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The right hon. Lady asks whether the armed forces personnel debate will be held in good time. We intended
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it to take place this Thursday and we do not want to postpone it too long. I shall make an announcement to the House in due course.

The right hon. Lady knows that, by tradition, there are set defence debates, and the topic of one of them, by custom and practice, is armed forces personnel. The question of the armed forces having the right equipment and the procurement of that equipment could no doubt be raised in that debate, as and when it takes place, which I hope will be in good time.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement. We in this House are often accused of not using our time to best effect, evidenced by the fact that last night Government business finished at 8.30, and tonight we have a further three and a half hours that will not be used; that is five hours that could have been used to debate important matters. Nevertheless, as she knows, I wrote to her last week suggesting that we should have a debate on Gaza. The need for that was clearly shown during yesterday’s statement, when many right hon. and hon. Members who wished to contribute were unable to do so. I therefore wholly welcome what she has proposed today.

I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May): we need the debate on defence to take place at the earliest possible opportunity, because there are many important matters in that field that the House needs to debate as a matter of urgency.

Ms Harman: I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his position as Liberal Democrat spokesman on Leader of the House matters. The first representation I received from him was a request to extend the topical debate on Gaza to a full day; I am glad that I have been able to respond to his request.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for characteristically responding so quickly to the strong feelings in the House about the horrifying tragedy that is continuing in Gaza. We on the Labour Benches, whatever view we take, are very grateful indeed for what she has done.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am sure that it will be an extremely important debate.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I join other right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming the debate on Gaza. However, the written defence statement made before Christmas means a substantial cut and delay to elements of the defence equipment programme. It was pretty disgraceful that that only came out in a written statement. It is the abandonment of the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not the matter that we are discussing. He ought to direct his remarks to the fact that we are to have extended time for the debate on Gaza on Thursday.

Mr. Blunt: The casualty of that understandable decision is that there will not be an opportunity to examine, not even in a rather less than timely manner, the serious implications for the defence equipment programme,
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which the Leader of the House said could be examined in a debate on personnel, strangely enough. I urge her to bring forward a debate on defence, in which that substantial cut to the defence equipment programme can be examined, as soon as possible.

Ms Harman: We will find time for the armed forces personnel debate, and to debate questions of procurement, as is custom and practice. Both are important, but what I am telling the House today is that many more people wanted to speak in the debate on Gaza than could have been accommodated in an hour and a half. We are talking about an important issue, and I hope that, generally, people will recognise that it is right to change the business for Thursday.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I fully concur with the reasoning of the Leader of the House on the substitution of debate topics, but when she addresses the issue of reinstating the armed forces personnel debate, will she try to bring forward a date for the armed forces procurement debate, which is normally one of the five annual debates? She did her gallant best to try to square the circle of there not having been an announcement on the Floor of the House about the carriers by saying that we could talk about the subject in a personnel debate, but that is not very satisfactory. We need to talk about the procurement issue in a procurement debate as soon as possible.

Ms Harman: There will be an annual debate on procurement, and an annual debate on armed forces personnel. I had not understood the hon. Gentleman to be saying that the two should be put into one debate—

Dr. Lewis: No, they should be scheduled closely together.

Ms Harman: Of course the subjects are interrelated. Well, we will have to reflect on that suggestion.

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Northern Rock

6.48 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Mr. Deputy Speaker— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please leave not en masse, like a football crowd, but quietly, so that we can get on with the business? That would be helpful.

Mr. Murphy: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The petition, signed by 76 petitioners, states:


Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you help the House? Today, motion 4 on the Order Paper was not moved by the Government, notwithstanding the fact that there are some three and a quarter hours left for debate, which can go on until 10 o’clock. The motivation for not moving motions 4 and 5 seems to be the fact that if they were moved, we would have the opportunity to debate them, and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to cut the hon. Gentleman off, but the Chair plays no part in deciding whether Government motions are moved, so I am afraid that I cannot help him on that point of order.

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Flooding (South Ribble)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ms Butler.)

6.49 pm

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to raise the issues of flooding and drainage in my South Ribble constituency. The constituency lies on the Lancashire plain between Preston and the River Ribble in the north, and Southport in the south. The land is flat and low-lying, and much of it has undergone rapid residential development in recent years. Since the 17th century, hundreds of hectares of land in the Banks and Hesketh bank area have been reclaimed from the Ribble estuary. In addition, an inland mere, which stretched from the village of Rufford to the coast, has been drained. All in all, some of the best arable land in the country is in my constituency, but its future productivity relies on a good, well-managed drainage system.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the frequency of flooding and drainage problems. Since the summer, I have held two public meetings: one in New Longton, attended at a few days’ notice by about 60 people, and one in the village of Banks, attended by over 100 residents. Although my constituency is coastal—some people might say that it is estuarial, as it lies on the Ribble estuary—the main problem is not tidal flooding but the inadequacy of various watercourses, drains and sewers in coping with periods of heavy rain. Responsibility lies with four public bodies in addition to local landowners. The Environment Agency has responsibility for the main river watercourses, and there is concern that the switch of emphasis in funding has led to cuts in the maintenance of watercourses. Local district councils—in my case, South Ribble borough council and West Lancashire district council—have powers to ensure that local landowners maintain ditches and watercourses on their land. The use of that power is critical, as it is not uncommon for a landowner to face flooding as a result of a blockage in adjacent land, even though that land is not affected.

Lancashire county council, as the highways authority, is responsible for highways drainage, and United Utilities is responsible for the sewerage system. At both public meetings, issues were raised that illustrate the way in which the responsibilities of the various public bodies are interlinked. Without a close working relationship, tackling any of those issues becomes even more difficult. Following the highest recorded rainfall for 60 years, there was extensive flooding to properties in Chapel lane and the surrounding area in New Longton on 21 January 2008. Lancashire county council has explained that the drainage system in Chapel lane is relatively complex, relying on a combination of private ditches and culverts, highways drains and public sewers. A short-term remedial action programme was put in place, and plans were drawn up to replace a number of drains and culverts, including private ones. Unfortunately, on 26 October 2008, floods occurred once again. In a few weeks’ time—and I am grateful to Lancashire county council—a major scheme costing more than £100,000 will begin, including private drains as well as the replacement of the highways drains. However, drains from the Chapel lane area eventually flow into private drains further
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down the channel, and South Ribble borough council has played a key role in ensuring that the private drains downstream are unblocked and adequate when the work is completed in the Chapel lane area.

In Banks, residents raised a series of problems in various parts of the village. Much of the village is below sea level, and many of the incidents have arisen because sewers and drains had become blocked. I received a letter from United Utilities last week that gave detailed information about the numerous blockages in the sewerage system and the inadequacies of the system as a whole in many areas. United Utilities pointed out that tackling the problem of inadequate sewers would require additional investment and that properties that suffered internal flooding were its highest priority. United Utilities works on a five-year investment programme, and the limit for its expenditure is set by the regulator. The next programme is due to start in 2010, but Ministers must bear in mind the fact that if we limit that investment programme we will reduce the opportunity to tackle the problem.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): As the regulator does not allow the company to put prices up, we ought to ask United Utilities to pay less to its shareholders so that it can make more investment in the proposed schemes. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that is another way forward?

Mr. Borrow: There are various ways in which we could look to get more funding for front-line work improving the sewers, and the profits made by United Utilities is one such way. The Government need to recognise that as floods and the drainage system problems get worse, reliance on a fixed level of funding to tackle the issue means that we will not be able to keep pace with the increasing problems. I am aware that my hon. Friend has significant flooding problems in his own constituency, not least in the village of Croston, which I know well.

The difficulties with sewers, as I mentioned, are related to the amount of residential development. Many of the villages have old sewerage systems that could barely cope with the number of properties that existed 20 years ago, yet the planning process has no mechanism to stop the building of new developments unless adequate sewerage facilities are in place. New estates are tagged on to the system, which overloads an already stretched system. When heavy downpours put pressure on the system, sewage in the streets and problems in people’s houses are not uncommon in villages such as Banks. We should not have to put up with that. All these issues are linked.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the local authority receives planning applications, particularly in respect of areas of land that are known to flood regularly, the onus should be on it to place proper responsibility on the developer to ensure adequate drainage? The last thing people want is to buy a brand new house and experience flooding the first time there is heavy rain.

Mr. Borrow: Those issues were discussed at length at the public meeting that I held at Banks. Representatives of West Lancashire district council, United Utilities and the Environment Agency attended the meeting. Although the Government altered the rules a few years ago to ensure that the planning authority takes into account the concerns of the Environment Agency about
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flooding on the flood plain, and can refuse planning applications on that basis, I do not think that the planning authority has the same powers in relation to concerns about the sewerage system. My view, and the view that came over strongly at that meeting, not least from people connected with local authorities, was that some powers should be given to local authorities, if necessary within certain limits, to stop new development if the sewerage system is not adequate.

What is clear and has been highlighted in reports on flooding in other areas is the need for properly co-ordinated systems to be set up between the various agencies. In my area, that would be United Utilities, the Environment Agency, Lancashire county council as my highways authority, and the district councils. They all need to give high priority to flood prevention works. Although in many cases the work that they have to do may seem fairly minor and unimportant, failure to carry out that work can undermine a bigger programme of work undertaken by one of the partner organisations. There must be much more emphasis from the Government on the need to tackle these issues.

In west Lancashire, the various agencies now have a programme of working closely together. That needs to be pushed even more strongly, and I urge Ministers to realise the importance of such programmes and to ensure that agencies work more proactively together, rather than doing their little bit of the jigsaw without understanding how it fits into the wider picture.

I shall speak briefly about the problems in agricultural areas. I am concerned that funding is being directed from farming areas. There needs to be some recognition of the importance of first class arable areas, such as those in my constituency. It is crucial that the Environment Agency maintains its watercourses. A significant area of land is shrinking in my constituency, and in areas such as Johnsons Meanygate in Tarleton, flooding has taken place because there is insufficient gradient left to take the water away and there are no pumps to enable the water that used to go down the watercourse to be pumped into the next stretch of the watercourse. The Environment Agency is reluctant to invest in new pumping systems and I know of the NFU’s concerns about the maintenance of existing pumping systems in my constituency. Again, this issue needs to be borne in mind by Ministers in their dealings with the Environment Agency.

About 30 years ago, several hundred hectares of land in the Ribble estuary was reclaimed from the sea at Hesketh Outmarsh. This was the last major reclamation scheme in the area. Last year, about half of this land, 170 hectares, at Hesketh Outmarsh West, was returned to salt marsh under a scheme supported by the Environment Agency and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This is the largest single managed realignment of the coast in England. The sea wall was breached last year, and, using old photographs from the 1970s, ditches were dug to recreate the original channels. In time, we will have a new bird sanctuary in one of the key estuaries for migrating birds in the country. The salt marsh will also act as a recipient for flood water at high tides, safeguarding communities further up the River Ribble.

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There remains, however, concern among some farmers and the NFU over the impact of the scheme further up the catchment area as the main water course, Hundred End gutter, will be fitted with a lock-down system during high tides. The Environment Agency has done modelling work to show that the new system will not increase the risk of flooding upstream. The NFU and local farmers should be invited to see and discuss this modelling work, because it is crucial that everything is done to ensure that local farmers have confidence in the changes that are taking place. I know that we cannot guarantee that no flooding will take place in future because we have been unable to guarantee that with the existing system, but there is a real fear among a number of farmers in the area that the changes will make things worse. I have had lengthy discussions with the Environment Agency and I would welcome its setting up a meeting to discuss the detailed data and the modelling process with local farmers and the NFU to try to win confidence that the system will work.

The final matter that I want to raise concerns the impact of the new drainage rates being introduced by United Utilities on places of worship. As I understand it, places of worship have paid water rates based on a water meter and surface drainage rates have been linked to the metered water charges. Since April 2008, the drainage rate has been replaced by a charge based on the area of land and buildings that require surface drainage. I have had representations from many churches, including New Longton Methodist, King’s Free Methodist in Penwortham, St James church, Lostock Hall, and the orthodox congregation based at the former Leyland Lane Methodist chapel in Leyland. While new charges are being phased in—we are in the first year of the three-year phasing process—the increase in charges is huge for most places of worship.

I have had a meeting with representatives of Ofwat who set the rules for United Utilities when it moved on to the new charging system. I have also seen the guidance that Ofwat was given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is clear to me that my hon. Friend the Minister needs to look again at the matter and give Ofwat and, in turn, United Utilities, the power to set up a different system of charging for places of worship. By their nature, they tend to use little water and have paid little in water and drainage charges in the past. Those that have provided off-street car parking for their worshippers now find themselves faced with huge bills.

To sum up, I should like the Minister to consider the issue of United Utilities’ investment in the future, which is crucial, the planning process and how we can ensure that we do not add further properties to inadequate sewerage systems, which is what is happening all over the place at the moment. We need an assurance from the Environment Agency that priority will be given to good agricultural areas and that it will continue to maintain and look after water courses and, where necessary, put in fresh pumping systems and maintain existing pumping systems. We need to ensure that there is continued and improved co-ordination between the main agencies. I ask my hon. Friend to be prepared to look again at the issue of drainage rates for places of worship.

7.5 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I intend to make only a short contribution to a very useful debate.

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