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10.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on securing this Adjournment debate. He has made some important points on behalf of his constituents, and raised some important matters. I wish to put on record my sympathy for all his constituents who have suffered in the recent flooding. In addition, Mr.

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Deputy Speaker, I understand that your constituency of Saffron Walden was affected, as were areas in the constituencies of the hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who are also present for the debate.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, there was exceptional rainfall in the catchment area on Sunday 21 October. Up to 109 mm—well over 4 inches—of rain were recorded in the one day. That resulted in the recorded river levels in the area being the highest ever, and caused the known flood plain to be extended by a considerable amount, with the result that the flood risk maps and flood plain maps will have to be redrawn. To put it simply, as my hon. Friend rightly did, a month's rain fell in 24 hours.

That was a rare and dramatic event, and one that we would expect to happen only once every 120 to 300 years. The Environment Agency reported that 72 premises were flooded in Braintree and Bocking, and that most were outside the known flood plain. The River Blackwater at Bradwell and Coggeshall reached levels that would be expected only once every 200 or 250 years.

After such an event, the Environment Agency will undertake a study of what happened and decide whether there are options that can be applied in a sustainable way. I was interested in my hon. Friend's remarks about flood parks and the use of flood plains. In some cases, there may be no easy, technical, engineered solutions to flood defence. I am very interested in some of the work being carried out. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is funding studies of whole catchment areas to examine whether we can use flood plains or reinstate them to take some of the pressure off the peaks of water going down rivers and how we can apply them to flood defence.

My hon. Friend is right about non-main watercourses. They are generally the responsibility of riparian owners. Local authorities have permissive powers to do work on non-main river courses but there is the issue of funding. I recognise that there is a problem with regard to the responsibility for non-main river courses. I give an undertaking to look at who has responsibility for main and non-main river courses. We are proposing to publish a report in the very near future that reviews the funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defence and looks at some of the institutional arrangements. It will not be unreasonable to look at my hon. Friend's points in that review.

After the exceptional floods last winter, the Government immediately made an extra £51 million available over the next three years. In the current financial year, we have made £16.5 million immediately available to pay for the repair and reinstatement of flood defences that were damaged as a result of those floods. I accept that there is an issue of funding. We have commissioned independent studies to give the Government an idea of what kind of financial commitment will be required over the coming years, taking into account the implications of global warming and climate change. We will consider the results very carefully; they will influence the bids that we make in the 2002 spending review.

I accept my hon. Friend's point about PPG 25. It has given local authority planners clear guidance about tighter planning control in relation to flood plains. My hon.

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Friend is right that although it does not say that there should in no circumstances be development in flood plains—in some cases developers may have to contribute to defences—it also makes it clear that in other cases applications should be turned down because they are not sustainable in respect of the risks that go with them. That has been made clear to the planners.

My hon. Friend referred to sewers and drains. It is worth remembering that in last year's floods, about 40 per cent. of the flooding was caused not by river courses but by sewers and drains backing up and overflowing. There is a need for the sewerage and drainage companies, local authorities and highways authorities to look at the maintenance of drains and consider whether their design is satisfactory. We are talking with them to ensure that we take an holistic approach to flood and coastal defence.

I was very interested in my hon. Friend's point about people driving through floods. I have visited many flood-hit areas, and the point has been made that sometimes, even where the flood water is not that deep and people think that they can get their vehicle through it, they do not understand why roads have been closed off. They forget that driving a vehicle through a flood creates a bow wave which can cause a great deal of damage to people who live alongside the area.

I accept my hon. Friend's point about insurance. We meet regularly with the Association of British Insurers, and are talking to the association about the provision of insurance cover. The Government's job is to reduce risk, and we are doing that, but we also expect the insurance companies to ensure that people have insurance cover. That is an important issue for my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), as areas of his constituency were severely hit by last winter's floods. We take the issue seriously and are addressing it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree also raised a point about warnings, and I acknowledge that because some people were outside the previous indicative flood plain, a number of premises did not receive a proper warning. That was because warnings are provided only to properties that lie within the known flood plain, and the floods exceeded that level so properties were flooded that were at much less risk of flooding. I know that that is of little comfort to the people who were affected, and obviously we must review the situation in relation to flood warnings for those people.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments about sirens and other flood warning methods. I am sure that the Environment Agency will consider those perfectly legitimate points; I will certainly discuss them with the agency.

It has been pointed out that the flooding affected areas beyond Braintree. I recognise that the severe rain caused flooding elsewhere in Essex and Cambridgeshire, particularly in and around Cambridge and Saffron Walden. The Government's sympathies are with everyone affected by the flooding and I am aware that in your own constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, areas such as Halstead, the Hedinghams, Great Yeldham, Sturmer and Steeple Bumpstead were affected by the floods. I know that although your duties make it difficult for you to raise these issues in the House, you will certainly raise them with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We take them very seriously and we shall certainly look into all these issues.

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I very much regret it when anyone has been affected by floods. No Government can guarantee that floods will not happen. We constantly seek to reduce the risk of flooding and we shall continue to do so. Where there have been these extreme events we shall ask the agency to review the situation and consider ways, if at all possible,

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to reduce the risk of flooding which hon. Members' constituents have experienced. We shall continue to give our commitment to that task, financially and politically.

Question put and agreed to.

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