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Flood Protection (Yorkshire)

11 am

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I rise to speak on flooding in my constituency. I am mindful that there may be hon. Members present who have had experiences in places such as York, Selby and some parts of central Leeds that are similar to, and in some cases much worse than, those in my constituency. The effect of the damage on the people concerned is no different whether it is on a large or, as in my constituency, small scale, and the shared pain unites all such victims. It does not matter whether an individual victim or a community of interests is affected. The same painful and damaging effect must be managed and minimised.

It is the Environment Agency's responsibility to warn of impending floods, but none of us can escape the common knowledge that exists and has arisen out of shared experience of recent years. Flooding is a more common experience now, and the increasing severity of the flooding provides a growing consensus of scientific opinion. I refer to the view increasingly expressed in the scientific community that changes in our shared climate will produce more extreme weather, and that what we now call the extreme may become the new norm. The 1990s were the hottest years in Europe since records began, and rainfall was up by at least 10 per cent. and perhaps much more in certain parts.

The UK Climate Impacts Programme has produced models that speculate—I acknowledge that this is speculation—on a 3 deg increase in the world's average temperature, with a consequence of a roughly 20 per cent. rise in precipitation. Such evidence may still be less than convincing to those who always want further and better detail. I understand that view, although it is perhaps the same view that was encountered by Noah when he explained his anxieties about impending floods.

What is certain is that my constituency is experiencing hard evidence of change, whether that is long or short-term change. In the past few years, the River Wharfe has overflowed its banks more times that I can remember happening in my 64 years of living in close proximity. It has happened three times in the past year or so alone. That has affected people living close by the river—for example, in the market town of Otley—although it is perhaps nothing on the scale of the events that we saw on television that took place in York and further down river. However, I would not want to get into a meaningless competition about who suffers the most.

One young family who bought their house just more than a year ago—an older stone-built house about 100 years old—knew that their position close to the River Wharfe meant that they might experience flooding "once in 100 years", which was the professional advice that they received. So far, they have experienced the "once in 100 years" flooding three times. Their house does not become swamped by vast quantities of water; their experience is different. When flooding occurs, the road outside the home of the Floods—the name of the family—is under 250 mm of water, or about 10 in. Passing vehicles push that water across into their curtilage. It then enters the house through the ventilation points underneath the floorboards. People may say that that is no great disaster, but it is, to say the least, a disturbing experience for a young family. It can

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also be alarming if young children are involved and the parents have to think about the possible consequences of the flooding becoming dramatically worse.

The effect of flooding in Otley town centre is not catastrophic, but with only one road bridge in the centre and adjacent roads under 250 mm of water, even though the bridge is passable, traffic can come to a halt and that tends to choke the town centre. Inevitably, flooding damages the commercial life of the town. Anyone who knows about town-centre traffic is aware that a hold-up of two or three minutes has knock-on effects on the whole system.

Flooding is both debilitating and corrosive to a community and individuals. It is a serious problem. The inhabitants of town and village regard the River Wharfe as beautiful, as are the villages of Pool—an interesting name—and Arlington, and the market town of Otley alongside its banks that fall within my constituency boundaries. The countryside of Lower Wharfedale is very attractive. The river is a major asset to the town and villages. It is one of the cleanest in England. However, when it overflows its banks, the local sewage works downstream from Otley experiences problems. Such flooding is not a threat to public health, but no one would choose to manage the additional problems that it causes when the floods are fairly severe. The local anglers who, in many cases, are the watchdogs of water purity have drawn to my attention the fact that the sewage works have problems on non-flooding occasions. Because of that difficulty, some time ago before the last flood I arranged a meeting in my office this Friday with both Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency, at which I also intend to pursue matters to which I have referred today.

What is to be done? So far, the answer has been that plans must be made to manage the expected. That is fair enough. It is difficult to plan for the unexpected. However, the problems that we may have expected a few years ago now have led to different expectations in the public mind. We must consider ways in which to plan differently. My constituents ask for the existing plan to be revised, a matter that we are taking up with the appropriate authorities. The plan is inadequate and it means that measures that should be taken quickly to manage the change in speed of flooding, for example, are not happening as they would like.

My constituents know that we cannot reverse overnight, or even in the next century, the abuse of our environment and the damage done by humankind in the past two hundred years or so. However, that is being tackled—somewhat slowly in my opinion—by the world's nations, some of whom are more enthusiastic than others. I am pleased that our Government are taking a leading role in improving the disastrous situation. My constituents do not want a miracle; they want a fresh consideration of what can be done locally. They would also like further and better help from the Government. That is not a new cry. I do not know how many times Ministers have heard that. Unexpected events place additional costs on local services. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give some thought to that.

No one expects our good Under-Secretary to turn back the tide, unless he is in the business of miracles, but I hope that he can help in developing a better, more sensitive and efficient planning process for the now inevitable overflow of the rivers in the Leeds City

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metropolitan district council area, which has the River Aire at its centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon), who cannot be here this morning, has faced similar problems. He has worked hard with his constituents to do what he can. He, too, would like the Under-Secretary to give the problem further consideration.

The Under-Secretary will respond with straightforward honest realism. He has a reputation for that, and I approve of it. It is not only appropriate but necessary to deal with those matters honestly and fairly. My constituents are hoping for an acknowledgement of the changing circumstances in which they live, and they hope for further Government help not in curing, but in ameliorating the problems that arise from—I was going to say "flow from"—the damage done by the growing menace of unexpected flooding.

11.12 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) on securing the debate. I know his constituency well, and if I were not to represent Selby, the constituency I would most like to represent in the world would be Leeds, North-West, not least because of the River Wharfe. His constituency also contains Headingley cricket ground, which is one of the Meccas of Yorkshire. I feel great sympathy for what he has said about the recent effects of flooding on his constituency. Selby and many villages in my constituency have suffered flooding in the past 18 months.

I want to begin on an optimistic note. We have had debates both in the main Chamber and in Westminster Hall about flooding. The most recent one was held just before Christmas. Organisation and funding have improved in Yorkshire. It is little more than a year ago that, to many people's shock, it was announced that Yorkshire's flood defences were the worst in the country as measured by the Environment Agency for England and Wales. A backlog of works had built up. Many people remember the unseemly row that we had on the regional flood defence committee some 12 months ago about flood defence funding.

It is worthy of note that the capital programme in Yorkshire for flood defence funding in the next 10 years has doubled. In April 2000, about £93 million was going to be spent in the next 10 years on Yorkshire's flood defences. In April 2001, after the Selby, York and other floods of last winter, the flood defence committee adopted a budget for the next 10 years of about £208 million. That is a significant increase, funded by central and local government.

The good news is that since April 2001, the budget for the forthcoming year has been passed. The local authorities and the Environment Agency agreed on a budget that provides an increase in the local authority levy of 10 per cent. That means that the 10-year programme can begin to be funded. It will require two or three additional commitments from the local authorities—a sustained increase in funding over several years. The 10 per cent. increase will be needed for the next five years if the capital programme is to be implemented. There is a real need to deliver on that programme in Yorkshire. We must stick to the timetable outlined in it as far as possible and, year-by-year, show local authorities and the regional flood defence committee that we are delivering.

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We should congratulate some of the individuals and organisations involved, such as Professor Roy Ward, who chairs Yorkshire's flood defence committee, and Peter Holmes, the Environment Agency officer responsible for flood defences in my area. I congratulate also the Under-Secretary's officials, who have worked hard to deliver the capital programme and ensure that we are back on track. By 2010, flood defences throughout Yorkshire should be up to national standards.

An appendix was added to the regional flood defence committee's papers, listing approximately 200 schemes throughout Yorkshire to be developed over that period. In my own constituency, Selby has £4.5 million for that purpose. The computer modelling will be finished in the next few months and the schemes will be built in the next three years. It is intended that the start dates for Riccall Ings, which will defend approximately 100 properties, and Tadcaster, which will defend another 100 will be in the financial year 2003-04, as will Cawood. Ulleskelf will follow in 2004-05. Incidentally, Otley is also in for a scheme in 2004-05. That progress should be acknowledged.

Next year's budget includes an additional £100,000 for the maintenance of existing flood banks because it is no good having expensive capital programmes if they are allowed to deteriorate. My constituency has existing flood defences that will hopefully receive a share of that maintenance budget in the next year.

Since flooding was last discussed in the House, an important report, "The flood and coastal defence funding review" has been published for consultation. The report has implications for Yorkshire. It is comprehensive and requires careful reading of the proposals. I endorse one such proposal that would help flood defences and planning in Yorkshire. The Environment Agency, or the single operating authority, should take responsibility for flood defences not only on main rivers, but water courses with significant flood risk. As hon. Members will be aware, several bodies have a role in flood defences, such as local authorities and internal drainage boards.

There have been occasions during the past year in my constituency—which has 88 villages—when I have been on a water course with all the agencies involved and asked, "Who is in charge?" Several people have shrugged their shoulders and, with the best will in the world, it is not always entirely clear who should take responsibility. It would obviously be beneficial to have one authority clearly in charge in areas that have significant flood risk, whether that is the Environment Agency, which is currently under its quinquennial review, or a separate authority with the power to co-ordinate activities and subcontract work to local authorities or drainage boards.

Several interesting proposals concern the raising of revenue to pay for flood defences. The question of a flood plain levy has been in the news. The Oxford Research Associates report lists the many disadvantages of such a levy. I shall bring a couple of them to the House's attention, and I share the view that the disadvantages are significant. The report says:

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Flood defences in Selby protect not just the people of Selby but the traffic that goes through it and the commerce that uses it as a link to other areas.

The report also says:

That could certainly happen. It goes on to say:

It is concerned that the

and that the charge could be seen to duplicate existing drainage board charges. That is quite a long list of disadvantages. In the words of "Yes, Minister", it would be a particularly brave Minister who took the proposal much further.

There has been some discussion of whether those who develop in flood plains should pay a development charge. That is a more interesting idea. The recently changed planning guidance discusses the fact that local authorities, as part of development gain, could already charge developers in flood risk areas for improvements in flood defences. That is worthy of consideration.

I have a parochial point about Selby and how matters have improved. The impact of mining on flood defences is an important local issue. I commend the Environment Agency, which has, during the past year, taken a robust attitude with UK Coal, which has to fund any additional flood defences to take account of mining. There should be a tension in that relationship. That has brought about flood defences on the B122 south of the village of Naburn, near York, which was flooded and completely cut off at the end of 2001. In the recent heavy rainfall, the village maintained access to Stillingfleet and thereby to York, which was appreciated. That is evidence of the Environment Agency taking strong, positive action in Yorkshire.

In any discussion of flood defences and prevention, it is worth remembering that what happens in the flood risk areas is not the only important thing. What happens in the uplands and dales is also important—such as attempts to improve retention of water in the uplands—as is the use of imaginative schemes such as flood management of washlands. South of Selby, Heck Ings and Gowdall Ings washland system has been developed and used to take water from the River Aire when it has been swollen. The development of washlands will be an important part of flood management in Yorkshire.

I am beginning to have discussions with local farmers. There is a change in emphasis in support for farming in, for example, the recently published White Paper. In the future, there may be a case for considering payments to farmers whose land is being used as a washland on an extensive basis, so that they are basically filling a role of environmental management. That might be in the spirit of the new White Paper.

Flood management not only in Yorkshire but nationally should have a higher profile in Parliament. In the last Westminster Hall debate on the subject, I mentioned the possibility of creating an all-party flood prevention group. A little progress has been made on that. I have had some discussions with colleagues in other areas and written to the Under-Secretary, inviting

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him to help us to launch that group at an appropriate time. We shall probably make it an associate group. As I understand it, that would mean that bodies such as the Association of Drainage Authorities and insurance companies could be involved and come to meetings. Groups with a wider interest in flood prevention and management, together with interested Members of Parliament could then take the debate forward. As we hit the peak of the comprehensive spending review, there is a real case for those of us who have seen the devastation that flooding causes, not just in Yorkshire but elsewhere, to follow the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West and continue to argue the importance of sustained funding for flood defences.

11.24 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York): I should begin by declaring an interest. I live beside the River Ouse in York and, in November 2000, we moved all our furniture upstairs, sandbagged and boarded up the front door, blocked the air bricks and had an anxious time as the water lapped the front door step for several days. It did not come inside but was one inch below the floor level. The difference between one inch below and one inch above the floor is all the difference in the world.

I cannot overstate the human cost of flooding. Many people in York have told me what they went through in November 2000. Homes that people had created over a lifetime were destroyed overnight. Many people were out of their homes for six months and some for even longer while they were repaired, which illustrates the extent of the damage that occurs when homes are flooded. The Under-Secretary understands that very well because he visited people in my constituency and elsewhere.

The response to the flood in York in November 2000 was magnificent and involved the City of York council, the emergency services—police, fire and ambulance—the Environment Agency and the Army. The Deputy Prime Minister came to the constituency twice. We ran out of sandbags and, within 20 minutes, he answered my desperate call for more and arranged for the Army to fly 50,000 sandbags in from Salisbury plain. The Under-Secretary also visited the constituency with the Prime Minister. The response involved utilities such as Yorkshire Water, the electricity companies and BBC Radio York, which provided a vital lifeline for people who wanted to know, hour-by-hour, how vulnerable they were. In Selby, the power went down and the only communication for many people in the middle of dark nights when water was lapping at their doors was the information on Radio York. It became a true public service broadcaster.

Perhaps most of all I should pay tribute to the response of the citizens of York who turned schools into dormitories and provided food for people who could no longer cook. Hundreds of people turned out and worked overnight to build a mile-long wall of sandbags to protect the Leeman road area. The response at the time was excellent; it was a model of how to respond. In their assessment of those floods, the Government took on board the response in York, which provided a good information service and a 24-hour helpline for the public and responded early to clean-up problems. The Government are using that response as a model for other authorities.

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However, the response since the floods has been slower and not as good. New flood defences are being built in Malton and Norton. Existing flood defences have been repaired, but new defences have not been built in York and are not likely to be built for several years. There is a problem with a lack of transparency of how the flood defence system works. New flood defences in Malton and Norton are being built sooner than in York because they faced devastating floods two years earlier—some people have forgotten that—and it takes some years to design flood defence solutions, to consult with the public and to obtain planning permission and approval from the communities involved. That needs to be explained to people, and I have organised public meetings for the communities that were affected in York.

The Environment Agency has sent representatives to them, and once people understand what is happening and that much work is being done, they are considerably reassured. I particularly pay tribute to Craig McGarvey, the area manager of the Environment Agency's office in York. When he has attended meetings, he has explained how much work he and his staff are doing.

Generally, the Environment Agency's public relations has not been as good as it should have been. Improvements need to be made, and the agency needs to get out and meet communities affected to explain what they are doing and what can be done.

I was pleased to see the "Learning to Live with Rivers" report from the Institute of Civil Engineers. It concluded that:

I have never before seen a statement about the palpable effects of climate change on flooding in the UK expressed so clearly and unequivocally in an official report. I congratulate its authors.

I am convinced that climate change is part of the problem, but only a part; there are other man-made causes of flooding that must be addressed. Building is one, which the Government responded to in the consultation document. The building of houses, workplaces, shopping centres and roads makes the ground less permeable so that water does not soak in, but runs off more quickly to rivers, which are more quickly filled.

Trees and hedgerows can soak up trillions of gallons of water. If we lose trees or if farmers dig up hedgerows, the land loses some storage capacity and, again, water runs off more quickly. The problem with a flood is not the quantity of water, but the speed at which it comes together. If the run-off from moorlands, hills, fields, shopping centres, and roads were slowed, the period over which the water ran down the river would be spread out, and the height of a flood would be lower. A two-day flood that is 6 ft lower than a 12-hour flood allows many properties to escape damage.

The Department needs to address the practice of ploughing downhill. It is easier to plough up and down a hill because the tractor does not fall over; if it goes around the hill, it can fall down, but ploughing downhill creates a channel down which water runs; ploughing across a hill retains water in the fields.

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During the second world war—when it was so important to boost domestic food production—and since then, we have provided considerable flood defences for fields that used to be water meadows, but which are now used by farmers to grow winter crops. In the past, water meadows would retain water during a flood, so flooding downstream was less severe. Given that we face the necessity of putting farmland out of use through set-aside—as part of the common agricultural policy—the Under-Secretary should consider using the CAP and set-aside to convert some water meadows back to their natural state of flood protection. Flood banks could be knocked down and water meadows created once again. Farmers will still be able to get hay from the meadows in the summer, but winter crops would not be planted. If some farmland goes out of use because of set-aside, it would make sense for it to be farmland that can be usefully set to some other purpose.

The Government's consultation document contains a lot of good proposals, and I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the work that he and his team of officials have done. It includes, however, one truly dreadful proposal, which was put forward by consultants employed by the Department. They propose what would be, in effect, a poll tax on flood victims. That proposal deserves to sink as soon as possible. It is clear that we need to spend more money on flood defences, and I shall not duck away from the difficult question of how to raise the money. We have got to raise more money, and the public will have to pay. However, the burden must be shared equitably. The idea of a poll tax on victims is simply unacceptable.

I do not say that because I represent an area that is prone to flooding. A river is a drainage system. By draining water, it reduces the risk of flooding for people who live within the catchment from the source high in the hills right down to the sea. As one moves downstream, the river naturally gathers more water. It is absurd and unjust to suggest that a river will provide free drainage for people who live upstream, but that when it is full of water—as a result of providing drainage—and overflows, the victims of flooding downstream, who are also the victims of good drainage upstream, should pick up the cost. That is just not acceptable. It is a potty proposal, and the consultants have not earned their money.

We cannot and must not play off one community against another. I want the people living around the Ouse upstream of York to have good drainage. I want people downstream from York, in Selby and Barlby, to have good drainage. I do not want them to be flooded because York has good drainage. Drainage is a common good because it is something from which we all benefit. Because we share it, we must share the cost of providing it.

There are some things that one cannot buy as an individual or small community. Protection from environmental risks, such as air pollution or communicable diseases, is one such thing. The free marketeers who talk about Adam Smith should read "The Wealth of Nations". He recognised that things such as sewers in cities needed to be provided collectively by the public sector. Drainage is one such thing. It is not something that should be or can be bought by communities because that would lead to one

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community protecting itself at the expense of another. That can never work in the public interest or the public good.

There are some good ideas in the document, and I should like to comment on one or two of them. There is a suggestion that specific flood defence costs attributable to individual flood plain developments could be borne by a charge on the developer. That is good economics. It means that a person who creates a potential cost for other people has to share that cost himself. It is also good social justice. I hope that that idea will be explored, although there will need to be consultation on it.

I approve of the consultation document's recognition that social and environmental concerns have been given too little weight in the past. The idea that flood protection bodies—regional customer bodies is the suggested new name—should be able to set a precept on local authorities is a bold move, and I congratulate the Under-Secretary on putting it forward. It is something that I lobbied him to do, and I am glad that he has decided to consult on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) talked about the absurdity that we faced in Yorkshire after the big flood in November 2000, when the local authorities in the areas that flooded said that they would add an extra element to their council tax to ensure that they received all the possible grant available from the Government in order to maximise the money that was available for strengthening and improving flood defences. However, Yorkshire local authorities in areas that had not been prone to floods blocked the proposal. That cannot be an acceptable way to deal with a problem that causes immense hardship to a small number of people, and costs them immense sums of money. Those costs must be shared. Moving from a levy that has to be agreed to a precept increase creates transparency and accountability, and would make the system fairer.

The document sets out the Government's five key principles in the new system of funding, on which they are consulting: efficiency and effectiveness; simplicity and transparency; accountability; local democratic input; and autonomy. I approve of all those principles. However, two important principles are left out: timeliness and equitable cost sharing.

On timeliness, people expect to hear reasonably soon what flood defence is technically possible if they have experienced huge damage and disruption to their lives or to their livelihoods or if their businesses have been flooded. Once a form of defence has been identified as technically possible, there should be a reasonable time scale for putting the protection into practice. Under the current system, that does not happen. It is 15 months since the flood that hit York and neighbouring communities. In April—18 months after the event—the Environment Agency will publish the result of its audit of what happened along the River Ouse, and its outline proposals for what improvements can be made to flood defences. It will take another considerable amount of time—two or three years—to look for funding and to design schemes to address the flood defence deficiencies

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that the report will identify. The public do not believe that that time scale is acceptable, and nor do I. A quicker response must be a principle of the report.

I talked about equitable cost sharing in relation to the poll tax proposal. I was pleased to see from the Under-Secretary's demeanour that he was not as convinced of the merits of that as his consultants.

I return to issues brought to my attention by constituents who faced considerable losses; in particular the South Esplanade area of York and the King's Arms pub on the King's Staith, which gets photographed and filmed by television every time there is a flood. The pictures make it look as if the whole of York has been deluged, which is absurd, as the pub is 20 ft below the street on what used to be the Roman wharf. The images go round the world, so tourists do not come and investors do not invest. The pub trades on the fact that beer is sold by bar staff in chest-high waders, but it misrepresents York.

Several businesses in that area, including the King's Arms, restaurants and warehouses, suffered losses that ranged from £90,000 to £400,000 as a result of the November 2000 flood. Around 20 houses in the South Esplanade and Friar's terrace area suffered losses of around £50,000 per house. That was the cost of putting right the damage done. The fire station and magistrates courts, which were flooded, cost £200,000 to put right. I do not know what the police station cost, but it was also flooded out.

The Environment Agency's predecessor, the National Rivers Authority, estimated in the 1990s the potential losses of a flood of the November 2000 proportions. Its estimate was a fraction of the real losses, which is significant because the decision about whether to build flood defences depends on the Environment Agency's estimates of the potential cost of not building them. One reason—there were others—that flood defences were not built for the King's Staith and South Esplanade area is that it was judged not to be cost effective. The cost of building the flood defences would have been disproportionate to the potential losses, and yet the estimate of potential losses was a substantial underestimate. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to comment on that, but I will give way if he wants to speak about representations that have been made.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : It may not be that specific group of houses, but I know that one group in York turned down a scheme on amenity grounds.

Hugh Bayley : It is precisely that one, but that was not the only reason why the scheme failed. Several different schemes were proposed. Some were favoured more by local residents than others, and the favoured ones tended to be more expensive. Had the estimate of the potential damage been more accurate, the cost of the more expensive but environmentally more acceptable defence schemes might have been judged to be cost effective. I will certainly send the Under-Secretary the papers that local residents put together on the issue, and I am sure that he and his technical advisers will examine them.

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I am not trying to return to a decision that was made 10 years ago. That is history, and the decision was made, as the Under-Secretary rightly points out, with the agreement of a majority of local residents that a flood protection scheme should not go ahead. However, I believe that we should examine the mechanism by which costs are calculated. Cost-effectiveness is important, because however much money we have for flood defences, it will never be enough. Whatever sum we have must be used in a way that protects the maximum number of people.

To illustrate that point, preliminary costings for improving flood defences in York have been produced by the city council. One example concerns 118 houses in Rawcliffe that were flooded. The cost of providing temporary protection, which would protect up to the level of the November 2000 flood, has been provided, but it is metal sheeting covered with a temporary bank of earth.

Mr. Morley : I just wanted to make a point about temporary defences, because we have had a problem in Selby. Metal sheeting is not a temporary defence. The Environment Agency refers to it as temporary because it is not fully landscaped and complete, but the defence itself is very robust.

Hugh Bayley : I accept that the defence is robust, and that is why I say that it will provide protection. I am glad that the Under-Secretary reassured people who live in the Rawcliffe area that that is the case.

The cost of providing the current protection scheme—I now hesitate to describe it as temporary—is about £150,000. Full landscaping would bring the cost up to something like £500,000 to protect 118 houses. That would be a really good buy, given the losses experience by the people in those houses. More than 40 houses in Clementhorpe, including River street—which featured in photographs and national newspaper and television coverage—were flooded, and the cost of protecting those houses would be about £500,000 according to City of York council estimates. That is approximately £10,000 per house; much less expensive than doing the repairs. The 28 houses in South Esplanade and Tower street could be protected—on the basis of another back of the envelope costing by the council—for between £1 million and £2 million. In the outskirts of York, however, are two isolated houses that could be protected, but at a cost of £750,000. One has to ask whether it is worth protecting a house worth considerably less than the cost of protection; the answer is no.

The consultation document discusses whether all houses in a particular community should have the same level of protection, but doing so would mean abandoning the cost-effectiveness principle, which would not be wise. We would end up protecting fewer protectable people—not a sensible policy.

I have detained the Chamber for longer than I should. I am grateful to the Chairman for not calling me to order. With that, I shall finish and sit down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. I would be remiss in my duty if I failed to remind the Chamber that the House took the decision—in its

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wisdom or otherwise—that the four senior members of the Speaker's Panel should be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker.

11.51 am

Andrew George (St. Ives): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) on securing the debate. I am not from Yorkshire, but I have visited it on many occasions. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) provided graphic descriptions of the floods suffered in the city and other parts of Yorkshire. We must learn lessons from what happened. The Under-Secretary will want to comment on the fact that 18 months have elapsed—as the hon. Member for City of York pointed out—before action was taken in response to those lessons.

Debate so far has focused on putting adequate defences in place in the areas most prone to flooding. I want to emphasise the wider context, as did the hon. Member for City of York towards his conclusion. We can no longer continue playing King Canute with water. Archival and cartographic evidence indicates that Yorkshire's East Riding has suffered from continual loss of land to the sea, and will continue to do so.

I was honoured to serve on the Select Committee on Agriculture—as it was then called—some three years ago when we examined flood defences. The Ministry viewed its recommendations positively and some resulted in the consultation paper on funding, which we are also debating today. A truism that we identified and which simply cannot be ignored is that, over the next 50 years, climate change is likely to contribute to continuing rises in eastern sea levels of about 6 mm a year. That does not sound much on a yearly basis, but it means many centimetres—or inches, as I prefer to say—over the next 50 years. Yorkshire is estimated to face a 0.5 cm increase every year. We cannot go on denying that it is happening, turning our backs on it or pretending that we can continually put up defences to stop that happening. The situation needs to be reviewed. That is only an estimate of sea level rises; it is exacerbated by the natural downward tilt of some land. As a Cornishman, I am always proud to point out that, perhaps symbolically, as England sinks, Cornwall rises. Either way, we are talking about a serious problem that cannot be ignored or avoided.

In evidence to the Select Committee, the Met Office identified the fact that, by 2050, winter days will be typically four or five times more common, in the sense that very heavy rainfall will be more regular during winter. In recent years, we have experienced more excessive rainfall in short periods, and the Met Office says that the flooding problems that we suffer as a result of that intense rainfall are likely to increase. Indeed, the problems that we have experienced in the last few years are likely to increase significantly in years to come.

We cannot simply put our heads in the sand and think that that will not happen, nor can we play King Canute and respond by building ever-higher defences. We must have a more strategic view of how to address the problems. As hon. Members have identified, the additional rainfall is affecting an increasingly urban environment, in which there is much faster run-off and rain collects in water basins more rapidly. That is exacerbating the problems.

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To be fair to the Government, the UK strategy is the legacy of 70 or 80 years of believing that we can play King Canute and take on the sea and the natural elements. Development on flood plains—more than 2 million properties have been built in the last 10 years—has reduced their natural ability to contain and hold back floodwater as it rushes off hard surfaces faster than ever.

As the hon. Member for City of York said, an additional problem is the intensification of agriculture. Extensive drainage means that water runs off farmland faster than before. That intensification has led to over-grazing, soil compaction and the formation of surface crusts or soil capping, which reduce the land's natural ability to soak up water. Reports that flooding is occurring because catchments are saturated are not always accurate. Without soil compaction, supposedly saturated areas would be able to absorb more rainfall.

In addition, we are filling in flood plain wetlands. In the last 25 years, we have drained and filled 60 per cent. of our flood plain water meadows. These once acted as a natural safety valve, holding back floodwater and so reducing the flooding risk downstream.

All those problems show the fundamental contradiction between our long-term high principles about what we should be doing in response to global warming, rising sea levels and the climatic changes that we have described, and the commercial reality of the day-to-day financial pressures on us all.

Two examples show that contradiction. One is the planning system, which of course was artificially created by man. The planning system says that one cannot develop unless one completes a planning application form and gets permission. As we all know well—particularly those of us who have served on local authorities—planning committees, in effect, hand out rather large cheques to people who undertake very little work to secure their planning permission for a new development, every time they give planning permission.

The inexorable commercial pressure to seek housing and other types of development, whether on flood plains or anywhere else, is ever-present. The pressure for development will always be there. We have created a system that encourages us to develop in lower land and on flood plains where communities are based. We are creating commercial pressures that drive the desire to secure planning permission for developments in some of the most inappropriate areas from the point of view of flood defence. We need to recognise that.

Secondly, we have created artificial systems to encourage agricultural intensification, which has resulted in a desire to produce more and more to maximise the benefits of production supports. That has reduced our ability to allow for the saturation of land appropriately to avoid flooding. The difficulties that we experience are largely created by human systems of intervention. We need to recognise that and adapt some of the processes in response.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the consultation paper on funding. It goes in the right direction, but it raises a load of other questions. The structures of delivery of funding and strategy within

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areas where there are special problems need to be looked at closely. I should be interested to know what the Under-Secretary considers to be the appropriate response to the plethora of agencies and bodies that either have a responsibility to deliver flood defence or cause flooding through excessive development or agricultural intensification. Should not the Environment Agency play a greater strategic and pivotal role in overseeing that? No other agency is in a more appropriate position to do that but, in many areas, it is unable to intervene.

What assessment has the Under-Secretary and the Department made of proposals for managed retreat in coastal areas? That has been on the agenda for some time. We had natural retreat in East Yorkshire many centuries ago. It happens naturally. Certainly the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Select Committee, wildlife trusts and others have indicated that, in certain areas, managed retreat is the most sensible option. It provides a far better barrier for the areas behind those in which we are retreating than putting that barrier up in the first place.

Should we move from a system of production support, of which Liberal Democrats are in favour, towards other direct payments to farmers as suggested by the Curry commission? For example, should we pay farmers to create rural flood plain wetlands, which are the countryside management payments that we can, within green box subsidies, encourage or allow farmers to receive?

Do we need to establish a more appropriate format for the strategic delivery of flood defence planning? Much flood defence is piecemeal planning. It ignores the downstream impacts of building concrete flood defence structures on urban areas. A catchment-based approach may be more appropriate. I know that the Government are considering that, and I should be interested to hear the Under-Secretary's comments about it.

An important aspect, and one that we are all looking towards, is the methods to restrict development in flood plain areas. Have the Government considered that objections from the Environment Agency to development in flood plain areas should be adopted as a mandatory instruction to planning authorities in certain circumstances? Should certain zones become areas of mandatory objection where planning cannot be permitted?

If that it not acceptable, would it be appropriate to oblige owners of property in areas prone to flooding—or developments that have gone ahead to which the Environment Agency has outlined strong objections—to disclose, at the point of sale, those objections? That may assist the process of discouraging development in flood plain areas. The debate has concentrated appropriately on efforts to reduce the impact of flooding, particularly in certain communities and urban areas. I want to encourage the Under-Secretary to examine a wider strategy.

12.7 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): There cannot be many constituencies further apart than St. Ives and Leeds, North-West. Bedfordshire is in the middle; nevertheless, all three have suffered from the effects of flooding. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) on securing the debate.

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He made some pertinent points. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) asked the important question: "Who is in charge?" In his good, if somewhat lengthy, speech, the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) spoke movingly about the effects of flooding, particularly in human terms. That is something that we all understand yet never seem to take into account in our calculations. He also made a legitimate point about the need for new flood defences—not just shoring up the old—and suggested some simple, practical solutions that he would like the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to encourage. The hon. Gentleman is to be commended for his suggestions.

I cannot help but feel sorry for the Government's Environment Ministers. In recent weeks, they have rightly faced a barrage of criticism directed both at DEFRA's continuing failure to implement an effective waste management strategy—something about which the Under-Secretary and I have spoken in the past—and its handling of the European Union fridge disposal legislation. The World Economic Forum has criticised Britain's environmental policies as being among the most dismal in the developed world. It highlighted a lack of recycling initiatives, as well as the levels of air pollution.

To make matters worse, in a somewhat cruel twist of fate, a vast fridge mountain has sprung up in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), the Minister for the Environment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's introduction. However, I am not sure whether fridge mountains have anything to do with flood defences.

Mr. Sayeed : If I might explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They do because they have an effect on climate change. That acre of rusting, CFC-emitting white bears humiliating testament to the Government's incompetence and indolence.

For the sake of DEFRA Ministers, as well as that of home owners and businesses across the UK, let us be thankful that the floods of autumn 2000 have not been repeated on a similar scale. The figures associated with those floods are all too familiar. Inundation of land throughout England and Wales during that period resulted in insurance claims totalling more than £750 million and the evacuation of some 11,000 people. A complete financial impact assessment is impossible, as some of the properties affected were uninsured. The total cost of the damage, including loss of earnings, is estimated to be £1.5 billion to £2 billion.

The problem will not simply go away. Indeed, Environment Agency figures indicate that the dual spectres of coastal and inland flooding will loom increasingly large in the future. They project a tenfold increase in flood risk in the next century. So how can we in the political sphere set about managing that risk? I intend to touch briefly on three subjects that I hope will put some of what has been said today in a broader political context: first, the provision of funding for coping with the flood threat; secondly, the structuring of the institutional framework to deal with flooding; and finally, the redefining of planning guidelines so that developers are discouraged from embarking on projects that are likely to increase the risk of flooding.

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Funding for flood protection has certainly increased since 1998, and looks set to increase further in coming years, and we should all acknowledge that. The Environment Agency, local authorities and the internal drainage boards spent a combined total of more than £330 million on flood defence last year, compared with £302.5 million during 1998-99 and the £316.4 million in 1999-2000.

The Government's spending review conducted in 2000 provided for a £10 million increase in DEFRA flood grants for 2002-03, and for a further £20 million for 2003-04. In total, Government spending on prevention and early warning looks set to reach £377 million this year, £394 million in 2002-03 and about £414 in 2003-04. We should all acknowledge that.

I am aware that it is easy to criticise Governments for not spending enough money. However, the inescapable fact remains that the Government's financial commitment to flood defence has failed to match the commitment to investment in preventative solutions that they announced in last year's Labour manifesto. In July 2001, a DEFRA report entitled "National Appraisal of Assets at Risk from Flooding and Coastal Erosion in England and Wales" explicitly recommended that capital expenditure in flood defence infrastructure should increase by a minimum of 100 per cent., with a parallel increase in expenditure on operation and maintenance.

The Association of British Insurers has called for a similar financial commitment on new flood defences, particularly targeted at the inland, fluvial flood threat. In its report to DEFRA last year, it concluded that budgeted spending remained

It then called for an increase of at least £145 million in annual capital spending on improving flood defences in England and Wales.

The inescapable fact is that unless the Government can convince insurers that they are committed to capital outlay on improving and increasing actual flood defences—not administration—those insurers will either increase domestic and commercial premiums in high-risk areas to unaffordable levels or will simply refuse to insure at all against flood damage.

We all recognise the particular problems with an institutional framework that can deal effectively and consistently with the challenges of flood defence. Throughout the last century, Governments failed to ensure that the administrative framework could be reformed to keep pace with a growing flood threat. Apart from the devolving of Executive responsibility to national bodies in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, little has changed since a royal commission in the 1920s recognised the need for a national response to flood risk.

In England, DEFRA sets criteria for investment priorities. It pays capital grants to operating authorities, funds research programmes and ensures dissemination of best practice guidelines. Policy is then implemented by the operating authorities. In England and Wales, the Environment Agency is responsible for managing the flood risk from designated main rivers and the sea. Internal drainage boards deal with rivers not designated as "main", but which run through specified districts with

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special drainage needs. Local authorities are involved because they manage the risk from non-main rivers outside internal drainage board areas. If they happen to be maritime district councils, local authorities also deal with coastal erosion.

Arrangements then become more complicated. There are problems with not only the backing up of sewers, but the remit of the water companies, private owners, riparian owners, city councils, district councils, county councils, parish councils and landowners with a direct interest. Such measures have all the makings of a managerial quagmire. However, such extraordinarily heterogeneous arrangements have advantages. They offer considerable scope for solutions that are sensitive to local circumstances, but the fundamental problem is too obvious. The framework suffers from exceptional bureaucratic complexity and makes the provision of a consistent national flood defence service well nigh impossible. Gaining approval for new flood prevention schemes is the bureaucratic nightmare. Even when there is money, plans tend to disappear.

The Under-Secretary may consider that there could be a better way in which to deal with the problem. For example, he may have in mind a financially non-interested body with emergency powers of coercion and arbitration, such as Ofwat, which can push other parties to do what is necessary. It could tell them first to sort out the problem and the question of who is responsible for it could be dealt with at a later stage.

I am short of time and must complete my remarks quickly because I want to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say. I will finish by saying that it is obvious that the current arrangements are not acceptable. We have problems that will continue to get worse, and we need a lead by Government to sort them out.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) on the way in which he opened the debate and on raising important issues on behalf of his constituents, especially the concerns of victims in flood-hit areas.

I am glad that, as hon. Members have mentioned, the recent floods have been nothing like those in 2000. That was partly because of the weather, although in some parts of the country it was almost as severe as in 2000. It was also because there has been considerable investment in and uprating of flood defences and, in particular, flood warning systems. About 320,000 extra people have been added to the Environment Agency's flood warning arrangements since last year, in one year alone.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) comment that where there has been an incidence of flooding, the reaction from local authorities, the agency and the police has been excellent. It has been quick and efficient. I recently spoke to the severe weather sub-committee of the Local Government Association, which was very complimentary about the way things have improved, particularly since the Northampton floods of 1998. We have made huge progress on floods.

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I shall touch upon some of the points made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) in a moment, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West will want me to comment in particular on the schemes that he mentioned. I can give him an update on where we are with them. As he will appreciate, schemes take time because of planning, planning permission, engineering and design. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York mentioned speediness. Unfortunately, big engineering schemes are not always speedy because there can be challenging technical issues to overcome. The agency and engineers from my Department do a good job at looking at the options on that.

A scheme to protect properties in Castley lane, Pool, Wharfedale is scheduled to commence in 2002-03, this financial year, subject to obtaining the necessary planning and other approvals. I understand that, just as in York, a scheme in that area has already been rejected on planning grounds because people did not like the look of it. That is not unusual. In my travels round the country, I have found several areas that have rejected flood defence schemes that have been offered on the grounds of amenity.

How schemes look and their environmental impact is a consideration that must be taken into account. Sometimes, people want to go far beyond the engineering of a scheme designed to deliver flood defence, and then we come to the whole issue of cost-effectiveness. There can be ways of overcoming such problems, sometimes involving a combination of funding, in which a local authority or regional development agency puts money into environmental enhancement. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned Ilkley.

Mr. Best : Otley.

Mr. Morley : Otley, was it? I shall come to that in a minute. My hon. Friend might like to hear about Ilkley first. The scheme there was rejected on the grounds to which I referred; one example of several so rejected.

The scheme in Otley has been identified as part of the Environment Agency's long-term plan and is due to commence in 2004, again depending on the necessary approval and planning conditions. I shall make a point of talking to the agency about progress on that scheme because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West is anxious for such improvements in his constituency. He made a powerful case in his speech today, which I accept.

There are other issues, such as consequential costs and the cost to local authorities. We are currently reviewing the Bellwin formula, although that is not always triggered, as it depends on the size of the flooding. We are talking to the LGA about it, and in my discussions with its severe weather sub-committee yesterday, all parties in the LGA were pleased with progress.

I turn to other comments that were made, particularly by my hon. Friends the Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for City of York, who made similar points. Both represent areas that have been severely affected by floods and I am pleased that during the recent severe weather, York's defences, which have been repaired and

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reinstated since the floods of 2000—as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said—were not severely challenged during the recent high water. I agree that it is probably not helpful to focus on York as having suffered a dreadful flood when very few properties were affected and the defences operated well within their capability. As the Ouse fell after the peak the agency did not even issue flood warnings in Selby and Gowdall because the new defences were not severely challenged and were in good shape. The people of York can be confident that, by and large, they enjoy good defences, as do the people of Selby now.

I understand the point about funding made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. We are not ducking that issue. Although I say so myself, we are open and transparent about flood defence. My Department commissioned an independent report on what future commitments should be. The report asked for a 100 per cent. increase in capital funding; during 2002-03, the projected increase in council funding in the Department's allocation for flooding and coastal defence is 70 per cent. That is not insignificant.

There is an on-going and legitimate debate on what is appropriate, but we must bear in mind how the money is spent and not just pluck figures out of the air. Large engineering projects must be programmed and only so many can be carried out during a year. People may argue for extra money, but they may be unable to spend it within a financial year. We are almost at that stage now with the amount of additional money that we have made available. It is challenging to many regional flood defence committees to include it in their immediate programmes.

Flood and coastal defences are a long-term gain and I am pleased that the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee and local councils have been more realistic about the levies that have been raised. With those levies, they can access additional capital funding that the Government have made available to them. In

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Yorkshire, a plethora of schemes is being planned and constructed. I was pleased to visit Malton and Norton and see progress with the work there. A lot of work is taking place and Yorkshire received a big chunk of the additional £16 million for repairs and reinstatement. The Foss barrier needed an extensive overhaul after its sterling service during the 2000 floods. It has had that overhaul and the money has been made available. We are delivering and improving and I genuinely believe that matters are getting better and that risks are being reduced.

There is an on-going debate. The consultants' report examined funding mechanisms, institutional arrangements and matters to which the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) referred, such as flood plains and reinstatement. We have introduced an environmental impact assessment on grassland, which covers ploughing on slopes, and I accept that soil management is an issue. That is covered in DEFRA's soil codes, which are available free to landowners and farmers and cover run-off, soil erosion and the impact of flooding. We have addressed the matter.

I am enthusiastic about the approach to flood plain reinstatement and managed retreat because they are sustainable flood defences that provide environmental benefits. The recent review of funding suggests several radical ideas and I accept that some are more attractive than others. I heard what my hon. Friends said about the flood plain levy, but that is one idea about which I am less enthusiastic. It is right that we have an open debate about the best way in which to raise funds, and the consultant's report is a useful contribution to that. I welcome contributions from the public, local authorities and interested parties.

We have no fixed position on those proposals. We are waiting for the responses, we will listen to them carefully and we will respond in due course. I assure my hon. Friends that I have listened carefully to what they have said today.

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