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TransBus plc

6.7 pm

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I wish to present a petition on behalf of Jean May Taylor and Graham Collins, my constituents, and of more than 3,500 local people from Scarborough who wish to see the devastating announcement by TransBus plc concerning the closure of the Plaxton bus and coach factory at Eastfield in my constituency reconsidered by the company, and to have the support of this House to achieve that aim.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

10 May 2001 : Column 353

Flood Defence

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

6.9 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): We unexpectedly have longer to debate the important subject of flood defence than we anticipated. I hope that we will not take up the entire time until 7.30 pm, but the issue is critical for residents of south Derbyshire, and I am glad to be able to raise it in this Parliament.

In early November last year, many households in my constituency suffered the terrible experience of flooding. In the worst hit village of Hatton, 142 properties were flooded, and many people experienced the misery of sewage flowing back into their homes. Other villages along the Trent and Dove, including Willington, Barrow on Trent, Scropton, Hilton and Shardlow experienced severe disruption and the flooding of some properties. Local land drainage failures caused flooding in other villages such as Stanton.

In most cases, defences that were the responsibility of the Environment Agency were overtopped, but other drainage problems often contributed to the damage. Emergency services responded well, but were stretched to the limit. Since the floods, repairs and restoration have been the main preoccupation of many lives. Some people fully reoccupied their homes only very recently.

The various public agencies that are responsible in the area--the Environment Agency, parish, district and county councils and the sewerage operator, Severn Trent--tried first to understand what happened and secondly to explain events. They are now starting to produce solutions that may prevent repetition in some areas. Some remedies have been agreed--for example, the repair and slight raising of the defences on the Foston brook. In other cases, however, there is far more to do.

Considerable scrutiny of events has occurred nationally. That is hardly surprising in view of the scale of the disaster. The Environment Agency produced its report, entitled "Lessons Learned", and the National Audit Office has published a report on inland flood defence. The Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Select Committee on Agriculture have also produced relevant reports. I want to draw out some key points that were made in several reports and reflect the south Derbyshire experience.

First, I shall quote from "Lessons Learned", which states:

It is not clear in my area why some water courses are the responsibility of the Environment Agency and others are not, when their interdependence as drainage mechanisms is clear.

When the Agriculture Committee took evidence from the Environment Agency, reference was made to the accident of the agency being responsible for some water courses while others were left in the hands of riparian owners. One Environment Agency representative said that that often related to the membership of flood defence committees and the influence that certain landowners had

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exerted in the past, the results of which had been passed on to the agency. There is no logic to the assignation of responsibility for water courses.

Secondly, when water courses are the specific responsibility of riparian owners, their performance is supposed to be monitored and enforced by local authorities. Many local authorities choose not to carry out that function or believe that they cannot. In reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 2 May, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food listed seven councils that were not prepared to inspect flood defences, 12 that had failed to respond to Environment Agency inquiries and 115 that were unable to carry out inspections or did not believe that they had the resources to do the job. That renders a holistic grasp of flood defence in many areas impossible.

Scrutiny of the list of councils that the Minister provided to me reveals that many of them cover areas that were severely afflicted by the floods last October and November. Although, fortunately, none of the councils in my area were included on the list, I think that many hon. Members would be surprised to discover the attitude displayed by their local authorities to such a critical issue. It is also true that, relying on the activity of individual local authorities causes grave inconsistencies both in the standard of inspection that is achieved, when there are inspections, and in the precise measures that are used to identify shortcomings.

There are solutions to that problem. In its "Lessons Learned" report, the Environment Agency sets out quite clearly a view that I strongly endorse: the Environment Agency should have either the power to inspect or the power to compel others to inspect. Clearly that would require either additional resources for the Environment Agency to perform the role itself or additional powers for it to force unwilling local authorities to act. That however brings us to the third issue, which concerns the resources applied to doing the job.

It is clear that the resources available both to the Environment Agency and to local authorities are inadequate. One can certainly draw that lesson from the responses of local authorities, especially as many of the 115 local authorities that I mentioned said that they would have liked to fulfil that responsibility but felt that they did not have sufficient resources to do so.

Research done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food itself has shown that additional funding is required for flood defence, which is a point that is reiterated in the "Lessons Learned" report. The National Audit Office report, which focused on the state of our flood defences, said that asset surveys completed up to last autumn showed that, as regards standards of preparedness to meet their objective, 40 per cent. of flood defence assets fall into the categories of fair, poor or very poor.

Fourthly, some expenditure is urgently required. We should review the decision-making process and the criteria used in deciding on flood defence construction. In my area, parts of the village of Hatton have defences intended to protect for only one in 10 years. The defences of the rest of the village, with one small exception, were intended to protect for one in 100 years. As the Environment Agency points out in its "Lessons Learned" report, we should support consistent standards across individual communities.

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It would be difficult for me to defend to the citizens of Hatton the proposition that we expect lower maintenance levels and less flood protection in one area of Hatton than in another area that is just the other side of a railway track that forms the major defence for the rest of the village. That is not a defensible position, and I am glad that the Environment Agency is highlighting it as one of the issues that must be addressed in deciding on future defences.

We should review the criteria on which investment decisions are based. Sadly, not everyone in south Derbyshire was properly insured against flooding, so that some householders themselves have had to bear the cost of the damage. Nevertheless, currently, the costs that householders or, in most cases, their insurers have to bear are not those that are allowed for in the cost benefit analysis that is performed in justifying individual flood defence projects. Value added tax, which is ignored, is one obvious exception. However, most insurers have a replace-as-new policy, which is usually what householders prefer to trying to find a second-hand item that precisely matches the items lost in the flood. Those essentially modern-day views of the actual cost of flooding are not taken into account in the cost benefit analyses that are used to justify defences.

In the particular case of Hatton, this is likely to mean that upgrading the defences in the area beyond the railway line will be hard to justify against the criteria. The Environment Agency has carried out an initial analysis and there is more work to be done, so it is important not to prejudge that, but it has already indicated to me the difficulties of defending this particular group of houses and meeting the criteria that have been set down.

Fifthly, the Government have published welcome draft revisions of PPG25 to tighten control on flood plain development. They have also decided to consult on my proposal--inserted in the report by the Select Committee on Agriculture--that the Environment Agency has the right to call in for public inquiry applications with which it disagrees.

Currently, a local authority can choose to ignore the advice of the Environment Agency when it has reservations about construction on a flood plain. In my view, that power has led to foolish and inappropriate developments in the past, which in some cases have placed the residents of those developments at risk and in others have inconvenienced other people by occupying part of a flood plain that was there for a purpose--to hold water when we faced flood conditions. Clearly developments of that kind place at risk property, and in extreme cases, lives. The Environment Agency should have the power to insist on a public inquiry to examine an application on which it dissents.

Sixthly, we must integrate the sewage operators in our flood defence framework. I shall again quote some local examples. It is clear that planning decisions often make optimistic assumptions about local domestic surface water drainage or systems that have decayed through local adaptation over time. What tends to happen is that when a new housing estate is constructed, the developer agrees that domestic surface water drainage will not go into the main sewage system, but instead go into soak-aways. Over time, people make adaptations to their properties and end up with the surface water drainage going into the foul

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water system and overloading it. Sometimes the tests that are carried out to work out whether a soak-away will actually work in an area where the water table is very high--as it is in the village of Hatton--or in a low-lying area, make assumptions that are unsound.

The first priority must be to make sure that that is clearly understood, because the linkage with the foul water system and then with the effectiveness of other surface water systems is critical. In some cases foul water systems critically depend, at overflow, on the effectiveness of surface water systems; and if the foul water system is supposed to overflow into a surface water system at times of crisis and is already over the top, then predictably, the foul water system will swiftly back up into the houses. That is what happened in Hatton, and villagers have rightly asked a lot of questions about the design of the sewage system and its ability to deal with reasonably predictable demand; and about the failure of Severn Trent Water to spot warning signals in respect of the performance of the sewage system in the past when residents regularly complained about the systems backing up or flooding into garden areas.

Regrettably, at times of very high rainfall and flooding across the fields from Foston brook breach, that led to immense crisis in the village, with many people facing the most unpleasant experiences. Flooding is bad enough, but finding foul water coming back into one's house is a deeply depressing and distressing experience.

As I have said, if the evidence of Hatton is typical, the links between the various elements of the system are not always properly understood. In Hatton, it was only after the event that Severn Trent, the Environment Agency and the local authority looked at the relationship between the various parts of the system and realised that some of the interdependence did not function properly. Clearly the sewage operators must be part of any framework of future planning.

We must also be innovative. It is a truism that defences built in one place simply direct water elsewhere. Water does not disappear when flood defences are constructed: it is displaced and flows to another location. Defences built in one place are often to the disadvantage of people somewhere else, and more strategic planning is required. I welcome the catchment planning that is being carried out in five pilot projects, as described in a parliamentary answer that I received last week. I am sad that those five areas will not benefit my constituency, but the principle of viewing flooding strategically is sound. I hope that the pilot studies prove successful and, if so, are rapidly emulated elsewhere.

We should, however, examine carefully the role of soft defences against flooding and how we can work with riparian farmers to ensure compatible land use, allowing flood dispersal and water storage in periods of heavy rain. It is clear that intensive agriculture, including density of livestock and crop choices, has substantial implications for the ability of a field system near a water course to absorb significant amounts of water when flooding takes place. Farmers in that position should be given a substantial incentive to cultivate their land, and practise animal husbandry, in ways that will allow flood dispersal on land that is less vulnerable than populated areas. That is an important function for which farmers could receive financial recognition. At a time when we are considering how to reconfigure agriculture and learn some of the lessons of the past few years, farmers could be invited to

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play a critical role in such circumstances. That role could be readily defended to the rest of the community as an appropriate subsidy and support for the agriculture sector.

Most experts predict that extreme weather conditions will become more common, so low-lying areas such as much of south Derbyshire require a far higher priority to be given to both strategy and the local delivery of flood defence and management.

I hope that the Government re-elected in four weeks' time will have the chance to give further thought to what I have said this evening and to the various reports produced in the past few weeks, in order to develop appropriate responses that will give comfort to the citizens of south Derbyshire who suffered so grievously. They are merely representative of many other people around the country who also look for much higher priority and greater strategic thought to be given to this critical subject which, for too long, has bumbled along in the background of Government thinking. It has been subject to the normal compromises of British thought, which involve the division of responsibilities among a variety of agencies, and men and women of goodwill co-operating together on common goals. Sadly, in the modern world, that, increasingly, is not a workable framework for dealing with a critical subject of strategic importance, which is what flood defence and flood management have become.

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