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5.52 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) on raising this issue. I should like to put on record my sympathy for his constituents, especially those who have experienced repeat flooding. I have read a detailed report about the situation, and understand residents' concerns, especially those of people who have been flooded more than once.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, mine is the last contribution of the year, and I add my season's best wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the staff who are here for the bitter end of the debate. Residents' concerns are a priority, and I have no objection to being here this evening to discuss flooding and to listen to the hon. Gentleman's speech. I shall try to respond to the points made, and see what I can do to assist.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the weather in October was wholly exceptional. The records of flooding in Robertsbridge show that the highest-ever flood levels were reached. Residents have a point about flood plain development. Again, looking back on the area's history, it is fair to say that there has been some questionable development. I understand that some of the houses affected were flooded during their construction. That calls

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into question the original planning permission and whether building them in that place was appropriate. Of course, that is no consolation to the people who live there, but we have to consider the problem as we find it.

I understand that a disused railway embankment was removed at about the same time as the bypass was built. The Environment Agency, or its predecessor organisation, the National Rivers Authority, was not consulted about that at the time. Generally speaking, I understand that the culverts under the bypass are large enough to cope with normal flood flows. However, the culverts could not cope with the flows that occurred in October. The agency will have to re-examine the issue and it will have to discuss it with the Highways Agency.

The hon. Gentleman outlined a comprehensive range of perfectly reasonable points. I understand that a Rother strategy study has been established to consider all the issues that he raised. They have to be considered overall in terms of the most appropriate scheme.

The original scheme considered was not progressed, not because of lack of funding but because it did not meet the priority score. Technical and environmental assessments have to be made and a cost-benefit analysis carried out. If a scheme costs a great deal more than what it is defending against, it will come down the priority score.

It might reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, to learn that, as a result of the October flooding, the Government have raised the scoring for urban river defence schemes. They receive a higher score, and the fact that we have made more money available also means that the threshold score has been lowered from 23 to 20 points. I do not know whether that will help the scheme in the hon. Gentleman's area, but it will not be unhelpful. I shall be very interested to learn the details of the scheme when it is introduced by the Environment Agency.

The original scheme that was proposed was designed to a one-in-50 years standard. Even if it had been built, it would have been overwhelmed by the October floods. The water levels were so high that even that scheme would not have worked. That is another reason why there has to be a re-evaluation in Robertsbridge; we must find the right way forward.

The hon. Gentleman also made several points about local authorities. I am aware of them, and I have written to every chief executive of local councils in flood-hit areas. I also attended a constructive meeting of the local-central partnership in which central Government meet the Local Government Association. Many of the points about local authorities, the workings of the Bellwin scheme, flood defence programmes, investment strategies and fundraising were all mentioned and discussions are on-going. We take those points seriously and we shall respond to them.

Local authorities are responsible for the supply of sandbags, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman's council about the matter. If the Environment Agency has spare capacity, it is always willing to help out locally, but I must emphasise that it is responsible for the defences, not individual householders, who are the responsibility of the local authority.

One can dispute the figure of £51 million; nevertheless, it is £51 million on top of an increasing budget of £30 million over the next three years. The £51 million is capital grant aid, so it levers out about £70 million, which is a considerable sum. I have heard it said that £55 million

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is needed for flood defences in the hon. Gentleman's area, but I have never seen a breakdown of that figure, so I cannot say whether it is accurate. However, I can say that the Government do not dispute the need for more investment in flood and coastal defences. We are investing more, and we will continue to review the situation, in consultation with local people.

I am very willing to meet the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to bring some of his constituents to represent the residents, I should be only too pleased to meet them too. I certainly have no objection to visiting the area. The only difficulty is that recent events mean that I have spent an

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awful lot of time in different places around the country, and there are many demands on my diary. However, I shall certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion in mind. I can assure him that if he would like to bring a delegation, I should be only too pleased to receive it, and we can talk about the issues in greater detail.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Perhaps it is appropriate that the occupant of the Chair should have the very last word, so I, in turn, wish all hon. Members a happy Christmas and extend that wish to all the members of the House of Commons who serve us so well throughout the year.

Question put and agreed to.

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