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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Agriculture Committee considered the matter in considerable detail three years ago? Long before the current round of floods, it recommended to the Government many of the measures that she is pertinently highlighting. Although the Government have had a long time to deal with the matter, they do not seem to have addressed the issues that were raised, so she is rightly raising them again now.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I said at the outset how regrettable the delay has been. Even more regrettable is the suggestion, made not necessarily in Government quarters but in some of the media, that intensive farming practices have compounded the flooding. I want to go on record as saying that that is simply not the case. Farming practices in the past five years have not changed to the extent of having such a dramatic effect.

The Government must act now after such a long delay to prevent future occurrences on the scale that we have witnessed recently.

12 midnight

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. She has a deserved reputation for being assiduous in pursuing constituency interests. I know that she has worked hard locally to help people who have suffered because of the floods. She has demonstrated her considerable knowledge, which she may have acquired rapidly as a result of the crisis caused by flooding.

The debate is timely given the continuing concern with flooding, in the hon. Lady's constituency and nationally. The issues that she has raised reflect the concerns that were expressed in the second report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which was published just before Christmas, and to which the hon. Lady contributed.

As the hon. Lady said, much anxiety has been expressed recently that flooding has been exacerbated by development on flood plains, as well as by the increased run-off from other development. Not only does that place additional house owners at risk because their homes are located in the flood plain: it increases the risk to the large number of properties that were already there. Consequently, as the hon. Lady said, there have been calls for a ban on development on flood plains. Indeed, she sought a moratorium on building new homes on flood plains such as the Vale of York until an estimate could be made of the damage incurred during the recent floods.

I digress slightly, but we should remember that there is a significant historical legacy of development on flood plains. Many developments, including the City of York,

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originated in Roman times. Rivers were a means of transport as well as sources of water and power. They needed to be crossed by land transport. It is therefore not surprising that settlements grew up on flood plains, especially at river crossings where there was flat ground that was easy to build on. Such settlements have expanded over the centuries, and about 10 per cent. of the English population now live in areas that are at risk from flooding. The social and economic case for locating close to rivers and river crossings is still strong. We should bear that in mind. Other issues should be balanced with some of the valid points that the hon. Lady made.

Planning guidance is the main subject of the debate. The Government recognise that the risk of flooding is an important consideration when deciding where to build houses and undertake other development. The land use planning system takes full account of that through policies in development plans and in decisions on applications for planning permission. Current planning guidance, which the previous Government introduced in circular 30/92, advises local authorities to use their planning powers to discourage inappropriate development in flood risk areas and to restrict development that would increase the risk of flooding. However, new planning policy guidance note 25, which we are preparing, will considerably toughen the approach to development in flood risk areas.

Following the Easter floods of 1998 and the sixth report of the Select Committee on Agriculture, the Government decided to review the existing guidance to ascertain whether it needed strengthening. Little did we know that even worse floods were on the way. ln April 2000, we issued a new draft PPG25, to which the hon. Lady referred, as a consultation document. The responses were being analysed and taken on board in revising the draft when the rains commenced last autumn.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister described the rain and flooding as a "wake-up call". It further emphasised the need to strengthen planning guidance on development and flood risk to avoid increasing the risks to people and property owing to flooding. We needed to learn the lessons of the worst floods since 1947. I agree with the hon. Lady that all of us, including central and local government, now need to give the matter higher priority relative to other considerations. That view was shared by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in its brief inquiry into the subject. As I said, its second report was published in December, and we shall be responding to it.

Let me get down to the substance of the debate: planning policy guidance and surrounding issues. It is no secret that, as a result of events since we started to review the guidance, we are toughening it up even further. We hope to consult on the revised text later this month, with a view to publication in the spring. The new guidance will be much more robust in discouraging inappropriate development on flood plains. It will specifically state that built development is generally inappropriate in undeveloped and undefended flood plains which still function to transfer and store excess water during times of flood. Only development that specifically requires a waterside location or is essential infrastructure should take place on such functional flood plains. I hope that that is a response to one of the hon. Lady's points which she mentioned several times.

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We recognise, however, that in some areas, including some parts of the Vale of York--and, indeed, in parts of eastern England in particular--there is no alternative location for development. We cannot bring further social and economic development across large areas to a complete halt. In such cases, the first essential will be to ensure that new development is as safe as it could and should be.

It must be recognised that it is not possible to defend absolutely against flooding. Flood defences can only reduce the risk; they cannot eliminate it. However, developers will be required to fund both the construction and future maintenance of flood defences that may be necessary to protect such development. We will also be setting target standards, which must be met for defences to protect new houses.

Alongside the search sequences that have become a hallmark of other PPGs, we will be introducing an explicit sequential test for those seeking to identify sites for housing and other development. That will be based on quantified categories of risk, specified by the Environment Agency, for both river and coastal flooding and types of development. Local authorities will be required to review their development plans in relation to that sequential test as part of the reviews of land suitable for housing that we have already required them to undertake under PPG3. The two requirements will be brought together.

It will be important that those proposing sites for development--whether it be the local authority in preparing local plans or developers when preparing planning applications--should carry out an appropriate flood-risk assessment. In doing so, they should consult the Environment Agency and other operating authorities. They must carry out such investigations as are necessary to determine the precise risks to the proposed development and its likely effects on flood risk. They must then demonstrate the efficacy of any mitigation measures that are to be incorporated as a result of that risk assessment in the development.

I should now like to address how we should look at levels of risk. If the hon. Lady accepts that we cannot eliminate risk completely, she should agree that how we consider and define levels of risk is crucial to the approach. There is a continuum from no risk to high risk, so the first choice for development in the sequential approach should be areas of no risk, followed by areas of low risk. The latter are defined--I took sometime to get my head round this; I hope the hon. Lady does not ask me to repeat it in this debate--by an annual probability of flooding of between 1 per cent. and 0.1 per cent. There is a precise definition of how those percentages are arrived at. It basically relates to the probability of somebody suffering flooding once a year; a calculation produces that 1 per cent.

In areas of high risk--those with an annual probability of flooding of 1 per cent. or above--the suitability of development will depend on whether the land is already developed and defended against an appropriate level of flooding and whether such development will add to flood risk downstream. Those will be the two tests.

Areas that are already extensively developed may be suitable for further residential, commercial and industrial uses subject to essential conditions. There must be

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adequate flood defences, buildings must be designed to resist flooding should defences be overtopped and there must be suitable warning and evacuation procedures.

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