency's ideas for the wetland, which has many attributes. We would all welcome not only the Minister's responses but his commitment to action.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity) 3:44 pm, 7th December 2005

I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing this debate and I thank him for his new consensual style, which I think informed the rest of the debate—and very well informed and consensual it was too. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), Dr. Taylor and others for their positive comments about the Environment Agency. It was especially good to hear from the hon. Member for Wyre Forest about the action that has been taken in Bewdley in particular.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment is abroad and therefore cannot be here to respond to the debate, but clearly, climate change is an issue in the context of this debate. I am sure that we all wish him well in the negotiations in Montreal that he is currently enjoying.

As we have heard, flooding is a traumatic experience. It is costly in material terms, in disruption to people's lives and psychologically, in terms of stress and worry. I have great sympathy with those who have suffered damage and distress as a result of flooding and those who are worried that flooding will affect their lives in future. Following the rainfall last week, my wife received an automated call from Floodline to warn us of the threat to our home from the River Wey, so I personally have a lot of sympathy for those at risk of flooding and I appreciate the efficiency of that automated service. I was also pleased to visit the River Severn in Worcestershire over the summer.

Before I turn to the particularities and make some more local points about the Severn, I want to set out the national background. Because of the importance of flooding and the worry that it causes, the Government have made flood risk management a priority area, with significantly increased real-terms funding and the most thorough public review of policy in this area for many years. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live in areas at risk of flooding and assets totalling some £250 billion are involved. We calculate flood risk as a measure of both the probability of flooding and its consequences.

I say to Steve Webb that the probability of flooding might well increase as a result of climate change and sea level rise, while the damage caused will increase along with both the risk to national wealth and further development. I will return to development on flood plains. In line with the majority, I need to focus more on the consequences of flooding rather than its causes.

There is a huge challenge for the Government, the operating authorities and those at risk. DEFRA has overall policy responsibility for flood risk in England, and we work in partnership with the Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing the risks. The agency's flood risk management activities are largely funded by DEFRA and it operates within the framework of guidance issued by us. We agree its corporate plan, which sets the outputs that we expect it to deliver on our behalf.

As I say, the Government have provided large increases in funding for flood risk management over recent years; the total expenditure on management of flood and coastal erosion risk will be some £570 million this year and for each of the next two years, compared with £310 million about eight years ago—coincidentally. We will use the money to maintain the Environment Agency's excellent capacity, and its excellent staff, in dealing with the challenge. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester for his kind comments about the staff.

Hon. Members will understand that this is about risk management, because we have to recognise that we cannot prevent flooding completely and there is not an infinite amount of money that can be spent on the problem, however much any of us in this Chamber would want to spend. Any of us in Government would probably in the end agree with that. I would also advise the hon. Member for Northavon that as part of the next comprehensive spending review we will again look thoroughly at how we apply the resource to this particular problem.

The measures that we take include the building of flood defences to reduce the probability of flooding and go beyond that, to embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding when it does occur. They include public awareness campaigns, flood warning and emergency planning, together with seeking to avoid increasing risk through inappropriate new development on the flood plain.

From a flood risk management perspective, in addition to significantly increased funding since 1997, we are also addressing the challenge through "Making space for water: Developing a new Government strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England", to which the hon. Member for Northavon referred. That is a thorough re-examination of policy to set our direction for the next 20 years or so. We are undertaking a wide consultation with all interested bodies.

In March, my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment published the Government's first response to views expressed in our consultation on a new strategy, and that gave greater prominence to the role that flood resilience and resistance can play in managing flood risk effectively. As a result, we are also exploring whether it will be practical to provide some form of financial assistance to households in areas where community defences cannot be justified to make their homes more flood resilient and flood resistant. I hope that Members who raised that matter will be pleased to hear that we are considering that—including, perhaps, for the Boat inn in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Wright.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of development in areas at risk from flooding. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently initiated a public consultation on proposals for strengthening and updating guidance to planning authorities on avoiding inappropriate development in areas at flood risk. The new planning policy statement 25 includes a measure giving the Environment Agency a statutory role in relation to development and flood risk, with the possibility of calling in major development proposals that planning authorities intend to approve against sustained Environment Agency objection, which would then be considered by the Deputy Prime Minister.

Although our investment is making real improvements possible across the country, there will always be the need to prioritise the proposals that should receive funding first from among all those that meet the basic criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester discussed that at some length in his comments on the flood cells in his constituency. I have sympathy with the points that he makes and the households concerned, but proposals for schemes around the country and in our river catchments are generated bottom-up from the operating authorities working with communities to find solutions to flooding problems. They are then prioritised in the programme through an objective prioritisation system, to ensure that the country gets maximum benefit from our investment. At present, our prioritisation system only covers funding for capital improvement projects, as distinct from maintenance, but we are working on new output and performance measures, which will increasingly be used to guide investment decisions to maximise benefits. They will give greater flexibility to the Environment Agency in particular to allocate its own funding, including making choices between capital and maintenance work so as best to maximise the outputs that we seek.

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment announced yesterday that we have a fully approved programme of grant-aided projects for 2006–07. Schemes that have already started, or have already been approved, will be fully funded. Some authorities will be disappointed that, unlike in previous years, there will be little scope for approval of further projects for grant in-year, but the high level of commitment for approved and ongoing projects significantly adds to the certainty that the full works programme will be implemented as planned.

Having outlined the national context, I now turn to the specifics of the River Severn. The Severn is one of our major rivers, and it presents a considerable challenge in terms of flood risk. Reflecting that, the Environment Agency has invested some £100 million over the past five years in the Severn catchment, with significantly improved defences in Cheltenham and Bewdley, and some significant improvement in Shrewsbury. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, the Environment Agency has completed a £3.5 million flood risk management improvement project for the Frankwell area of Shrewsbury, from which 74 households will benefit. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that.

In some locations on the Severn, the Environment Agency has been unable to justify investment in permanent defences. Instead, it has trialled the use of temporary defences—at Ironbridge and at Worcester, for example, and in Shrewsbury at Abbey Foregate and Coleham Head. Those defences are stored locally and put in place temporarily at times of high flood risk. We have heard how effective they are, but it should be said that they particularly suit the nature of the Severn. I stress to the hon. Member for Northavon in particular that the Severn is slow to rise at times of flood, which makes the river particularly suitable for deploying defences of this type. As we look at rolling out this technique, which has been so successful in this situation, we must bear in mind the rapidity with which a river would rise, because there is not much point in having a temporary structure if there is not sufficient time to put it in place.

For the longer term, the Environment Agency has produced a draft fluvial Severn strategy. That has been sent for comment to a broad range of consultees, including Members of Parliament for the affected areas, with the aim of its being finalised in 2006. It considers a number of options for all flood-prone areas along the River Severn and, together with the Environment Agency's River Severn catchment flood management plan, will provide the agency with a framework for managing flood risk in the longer term.

The scope in the immediate future for further major flood risk improvement works in Shrewsbury is subject to investment being worth while within cost-benefit terms and the relative priorities that I talked about. However, the Environment Agency will continue to look for opportunities to reduce risk that are feasible and economic. For example, subject to planning consent, it plans to undertake improvements to defences in the town, including some permanent walls and temporary defences at Abbey Foregate and Coleham Head. The agency will also support any appropriate local defences that individual property owners may wish to build.

Now I turn to what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said in respect of wet washlands. That is a scheme in which I, as Minister for biodiversity, am especially interested because of its potential environmental gains. The agency is considering the viability of that large flood storage project, which could offer improved protection for some 1,000 properties along the Severn from Shrewsbury downstream to Worcester, as well as providing additional habitat. It is an example of just the sort of multi-functional project that we wish to encourage. However, planning is at an early stage; some quite complicated negotiation would be required.

The agency will need carefully to consider the full potential impacts, environmental and otherwise, of such a project—including the effects on fisheries and navigation. When I visited the Severn, there were barges with aggregate in them on the river. A full assessment of the costs and benefits, including potential payments to landowners and land managers, will need to be made. The agency will also want to consider joint funding with other partners, particularly those who have a more direct interest in the biodiversity gains that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked so passionately about. I cannot make any definite commitment, but the agency is certainly looking at it seriously.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way forward, which we could look at carefully, is to extend the water framework directive more rapidly to other estuaries? At the moment, we are only looking at Ribble valley. Would we not be advised to look at the Severn too?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment is aware of my hon. Friend's comments on the water framework directive, and how it might be used there.

I want to comment on the wider issue of absorbability in regard to wet washlands—that is, the use of habitat and upland management to improve things. A number of hon. Members talked about wet washlands, and I am also enthusiastic; I raised the subject today when I was being briefed by officials. We are keen to see those sort of "win/wins" take place. However, I should caution that while they can have good local effects, they will have no great impact in terms of the catastrophic 1 in 100 or 1 in 50 flooding events. They are useful, and we should certainly attend to them, but I would not want it believed that they are the answer to everything.

The hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham and for Wyre Forest talked in particular about insurance—an important issue for us all. My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment recently announced to the House that our action to reduce flood risk has allowed the Association of British Insurers to renew its statement of principles so that cover continues to be widely available in flood risk areas. That new statement comes into effect next month and creates a rolling commitment to provide flood cover where flood defences are either in place or being planned. It is directly linked to the commitment that this Government have made to improve flood risk management. It will help considerably with those individual property owners that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest talked about, but they should be talking to their insurers about the risks and cover.

Where householders live in an area at significant risk of flooding but there are no plans for improved defences within the next five years, they need to have those discussions so that insurers will make their best efforts to provide flood cover, and work with customers to take measures that allow insurance to continue. Those might include reducing the risk to individual properties, or making them more resilient to flood damage by local action.

It remains our highest priority to reduce the risk to life from flooding. Flood warning arrangements continue to be strengthened throughout the Severn catchment, with the Environment Agency investing some £1 million in total over the last three years. I will write to David T.C. Davies, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud about their particular issues, but the tidal Severn flood management strategy will be published early next year.

I thank all hon. Members for the debate, which has been very useful and has given the Government an opportunity to explain the reasons for our national policy and to explain the action relevant to the River Severn. I hope that all hon. Members will understand that although work has been done and more is being considered, we need to justify all expenditure of taxpayers' money, including any possible investment in new defences.