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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 November 2014

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Winter Flooding (Preparation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gavin Barwell.)

9.30 am

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you presiding over us, Mr Bone.

Last winter was nothing short of a nightmare for many people in our country, including in my constituency, who faced some of the worst flooding in living memory. The heaviest and most persistent rainfall in years created transport chaos, destroyed livelihoods and literally put people out of their homes. Even the most conservative estimates made the 2013-14 winter the wettest on record. More than 5,000 homes and businesses were flooded and many rivers in southern England reached their highest ever recorded levels.

I want to make it clear from the outset that although many of my constituents experienced huge inconvenience and some flooding as a result of last winter’s weather, we are not in the same ballpark as many areas of the country, nor do we pretend to be. Indeed, part of the reason why I secured this debate is to tell a good news story of how we learned the lessons of the past in Winchester and prevented flooding from taking place, and how I think that can serve us in the winter to come.

However, my main purpose today is to try to explain the wider socio-economic impact that flooding can have in a constituency such as mine and how some parts of our country can all too easily fall off the map when it comes to flood resilience works. In doing that, I intend to break Winchester’s story down into two parts: the historic city of Winchester and everywhere else. It will become clear why as I develop my argument.

Back in the year 2000, Winchester flooded—not just some of the villages that make up my constituency, but Winchester itself, as the River Itchen burst its banks. Locals remember ducks and swans happily swimming around the ancient city streets within sight of the famous statue of King Alfred, who keeps watch over the city from the Broadway. Many of my constituents use the year 2000 as their marker when judging floods thereafter.

This year, I am happy to say, Alfred kept his feet dry, and it was generally positive action from Hampshire county council, Winchester city council and the Environment Agency that ensured that he did. The River Itchen flows into my constituency through Alresford, into the Itchen valley and down into Winchester itself, passing along the appropriately named Water lane in an area known historically, although not so much these days, as “the Soak”. At its height, such was the volume of water flowing through Winchester that there was a real risk that dozens of homes and businesses in the lower part of the town would flood.

To put a figure on what I mean by volume, I should say that at one point, some 12,000 litres per second were flowing towards the city mill and, as it turned out, the incredibly sturdy and resilient Roman bridge that goes

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past the city mill. With the help of the Isle of Wight fire brigade, to whom we are incredibly grateful, people tried to bypass the mill to relieve some of the pressure on homes upstream, but even the heaviest pumping equipment known in the county and elsewhere, I am sure, was never going to be enough. That is where the lessons learned from the events of 2000 came into play: we tried something that other Members may be interested in copying in their areas.

Fourteen years ago, the sluices that control and protect Winchester and control the flow of the River Itchen through the city were not intelligently managed. Several downstream at William of Wykeham’s famous Winchester college, designed to let water out on to the ancient water meadows, were not fully open. The inevitable backing-up that occurred was sooner or later going to cause the Itchen to burst its banks. That was what flooded many homes and schools in that part of town.

In 2014, the lessons had been learned and the Environment Agency was fully in control of all the sluices in the city. It was a delicate balancing act. I went out with people from the Environment Agency many times and watched them work. The impact was obvious to those living alongside the Itchen and will serve as a reassuring factor as we approach the winter of 2014-15.

Further to that, there is an idea that I aired in the House back in February; I know the Minister is aware of it and I believe it could be useful to other parts of the country this year. We borrowed a bit of genius from Pakistan that really did save Winchester this year. The gentleman in question was a former army major in the Pakistani army. He settled in the UK, where he became part of the Environment Agency team in the south-east. He was aware that the sluice control in the centre of the city could only ever do so much, and, with water levels continuing to rise as the rain continued to fall, he imposed what we call a restriction many miles upstream, which deliberately flooded some farmland in the Itchen valley. That restriction literally drew heat out of the river. The Environment Agency lowered dozens of giant bags of granite and gravel into a river from a bridge on the busy A34 and M3 motorway; it was quite a sight.

As a result, River Itchen flows at the village of Easton reduced from a peak of 15 tonnes per second to about 13 tonnes per second. That might not sound like a lot, but I can assure you that it had an impact, Mr Bone. Estimates at the time reckoned that the action, together with all the other multi-agency work that went on, saved around 100 homes from certain flooding several miles downstream in the centre of Winchester. It was a first for our country, but it clearly worked. There was significant media interest at the time, and has been since, in the man and the method that saved Winchester. The gravel was even emptied out into the river when its job was done to help the fish spawn, so it was a true environmental success story.

I turn to the future. The Environment Agency is working in what it calls a partnership team—a wonderful term—with Winchester city council and Hampshire county council to implement contingency measures taken in last winter’s flood as permanent defences in the most strategic locations in the city. The areas identified include Water lane, where we are looking into the feasibility of a flood wall along the length of that road that will serve to protect the road and those properties from flooding in future, and north of Park avenue.

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The Park avenue works will manage the flood flows from entering the city and give direct benefits to properties in Park avenue, to the Winchester school of art, run by the university of Southampton, and to St Bede’s primary school, by protecting flood walls. The partnership is aiming to deliver those improvements this financial year, which will be welcome news, especially for St Bede’s school. It had to be rebuilt and raised off the ground further after the floods of 2000. The team there, not to mention the parent body, which both coped brilliantly in extreme circumstances, were dismayed to find that the school was partially closed again this year, even after those works, as unprecedented water levels rendered the toilets in the school and parts of the building unusable.

Furthermore, the Environment Agency in our part of the world now stocks a flood barrier and has access to more nationally, if needed, that can be used to direct water away from high-risk areas, reducing the impact on property in my constituency. Those can be deployed quickly and the south-east team regularly train with the equipment to ensure that they are ready to respond at a moment’s notice. I have seen the training sessions in practice and the equipment really does the business.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I am following his speech with great interest. Would he acknowledge the contribution of the fire and rescue brigades? Perhaps he will come to that issue later in his speech. Certainly, a number of brigades from my region were in the south-east. Does he further recognise the value of having a statutory duty placed on fire and rescue authorities to prepare for flooding in such contingencies?

Steve Brine: I have already mentioned the Isle of Wight fire brigade, and generally speaking, the Hampshire fire and rescue service were incredible. I have heard from many colleagues around the country about the work they did. I had the mobile number of the chief fire officer and I was constantly talking to him. At one point, I remember being out in the village of Littleton in my constituency; I called them and within two hours, they came out and helped pump out some people who were in real trouble. So yes, they were incredible.

On the statutory duty, my honest answer is that I am not sure, but I am well aware of the debate. I am more than open to it, and fire officers have talked to me about the issue in my part of the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.

The tale of central Winchester last winter is a winter’s tale with a happy ending. That was in no small part down to the effectiveness of Gold control, which is based in Netley in southern Hampshire, backed up by Silver control in Winchester at the Guildhall, under the leadership of Simon Eden, the chief executive, and Rob Humby, the leader of the city council. That is the sort of command and control system that I am sure Members will recognise from their areas, designed to co-ordinate cross-agency working. It was a recommendation of the Pitt review following the floods of 2007 and it is key now to our planning for next winter if needed. It worked, and to visit it, as I did on a number of occasions

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back in February, and see city officers working alongside the Army, county colleagues and fire and rescue colleagues was very reassuring indeed.

The most visible example of that was one very bleak afternoon in February in Winchester, when those of us who had been heaving sandbags for longer than we would care to remember were more than a little relieved when Silver control sent some incredible guys and girls from HMS Collingwood to help us. Something tells me that they had the shoulders for it more than I do, and they were very welcome.

I said at the outset that I wanted to explain the wider socio-economic impact that flooding can have in a constituency such as mine. That is why I shall focus on what happened in a number of the villages that I represent. In places such as Kings Worthy, Headbourne Worthy, Littleton, Hursley and Sutton Scotney, flooding from groundwater, not the river, is the main flood risk management issue. The impact of groundwater flooding on individual communities such as those is severe and long-lasting in terms of the duration of flooding and recovery. My constituents living in Lovedon lane and Springvale road in Kings Worthy, as well as Chris and Sharron Bruty, who, with Ross Brimfield, run the King Charles pub—they were incredibly helpful to me and many other residents—would recognise that problem, as it was in their lives, and almost in their pub, for a month or more.

Residents just up the road in Headbourne Worthy, whose parish council chairman in a meeting with me just last week described his village as the “plughole for the valley”—he meant it in the nicest possible way—had weeks of deep water creeping closer to their homes and the ancient St Swithun’s church. The road through the village was closed, at their request, because of the bow waves—that became a hashtag last winter—caused by inconsiderate drivers flying through the floodwaters.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has to say, and he is absolutely right to raise the issues that arise in villages. Does he agree that this is one of the challenges? The Environment Agency does a good job with the major schemes, and that is reasonably well funded. However, when we get to the smaller schemes, we find that the local authorities are simply not funded and therefore the prevention—there are many things that you can do in fields with help from farmers—is not done, because the money simply is not there. One protection and prevention measure this year could be to put the funding in those local authorities—particularly the rural authorities, which are so dreadfully underfunded.

Steve Brine: My hon. Friend is a visionary and a futurist. Bear with me—“bear with”, as someone recently said.

I was touching on Headbourne Worthy. The Good Life Farm Shop lost thousands of pounds of business because of the road closure. That is part of the wider socio-economic impact that I mentioned. My constituents in the village of Littleton, another place where my team and I shifted thousands of sandbags, took that to a whole new level, as one end of the village was the ungrateful recipient of thousands of tonnes of water flowing off groundwater-saturated farmland at the other. One thing that I have learned this year is that water is

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ruthless and will find its way, no matter what or who is in its way, to the lowest common point. I saw that happen to devastating effect.

Meanwhile, villagers at the other end of my constituency, in Hursley, saw rising groundwater levels fill cellars and infiltrate sewerage systems, with the resulting outpouring down the picture-postcard streets. The villagers do not look on that as their village’s finest hour and I would not want to see it again.

What do all these communities, including Sutton Scotney in the north of my constituency, where there are still constituents out of their homes, have in common? As I said, their flooding was the result of groundwater—levels just overspilled. The problem that they all share is that the cost-benefit ratio for flood alleviation schemes—this issue was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris)—under the national funding formula does not favour them or, I am sure, many of the villages that colleagues represent, because of the low number of properties that are actually physically flooded.

The difficulty is being able easily to quantify impacts such as the road closures that I mentioned, disruption to local businesses, such as the Good Life Farm Shop and the King Charles pub, deliveries to those businesses and to homes, welfare services, social care, education—I mentioned St Bede’s school—and normal life in general. Our experience in Winchester points to the need for the cost-benefit analysis for flood alleviation schemes to be articulated in a very different way.

We know that the national funding formula, the so-called flood defence grant in aid programme, will never touch us, but we want to build something that is complementary to it, not in place of it, which properly recognises the value of multiple small-scale local measures to deliver community flood resilience.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. Could he address a problem that constituents right across the United Kingdom face when flooding happens? I am referring to the difficulty that householders, including my constituents, encounter when they try to get insurance. They experience great difficulty in getting insurance at all or they face exorbitant rates. Surely the Government must do more on that with the insurance companies.

Steve Brine: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I could have gone into huge detail on insurance, but I know how many hon. Members want to speak in the debate. A huge insurer based in my constituency, Ageas, briefed me recently. There is a scheme that has come out as a result of the floods; there is a levy on policies that helps those in hard-to-insure or uninsurable properties. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look into that. Perhaps the Minister will refer to it.

I was talking about the national programme and the difficulties that communities such as mine, and those represented by many colleagues here, will have in accessing that. Fortunately, Hampshire county council, which Winchester clearly comes under, has a plan that is actively being discussed with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—even the day before yesterday, they were discussing it again, I think. Following my introducing the idea to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury officials are looking at it ahead of the autumn statement.

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Called the Pathfinder programme, it would look beyond property protection to measure the benefits of resilience in the wider area—for example, the benefit of maintaining strategic transport routes.

Better management of groundwater flood risk at local level, unconstrained by the current funding methodology, would mean that the communities that I represent could remain open for the duration of the flood, enabling local economies and businesses to function. By integrating existing programmes with a devolved funding pot for new measures, benefits of scale could be realised by incorporating simple flood risk measures alongside other maintenance programmes such as highway drainage or even the resurfacing of a road.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report, “Winter floods 2013-14”, rightly highlights the fact that each catchment area has different flood risk management needs. It argues that effective flood risk management should be informed by local knowledge and prioritised according to local circumstances. It calls on the Government to assess the possibility of a total expenditure for flood and coastal risk management in order to allow greater flexibility to target funding according to local priorities. I think that Government support for the Pathfinder programme in Hampshire would provide for exactly the type of flexibility envisaged in the Select Committee’s report.

Lest the Minister think that this is just another clever ruse from Hampshire, supported by its MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) is here today—to eke more money out of the Government for it to spend as it sees fit, I am pleased to be able to say that Pathfinder is underpinned by serious academic work by the university of Portsmouth, which is working to secure a sensible baseline for cost-benefit analysis of flood risk adaption and mitigation. Hampshire seeks £2 million for Pathfinder that DEFRA devolves for a three-year programme and it will stand behind that request with match funding from Hampshire council tax payers. If the Minister hears nothing else that I say this morning, I ask him, as a consequence of today’s debate, to press his officials on those proposals and to think creatively about what they can offer.

Finally, I come to the repair and renew grant, or RRG, which I have become incredibly familiar with in recent months. It had the best of intentions when it was set up, but it was, for a start, poorly named, as many of my constituents who were attempting to claim against it would find out. The original guidelines defined the RRG as being used only if

“habitable internal areas of the premises have been damaged by flooding”.

However, following sustained appeals from my constituents, through me, DEFRA Ministers, to their credit, noted the high impact on daily lives where people were unable to continue living in their home and, on 24 June, Ministers decided to extend the RRG beyond the use in relation to habitable areas. That means that under the revised scheme, money can now be paid to those people whose septic tanks were flooded—a problem that was very acute in my area and that I suspect others will recognise. As they put it to me in their letter of 25 June,

“this is due to the fact that people cannot reasonably be expected to live in a property that is not flooded but has no functioning sewerage system”.


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That was a victory for common sense, and Winchester city council has run with it. As of the end of last week, the chief executive tells me, the council had received 67 applications to the reformed RRG, with 44 approved and only two rejected. The value of grants paid out to date is in the region of £45,000.

I do, however, have one final ask on the RRG, on which I beg the Minister’s assistance; I gave him notice of this. As he knows, the scheme is due to close at the end of this financial year, by which time all schemes that receive grant approval need to be implemented and the money claimed back from the council. I do not think that that will be a problem for most individual claimants, but for larger-scale, collaborative schemes, that deadline certainly is a problem.

There is one such scheme in the village of Littleton, which I have already mentioned. A residents company has a programme, already agreed by the council in Winchester and by DEFRA, that is designed to deal with the surface water that inundated their private foul drainage system last winter, leaving many of my constituents without drainage for many weeks. There were Portaloos in the village for a long time.

I am concerned that because of the detailed design work that is required to do this properly—and it must be done properly—it may not be possible for my constituents to implement the scheme and claim back the costs by the end of March next year. I appeal to the Minister to look at the case once again and to demonstrate the kind of flexibility that the Department displayed earlier this year, which showed it in such a good light. I am happy to provide the details to the Minister outside the debate.

I place on the record my thanks, on behalf of my constituents and many others in Hampshire, for the £11.5 million that our county was awarded from the Government’s flood recovery fund to assist with repairs following the floods. That has been invaluable in repairing roads in my constituency, such as Springvale road in Kings Worthy and the B3047 through Itchen Abbas, which were ripped to shreds by floodwater. Hampshire spent £5 million of that £11.5 million on repairing the county’s roads. That was in addition to the £35 million that the county spends on highways as part of its annual maintenance budget. That is a word of thanks, which I know the Minister will appreciate.

As I have tried to set out, many things went well in my constituency last winter when we were faced with unprecedented levels of rainfall, and there are real success stories to tell. Some things, such as the RRG, have since improved. We need some further help, as I outlined, in preparation for winter 2014-15. In preparation for this winter, however, other nuts are not so easy to crack. I close by stressing the importance to me and to my constituents of the Pathfinder scheme, as put forward by Hampshire county council. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say, and I look forward to the response from the Minister and the shadow Minister.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. For the convenience of Members, I do not intend to impose a time limit, but it might be useful to know that I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than 10.40 am.

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9.51 am

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate. We all share the view that flooding, wherever it may happen, is devastating for communities, individuals, families and elderly people. As the hon. Gentleman said so eloquently, water gets everywhere, and we should never underestimate the damage that it can do.

In my constituency, places such as Morpeth, Mitford and Hepscott have suffered the horrendous consequences of flooding over several years. There is now a reservoir and a new flooding system. Some call it a Rolls-Royce system, but others say that we need more. Thanks to the hard work of everyone concerned, finances were made available under the previous Labour Government to ensure that Morpeth—a market town, and apparently one of the best towns in the country to reside in—was secured from future flooding. That does not mean that all the problems are resolved. Other MPs and I speak regularly to people who live in areas where there is potential risk. Every time there is a drop of rain, they look out from behind their curtains and worry that there will be another flood in the next hour or so. A lot more work must be done to ensure that we can deal with the problems as politicians.

I place on the record my thanks to the Environment Agency, which has been under a lot of pressure and has done a lot of good work with regard to the flooding up and down the country. It has certainly done a good job in Morpeth. There are other problems besides the flooding, such as surface water and drainage capacity. The situation must be looked at in its entirety, and the necessary finances must be readily available. Residents are concerned about insurance. Houses have been blighted in beautiful places. Traditionally, places next to rivers are beautiful, but they are subject to risk, and people are worried about what will happen in the winter months. There is also a problem with drainage capacity. Water levels rise beneath the roads and the gutters burst, which creates surface water. We are working together with the Environment Agency in the hope of overcoming that problem.

We must do everything we can, and we must look at every possible way of securing the safety and the best interests of people in flood risk areas.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is talking about looking at every possible avenue of assistance, and I am sure that he will develop that theme. Does he agree that we need to think strategically and look logistically decades ahead, because of climate change? Forty years ago, previous Governments did not anticipate the situation that we face now. We need to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes.

Ian Lavery: That is essential. Whether people are climate change sceptics or not, there is a general belief and understanding that we are getting more rain that we have ever had before. It is essential that we have a strategic plan not just for next year or the next five years, but for 10, 20 or 30 years into the future. We need joined-together thinking with all the services that will be required to ensure that we address the problem adequately.

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One major issue is the role of fire and rescue services. In my community, I witnessed horrific levels of flooding that posed a danger to life, particularly to an elderly community that was stranded because of the floods and the water levels, and the fire and rescue service did a fantastic job on that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned the work of fire and rescue services. Is it not strange that despite the fact that they get called out to such areas and face danger when they try to rescue people—such as the elderly people I have just mentioned—they have no statutory obligation to respond to flooding in England and Wales? Is it not even stranger that there is such a statutory obligation on fire and rescue services in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Is it not about time that that was the case in England and Wales? I cannot see why anyone would disagree with that. Fire and rescue services, carrying out the fantastic service that they do, should be under a statutory duty to respond to flooding.

As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has just said, we must look back to see what happened not only in 2013-14, but 10 or 15 years ago, and learn lessons from it. The winter of 2013-14 was the wettest on record. The fire and rescue services have said that 7,800 homes and nearly 3,000 commercial properties were flooded, and 28 fire and rescue services supplied crews, high-volume pumps, flood rescue tactical advisers and pumping appliances. A large number of incidents were attended by the fire and rescue service, and across the UK over the entire three months nearly 7,000 incidents were recorded. The vast majority of those were in England, with more than a third in London, Surrey and Kent. Firefighters in Wales dealt with 457 incidents during the three months, the Scottish fire and rescue service dealt with 356 incidents and there were 27 incidents in Northern Ireland.

Grahame M. Morris: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He has mentioned an important aspect of our preparedness and the lessons we should learn from the flooding to help us create more resilient plans. Does he agree that the Minister should have discussions with colleagues from other Departments, such as the Department for Communities and Local Government, about putting in place plans on a regional or area-by-area basis to facilitate such an intervention, where firefighters have been involved not just in rescues but in safeguarding critical infrastructure, leafleting, issuing warnings and so on?

Ian Lavery: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will ask that question when I wind up my short contribution.

In 2013-14 most fire and rescue services recorded a large number of rescues—there were almost 2,000 rescues across the UK during those three months. Most of the rescues were in Surrey, Kent, Devon and Somerset, with Surrey alone recording more than 1,000 rescues during the three months. The figure is generally believed to be an underestimate. We must learn lessons from 2014 and beyond. It is time to acknowledge the main recommendations of the 2007 Pitt review, which the hon. Member for Winchester mentioned. The review, which was commissioned by the Labour party, had six key components: knowing where and when flooding will occur; reducing the risk of flooding and its impact;

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rescues; maintaining power and water supplies during an emergency; better advice and help to protect families and homes; and recovery. I do not understand—I hope the Minister will explain—why there should be a statutory duty in Northern Ireland and Scotland but not in Wales and England. Hopefully we can put that right.

The fire and rescue services have done a tremendous job, and they have been there when others are running away. I am talking about not only fires but flooding—I have seen that with my own eyes. As MPs, I am sure we all have experience of flooding monitors, who are unpaid volunteers from local communities who do their best. They check the flooding and alert other people. Those unpaid volunteers do a fantastic job. The Morpeth flood action group in my constituency does a great job, and not only in that type of work. It brought the funding and the partners together, and consequently we have what I would class as a success story.

The fire and rescue services do not just turn up and pump water; they rescue people and save lives, too. They were there in boats and other appliances to clear furniture and carry people on their shoulders. They did everything. They did a fantastic job. They also monitored for carbon monoxide and other gases once the water started to subside. I have emphasised the need for the Government to acknowledge that we must act now to ensure that the fire and rescue services have a statutory duty and the correct funding for flood training. They need the right appliances and funding for everything else that comes with a statutory duty. It is essential that those services are funded because, frankly, there has been a huge slash-and-burn exercise within local government that has had a huge impact on the fire and rescue services. Responding to flooding, which is an additional responsibility, is unfunded.

This debate is due, as we need to discuss how we can ensure that we do the best for the communities that we represent through flood defence schemes and ensuring that finances are available. We must also ensure that, when floods unfortunately occur, the fire and rescue services have a statutory duty and are in place to carry out the fantastic job they do anyway.

10.4 am

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate. As we have heard, surface water flooding has affected the constituencies of many hon. Members. Many residents across the country, including a huge number of my own residents in Castle Point, are deeply concerned about the prospect of the wet winter that has been predicted.

In August 2013 there was severe surface water flooding across my constituency, and my residents were told that it was a one-in-100-year event. Many hon. Members will have seen the flooding in my constituency on 20 July 2014, which we were told was a one-in-319-year event. One of my constituents remarked to me that his maths is not very good but that something did not add up. We clearly need to consider the fact that the national weather patterns are changing due to climate change, and that such rainfall events will be more frequent in future. We desperately need to ensure that we are prepared.

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I thank the Minister for seeing me so swiftly after the flooding in July, and I thank the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, for delving into the preparation and responses of the various flooding authorities in two reports that quickly issued recommendations. I am very pleased to say that my local agencies are taking action to implement those recommendations, and it was an enormous help for my constituents to know that an independent person was looking at exactly what happened, because many agencies were involved, and getting to the bottom of why the flooding happened is crucial to ensuring that we address it in future.

As many as 500 properties are thought to have been affected in Castle Point this year, but that number is much larger than the official figure. As many hon. Members will have experienced, flooding agencies find it very hard to get an accurate number for flooded properties because many people do not wish to declare the damage that they have suffered for fear of being unable to sell their property or of the effect on their insurance premiums. I already have residents who are being quoted insurance premiums with excesses of £10,000 to £20,000 because of the flooding they experienced, which is effectively making many of my residents unable to insure their properties. That is causing enormous concern.

There were cases of flooding across my constituency on that day in July—Rayleigh road, the avenue areas of Hadleigh and around the bottom of Woodside hill in Thundersley—but the majority of flooded properties were on Canvey Island, which suffered rainfall of almost 220 million gallons in a little under four hours. Canvey Island has some of the best tidal defences in the country, and the sea walls and barriers that protect the island and the low-lying parts of Benfleet saw off the great tidal surge that affected many other areas last November. DEFRA has invested millions in sea defences on Canvey Island over the past decades, which is of course very welcome, and I will always fiercely lobby for that investment to continue, but the rainfall event in July exposed a surface water drainage system that has clearly suffered from decades of local under-investment, illegal tampering and appalling connections made by various developers over the years.

After the event in July, I was shocked to learn that the various flooding agencies with responsibility for drainage did not have a clear picture of the drainage systems and assets on Canvey Island or who is responsible for them. That might be an unintended consequence of shifting responsibilities and ownership by various agencies over the years, but the serious, practical consequence was that some drainage assets had clearly not been maintained by anyone for years. Therefore, no one knew the level of risk or strain on the underlying infrastructure. I am grateful that we are now seriously looking at the situation, and an integrated urban drainage study is being undertaken not only to plot the assets but to work out who is responsible for them and how they work, but that will take some time.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The hon. Lady is making some important points. Does she agree that it is important that local authorities have an insight

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into the situation when considering permitting further developments and when setting their community infrastructure levies, which they now do themselves? That would ensure that local authorities set the levies at a level that is sufficient to ensure that new developments are able to contribute, including off site, to the surface water drainage systems, which will be required to take a greater strain than would otherwise have been the case.

Rebecca Harris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and it is a critical concern to my residents. When more development is proposed in areas where we clearly already have an inadequate system, improvements will have to be made that guarantee that there will be no further strain on the infrastructure before we allow that further development to take place. In county areas such as mine, the county council must take some responsibility for the problem of surface water flooding.

It is hard for people to make preparations for a crisis if they are not entirely sure what resources they have to hand or how effective they are. My residents have a real fear every time it rains, although they can see an enormous amount of work being done. Nobody should have to live with that level of fear.

We must get an accurate picture of the drainage network’s capability if we are to upgrade it, which is why I support my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, who spoke about the need to provide local sources of funding to prevent surface water problems. If there are problems, people need to be able to access local funding quickly.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): The Environment Agency has spent £750,000 on measures to protect Gloucestershire. Does my hon. Friend agree that that activity and the activity of drainage boards and councils, taken together, represents sensible agency co-operation, which is critical to preventing flooding in the future?

Rebecca Harris: Absolutely. Many organisations deal with our water drainage networks, but the most important and critical point is to ensure that they are working together and that somebody is taking leadership of that. One of the firm recommendations in Sir Mark Walport’s report is that somebody must take a firm lead. We must not allow crazy situations to occur, such as when a county council cleans out its drainage pots, finds another blockage and says, “I’m not doing that; it’s someone else’s responsibly.” Organisations must work in concert; otherwise the system will not work. A blocked drain is not a drain any more.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): We are very clear that we have lead authorities, but, for example, when my constituency was flooded, each of the authorities looked to the others for co-ordination. We know that Lancashire county council is the lead authority, but on the day everybody looked to each other and nobody delivered. It was the firemen who rescued my constituents, and they were the only people who came out of the day with honour. Local authorities will not provide sandbags, and do not engage in fixing the problem. Everybody wants to lead, but nobody wants to do.

Rebecca Harris: I recognise that situation, which is why I was interested to see that recommendation 7 of Sir Mark Walport’s report states:

“The Natural Hazards Partnership should use the Canvey Island event as a case study”

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for modelling future events. We should also recommend that the lead authority must know what its role is. I, too, wish to put on the record my praise for my fire service, which was sill pumping out people’s houses and doing its damndest to support my constituents at 2 o’clock in the morning. I am grateful to it.

Two measures are absolutely necessary. First, the different agencies must work together effectively to ensure that their response to flooding and the maintenance of the drainage network is co-ordinated. There should be no buck-passing or pointing at other organisations. I am pleased to say that following the Government’s report, co-operation has vastly improved in Castle Point and agencies are working together to overcome problems. However, as the hon. Lady said, that should be common practice.

Secondly, constituents need support to proof their properties against flooding. The repair and renew grant is a sensible, successful measure introduced by the Government for victims of the floods last winter and spring. Unfortunately, my constituents did not benefit from it, because the flooding events fell outside the time scale of the grant period. If the grant were extended and the hundreds of families in my constituency who suffered flooding this July and last August could access that support, they would have peace of mind and further damage to their homes would be prevented. It would be enormously beneficial in helping them to reinsure their homes with evidence that they are less at risk.

I am extremely grateful for the chief scientific adviser’s report on the flooding event in my constituency. He further recommended:

“The Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology should review the likelihood and impact of extreme weather events looking into the future, and provide a clear approach”.

We must not keep talking about one-in-300-year or one-in-100-year events. We must look at what is likely to happen in the future and ensure that our infrastructure and defences are able to meet the potential events. We must look at the hazards that will be caused by the overall rainfall effect. Anybody who has had flooding in their area should look at the chief scientific adviser’s report to see how it applies to them. I am delighted to say that it is now a case study for how we should do these things in the future.

10.15 am

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this timely debate.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I have constituents who have been affected by flooding. There is a sizeable community in my constituency that, although it has not been affected by flooding for some time, is in desperate need of flood defence work to protect it from the increasingly severe weather that we are experiencing. I regret that some of the funding that was earmarked by the previous Government was cut. Consequently, the flood defence works that should be in place or be well on the way to being in place have been delayed. Hopefully, those works will be completed before there is an extreme weather event in my constituency, which would have a devastating effect on the community in the Chester Green area of Derby North.

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The title of this debate is “Preparing for flooding in winter 2014-15” but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said clearly, we must prepare for flooding in the longer term, although this winter is the most pressing concern. When the Minister responds, will he tell us what the Government are doing to encourage farming practices that reduce soil erosion? Some modern farming practices have significantly contributed to the flooding that communities around the country have experienced. The Government must look at that issue and enter into discussions with the farming industry to see what can be done to diminish those practices.

The main purpose of my contribution is to talk about the important role that the fire and rescue service plays in tackling flooding episodes. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) said that the fire and rescue service in her area was the only agency to roll up its sleeves, with its customary can-do approach, and do a good job. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck and for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) that the fire and rescue service should be given a statutory duty to enable it to take a lead during flooding events, and to ensure it has the wherewithal to respond to floods—flood response is an increasing part of its activity. We refer to the fire and rescue service as the fire service, but increasingly its role is to deal with flooding events.

I was formerly the shadow fire Minister, and prior to entering this House I served on the Derbyshire fire and rescue authority, so I have seen at first hand the work that fire and rescue services do to tackle flooding episodes. They erect temporary flood defences—an innovative approach to diminishing the impact of flooding—where there are not permanent flood defences. They evacuate vulnerable residents—my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said they did that in his constituency—and, importantly, they protect critical infrastructure. Much work has been done to protect critical infrastructure during some of the terrible flooding events that we have seen around the country.

I remember that when flooding episodes were widespread across the country two or three years ago, North Yorkshire fire and rescue service had to use all available hands to prevent a hospital from being inundated. It used high-volume pumps and so on. The scale of the emergency meant that it had to leave motorists stranded in rising floodwater so that it could protect the hospital from being flooded out. Usually, when there are major incidents, the adjoining fire and rescue service will send firefighters in to assist. I think the problem on that particular occasion was that the adjoining fire and rescue service was dealing with its own flooding episode. There is a message there, which I hope the Minister will take back to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, namely that reducing the number of firefighters is potentially counter-productive in many ways, not least of which is in dealing with flooding events such as the one I have just described. I believe that last winter, 70% of fire and rescue services were called upon to help with the winter relief efforts.

Like other hon. Members, I have already said that climate change is leading to more extreme weather events. Therefore, the role of the fire and rescue service will increasingly be to deal with the consequences of those events. I think that the hon. Member for Winchester touched on the cost of failing to deal with them; I hope he will forgive me if he did not, but I thought I heard

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him speak about the potential cost of failing to protect crucial infrastructure. It is absolutely colossal when we consider some of the power plants that have been under threat of being inundated, and hospitals, which I have already mentioned. This situation will only get worse, so we need to recognise the central and crucial role that the fire and rescue services play.

I know that the previous Labour Government invested significantly following earlier floods—I think it was after the floods in 2007—and put in place one-off expenditure to enable fire and rescue authorities to purchase additional equipment. However, that was about seven years ago and there has not been a similar injection of funding since. Maybe it has not been necessary, because that earlier injection gave the fire and rescue authorities the wherewithal to purchase that equipment. However, the equipment is now getting older.

One-off injections are not good enough. We need the statutory duty I have mentioned to enable fire and rescue services to plan for this increasingly important part of their activity. Because there is not such a statutory duty, and in the context of diminishing budgets, that understandably means that when the chiefs of fire and rescue services are planning their budget obligations, dealing with flooding will inevitably take a lower priority, because they are obliged to deal with their statutory obligations. That is why it is essential that, when it comes to planning at local level, a statutory duty is applied.

There is also a lack of consistency. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck has made this point already, but how can it be right that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, firefighters have a statutory duty to deal with flooding, and yet firefighters in England do not?

Other hon. Members have already mentioned the Pitt review. Recommendation 30 of the review was explicit on this point. It said:

“The Government should review and update the guidance Insurance for all: A good practice guide for providers of social housing and disseminate it effectively to support”—

I beg your pardon, Mr Bone: I am reading out the wrong recommendation. I thought I had highlighted the one I wanted to read out. I will just have to gloss over that for a moment. I was going to read that out with a great flourish. However, I can assure you, Mr Bone, that somewhere in the review there is that recommendation. I may intervene on the Minister later, if he will allow me, when I have scrutinised my notes properly; this is the problem when we prepare our notes in a hurry. There was a recommendation in the Pitt review that explicitly said that a statutory duty was needed.

For all the reasons that I have outlined, it would help in planning, in ensuring that there is necessary investment, in developing the integrated risk management plans, in training, in providing personal protective equipment and all the other necessary factors if we ensure that we have a coherent approach to tackling flooding in this country. And when the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he can explicitly respond to the point about statutory duty, because a lot of Members feel it is important, and to my point about farming and the importance of reducing farming practices that are contributing to increased flooding in our country.

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Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): I have three Members who want to speak. I would love to get everyone in, but we are pressed for time. So five minutes or so for each speaker.

10.24 am

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I am grateful, Mr Bone, for the opportunity to speak. As always, it is a pleasure to speak when you are chairing proceedings. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this debate.

My Cleethorpes constituency is situated on the south bank of the Humber estuary, and on 5 December last year it suffered a major flood, and what could have been a major tragedy, when a tidal surge hit the area. Because the Minister replied to my previous Adjournment debate on that flood and has been very helpful since the tidal surge, he knows many of the problems that my constituency has faced.

In the vicinity of Barrow Haven, every home was flooded, and the areas around the villages of New Holland and Goxhill also suffered badly. Today, however, I will focus on the port of Immingham, which was put out of action last year. Clearly, the Government recognised its strategic importance and the then Environment Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), visited it just 48 hours after the surge.

It is difficult not to over-emphasise the importance of Immingham. Measured by tonnage, it is the UK’s largest port, handling about 50 million tonnes annually, rising to more than 60 million tonnes when it is coupled with neighbouring Grimsby. Thirty million tonnes of coal and petroleum products, and biomass for the newly converted Drax power station, play an important part; the coal and biomass is estimated to account for around a third of the UK’s generating capacity. Drax itself has the largest generating capacity of any power station in Europe. There are two oil refineries situated adjacent to the port and together they represent 28% of the UK’s refining capacity. The country’s strategic supplies of road salt are also stored on the dock estate. The tidal surge, and the disruption to the port and to wider industrial activity, resulted in a direct loss to Associated British Ports of £15 million. When that loss is coupled with that for businesses situated in or dependent on the port, the total loss was in excess of £100 million.

It is clearly essential that the Humber ports and villages are better protected against future risks. Many homes remain uninhabitable and with further developments anticipated, the Government have a duty to act. The Environment Agency and North Lincolnshire council acted swiftly, and by the end of March defences were restored to their pre-surge levels. However, more work is clearly needed. Humberside MPs, acting collectively on a cross-party basis and with the help of all the various agencies involved, have put detailed plans to the Government, from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister downwards. We met my right hon. Friend a few months ago, and we have also met his flood envoy, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who visited the port of Immingham on Maundy Thursday. The Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin),

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has also received a delegation, and I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), have met the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Humber flood risk management strategy represents a plan prepared by the various agencies involved, and it has now been submitted to the Environment Secretary. The planned work is estimated to cost £1.28 billion. That is to protect the whole estuary; it is an enormous amount, but an essential investment. When one considers that this is a major civil engineering project spread over 17 years, it becomes affordable, particularly when the strategic importance of the port is considered, as well as the fact that homes in Barrow Haven and other nearby villages have been flooded not only last year but in 2007 and on previous occasions. The plan details the main objectives, which are to improve the resilience of Humber ports and to ensure that the nation’s trading needs, which the ports contribute to, are secured. The residential areas are sparsely populated, but the council and other agencies have allowed further development, so it is incumbent on those authorities to protect people’s homes.

Last year’s tidal surge occurred with just small changes to wind speed and direction. Important decisions were made by the dockmasters at Immingham and Grimsby. If those decisions had been different, thousands of homes in north Cleethorpes and the East Marsh area of Grimsby would have been under water, as well as many homes in villages on the north bank of the Humber and in areas around Hull.

Last month, a joint parliamentary Committee gave the go-ahead for a further development by Able UK on the south bank of the Humber, a major development that will help with the Government’s project to establish the Humber as the renewables estuary for the UK. Some 4,000 jobs are promised. The Government have been supportive. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was in my constituency in August, handing over another £15 million cheque towards infrastructure. The Government have clearly indicated their support for the area, but they have investments that they, too, need to protect.

It is essential that the Government and the various agencies look seriously at the proposals. I appreciate that the Minister is unlikely today to pre-empt the autumn statement or next year’s Budget by announcing the resources, but clearly in both the long and the short term, for this winter and the winters immediately ahead, action is certainly needed.

10.30 am

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I will try to keep to five minutes, Mr Bone, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on this timely, important debate.

I shall talk about a constituency issue in the parishes of Pilling, Thurnham and Winmarleigh, two of which are quite low-lying. The Minister is well aware of Thurnham, where we have had huge arguments with the Environment Agency, which continue, about its failure to commit to protect the sea defences beyond 30 years. The Minister will be relieved that I do not want to talk about that today.

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Last winter, many of the fields of Winmarleigh, which is 2 or 3 miles inland, were covered by water, because the dykes and ditches had not been maintained regularly enough by the Environment Agency. For the last four years, I have had meeting after meeting with parishes, farmers and the Environment Agency. I was also trying, occasionally and now more regularly, to get Natural England at the same meetings, so we can get decisions. We even got to a situation a few months ago where Natural England and the Environment Agency agreed that some local farmers could remove weed from those ditches, although they could not dredge those themselves. The argument was about dredging, but of course when it got to the point we could not get official permission to do that. There was also the problem for farmers of who pays for what and the problem of liability insurance, so we are back to the same issue. Many dykes are higher than the neighbouring land, because once upon a time Pilling and Thurnham were undersea and they need the protection of sea defences.

The other week, at a meeting of Pilling parish council, the measurements on the two rivers concerned—the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker—were discussed. Measurements on the Broad Fleet had reached 1.6 metres, with 1.7 metres being flood-imminent or flood-liable. We have had the highest markings. The farmers’ argument is that that is happening because the ditches had not been dredged. However, more importantly, the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker, which all the dykes drain into, go out to sea and apparently that makes that situation the responsibility of the Marine Management Organisation. Those channels, which go into the Irish sea as part of Morecambe bay, have not been dredged for years. Anyone who knows the tidal range there will know that it is massive. Silt has built up and the tides have not cleared it, so even if we get some agreement with the Environment Agency regularly to clean out the land-based dykes, we will be trying to shove the water uphill through the channels beyond the sea wall, because nobody will take on the responsibility of going out there. I contacted the Marine Management Organisation and was asked why, as a Member of Parliament, I was contacting it, because apparently I should have contacted the Environment Agency.

I have got to the point of writing this week to the Secretary of State, saying, “If I get floods in Pilling and Thurnham this winter, then I know where the responsibility is.” The question is exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) put it: who has the responsibility, out of all these organisations, to come down to Pilling and Thurnham, look at those channels and say, “We need to dredge them; otherwise, hundreds of farms, and hundreds of residents—and caravan parks—will be under water”? That is the problem.

Pilling parish council has appointed an emergency committee, together with representatives from Winmarleigh and Thurnham, to meet weekly to try to deal with the land-based dykes, but the problem is out in the tidal range. I am trying to arrange a meeting, finally, with a strategy team at the Environment Agency and the Marine Management Organisation—hopefully that will happen—but at the end of the day I am still lost and hope that the Minister will answer my question. Who takes the responsibility, above all those organisations, to clear out the channels of the Broad Fleet and the River Cocker which go out into the Irish sea?

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10.35 am

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): It is perhaps appropriate, Mr Bone, that I bring this debate back to Hampshire, which is where it started, with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), whom I congratulate on leading it.

In Romsey and the Test valley villages last winter, there were many types of flooding. I did not even know about the whole range, which includes ground water, surface water and foul drainage flooding. Finally, the banks of the Fishlake stream and the River Test burst and there was a dramatic influx of water into people’s houses and businesses.

As many hon. Members have mentioned, all the agencies worked incredibly hard. I emphasise that in Romsey it really was a multi-agency approach, including the EA, the county council, the borough council, the town council and the surrounding parishes. The fire service did an absolutely cracking job at all times in Romsey. Eventually, the military responded in the face of a rising tide of water.

Southern Water struggled to tanker away the foul effluent in many cases where the drainage had been infiltrated with surface water, but it kept going. I have to mention the householders, who—

Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Caroline Nokes: I really do not have time. I am sorry, but I am left with a very few minutes to talk about flooding in Hampshire, which is where we started.

Householders were bringing out endless coffee and cakes for the tanker drivers, because they recognised that they were the people keeping the sewage out of their homes.

What of the aftermath? I thank the Minister for coming to Romsey last month to speak to residents and the EA, and to learn about the cat flap, which was a temporary structure that has now been removed, and about what could be done to protect the town and the surrounding villages and prevent the Test from causing future mayhem. The Minister’s Lib Dem colleagues, albeit at local council level, criticised his visit, describing it as a political stunt. I do not believe for a minute that it was. I put on record my thanks to him for coming and for his genuine interest.

Of course, the big question on everybody’s minds in Romsey is, what more needs to be done? I can tell the Minister that the Test is significantly higher today than when he visited last month and residents are extremely anxious as they look at the weather forecast and the rain. The EA has worked hard to repair the banks of the Fishlake stream and much work has been done in the villages to ensure that the water can flow more freely. In Stockbridge there is even a fully worked-up scheme that the local chamber of commerce assures me will cost only £50,000 to implement, but its question is, where is that money coming from? Southern Water has done some amazing work improving drainage networks. In one village alone, King’s Somborne, it spent £700,000, and it has worked on the pumping station in Longparish and improved the drains in Chilbolton.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned, the county council—I pay tribute to it, particularly for its work with the pathfinder project—has

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done sterling work in both the Test and Itchen catchment areas and worked hard with the Environment Agency, refining ideas and strategies ahead of the autumn statement.

I could praise the work of the insurance companies, which responded well at the time, but of course now residents have the problem of high renewals and high excesses: £25,000 in some cases. The promised Flood Re scheme seems to be a long time coming. The Minister heard residents mention that when he visited Romsey. They do not care whether the delay is with the insurance company or the Department; they just want it sorted.

The Minister will have understood from his visit that the Fishlake stream and the River Test pass through Greatbridge and behind the Budds Lane industrial estate. This was where the greatest impact was felt by householders and businesses. The cat flap was only a temporary structure. Residents want to understand who is responsible for a permanent measure, who will fund it and, importantly, when it might happen. I share their desire for answers.

The Causeway is the only access to the Southern Water pumping station. If that fails and is inaccessible, the sewage in Romsey backs up very quickly and it emerges in people’s houses in Riverside gardens, in Middlebridge street, and in sheltered accommodation at Bridge court. We heard about the cost-benefit ratio. There may not be a massive population here, but these are people’s homes and their livelihoods—their very existence—and I cannot begin to describe how unpleasant it is for people to be knee-deep in sewage in their own kitchen. There has to be recognition that that pumping station and its access is of strategic importance to the town.

I would like to hear from the Minister an assurance that the Test valley, although not as glamorous as Windsor and not as badly hit as Somerset, has not been forgotten and that he understands the problem and, following his visit, will do his best to convince the Chancellor that it deserves the sort of funding needed to prevent the dreadful experience of last winter.

10.39 am

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing a popular debate. I am sure the many Members who have spoken could have given significant extra detail over and above the detail they have given on their constituencies. There are few more important issues for Government than protecting people from extreme weather events. We all remember the catastrophic scenes of last winter. It is therefore important that we have an opportunity to debate preparations for flooding this coming winter. It seems clear from all the speeches we have heard today—from the hon. Gentleman, from my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and from the hon. Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and from the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who waited extremely patiently for her opportunity—that prevention is better than cure.

After the significant floods in 2007, the previous Labour Government responded quickly and effectively. Once the significant relief effort was over, we commissioned the Pitt review, which was the most thorough assessment

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yet of Government’s ability to prepare for and respond to flooding. We put in place proper and effective long-term plans following that review, which included significantly increased spending. There was cross-party support for that, including for the increased spending levels. Unfortunately, that support did not survive the general election and the entry into government of the coalition parties. The response to last winter’s floods has been nowhere near as strong.

The reality is that this Government have been poor on flood protection. They slashed the budget when they first came into office and crossed their fingers and hoped it would not rain, but we know that the impact of climate change is increasing the risk of flooding in the UK. The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s advisers on this, say that the chance of a £10 billion-cost event in the next 20 years is 10%. That event would be 10 times worse in cost than last year’s floods and more than three times worse than the catastrophic floods of 2007. The Government’s failure to take climate change seriously is putting more homes at risk of flooding. We have heard clearly from Government Members that they take climate change seriously. Perhaps they would like to ensure that their Government do so, too. This debate is obviously part of that effort.

The Labour party has clear plans to get the country back on track in managing flood risk. We will reprioritise long-term preventive spending, which is essential, as all the Members who have spoken today have made clear. We will establish an independent national infrastructure commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, including flood defences. That will enable us to try to reach a consensus that lasts beyond general elections on what is necessary with this kind of infrastructure spending. That is the approach we need. It is what the Committee on Climate Change and the National Audit Office say we need, but we have not seen a lot of it from this Government.

The National Audit Office made it clear in its report on strategic flood risk management that funding for flood protection has decreased in real terms by 10% since 2010, although the Government have made efforts to spin those spending figures. That is a real issue with the Government’s approach to flood protection, which is why we are hearing so many reports about problems with flood maintenance works, which I will talk a little about. Members have talked about maintenance in their constituencies, but the National Audit Office report last month put it plainly. Half of the nation’s flood defences have been maintained only to a minimal level. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on last winter’s floods, which was published in June, also made it clear. It said:

“Defra needs to recognise the importance of regular and sustained maintenance work in the prevention and management of flood risk”.

What has the Government’s response been so far? Have they taken the advice on board and set out plans to address failing flood defence maintenance and the falling level of spending? No. They have spent more time trying to hide the problem than actually dealing with it. When the National Audit Office criticised the Government’s record on spending and maintenance, the Minister responded by briefing against the methodology used in the report. As NAO value for money reports are agreed as factual with the Department concerned before they are published, how he could do that?

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It is not just the National Audit Office saying that proper maintenance is not taking place. Last weekend, The Sunday Times reported that an unpublished maintenance review by the Environment Agency shows that thousands of areas along Britain’s rivers are in danger of flooding as a result of poor maintenance. Will the Minister commit today to publishing that maintenance review at the earliest opportunity? Those at risk of flooding due to poor maintenance, whether they are farmers or householders, should not have to read about it in newspapers. The failure on maintenance highlighted by the NAO and in The Sunday Times is just further proof of the Government’s failing record on flood protection, and it is not just the Opposition who say that.

The Government’s independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, say that Government plans will leave an additional 80,000 properties at serious risk of flooding in the next Parliament alone if they are not improved. When I pointed that out over the summer, the Conservative press office—not the Minister’s party—briefed against the Committee on Climate Change’s figures rather than setting out what the Department was planning to do to get to grips with the problem. All the signs are that the Government spend far more time trying to spin their way out of trouble instead of putting in place proper plans to reduce flood risk, which are what is needed.

On flooding, it seems that the Government cross their fingers and hope for the best, which is not good enough. All the signs suggest that Britain is not adequately prepared for flooding this winter. Lead local flood authorities, which have a significant role in managing flood risk, not least in emergency planning and recovery—Members across the Chamber have remarked on good emergency planning, but also on some failures—are having their funding from DEFRA cut from £15 million in 2014-15 to £10 million in 2015-16. That is a cut of a third. Will the Minister please explain what sort of impact he expects a cut of that size to have? Will he also explain why 86% of lead local flood authorities have failed to publish their flood risk strategies, despite being required to do so by Ministers since 2011? A clear theme during the debate has been that co-ordination across many agencies, with everyone knowing who is doing what, is an important part of flood response. Once it has started raining, it is too late to set the strategy. People have to know what they are doing in advance, so what is the Minister doing about the fact that 86% of lead local flood authorities have failed to publish their flood risk strategies?

Not only are the Government failing to carry out the necessary maintenance work to an adequate level, but they are failing to communicate that to the public. The NAO has warned that communities are not being made aware of maintenance works in their area being deprioritised. Will the Minister set out what steps are being taken to keep communities informed of that? Some householders may be able to take steps themselves that might assist. At least if they knew that their protection was being deprioritised, they would know that they have a problem. If preparation for last winter’s floods was poor at best, the immediate emergency response was good. However, the response to ensure recovery after the deluge can only be described as slow and chaotic. For weeks after the flooding started, Ministers refused to accept the need for additional funding, the

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serious situation facing many farmers and householders and that the Government had a duty to act, regardless of whether official requests from councils had been made. As a consequence, the response was chaotic and not at all good. I hope that the Minister can assure Members here today and the rest of the country that the response in future will be better.

I have already said that if I was Secretary of State, I would start by reprioritising flood risk. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), removed that from his Department’s priorities. We would introduce a new national adaptation plan to ensure that all sectors of the economy are prepared for climate change. It is unacceptable for Britain to have a plan for adapting to climate change drawn up by a Secretary of State who openly said that climate change would benefit Britain. We must end this Government’s short-term approach to flood investment and prioritise preventive spending by establishing a national infrastructure commission to identify our long-term infrastructure needs and get cross-party support to meet them.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important debate, which is of great relevance and interest to Members of all parties and the communities that they represent.

I start by reflecting on what we have seen and the impacts on constituencies described by hon. Members. Last winter saw record levels of rainfall and the stormiest period for at least 20 years. Record river flows, sea levels, wave heights and ground water levels in many locations across the country led to the flooding of more than 8,300 homes and caused damage or disruption to businesses, infrastructure, transport and utilities.

I have seen first hand the damage caused by last winter’s flooding and the devastating impact on people’s day-to-day lives. My sympathies continue to go out to those affected, in particular those who are still unable to go home because buildings can take a long time to dry out. The Government have led a major recovery effort to help people to get back on their feet, including committing more than £560 million of recovery support funding. Many organisations were involved in responding to the exceptional weather, including the Government and their agencies, in particular the Environment Agency, the emergency services and the military, as well as many voluntary organisations and transport and utility companies.

While efforts were generally effective, we acknowledged at the time that some aspects of the response and recovery required improvement. The shadow Secretary of State described a chaotic situation, but we have heard from many hon. Members that the response in their local communities was good. However, we must learn from the cases where it was less good, as we did for previous events and will continue to do. The shadow Secretary of State described the experience in 2007 under the previous Labour Government and the constant need to learn lessons and move on.

Chris Williamson: Will the Minister give way?

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Dan Rogerson: I need to make some progress as I have a lot to respond to, but I hope to cover the hon. Gentleman’s points.

The Government are spending more than £3.2 billion over the course of this Parliament on flood and erosion risk management, which is half a billion more than was spent in the previous Parliament. Comparing this Parliament with the previous five years, I should say that investment in flood risk management has increased in real terms by 5%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has secured a protected, long-term six-year capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure. We will be making record levels of investment in capital improvement projects and more than £2.3 billion will be invested in capital alone over that six-year period, with £370 million in 2015-16 and then the same in real terms each year, rising to more than £400 million in 2020-21.

That investment will deliver long-term value for money and reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households between April 2015 and March 2021, which is on top of the 165,000 homes protected during the current spending period. The national programme of flood and coastal erosion risk management improvement works is now being developed in alignment with regional flood and coastal committees, which are working on their local programmes. By the end of the decade, we will have provided a better level of protection to at least 465,000 households.

I turn to the local impacts. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester set out the situation in Hampshire, which experienced record amounts of rainfall last winter, leading to high flows on the River Itchen and on the River Test, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). Properties were affected in several communities along those rivers.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the issue is about not only those who were directly affected, but those who were not, who may be stressed and concerned about the future. I absolutely understand the wider impacts. The multi-agency emergency response in Romsey and Winchester, supported by military and other professional partners, helped to reduce the impacts of the flooding. I am grateful for the tributes paid to those who worked incredibly hard to achieve better results for their communities.

The Environment Agency estimates that more than 260 properties across Hampshire suffered internal flooding. DEFRA is currently considering an application from Hampshire county council for a three-year programme for ground water flood alleviation schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, officials met with county officials earlier this week to discuss the proposal and we remain in touch with the council over how we might take it forward.

Turning to the general preparedness for the coming winter, 844 flood defence assets were damaged in England alone last winter, including those managed by the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards. In response to last winter’s exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repair work at many sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and continued throughout the summer.

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The Environment Agency continues to work with local authorities to ensure that any outstanding repair work is identified and that funding options are clarified.

Rosie Cooper: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: As I said, I want to cover the points made in the debate, so I need to press on.

Thanks to the tremendous efforts of all involved, all areas will have at least the same standard of protection as before last winter, and permanent defences have been restored to more than 200,000 properties. For a small number of sites where repairs are continuing, contingency measures, such as mobile pumps and temporary flood defences, have been put in place to ensure that communities are protected. I understand that just 4% need temporary defences, which in some cases is down to longer-term projects that are coming forward, so it makes sense to do temporary work. Permanent defences are therefore back in place for 96% of communities.

Last winter’s floods highlighted the valuable contribution of our armed forces and the difference that they can make in response to domestic emergencies. New arrangements have been put in place to strengthen military involvement in local emergency planning and preparedness and to make it easier for responders to access support from the armed forces in an emergency if necessary. Last winter also saw disruption to our transport, energy and water supply networks, so extensive work has taken place to ensure that we are better placed to deal with similar events in future, with action being led by both Government and relevant service providers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) spoke of the issues on Canvey Island and is all too aware of how necessary it is that water companies are involved, along with local authorities and the Environment Agency, in coming up with new solutions to increase capacity and to ensure that the area is better prepared should there be a repeat of the severe event of July. I welcome the fact that water companies are engaging with her, which is important, and thank her for her kind words about the Department’s support and the chief scientist’s contribution.

A review that we have undertaken shows that lessons need to be learned from recent weather events affecting transport and from future projected changes in extreme weather events. Those lessons will be for a number of agencies.

Following the implementation of the Pitt review’s recommendations, we have been clear about where responsibilities lie. I want to address the contribution of fire and rescue services, which was raised passionately by several Opposition Members.

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Chris Williamson: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he wants to highlight the relevant bit of the review now that he has found it.

Chris Williamson: I am grateful for the opportunity to correct my earlier mistake. I meant to read out recommendation 39, which states:

“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”

Dan Rogerson: The Pitt review certainly recommended that we consider that, but the advice of the chief fire officer is that such a change would not be right at this point. The hon. Gentleman makes that point consistently in Parliament and with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have heard today about the huge contribution made by the fire and rescue services. There was no shortage of resource and they were a big part of the recovery process, which is a good sign that current arrangements are proving successful. DCLG can continue to keep the matter under review, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will raise it with Ministers from that Department.

Maria Eagle: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: I want to cover some of the other points made in the debate.

The Government are also reviewing the packages of support that have been put in place, with DCLG reviewing some recovery packages, but we are focused this morning on preventing flooding. In the short time remaining, I want to address the specific issues, frustrations and hopes for swift progress raised by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) sought assurances about the ditch clearance work that his communities believe would make a real difference. I am happy to get more information on that and to get back to him. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), along with a cross-party selection of Members from across the Humber area, consistently stresses the importance of future plans for that part of the country. As he uncannily predicted, that will be a matter for future major financial investment programme announcements, such as the autumn statement.

I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members. The Government are committed to investing record amounts in flood defences and to working with local communities to ensure that we spend that money more efficiently than ever to protect more and more homes.

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Planning Policy (Housing Targets)

11 am

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this morning, Mr Bone. I hope that the sitting, which has been a little Hampshire-centric so far, does not make you think that all southern MPs are focused only on planning and flooding, although those issues are critical to our local communities and, arguably, the biggest challenges to face our towns and villages.

The Minister will not be surprised that I requested this debate specifically about housing land supply and local authorities’ difficulties in seeking to uphold robust and well-considered planning policies in the face of repeated and determined speculative applications by developers, who are consistently using the requirement for a five-year housing land supply to their own advantage, rather than to the advantage of local residents and would-be home owners.

We all know that figures can be massaged and distorted. In Test Valley, the abolition of spatial strategies was widely welcomed, but the reality of local planning and localism has not been as we all might have hoped. It makes no difference whether sites are on the edge of Romsey or in the strategic and local gaps between smaller settlements and the major city of Southampton. To the layman, developers appear to be using the national planning policy framework to their own advantage and riding roughshod over local opinion and the local decisions made by democratically elected councillors.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): What my hon. Friend has said echoes what is happening in my constituency. Only last week, I went to a meeting about the neighbourhood plan for Chapel-en-le-Frith—a fantastic piece of work that is seemingly not being considered. The issue is all to do with the land supply. Residents are getting incensed, thinking, “Are we in a situation of planning by appeal?” Does my hon. Friend think that a valid point?

Caroline Nokes: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the experience that we are facing in Test Valley.

The onus of the NPPF is very much on delivery—I do not need to remind the Minister to refer specifically to paragraphs 47 and 48. Local councils in general and, as the Minister knows from his own correspondence, Test Valley council in particular, are calling for greater clarity and for a focus on planning issues, where the authority has the ability to have a role.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that no matter where we are in the country, we are seeing more and more of our green belt disappear? It is vital that we should first consider every brownfield site possible before any green belt is even looked at.

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the green belt. Unfortunately, in Hampshire we have next to none.

Recent information from the National Trust indicated that if the five-year land supply can be disputed by developers, more than 70% of locally made decisions are overturned at appeal. The Minister will not comment

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on individual cases, and I do not ask him to, but in order to highlight how the requirement for a five-year housing land supply has been abused, I shall use the example of Parkers Farm on the edge of Rownhams, which is the subject of a speculative planning application that right now is at the appeal stage.

Test Valley’s revised local plan has recently been submitted and is expected to be determined some time reasonably early next year. Throughout the borough, local communities are looking at neighbourhood plans, some more actively than others, and there is real enthusiasm locally to ensure that residents’ views are heard and taken into account.

If there is one thing that my constituents get, it is local planning, and as someone who served for 12 years on the southern area planning committee of Test Valley borough council, it is something I get. I have long held the belief that nothing is more vexed in the world of politics than local planning. Where guidance is clear and statistics cannot be manipulated and distorted, however, there is at least clarity. People can reasonably understand policies and not be confronted with ever-shifting sands.

With Parkers Farm, which is only one site that I have identified—the Minister might be aware that there are several others across southern Test Valley—the case of the appellant rests on there not being an adequate five-year land supply. The Minister may recall the correspondence from the leader of the local council on the matter, following a motion in Test Valley borough council, but the five-year supply depends entirely on how it is calculated and on the rate of delivery of granted permissions. In the majority of cases, that rate of delivery is entirely in the hands of the developers.

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): I totally support my hon. Friend on that point. In effect, we appear to have an extraordinary flaw and an unintended consequence of the planning system. Developers like the comfort of a long-term plan and lots of land in it, but they are not as keen to deliver that land as quickly as we might like for many reasons, among which is not wishing to bring the local land price down, as well as ensuring that they can get more land into their land-banking systems.

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend is of course right. The issue is entirely about the laws of supply and demand. Those who control the supply have the upper hand in this case.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that the brownfield sites are sitting there waiting to be developed while green land is being developed?

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend is right to a certain extent, but in Test Valley we have both scenarios: neither brownfield sites nor greenfield sites with permission are being developed.

I have raised the issue more than once in the Chamber and with more than one planning Minister. In Test Valley, we have repeatedly witnessed the scenario in which each developer seeks permission by demonstrating, usually on appeal, that sites with extant planning permission are for some reason or other undeliverable. We have even had the bizarre situation in which landowners have

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argued that their own sites, previously granted permission, are now not coming forward at the expected rate, so a further permission is required for an additional site. That is all in order for the borough to maintain its five-year supply.

The revised local plan, therefore, proposes a higher annual housing delivery figure than that contained in the now revoked south-east plan. Test Valley is doing its bit to aid housing supply. The construction rate is at a 15-year high, and since 2012 the borough has had the highest completion rate in Hampshire, including in the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton.

The council has a long-standing working relationship with many developers and seeks to bring forward appropriate sites. It has worked hard and made incredibly difficult decisions, but is repeatedly frustrated. It is doing its best to grant appropriate permissions and to encourage developers to bring forward housing, but the ability of certain landowners and developers to fail to meet their promised delivery rates once they have obtained planning permission is causing huge difficulties. That manipulates the land supply forecast and calculations to the developers’ advantage and, as a result, yet more greenfield sites fall under the continuous pressure from speculative planning applications.

Rebecca Harris: My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. The problem is clearly one that we recognise in many parts of the country. What counts as deliverable in planning circles is very much what the developers tell us is deliverable. They will assure us that they can get their vehicles straight on to that nice green-belt site, or in the course of a couple of days, but that the brownfield sites are not deliverable. Once the site is given to them in the plan, it becomes quite another matter, and sites might sit there vacant, but causing planning blight for residents.

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify that cause of planning blight. Residents see a greenfield site with planning permission, but with nothing happening, which causes huge frustration. Decisions not to bring forward sites that are not under the local authority’s control—for commercial reasons, for example—should not have the effect of penalising the land supply figure.

At this point, I remind the Minister that Hampshire has no green belt, save for a small corner in the far south-west designed to prevent the spread of the Bournemouth conurbation, which I must remark lies in a totally different county. Hampshire does not benefit from green belt and, as a result, the coalescence of settlements and the loss of the distinctive gaps between them is a serious problem.

The Minister’s response to me, of Monday’s date, helpfully points out paragraph 82 of the NPPF and identifies exactly why my local authority cannot designate new green belt. The NPPF states that the general extent of the green belt is already established—we do not have any and we are unlikely to get any—and that new green belt should be established only in exceptional circumstances. Let me tell him that unfortunately the circumstances in Test Valley are not exceptional, and it would be incredibly difficult for us to designate a new area of green belt, because we are not planning a large new settlement or

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major urban extension. Even if we could designate a green belt, the current criteria do not allow us to. I urge him to revisit those criteria.

I return to the point in hand. Over the past four years, all the speculative developments in southern Test Valley have been justified on the grounds of a lack of a deliverable five-year supply and the supposed ability of yet another site to make up the shortfall. Yet, as the deputy leader of the council said earlier this year, if we were to tot up all the permissions granted across southern Test Valley, there would be over seven years’ worth of supply. Developers are building deliberately slowly, for either strategic or commercial reasons.

The housing land supply figures are too easily influenced by developers simply either changing their forecasts on permitted sites or not bringing sites forward at all, or else not as quickly as was forecast. The case of the Romsey brewery is well documented. That development has been brought forward at a painfully slow rate since the final brew was started on my 11th birthday.

Andrew Bingham: A long time ago.

Caroline Nokes: Yes—a very long time ago, as my hon. Friend says. For 30 years, the landowner and developer have dragged their feet, and have set a pattern that others seem very happy to follow. Of course, we all understand that there may be solid planning reasons for sites not coming forward as quickly as was hoped—both I and the Minister understand that—but those reasons should not include the whims of developers. Test Valley borough council is seeking an amendment to national guidance that would enable local planning authorities to factor in forecasted delivery rates in the housing land supply calculated when permission was originally granted. The review of delivery rates should be permitted only if there are sound planning reasons to do so.

I note the Minister’s response—dated yesterday—to the leader of the council, which focused on the steps local authorities can take to bring forward development. Yes, of course he is right that time scales for the start of development can be shortened, but that does not help where development has started but then progresses very slowly indeed. The fund for self-builders is, of course, welcome, but it simply will not deliver the scale of development needed to address the disputed land supply figures.

I turn now to some specific Test Valley examples. I have mentioned Parkers Farm in Rownhams, a greenfield site, which has not been included in the revised local plan but is now the subject of an appeal for 320 houses and a 60 bed extra-care facility. That site would have been considered as part of the borough local plan process but clearly was not deemed as sustainable as other potential sites. It is adjacent to another site that it is thought will imminently be subject to a planning application.

Were the two applications to be granted, they would effectively close the gap between the village of Rownhams and the Southampton city boundary. For generations Test Valley councillors have sought to maintain gaps between settlements and enable villages to retain their own identity and sense of community, but that looks to be under very real threat.

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On the edge of Romsey, a site at Halterworth—again, a greenfield site and part of an important local gap between Romsey and the village of North Baddesley—is subject to a proposal by Foreman Homes for in excess of 100 dwellings and a leisure centre. Again, that site would have been considered by the borough local plan process and, again, for good planning reasons it has been excluded.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): The Hampshire love-in continues. Those examples are very pertinent. There is a site in my constituency being developed called Pitt Vale, next to Pitt Manor. It is between Winchester and Hursley, and is right on the border of my hon. Friend’s constituency—she is my parliamentary neighbour. That site was considered as part of the local plan and was dismissed. It is now part of what I consider to be a speculative planning application but that I have no doubt will one day end up with the Planning Inspectorate. My constituents are angry because they have done their bit, worked with localism and created a local plan, but now they find themselves in that situation. Does she not agree that that is undermining one of the best things this Government have done—namely, the Localism Act 2011?

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour makes a valid point. That is exactly the sentiment of my constituents as well.

I wrote to the Minister about Wrens Corner in Romsey Extra—he has responded recently. That is yet another example of a speculative proposal on the edge of the borough local plan and certainly not included within it. All the schemes I have mentioned rely on a supposed lack of a deliverable five-year housing land supply, despite the fact that, as I said earlier, on the cold figures Test Valley borough council has granted seven years’ worth of permissions in the south of the borough.

I will conclude, as I know the Minister will want to respond. Test Valley borough councillors have sought to be constructive and engage with him and his officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government. They have provided examples and evidence of how the five-year land supply, as it is currently determined, is being manipulated by developers. The system enables developers to bank permissions, start development, although painfully slowly, and then move on to a new site, claiming that previous developments are now not deliverable—or at least not at the same rate they had once claimed. It is rather like a cake from which a slice is cut and one bite taken out, before the consumer moves on to cut another slice: the whole cake is ruined, but nobody’s appetite is satisfied.

That is not good planning. It is not plan led, but led by speculation and greed, helping only the developers, and certainly not those seeking to buy their own homes in this desirable part of the country. I urge the Minister, who I know is in receipt of advice from his officials and my councillors, to look at the five-year supply problem and find innovative and effective ways of encouraging—or, if necessary, compelling—those who have permissions to bring their sites forward, as well as ways to deter that sort of manipulation of the system, so that ultimately communities can be constructed, rather than blighted for decades by slow or non-existent building.

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11.15 am

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this timely debate. I know that she is committed to making sure that housing in her constituency is developed in the right locations, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the Government’s national planning policy in achieving that, as well as the issues other hon. Friends have raised today. I know that Members across the House, as well as my hon. Friends here today, have made similar points about making sure development happens; we know we need to build more houses, but we all want to see them in the appropriate places, and designed and built in an appropriate way.

My hon. Friend has outlined the importance of getting local plans in place, and I will respond on that point in more detail in a moment. Most of the areas where there are issues do not have a local plan in place. Once a plan is in place, it gives the level of protection that people want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, nothing will ever stop a developer trying something, but with a local plan in place residents have protection and therefore the expectation—rightly—that the planning process and any appeal will back up the approved and adopted local plan.

Several of my hon. Friends have mentioned the green belt and brownfield land. I know that the green belt is not directly relevant to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, which does not have much green belt, but it is worth noting that the green belt has remained constant in England over the past few years. If we disregard land reclassified as national parks, the green belt is larger now than in 1997. We are focusing on developing brownfield land as a priority. That is why we launched a new fund specifically aimed at brownfield development during the summer.

I am pleased to hear that Test Valley council is giving strong leadership and recognises the importance of providing the housing necessary to suit the needs of local people. That the rate of construction in the local authority area is at its highest for 15 years is testament to that and to the work done there by councillors and by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend noted that as a Minister in DCLG I have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system and therefore cannot comment on specific proposals, or on the emerging local plan in Test Valley, which, as she said, is currently at examination stage. However, she has raised some important issues relating to the Government’s approach and reforms and I will touch on those.

The Government are committed to increasing housing supply and helping more people achieve the aspiration of having a home of their own. I am pleased to hear of my hon. Friend’s support for our changes to get rid of the top-down regional strategies that, as many of us know, built up nothing but resentment, while in the meantime, of course, nothing was getting built. I welcome the enthusiasm of local communities in her area for exploring neighbourhood plans. When we came into power, we wanted local communities to play a much stronger role in shaping the areas in which they live and

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supporting new development proposals that would deliver the houses we need. That is why we introduced the neighbourhood planning system in the Localism Act, which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. That important and popular legislation means that local people in communities get a real say in planning in their area. For the first time, communities can come together to produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.

Andrew Bingham: I agree with what the Minister says about neighbourhood plans, but it seems that the plan written in Chapel-en-le-Frith is being completely ignored by the planning authority—the borough council—which has led to great dissatisfaction in the village. People got together to put the plan together, but they now feel it is being ignored, so they are wondering what the point is.

Brandon Lewis: Without going into the specifics of my hon. Friend’s case, if a neighbourhood plan has been drawn up—particularly if it has gone through a referendum and been approved—it is right that the local authority should give it weight. Neighbourhood plans have statutory weight. If residents in my hon. Friend’s area look at casework from just the last month or two, they will see that the Government and planning inspectors have backed neighbourhood plans and turned down planning applications that go against them. If a local authority is not taking account of neighbourhood plans, residents should be very firm with it about what it is doing. Authorities are ultimately elected by their communities and they should be listening to them.

Neighbourhood plans can include policies on where development should go, what it should look like, what should be protected and what facilities should be provided. I therefore encourage all constituents, whether in rural or urban parts of any of our constituencies, who want to support house building while protecting the historic, environmental and aesthetic value of our communities, to get involved with neighbourhood planning.

Caroline Nokes: I very much welcome neighbourhood plans, and some great plans are being worked on in my constituency, but will the Minister acknowledge that in some instances there is frustration at how long the process can take? Even when good, experienced people are drafting the plan, it can take many years to come to fruition.

Brandon Lewis: People in a few areas have raised that point with me over the summer. For neighbourhood plans to work, we want them to be robust but as straightforward as possible, rather than a bureaucratic nightmare. I am determined to do something to see whether we can speed up that process, and if my hon. Friend can bear with us over the next few more weeks, we will be taking decisions about this very issue.

I am aware that there are concerns—my hon. Friend has outlined some—about the way the framework is used in areas such as hers. In all our reforms, including the introduction of the NPPF, the Government have put plans and communities at the heart of the planning system, which is very much designed to move from the historical system of development and control to a plan-led system and, ultimately, with neighbourhood plans, to a proactive plan system. An up-to-date local plan, prepared

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through public consultation, sets the framework in which all decisions should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or at appeal.

The framework is clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, but not development at any cost or in any place. Localism means choosing how best to meet development needs, not whether to meet them at all. We do not ask local authorities to plan to set housing targets or to build more homes than they need, but by putting in place a locally led system, we ask them to take tough decisions about where development should and should not go.

Mr Andrew Turner: What we have is urban areas where building is suitable but does not come forward, while in pleasant places outside those areas it does come forward. How do we get cases, some of which have been there for years, treated so that they come forward in a reasonable way and are not ignored?

Brandon Lewis: It is for local authorities, not for any of us in Westminster, to take through their local plans. The policy itself says that local planning authorities should

“use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”.

That is important. Sometimes, councillors forget that it is for the local authority to use its evidence to see what its housing needs will be. Then, at the second stage, having assessed what those housing needs are, it should produce a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about what it can deliver, and what is appropriate and where in its area. There are, in effect, two separate stages. The authority could and should also take into account environmental constraints, as is clearly outlined in the NPPF. Once the local authority has done that, it ends up with its housing requirement figure, against which the supply of housing sites should be calculated.

Local authorities should identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites. Once a local plan is in place, has been approved and is therefore robust, that gives local communities the protection so many people want. I therefore encourage all areas to move on and get their local plans adopted and taken through the system. That approach is preferable to the endless discussions and debates that are often replicated in determining individual applications and appeals. Should Test Valley borough council’s plan be found sound and be adopted next year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North anticipates, the council will be in a much stronger position to defend its decisions on general planning applications in line with that plan.

Where local authorities cannot demonstrate a five-year supply, relevant housing policies will not be considered up to date, and the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. That means granting planning permission unless the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, or unless specific policies in the framework indicate that development should be restricted. Even in the absence of an up-to-date plan, our policy seeks to strike a balance between enabling the sustainable development we need and conserving and enhancing our natural and

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historic environment. Clearly, the weight attached to every decision will depend on the decision taker and the facts of a given case, but planning decisions over the last few months show that development that goes against environmental constraints will be overturned, even where there is not necessarily a local plan, if that is the appropriate decision.

I note the National Trust’s claims about developers’ rate of success where there is no five-year housing land supply in place. I should point out that, overall, the views of local authorities are upheld in the majority of cases. About two thirds of appeals are refused, and the figure has been around that level for a number of years.

My hon. Friend mentioned her concerns about slower delivery rates by local developers on sites with planning permission, which can put extra pressure on local authorities to release more sites. Test Valley borough council has been concerned about such activities, which is why my officials met the council and other authorities while preparing the planning guidelines. Many factors influence when a development is started, not least the availability of finance, market conditions and legal constraints. In the main, however, I would hope that a developer that commits to building out at a particular rate will do so, and we are right to expect that the local planning authority will keep the delivery of new development under review as part of its wider working on monitoring housing delivery.

At various stages of the planning process, local authorities may be able to take steps to tackle concerns about that. For example, our guidance is clear that they can consider the likely deliverability of sites as part of the plan-making process. When assessing the availability of a site, consideration should be given to the delivery record of the developers or landowners putting forward the site

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and to whether the site’s planning background shows a history of unimplemented planning permissions. We also made the point in our guidance that local authorities that review their five-year supply every year are likely to make the assessment very robust and to be protected from having out-of-date housing policies when defending an appeal further down the line. We have also made it clear that older people’s housing, student housing and vacant housing can, in the right circumstances, be counted towards meeting the housing requirement. Furthermore, where a local authority has concerns about the deliverability of a site and about the negative impact of delay, it can, where appropriate, impose shorter time scales for the start of development. It can also serve completion notices to require that development commenced is completed within a set period, and it can, ultimately, revoke planning permission in some circumstances.

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s request for a change to national planning policy on the designation of the green belt. As she knows, the Government attach the highest importance to protecting our green belt, and we underlined that further in guidance this summer. However, designating and changing green-belt boundaries must be a local decision. We are clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans. I appreciate the challenge for an area such as Hampshire, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to make representations to us, but we want to avoid urban sprawl. Despite my hon. Friend’s concerns about protecting our beautiful villages and the countryside in her constituency, designating land as green belt is not necessarily the way forward in this instance, although I am happy for her to make further representations herself or through her local authority in the future.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Public Libraries (England)

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I am delighted, Mr Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I am pleased to be here to debate public libraries in England; we do not do that often enough. Sadly, England is becoming a place where access to creativity, culture and the arts is rapidly diminishing. Our libraries, which sit at the very heart of our communities and offer that cultural experience, seem almost to have been forgotten by this Government.

It is difficult to give a definitive figure for the number of library closures because, tellingly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council do not directly collect figures. However, according to Public Libraries News, since 2010 nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobiles, are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or placed outside council control.

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): The hon. Lady may be aware that we now do an annual report to Parliament under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Last year, we calculated that fewer than 100 static libraries had closed.

Lyn Brown: The Minister will be aware that, since 2010, 500 libraries are reported to have been passed to volunteers, to be outside council control or to have closed. Nevertheless, there are 3,000 libraries in England doing hugely positive work. They sit at the heart of our communities, promoting culture and creativity despite these difficult times.

According to one survey, public access to libraries is being curtailed. One third of libraries have reduced their opening hours and a further third have introduced charges for services that were previously free. By reducing hours and increasing charges for services such as the internet, people on limited incomes who cannot afford a home computer, and rely on libraries for school work or to search and apply for jobs, are excluded.

2.32 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

2.57 pm

On resuming—

Lyn Brown: To recap, we are talking about the nearly 500 libraries, including 80 mobile libraries, that are reported to have closed, been passed to volunteers or been placed outside council control since 2010. We are talking about the reduction in hours and the increasing charges, especially for internet use. We are talking about the fact that library outreach services are among the hardest hit by the cuts. Limiting those services has meant that the less mobile people in our community—particularly the elderly—have found their mobile services severely limited.

The reason why libraries are as valued as they are and why I am passionate about them and their role is that they act as a gateway for personal development, promote community cohesion, act as economic enablers, promote democratic participation, inspire the imagination and fuel aspiration.

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When I was growing up, my mum’s driving ambition for me was that I would not join her working on the shop floor, packing icing sugar, at Tate & Lyle. She, like many other mothers and fathers, had the insight to know that education and literacy were crucial to that aim and my future. She took me to the library every day she could, hoping that it would have a positive influence on me.

As a result, my world opened up and a reading habit was instilled in me, which has given me enormous pleasure and enabled me to continue and enhance my education. Libraries give working families such as mine access to resources, influences and learning that many middle-class families may take for granted. Libraries remain radical and empowering places. As the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once said:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Sadly, under the Government’s watch, that spring is drying up.

Public libraries are not only close to my heart, but highly valued by the British public. Despite the downturn in library provision, the latest figures show that 306 million visits are made each year to UK libraries, and that 70% of five to 15-year-olds have used a library in the past year. When the Carnegie UK Trust surveyed attitudes towards public libraries, the results were overwhelming. More than two thirds of people said that libraries were essential or very important to a community. I am pleased to say that the Carnegie report identifies an increase in the number of library users between 2002 and 2006, after a period of falling use between 1992 and 2002. The Carnegie UK Trust rightly attributes that increase in numbers to the installation of the people’s network, which provided internet access in UK libraries.

Mr Vaizey: Does it also report the decline in library use from 2005?

Lyn Brown: It does indeed, as the Minister will know if he has read the report. I am coming to that, if he will be patient.

Mr Vaizey: I will.

Lyn Brown: Thank you.

Some hon. Members present may believe that libraries should or will be consigned to history, and that the rise of the e-book and digital services will render libraries obsolete. Those Members should remember that one in five families in this country do not have internet access at home. Although we have seen a drastic rise in the number of internet users in coffee shops, half our libraries still do not have wi-fi. To respond to the changing needs of the 21st century, the library offer must adapt and change. That, just like the people’s network, will take real commitment and leadership from the Government—or a Government, perhaps I should say.

Our local authorities were once the mainstay of cultural funding throughout the UK. Today, they are underfunded and reduced. They are struggling. Even the local authorities with the best practice are being forced into taking previously unthinkable action. Gateshead, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and many others that have been successful over many decades are struggling to maintain a decent cultural offer. Indeed, one Tory council, Barnet—which,

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when I was chair of the Local Government Association culture services executive, had beacon status for its libraries—is now consulting on service reductions. It posits a choice between closing six out of 14 libraries and cutting the space in 10 out of 14 libraries to what it describes as the size of a living room.

The council proposes to rent out the rest of that community-owned space as commercial offices. I understand that Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, Sarah Sackman, is doing all she can to stop those vicious closure proposals. I wish her and all the other library campaigners across the country well.

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important topic that matters so much to so many of our communities. She mentioned a consultation run by one Conservative-controlled council in north London. Would she like to comment on Croydon council, which, under the Conservatives, consulted local people on how they wanted their libraries to be run—so far, so good—but subsequently privatised the libraries, even though that had not been one of the options for consideration during the consultation?

Lyn Brown: I think it is awful that a council would go out to consultation on an option and then disregard the views that people express. I cannot conceive of that. I understand that councils are struggling enormously under the cuts that the Government are making, so essential services such as libraries are at risk. At one time, Croydon council’s libraries were considered to be among the best that we had to offer in the capital.

Mr Vaizey: The hon. Lady highlights the actions of a Labour candidate in a Tory-controlled authority. Will she enlighten the House on what Labour MPs and candidates have done in Labour councils that have closed libraries, such as Barking and Dagenham, Bolton, Bradford, Hackney, Lambeth, Leeds, Liverpool—the list goes on? More than five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour councils as by Conservative ones.

Lyn Brown: What astounds me about the Minister’s contribution is that he does not seem to think that he has any responsibility in this debate. He wants to offload the responsibility on to councils, but he has offered very little leadership to enable those councils to take decisions collectively to make the best of their resources. I do not understand how the Minister has the brass neck.

Mr Reed: My hon. Friend will have heard, as I did, the Minister cite Lambeth as a Labour-controlled council that has closed libraries. In fact, Lambeth has opened a new library in Clapham and has closed no libraries at all. Does she agree that the Minister should withdraw his comment and apologise?

Lyn Brown: I think it would be a jolly good idea for the Minister to withdraw what he said and apologise. I will give way to him if he wishes to do so.

Mr Vaizey indicated dissent.

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Lyn Brown: I thought that the facts that the Minister cited at the beginning of the debate were a bit dodgy, and the sad fact is that we are unlikely to see any new money for libraries.

Mr Vaizey: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lyn Brown: No; I am done now.

We must make the best use of the money currently assigned to libraries so that they can make the best use of limited and diminishing resources. That takes leadership, but such leadership has been sadly lacking. When the coalition abolished the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, it transferred responsibilities and resources to Arts Council England in what I believe to be an ill-conceived and ill-thought-through botch. The MLAC resources were reduced from £62 million to £46.5 million, and the libraries element was reduced from £13 million to £3 million. Understandably, the Arts Council remains arts-centric despite its broadened remit, so libraries are left with slashed resources and without leadership at a time when they need it most. William Sieghart recently stated:

“The way the service is set up, it is run totally dysfunctionally. The DCMS has responsibility, but no budget, the Arts Council has been given a role reluctantly, and the DCLG looks at the local authorities who actually make decisions.”

He continued:

“I’m frightened and worried for the library network. In the arctic blast of austerity, some authorities will struggle to know what to do with their library service. They will just hand over the keys and say goodbye, and that will be a disaster.”

Mr Sieghart hits the nail on the head. I should say to hon. Members who do not know that he has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to publish an independent report on the public library service in England.

The Arts Council believes that it can steer, help, support and guide a national network of libraries with a dedicated half-time post. I am an optimist, but that is optimism taken to the extreme. I presume that the Arts Council is doing its best with an enormous portfolio and significant cuts to its budget—indeed, there have been significant cuts to the arts sector as a whole—but it was never a good idea on the part of the Government to push libraries on to the Arts Council. I can only assume that Ministers looked for the easiest berth in which to park a problem about which they lack the nous or imagination to think creatively. That is to the detriment of the Arts Council and the library sector.

Only a few weeks ago, the Government moved formally to abolish the Advisory Council on Libraries, which had been left to rot for a number of years and was already effectively redundant. Although it had only an advisory role, it brought together leaders from a range of library sectors as well as other relevant parties such as publishers and authors. It helped to place public libraries within the context of broader library and information provision, which set challenges of improving performance and quality. If the Minister had had a mind to, he could have benefited from decent independent advice, which could have helped to provide the leadership that is sadly lacking. I think it a great pity that he did not. I would hope that the next Labour Government will consider re-establishing the advisory council.

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I remember when the sector had great hopes for the Minister. Libraries would be safe in his hands. He would often write e-mails on a Sunday night to library professionals, telling them this and offering support on that. He was their champion. He attacked my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), accusing him of

“ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state”

over library closures in the Wirral.

Mr Vaizey: Will the hon. Lady give way? She is issuing a personal attack—she may want to give way.

Lyn Brown: I quote the Minister:

“Andy Burnham’s refusal to take action in the Wirral effectively renders the 1964 Public Libraries Act meaningless. [Interruption.] While it is Local Authorities’ responsibility to provide libraries, the Act very clearly lays responsibility for ensuring a good service at the culture secretary’s door. [Interruption.] If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as Secretary of State, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”

I note that no such interventions have been made under this Government. What does the Minister now think of his own words?

Mr Vaizey: I am willing to answer—

Lyn Brown: Do they have relevance today?

Mr Vaizey: I am willing to respond—

Lyn Brown: Has he upbraided his own Secretary of State for his lack of action? What does he think of his own performance, when compared to his critique?

Mr Vaizey: It is true that I came off the fence in opposition. Can the hon. Lady point to a single instance when the Opposition spokesman has called for me to intervene in the library closures undertaken by any local authority since 2010?

Lyn Brown: The Minister clearly understood the sector when he was in opposition. He promised much, but in government, he has, sadly, delivered little.

We now have a dysfunctional national governance framework for libraries in England; Government Members who said one thing in opposition but do another in power; and a public libraries sector that is wilting due to the Government’s lack of leadership.

Surely there is now significant justification for creating a library development agency, decoupling the libraries portfolio from the Arts Council and using the remaining budget to create a lean, dedicated, passionate strategic national body that provides the leadership and advocacy the sector so urgently deserves. Any such agency should not curtail innovation or stifle the sector with bureaucracy, but enable local library authorities to seize the opportunities that exist, and support change and innovation.