§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement following the publication of the report by the independent review team on the flooding that occurred at Easter this year. I do this as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has policy responsibility for flood and coastal defence issues in England. Operational responsibility for delivering the flood defence service rests with a number of operating authorities, the principal one of which is the Environment Agency, as well as with other authorities responsible for providing emergency services.
Following torrential rainfall, many areas across central England and Wales were affected by floods, which were the worst for decades. In many respects, they exceeded the floods of 1947 which have hitherto acted as a benchmark for inland flooding in this country. Sadly, five people died as a result of the floods. I offer my deepest sympathy to their families and friends. Thousands had to leave their homes. Many people have still not been able to return more than six months after the event. I have seen for myself the devastation caused by the flood water and repeat the Government's profound sympathy to all those affected. I am sure that I shall be joined in that by the whole House.
The Deputy Prime Minister visited many of the affected areas on the Easter Sunday to assess the scale of the damage caused by the floods and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing is announcing today financial assistance under the so-called Bellwin scheme for Northampton borough council, Warwickshire county council, Stratford-upon-Avon district council and Worcester city council. This is in addition to the financial assistance already announced for Northamptonshire police authority and for Warwick and Wychavon district councils.
It was clear from the outset that issues in relation to the floods needed to be reviewed. No warnings were given in Northampton and Kidlington, two of the towns that were worst affected. There were also allegations that flood defences were operated in ways that sacrificed one town to save another. Such issues needed to be addressed, and lessons identified.
The Environment Agency is the principal flood defence operating authority in England and Wales with responsibility for flood defence in main rivers and sea defences. It also has specific responsibility for flood warning dissemination. I agreed the agency's proposal that an independent review of the floods should be commissioned, with wide terms of reference.
The agency commissioned Mr. Peter Bye, former chief executive of Suffolk county council, to chair the review, with Dr. Mike Horner acting as technical assessor. The review team received and assessed much evidence—both orally and in writing—including visits to the areas worst affected. Its report to the Environment Agency was published on 1 October. It is a balanced, hard-hitting and authoritative document on which Mr. Bye and Dr. Horner are to be congratulated. They acknowledge that the floods were the worst for many years and presented extreme challenges to those with responsibility for responding. 1080 That includes not only staff in the Environment Agency, but those in local authorities, the emergency services and the military. Many people worked long hours over the Easter weekend to respond to the emergency, and the Government pay tribute to their dedication.
The report also finds that, in many respects, the Environment Agency's policies, plans and operational arrangements are sound, and that staff did their best in extreme circumstances, within the limits of agency guidelines and resources. It is also important to note that, rather than defences being breached, the flooding was generally the result of defences being overtopped by water to a depth that exceeded their design specifications. Importantly, too, the report does not find evidence that some areas were sacrificed to save others.
The review team did, however, conclude that there were instances of unsatisfactory planning, inadequate warnings for the public, incomplete defences and poor co-ordination with emergency services. The report deals with those issues in some detail, identifies lessons to be learned and makes recommendations for improvement of the whole service.
I wish to report to the House that I met the Environment Agency chairman, Lord De Ramsey, on 14 October to consider the report and the agency's response to it. He agreed that there are lessons that the agency must learn from the report and that appropriate response measures must be implemented. Without wishing to detain the House too long, I should like to explain briefly the action that will be taken.
As a starting point, Lord De Ramsey and I agreed that there must be a seamless and integrated service of flood forecasting, warning and response. Weather forecast information needs to be integrated with reliable information about flood risk in particular areas—relating to their topography and the protection offered by the flood defences—to generate a flood forecast and, if appropriate, a flood warning. Flood warnings need to get to the people in the area at risk of flooding in time for them to respond appropriately. Local emergency plans must be ready to be activated, and must work when they are implemented. That needs to happen.
At Easter, there were deficiencies. The agency therefore intends to carry out a thorough review of the whole system to ensure that it is focused to deliver the required service, that management arrangements make that possible and that there are clear lines of accountability and responsibility.
The review will need to take account of experience in recent years of current arrangements and increased understanding over that period, as well as addressing the individual recommendations in the report, some of which can, and must, be implemented ahead of others. The agency will publish its detailed action plan next month.
Having made clear the need for a systems approach, I then considered with Lord De Ramsey each of the five broad areas of criticism in the report—management structures and skills shortages; flood forecasting; flood warning; standards of defence; and emergency response.
On management structures and skills shortages, the agency will carry out a review of its internal management structures by April 1999. That must also take account of the concerns about skills in the report.
On flood forecasting and flood warning, we will be considering with the agency its proposal to develop a national flood forecasting and warning service to bring 1081 together existing expertise in a more integrated way. Flood forecasting relies on key information on flood risk in river or coastal flood plains. Improvements will be made in the agency's telemetry systems by March 2000. Before then, improvements will be made in other hydrometric standards, including identification and extension of best practice.
The agency is engaged in a five-year project of flood risk mapping. Priority will be given to publishing the best available information, even if in a relatively unrefined state, by September 1999.
We cannot provide defences that are guaranteed to defend against every flooding event. Flood warning is therefore the Government's highest priority. Flood warning dissemination plans must be checked to ensure that they contain no obvious errors or omissions. The agency already has that in hand and expects to complete the work this year. That is but the first step. The agency must go on to consider the content of the plans, their scope and their coverage. It will need to check plans against parameters and targets, which the Ministry will define in consultation with the agency. That will obviously take more time, but the agency is clear about the need to complete that task by September 1999.
Those actions relate to the plans for dissemination of flood warnings. Obviously, warnings must get to the right place at the right time and ensure the right response. We will therefore be reviewing with the agency the content of flood warning messages to ensure that those who receive them understand their significance and what they must do.
On standards of defence, the agency is part way through a complete survey of its flood defence assets. I have agreed with Lord De Ramsey that initial visual surveys must be completed by April 2000 and kept up to date thereafter. Those inspections will be supplemented by more rigorous, but less frequent, structural surveys of the defences.
The agency's responsibility is to issue flood warnings; its having done so, the emergency response is the responsibility of others. Local authorities generally co-ordinate the local emergency planning process, but when those plans are implemented the co-ordination role normally falls to the police, although they will clearly need strong support from the fire and ambulance services, and emergency planning departments in local authorities, social services and other similar agencies.
Although the first priority is to complete the review of emergency plans, we are also taking up another recommendation in the report, which concerns the need for emergency exercises to test the arrangements. I see the need for a mixture of regular, small-scale exercises coupled with less frequent major exercises to provide a rigorous test of the arrangements.
In relation to flood warning, emergency response and exercises, there are a number of key partners. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is therefore writing to local authorities, police and fire chief officers to stress the importance of effective liaison with the Environment Agency in its review of flood warning dissemination plans. He will also stress the importance of ensuring that emergency plans remain up to date and of active participation in exercises.
1082 I have set out a series of measures that represent a positive response to the recommendations in the report. I have not addressed every recommendation, although the agency will do so next month. However, I assure the House that the Government and the agency take the report extremely seriously and are moving swiftly to address the key issues that have been identified.
In addition to its role as a flood defence operating authority, the Environment Agency is required, under the Environment Act 1995, to exercise a general supervision over all matters relating to flood defence. The Ministry will work with the agency and the other operating authorities—local authorities and internal drainage boards—in considering how that general supervisory duty should be developed to ensure a greater consistency of service and to ensure that best practice is shared. Targets will also need to be set—I have outlined some key ones today.
The Ministry will consider with the agency the cost of the programme of improvements. We will also liaise with local authorities to emphasise the importance of their contribution to adequate funding through the levies that they pay to the agency. Regional flood defence committees are being made aware of the priority that I attach to achieving those targets. The agency will provide progress reports. I will monitor and be prepared to intervene through ministerial direction if necessary.
I acknowledged at the beginning of this statement that many areas were affected by the floods. It may be invidious to single out one place as being particularly badly affected, but I think that that can be fairly said of Northampton. The town is one of five that were subject to special case studies in the report. Two people died and thousands had to leave their homes. Many have yet to return and some may never do so.
The town's residents have pursued a vigorous campaign for a judicial public inquiry into the floods. They have presented a petition to the House, and, all along, their efforts have been assiduously supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) and for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). Because of those representations, I have given careful thought to the call for a judicial public inquiry. On balance, however, I am not persuaded that an inquiry of that type will add to the detailed findings of Mr. Bye's thorough and independent report. Even the most cynical of observers could not accuse the report of being a whitewash. It pulls no punches in its conclusions.
I believe that there is a compelling need to move on, to learn the lessons identified and, above all, to implement the appropriate measures that I have set out today. A public inquiry would distract attention from that and inevitably result in further and, I suggest, unnecessary delay. It would also divert considerable financial and staff resources from the vital task of reducing the risk of a recurrence of the devastation of the floods.
Mercifully, serious floods are relatively rare in this country, thanks to the investment that successive Governments have made to protect our natural and man-made assets—an investment which this Government increased in the recent comprehensive spending review by some £23 million for capital works over the next three years.
In exercising their flood defence responsibilities, the chairman, board and staff of the agency have onerous duties in protecting the public. They need the support of 1083 the House and of the Government in achieving that. However, the Government must ensure that everyone concerned in the operation of flood defence learns lessons from experience. The independent report provides the basis on which to build real improvements in the systems and procedures for the future.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I welcome the Minister's very full statement on this issue, and I am grateful to him for making it available to me just before 3 o'clock. It is an extremely important subject. The Easter floods caused substantial damage: there was a high financial and personal cost to many people—I went to St. Ives on Good Friday and saw the extent of the flooding in that area. I should like to join the Minister in expressing sympathy to the people who were affected by the floods.
Nevertheless, many farmers will note that, although an Agriculture Minister can make a statement in the House about flooding after 11 weeks of a recess during which the problems in farming have worsened so fast that the industry now faces its worst crisis for 60 years, there is still no word from the Government about how they propose to respond to the real threat of agricultural depression.
I welcome the conclusions in the Bye report, and I agree with the Minister that its findings are balanced and firm. I broadly support the steps that he is taking with the Environment Agency, in particular to examine the system of flood forecasting, warning and response. I accept his reasons for not proceeding with the suggestion of holding a public inquiry into the flooding in Northampton. I particularly welcome the co-operation between the Minister and the Environment Agency in considering what lessons can be learned.
I have a small number of specific questions. If the analysis that is undertaken results in an increase in the costs of the agency or the local authorities that are affected, because of the measures required to be taken, do the Government intend to cover those extra costs with additional funding from the centre or will the agency and the local authorities be expected to make savings from the other services that they currently provide?
Does the Minister accept that the risk of flooding can be affected by large-scale new development, including housing development, on green-field sites? Such developments may restrict drainage on areas in the historic flood plains. Will the Government issue, as a matter of urgency, new planning guidance that not only incorporates the promised sequential approach to planning decisions on where new housing should be built, so that brown-field sites are used before green-field sites, but requires more consideration of how any proposed development may affect flood risks in the surrounding area?
Does the Minister agree that a significant part of the difficulties at Easter arose from the speed with which the floods took place? Are any studies planned into that aspect of the problem? Flash flooding was a feature in many areas.
The review makes strong criticisms of the system of warnings. I agree that people are entitled to better warnings of when exceptional conditions may occur than 1084 were given in some places at Easter. Has the Minister noted the view of the Select Committee on Agriculture that, if warnings are not to be devalued, they must be issued prudently, and only when there is a real risk of flooding?
Does the Minister agree that, although, as the review acknowledges, the conditions at Easter were exceptional, the prospect of climate change means that such exceptional conditions may become more frequent? Surely that not only reinforces the need for the reconsideration of flood preparations that the Minister has put in hand, but makes even more urgent the need for the Government to publish their own, long overdue, climate change strategy.
Does the Minister agree that it is important not to act like King Canute? No amount of words can prevent flooding. The risk cannot be entirely eliminated, as the review states. Does the Minister accept that, on this issue, as, I am afraid, on other issues, Government actions across a range of policy, such as their approval of so many large-scale housing schemes on green-field sites, have made matters worse rather than better? Another example is their extraordinary recent decision to block the construction of more gas-fired power stations, although such power stations are one of the cheapest ways in which to slow down the process of climate change.
Given that the Minister—quite reasonably—expects the Environment Agency to do its best to reduce the risk of a repetition of what happened at Easter, would it not be helpful if the rest of Government policy were co-ordinated to achieve the same aim?
§ Mr. Morley
I welcome the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on the occasion of his first outing as Opposition agriculture spokesman. I am sorry, however, that there has been an attempt to divert attention from the serious issue of the 2,000 and more people who were severely affected by the floods. The normal procedures of the House will give us opportunities to discuss agriculture in an entirely proper way, but today we are concerned with the effect on those people, and the important responses that we as a Government must make to the report.
As I said, we are discussing the costs of changes with the Environment Agency. We accept that there will be costs; it will be the agency's responsibility to meet some of them from its budget, but the Government will have to meet others, and we are prepared to consider the requests, and the commitments, that have been made. If there are implications for local authorities in terms of increased costs, those implications will be considered in the context of their standard spending assessments for flood defence.
The Agriculture Committee report touched on the risk of development on flood plains, and we have made our response to that report available. The issue was flagged up in the Bye report, although that report pointed out that, in recent years, more account had been taken of Environment Agency recommendations.
The question of warning systems, and how they should be applied, certainly needs to be considered. Climate change is being taken into account in future projections for both sea and flood defence. I must tell the hon. Member for South Suffolk that the climate change strategy is not overdue, and that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will report on it soon.
1085 As for the hon. Gentleman's final question, about large-scale housing developments, there has been a great deal of housing development over the past 18 years. All I will say about Government policy is that this Government's target for brown-field rather than green-field development is considerably higher than that of the last Government.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
I welcome the report and the statement, and, in particular, my hon. Friend's comments about the disgraceful slurs that we heard from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo).
Does my hon. Friend seriously think that the general public—especially those in Northampton who suffered so much—will have confidence in the Environment Agency's ability to implement these important recommendations, given that that will call for qualities that, according to the report, the agency does not possess? I refer particularly to co-ordination between agencies.
Does my hon. Friend accept that much of the suffering of people in Northampton was caused by the fact that the last ministerial directive, signed by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), was not implemented properly? Will my hon. Friend look again, very carefully, at the way in which the recommendations will be implemented, and consider whether there could be an independent mechanism or person, and a proper reporting process, so that everyone can be absolutely sure that the disasters of last Easter are never repeated?
§ Mr. Morley
My hon. Friend has made some important points.
We are responding by setting the Environment Agency targets that it will have to meet, and whose progress we will monitor. My hon. Friend's suggestion on how we can report on that progress, in a transparent way, is worthy of consideration, and we will give it further thought.
§ Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)
I welcome the statement, and congratulate the emergency services on the role that they played in tackling the floods. I also extend my sympathy to the families who were affected.
I am glad that the Government are talking to the Environment Agency about the costs of the improvement programme, but will they make contingency funds available now for the £1 million programme of work in relation to warning systems and flood defences that the agency has already said is necessary, so that the agency does not need to cut other equally important programmes? Will they also consider tighter controls for building on land that may be vulnerable to flooding?
§ Mr. Morley
I can confirm that we are talking to the Environment Agency about the cost. Its provisional estimate is that the immediate cost is about £1 million, and the Ministry is considering how we can make the necessary allocation.
The issue of guidelines was raised by the Agriculture Committee, and we made a formal response. My colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are also giving thought to the matter.
§ Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)
The past six months have without doubt seemed much longer to those 1086 who were affected at Easter, many of whom have still not returned to normality, as my hon. Friend the Minister said. He mentioned the two fatalities in my constituency and the five nationally. It is important to place it on record that the list of fatalities grows longer by the day. For those who have died since Easter, the cause of death may have been given as pneumonia or natural causes, but there is little doubt that the trauma of the event has led to premature death.
Does my hon. Friend agree that his comment about the report being tough hitting does not go far enough for Northampton, and that the word "damning" should be used? The report says that, without doubt, the intensity, severity and depth of the flooding were increased by the failure of the Environment Agency to act on several factors: reservoirs were full; sluice gates were inoperative—last week, I passed to my hon. Friend a picture of floodgates held together with cans of WD40 jammed in their mechanisms; watercourses were blocked; and flood defences were missing, not with small gaps but with gaps which stretched up to 95 m in Northampton alone. Does he agree that the report is damning, and not just tough hitting?
Does my hon. Friend appreciate the anger felt by both Government and Opposition Members who are calling for the resignation of Lord De Ramsey? There is a belief that the buck stops at the top. Is it not, therefore, incredible that, in the six months since the Easter floods, before Members of Parliament called for his resignation, Lord De Ramsey did not make one public comment or offer one word of sympathy or acknowledgment of his responsibility as chair of the Environment Agency?
Will my hon. Friend assure the people of Northampton that he will intervene to ensure that Northampton's flood defences are brought up to scratch as soon as possible, so my constituents can once more sleep safely in their beds?
§ Mr. Morley
I well understand the trauma and distress suffered by my hon. Friend's constituents, as well as the anger that they feel. I know from my visit to Northampton how much work he and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) have done to support those who were so severely affected and to relay their concerns.
I do not think that the report can be described as damning. It is balanced and hard hitting and identifies the failures, many of which have been accepted by the Environment Agency. It is important that we get on with implementing the recommendations and learning the lessons.
It is for Lord De Ramsey to consider his own position, but I should point out that he went to Northampton and faced the local people in a public meeting where they had an opportunity to question him at first hand. We must learn the lessons and look forward, not backward, so that we can deal with the problems, especially in Northampton, and ensure that such events never happen again.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
The Minister will be aware that I preceded him in the responsibility for flood defence and gave the agency its current remit. I, too, welcome the Bye report and his statement and I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) about the importance of monitoring 1087 the action plan as it develops. The Bye report concentrated heavily on the problems of the borough of Northampton, to which the Minister has promised Bellwin aid today, but my constituents who reside in Daventry district and especially in south Northamptonshire also suffered real and substantial problems. Will the Minister consider those problems and ensure that action is taken? Where there is a clear case that the Environment Agency has failed in its duty, will he undertake to consider losses sustained by constituents, wherever they live, that seem appropriate for compensation and recommend to the agency that it should recognise its responsibilities?
§ Mr. Morley
I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman's involvement in flood defence and accept that he knows the issues well. Close monitoring is needed, and I have already freely accepted that point. That measure will be implemented and we intend to set targets for the agency, which will be monitored. That means a new, close and, I hope, more transparent relationship with the agency.
I freely accept that others were affected. Although Northampton was the most severely affected, that is no consolation to others who were flooded, and I concede that their needs must also be considered.
On compensation claims, the policy of this Government, as of previous Governments including the one in which the hon. Gentleman served, has been not to compensate for insurable risks. It is difficult and divisive to do so.
§ Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)
My constituency, too, contains people affected by the floods. Many of my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire are engaged in lengthy legal battles with developers, local authorities and water companies over liability for the costs of the floods. Many of my constituents believe that their homes are almost unsaleable because of the damage that was wrought, and they fear the response if they put their homes on the market in future.
I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke): the report was a damning indictment of the Environment Agency and its chairman should look to his position. If the report is to be implemented in full, we in Corby and east Northamptonshire must be assured that the Environment Agency is up to the job.
§ Mr. Morley
I cannot comment on individual legal cases on flood plain developments and potential losses. However, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks that the Government will ensure that the targets are monitored. I accept that the report was critical in some areas, and those criticisms have to be faced by the Environment Agency. It must rectify the faults in its systems and we will set targets to ensure that it does.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)
I thank the Minister and his Department for the statement today and for the full response to the Agriculture Committee's report on flood and coastal defence, which will be published shortly. We are grateful to him for the seriousness with which he has taken that report. All my constituents who 1088 were so badly affected by the Easter floods in Evesham and throughout Wychavon will welcome what he has said today about the Environment Agency's future action, especially on flood warnings which did not work locally as well as they should have done. That welcome will also be extended by members of the Agriculture Committee, whose recommendations are clearly reflected in the Minister's comments today.
It is all very well having excellent flood and coastal defence works in place, but if inappropriate development takes place on the flood plain the floods will occur again. There is no point in putting a party slant on that, because district councils of all political persuasions bear a share of the responsibility. What will the Minister do to ensure that inappropriate developments do not take place in the future?
§ Mr. Morley
The recent report of the Select Committee on Agriculture was an important advance. It dealt with serious issues in a balanced, thoughtful and weighty way, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, appreciates that we have tried to respond in kind.
The report points out, and I accept it, that flood warnings clearly failed in certain parts of the country last Easter. We are determined to rectify that and to ensure that they work better in future. I understand the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman and by others about inappropriate development on flood plains. The Bye report said that matters had improved in recent years—there is more awareness of the potential risks of developing on flood plains. I welcome that, and we must take the risks into account. They are a matter for planning, and my colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are giving thought to whether there should be improvements in guidance for planning authorities.
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
The Minister will know that my constituents have good reason to take a keen interest in flooding and flood protection. I was pleased to hear him raise the prospect of proper simulation exercises, but will such exercises be evaluated independently so that people do not end up patting themselves on the back for how well they have done?
My hon. Friend also referred to the many bodies that are involved at times of flood. The media have a key role to play, but I have learnt over the past year that they often feel unsatisfied about the flow of information to them. Will the Minister assure me that the role of the media will be among the matters considered as we look to the future?
§ Mr. Morley
Emergency exercises must be properly evaluated. The lead responsibility for doing so lies with the Home Office, and I know that the matter is under consideration. The Bye report flagged up the important role of the media in ensuring that flood warnings are disseminated as widely as possible. I am sure that media organisations will have taken that on board.
§ Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)
The village of Kidlington in my constituency was badly affected and was one of five areas specially examined by the report. I pay tribute to Mr. Carl Smith, the parish clerk for Gosford and Water Eaton, who contributed a great 1089 deal to the report and is mentioned in it. There was great trauma in Kidlington, for the simple reason that it was not raining there, and the Cherwell valley was merely draining water from an area where there was rain. The sad fact is that there was little in the way of failure of flood defence there: little flood defence was undertaken as it was not felt that the area would be affected.
The Environment Agency should avoid using terms such as "100-year floods" to describe events that may become more frequent as a result of global climate change. Much work should be done to consider new areas for defence, and to improve warning systems. There was no warning in Kidlington, and that made the problems much worse. Will the Minister join me in regretting the Environment Agency's statement in the report that it is merely considering improvements to the flood warning system in the Kidlington area? The Minister has hinted strongly that contingency funds will be available. Does he agree that the agency should lift its horizons on the work that could be done? Will he consider instructing the agency to consider new methods of flood warning, using future developments in digital television to complement any automatic telephone warning system for those people who could take advantage of it? Perhaps in 10 or 20 years that practice will be more prevalent than is currently envisaged.
§ Mr. Morley
I certainly appreciate that the residents of Kidlington were affected, and their experiences have helped us to reach the response that we have formulated. It must be borne in mind that the flooding was exceptional, and it did overtop defences designed for a much lower level of flooding. As the Bye report points out, however, some of the flooding was caused by rapid increases in water courses with water arriving from unexpected sources, and that should be recognised in seeking improvements in telemetry for advanced warnings.
On improving flood warning, the Environment Agency proposes a new national centre to integrate the information from weather forecasting and telemetry readings across the country to improve flood warnings so that people get the required information. I accept my hon. Friend's point about the role of new technology. Where there are opportunities for using new technology for flood warning, they should be taken.
§ Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)
I welcome the Minister's statement and the Government's response to the Bye report. In my constituency, Warwick district council appreciates the swift response of the Bellwin scheme. The Minister's comments on compensation for the county council under that scheme were welcome news.
Royal Leamington Spa was badly affected by flooding and was the subject of a special report within the Bye report: 400 homes were badly affected, as were many small businesses in the town centre. Some people are still not back in their homes, and some of the small businesses closed as a result of the flooding will not reopen. The Bye report's section on Royal Leamington Spa details a long list of failures by the Environment Agency, particularly its failure to issue alerts through the automatic telephone system because it had omitted to include the numbers of the district council on the system. That is a serious failure. I am still interested in the issue of compensation, which 1090 was raised by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). Would not a useful starting point be acceptance of liability by the Environment Agency for many of the failures?
§ Mr. Morley
It is true that the Bye report identified the failure to issue alerts. Those failings have been acknowledged by the agency in improvements and in learning the lessons. On compensation, there is an issue about people who feel aggrieved by their losses but in principle, it is not the policy of the Government—the Environment Agency is a Government agency—to compensate for insurable risk. On the flooding, it is impossible to plan and protect against every eventuality, particularly when the circumstances are so extreme. That factor needs to be borne in mind.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I congratulate the Minister on defending the Environment Agency, because many things are improving, especially the local flood defence committees. In my constituency, with the work of the agency and everyone else, this year we had the least floods. Anyone who has visited a flooded family will know how traumatic the experience is.
The Minister should consider carefully what local authorities are allowed to do under planning legislation. They often know that someone is building on a flood plain but do not feel able to stop the planning application going ahead. Often, additional properties on a flood plain mean that there is nowhere for the flood water to go, so that other properties flood that would not otherwise have done so.
Will the Minister consider putting flood warnings in the Land Registry for properties built in that way? That would put pressure on people not to build in such places. Will he carefully consider the suggestion of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on the use of new technology? I imagine that people's telephones could be rung simultaneously, perhaps with a special tone, using current technology. Rather than merely warning a local authority that must then try to warn other people, we could use the telephone system to warn everyone.
§ Mr. Morley
Planning authorities have the power to turn down inappropriate applications if there is a risk from flooding. If there is a need to issue further clarification or guidance, we will consider it. The issue of Land Registry warnings is much more complicated, and careful thought will have to be given to whether such a procedure is appropriate, and to the practicalities. The technology already exists to ensure that a large number of households are given the warning at the same time. It is offered to those that are considered to be at risk from flooding in certain parts of the country. That is one of the matters that the Environment Agency review will consider.
§ Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)
I would like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to be aware that people in Bedford and Kempston are following this issue carefully, because that area was also affected by the flooding. The Minister for the Environment visited part of the flooded area last April. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the Environment Agency's action plan, to be published this November. Will that include—if it does not, will the Government look at it—the important question of the agency's powers 1091 to comment on planning applications for development on flood plains? At present, the agency's role is only advisory. It is fair to say that its advice has largely been ignored over the years. We have seen considerable development on flood plains. That issue, including the agency's powers in that respect, needs to be looked into.
§ Mr. Morley
The action plan certainly includes warnings and appropriate planning guidance on flood plains. I must repeat the point that was made in the Bye report, which acknowledged that, in recent years, the planning policies of authorities around the country had improved considerably bearing in mind the risks of development on flood plains. Whether there is a need for statutory powers is something which will be considered by my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
I have read the report. The older parts of my constituency were flooded and I have met many of the people who were affected in Newport Pagnell. The newer parts in the city of Milton Keynes, where balancing lakes were built into the design of the flood defence system, did not flood, yet they had the same rainfall and the same river flowed through them. Many of the people who were flooded are not satisfied with the Bye report because it does not adequately address the suggestions that members of the Environment Agency opened the sluice gates and thereby flooded areas downstream. It may have dealt with some of the issues in the five areas that were detailed, but many other aspects were not fully covered.
In my constituency, the fire authorities decided to reaffirm their charge of 300 quid to pump out flooded houses. They pumped out houses without asking whether people were prepared to pay the money; they simply added the charge at the end. That was a scandalous misuse of their authority and shows that combined fire authorities do not work.
The floods at Easter have shown that the work of loss adjusters, and the way in which insurance claims are processed, is long winded. It has caused a number of my constituents who have businesses at home to lose out. They are in danger of losing their businesses as a result of the protracted nature of the loss adjusters system and the way in which insurance claims are dealt with. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for reviewing the system following the floods last Easter?
§ Mr. Morley
The Bye report dealt with the point about sacrificing areas, and was clear and specific in its conclusions that no areas were sacrificed to save others. I am not aware of the point about charges by the Environment Agency for pumping, but I will take it up with the agency and write to my hon. Friend about why what he described happened and the justification for it.
1092 My hon. Friend's comments about insurance claims go wider than the brief that I hold, but it is clear to me, from talking to affected residents, that there is a disparity in the performance of insurance companies. That is something which insurance companies need to address.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. It is important that the whole country learns the lesson of this incident. It should underpin the work that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will do when he goes to Buenos Aires to negotiate improved reductions in greenhouse emissions, which is crucial.
Irrespective of the issue of new planning guidance for houses built on green-field and brown-field sites, I urge my hon. Friend to look again and give us an assurance that the Environment Agency has the resources to act as a consultee in respect of planning applications on brown-field and green-field sites on a flood plain.
§ Mr. Morley
It is certainly the case that the Government will hold debates with other Governments and internationally, involving the Minister for the Environment. The issue of CO2, emissions is linked to climate change which, in turn, is linked to the tragedies and implications that we are discussing now. It brings home the need to tackle those issues seriously and in a practical way.
The examinations carried out for the Bye report and the deliberations of the Agriculture Committee have not produced any evidence so far that the Environment Agency has not been able to fulfil its duties in relation to providing advice for flood plain development. The agency has been able to do that and it is important that the planning authorities take notice of that advice. As I have said, the Bye report acknowledges that more attention has been paid to that matter in recent years.
§ Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)
I welcome my hon. Friend's statement and assure him that I believe that the investigation by the independent inquiry into the floods in Skenfrith in my constituency has been particularly thorough. However, that area was not as badly affected as others mentioned by hon. Members today. Does my hon. Friend agree that Welsh Office planning guidelines need to be revised so that there is a presumption against new housing development on flood plains? Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be consistency between the Welsh Office planning guidelines and the Environment Agency's report on giving guidelines to local authorities?
§ Mr. Morley
The Welsh Office has received copies of the Bye report and our response to the Agriculture Committee. I am sure that it will take into account the recommendations and considerations of those reports when considering its planning policy.