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Flooding (Cambridgeshire)

3. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): If she will meet the chairman of the Environment Agency to discuss recent flooding in Cambridgeshire; and if she will make a statement. [13065]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I express the Government's sympathy for all those affected by the recent flooding in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere. I have received a report from the Environment Agency on the flooding, which followed exceptional rainfall in that area. The agency is undertaking follow-up investigations into the sources of the flooding. If those reveal additional flood defence needs, I will consider them with the agency's chairman, with whom I have regular meetings.

Mr. Lansley: I thank the Minister for his reply and his remarks on those affected by the flooding. He knows that more than a dozen villages in my constituency alone were flooded, resulting in serious damage to properties. Although the rainfall was exceptional, the floods highlight serious problems with where properties have been built and the inadequacy of flood defences.

When the Minister discusses those matters with the chairman of the Environment Agency, will he also consider the criteria that his Department applies to projects undertaken by the agency? They lead people in rural areas to feel that, because they live in less densely populated areas where there is less risk to the value of properties affected by any flood, they are sometimes abandoned in circumstances in which those in urban areas would be protected.

Mr. Morley: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. We have introduced a point-scoring system for flood defences to identify priorities. The system is transparent and people can see how the decisions have been made, but complex issues are involved. For example, the flooding at about three quarters of the affected properties in his constituency was caused by problems with drains, small ditches and non-main rivers, which are not the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we recently commissioned a report by the Institution of Civil Engineers to address the whole issue of drainage and non-main rivers, and we shall consider it carefully in drawing up policy.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend will be aware that the problems in Cambridgeshire are widely felt. Will he engineer a meeting between the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association so that

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individual local authorities may be made more aware of the new planning policy guidance on building in flood plains, enabling them to avoid doing so?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I regularly meet the LGA and the central local partnership, and we discuss those issues. As he will be aware, the Government recently improved PPG25, which gives new guidance to planners on flood-plain development and the need to ensure that proper mitigation measures are taken to protect new and existing communities and, in some cases, to turn down applications.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The Minister will acknowledge that the people of Cambridgeshire were clearly dismayed to be victims of flooding yet again. Interestingly, October was the warmest on record and, in Cambridgeshire, the wettest. That is surely practical evidence of the effects of climate change. I understand that there were practical problems, such as the supply of sandbags running out at a critical time, but that raises an issue of resources and co-ordination.

On the "Today" programme, the Minister acknowledged the Institution of Civil Engineers report, which says that more resources are needed to deal with flood defences and prevention. It also recommends a national agency to co-ordinate flood prevention measures. What will the Government do to implement those recommendations and to ensure that we have proper measures to protect against flooding? How will they make planning guidelines consistent with not developing in areas where development would aggravate flooding problems?

Mr. Morley: The ICE report was very helpful, which is why I commissioned it and other independent reports to help to reduce the risk of flooding anywhere in the country. The provision of sandbags and the roles of the local authorities and the Environment Agency are certainly issues, and they are being considered because we need strategies and advance planning so that any flooding is met by a smooth and seamless response. The Government cannot guarantee that floods will not happen, but we can reduce risk. That involves additional spending, which is why we have substantially increased spending over the past two years.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister says that much of the recent problem was caused by the small rivers and was therefore not the responsibility of the Environment Agency. He is right, because it was due to inadequate maintenance of existing flood prevention and drainage systems, but, as he began to imply, the problem is buck passing, which affects many villages in my part of Cambridgeshire.

I have already found that the Environment Agency, the local district councils, the internal drainage boards and the water authorities are all saying, "It's not me, guv. It's somebody else's responsibility." Will the Minister use his authority to bring those organisations together? For the ordinary person whose house has been flooded, it does not matter whose responsibility it is as long as something

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is done to resolve the problem. The important point is that all the authorities should work together instead of trying to pass the buck.

Mr. Morley: The short answer is yes. I did not want to pass the buck. A report that we commissioned on the funding sources of flood defence and the institutional arrangements will be published shortly. It will address the issue of non-main rivers. The present situation is that non-main rivers and ditches are the responsibility of landowners in some cases. In others, local authorities have permissive powers. We are not ignoring the existence of those problems. Indeed, we are trying to address them, as the hon. Gentleman will see when the report is published.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The floods in Cambridgeshire will be repeated throughout inland Britain this winter, because underground aquifers are full, the land is saturated and the water table is high. If it rains as it did last year, the one certainty is that even more homes and businesses will be inundated than were last year. Those inland floods meant misery for tens of thousands of people and cost them more than £1 billion, as the Minister knows.

The Government's reaction has been too muddled, too little and too late. Will the Minister confirm that building continues on essential flood plains and that plans for massive development on water-absorbing greenfield sites will make a thoroughly bad situation worse? Have the Environment Agency and the ICE told the Government that much more needs to be done and spent? What reassurances can he give that, if it rains as it did last year, what has been done this year will mean that fewer families will face the squalor and distress that so many faced last winter?

Mr. Morley: Instead of saying that one cannot build on a greenfield site at any time, under any circumstances, we need a balance and some common sense. There have been demands for more funding, and we have met those demands. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the independent reports that we commissioned point out that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a long drought, inadequate investment was made in flood defences.

Bee Diseases

5. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): If she will make a statement about measures to prevent the spread of bee diseases. [13067]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): The Department takes very seriously the threat to honeybees from pests and diseases and funds a range of measures to protect bee health, costing around £1.3 million annually. Under those measures, the National Bee Unit, part of the Central Science Laboratory, provides a free diagnostic and inspection service to the beekeeping sector as well as training and education to help beekeepers become more self-reliant through improved bee husbandry.

Mr. Chope: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that beekeepers are the unsung heroes of British farming, because they operate without subsidy and in a spirit of enterprise, like the bees they look after? Will he

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acknowledge the important role played by the beekeepers' insurance company in the fight against foulbrood, and will he acknowledge that that company, which has a premium income of less than £20,000 a year, is being severely crippled by Government regulation and red tape? Will he instruct Departments to let that company operate without the burden of the regulatory drones of Government?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman has clearly been working for a fortnight on that supplementary question, but I am not sure that it qualifies for an award for humour. I am happy to pay tribute to those who work in the beekeeping industry. It should be acknowledged—and the hon. Gentleman might be generous enough to do so himself—that the Government do a great deal to support the industry. For instance, we assist the sector in dealing with health issues—varroa is a particular challenge—through programmes that cost about £1.6 million in 2001-02. The Government recognise and support the industry.

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