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Flood Defences

9. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): If she will make a statement on her flood defence consultation paper. [38001]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The consultation document seeks views on the recommendations and conclusions in the report of the steering group that carried out a review of flood and coastal defence funding mechanisms. Both documents were published on 13 February and provide an opportunity to consider provision of the flood and coastal defence service, including a range of options for additional funding.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he agree that the recommendation that developers should be taxed for building on floodplains is rather ridiculous when the Government's policy is that there should be no building on floodplains? Does he agree also that it would be rather unfair to expect residents who live on floodplains to pay extra tax, when they already pay council tax, national taxes and higher insurance premiums, if they can find insurance? Does he not think that as flooding is caused largely by acts of God or national disasters, the national taxpayer should finance flood defences?

Mr. Morley: The review stated clearly that the majority of flood and coastal defence funding should come from the Exchequer, as it does now. Of course, responsibility for tackling flooding has always been shared between national and local government, and there has always been an element of local funding. The report considers that position and a range of options. It is a consultative report, and people are free to express their views on it. These are not Government proposals, as Liberal Democrat councillors on York City council thought—they seem incapable of understanding a consultative report.

No one has said that there should never, in any circumstances, be development on floodplains. The whole city of Hull is built on a floodplain. Through PPG25, we have asked planners to consider plans more carefully and, in some cases, to turn down applications. In cases where appropriate development is possible, it is not unreasonable to expect a contribution from the developer towards new and existing flood defences or the enumeration of any potential impact downstream of further development upstream.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is considerable merit in the consultation paper's proposal that the Environment Agency should take responsibility for flood prevention not only on main rivers but on all watercourses that are subject to flood risk? If that were done, it would avoid the confusion that has occurred, most recently in the village of Bolton Percy in my constituency, about exactly who is in charge of flood prevention—the drainage authorities, the Environment Agency or the local council.

Mr. Morley: The issue of main and non-main river courses has been raised by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I know that there is potential confusion. The reports suggests that the anomaly is rectified by the Environment Agency taking over responsibility for critical non-main watercourses. Of

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course, that has financial implications for the agency, and those are the issues that we have to consider as part of the report and the consultation.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Minister is aware of my long-standing interest in floods, and I hope that he will take this opportunity to join me in congratulating the members of Rawcliffe parish council for agreeing to act as voluntary wardens in the event of future flooding. I hope that other parish councils, or at least those that remain after the Government's reforms, will follow suit.

One overriding concern pervades the flood consultation: under the present law a house owner is expected to be aware of any imminent flood. That is impossible. People may already own a house on a floodplain, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said, flooding is often caused by an act of God so it is impossible to know when it will occur. Will the Minister seek to amend that law?

Mr. Morley: We will consider all these aspects. I warmly congratulate Rawcliffe parish council on its self-help. We are keen to encourage that. The Environment Agency has produced flood risk maps, which give people an idea of whether they live in a flood-risk area. The agency has also leafleted all homes considered to be in flood-risk areas, so people are aware of that risk. Individual house owners can opt to go on to the automatic voice messaging system, which rings them, even on their mobile phone if they want, if there is a flood warning. I appreciate the fact that sometimes drains overflow or ditches get blocked, and it is difficult to predict where that will happen. That is why we can never guarantee that floods will never happen. We can, however, reduce risk and we are making good progress on that.

Rural Economy

10. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What steps she is taking to strengthen the economy in rural communities. [38002]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): We are driving forward a wide range of measures to strengthen rural economies in partnership with a number of Government Departments and agencies, including regional development agencies.

Annexe 1 of the rural White Paper "Our Countryside: the future, a fair deal for rural England" gives an extensive list of sources of funding, together with advice for rural businesses and communities.

Helen Jackson: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that South Yorkshire and my constituency are part of an objective 1 area that suffers from poverty. Hill farmers in the area have experienced difficulties arising from the BSE and foot and mouth crises. The help that they require must be cross-departmental. We are grateful for the support in respect of the rural bus community grant that we have recently received. Will my right hon. Friend, as Minister

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for Rural Affairs, look into the objective 1 funding stream in South Yorkshire to ensure that the rural elements in the area are getting a fair deal?

Alun Michael: I am happy to do so. If my hon. Friend wishes to draw any specific, detailed information or concerns to my attention, I shall be happy to discuss them with colleagues across government. As she says, the objective 1 programme is important. It promotes the development and structural adjustments of regions whose development is lagging behind. That includes a number of rural areas in South Yorkshire and places such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. There are 23 million euros available to South Yorkshire through that scheme, matched by an equivalent amount of Government money. I am certainly happy to look at any issues relating to the practical application of that scheme to rural areas.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Minister accept that livestock markets play a vital role in the economy of rural areas? Chelford market in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), which serves my constituency, the whole of Cheshire and elsewhere, is a large employer, not only through its livestock activities but through its associated activities. Will the Minister therefore ensure that there is the minimum additional cost to livestock markets so that they are able to continue to play their part in the rural economy? Will he also seek to minimise the additional costs that will be imposed on agricultural shows, which play a valuable part in the rural economy? I refer to the Poynton show in my constituency, which is important to that village and the surrounding area.

Alun Michael: In answer to an earlier question, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary emphasised the importance that we place on markets and the assistance being given to them to get back to business, provided that safety and biosecurity are properly observed. The same arises with the shows: we recognise the importance of agricultural shows to the local community and often to a wider region. We are certainly consulting on how they can be helped to undertake their work. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, in encouraging that activity, we need to be careful that we do not take risks which could lead to another outbreak of foot and mouth disease and problems right across the farming industry.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): It would strengthen the rural economy if we could export our beef to France. What steps are the Government taking to impress on the European Commission and France that France should open its markets to British beef?

Alun Michael: We are pressing that point. Colleagues have taken the issue up directly and indirectly, and the matter shall be addressed. We want our beef to be exported and our beef industry to recover in markets that it needs to enjoy in the future as it did in the past.

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Countryside Access (Foot and Mouth)

12. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): What controls remain on access to the countryside and footpaths following the foot and mouth epidemic. [38004]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): The only remaining controls on access to public rights of way are where they pass through the farmyards of premises that are still subject to veterinary restrictions. Those are premises where foot and mouth disease was confirmed or strongly suspected and where final cleansing and disinfection procedures are being carried out before restocking can be permitted.

Mr. Pike: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he recognise that, although it is extremely good that footpaths and the countryside have been opened up for access again following the foot and mouth epidemic, specific areas remain closed? If information about that is not publicly available from his Department or the county council, major problems could result. Is he satisfied that his Department and the county councils are making sure that people know exactly where they cannot go at present?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We are encouraging local authorities to publish accurate information for the public on where remaining closed rights of way are located to assist in planning visits to the countryside. As I have indicated, a small number of premises are involved, and many local authorities—I discussed this with Lancashire county council only yesterday morning—recognise the importance of rights of way in the recovery of the rural economy and tourism. We are encouraging them to make that a priority and are working with them wherever possible.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Does the Minister agree that parish councils have a pivotal role in disseminating important information about rights of way? Is he aware, however, that his Department is systematically undermining those parish councils by labelling many parishes as sleeping or barely active? In my constituency, vibrant parishes such as Great Massingham, Roydon and North Wootton have been labelled as barely active. Does he understand the anger of those parish councils at being slighted in this way? Is this not yet another attack by this Government on rural Britain?

Alun Michael: No, it is not. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to refute the scurrilous Conservative central office handout that some Opposition Members have taken up. The handout labelled as "secret" information that had been published in Hansard and placed in the House of Commons Library. That is the level to which Opposition Members have sunk in seeking to undermine the role of parish and town councils. This Government have recognised the importance of that level of local government more than any previous Government. We are working with parish councils, and they are working with us—a large number

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of people turned out in Lancashire the night before last to discuss the future of parish and town councils. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for leading with his chin.

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