HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc221-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10.54 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

It is suitable that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in the Chamber, because he has responsibility for fish. As we are talking about water, storms and rain, one would expect to see a bit of fish, so the Minister's presence is appropriate. However, I am not quite sure why he will respond to the debate, unless he also has responsibility for flood defences.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley) indicated assent.

Mr. Steen

It is nice to know that the hon. Gentleman has that responsibility. I am glad to see him at such a reasonable hour.

During the days of the previous Labour Government, the south-west was hit by a series of droughts and water shortages. As a result, the Avon dam, on Dartmoor, in my constituency, almost dried up. Standpipes became commonplace on street corners, car washes were forbidden and the then Minister for water, Denis Howell, was deployed from Whitehall to the west country like an old 19th century rainmaker in the American west to pray for rain. That was very successful.

Paradoxically, it seems that, under the current Labour Government, the long dry sunny days of the 1970s have been eclipsed by unpredictable weather patterns resulting in torrential downpours of such intensity that rivers have burst their banks, tributaries have become raging torrents and roads have become streams of water as the result of run-off from the steep fields of the west country. Where once we had regular amounts of rainfall over a month, some parts of the west country now receive the same amount over a few days. Not surprisingly, the water table has risen and floods have become commonplace. Instead of a Minister for water, we perhaps now need a Minister for sunshine. That would fit into new Labour's raison d'etre—clear blue skies and a few white clouds, which is just how they would like us to picture its brave new world.

Devon has not before seen the scale nor the scope of the flash floods that have occurred in the past few months. Over Christmas—on 18, 23 and 24 December—the west country suffered some of the worst floods that it has had for decades. Hundreds of houses were flooded and miles of roads were awash, with rivers reaching danger points and others flooding everything around them.

Tragically, the floods resulted in the death of my constituent, Mr. Winchester from the hamlet of Galmpton near Brixharn, who was drowned after a seven-foot wave swept into his home. Because he suffered from Parkinson's disease and was in a wheelchair, he was unable to swim and, sadly, he died in his home.

Residents in Churston village, who were also flooded, believe that the massive earthworks at Brokenbury quarry were responsible and there is evidence that the house-building programme of 90,000 new homes for Devon in the next 11 years could contribute to further flooding if they are built on flood plains. As the Minister will know, much of the building in Devon is on flood plains, which in the past have not erupted. However, because of the high water tables, the area has become much easier to flood. Weather patterns suggest a climatic change, particularly as the south-west peninsula juts out into the Atlantic and faces the brunt of nature's onslaught.

At Harbertonford, the River Harburn not only burst its banks, but reached its highest level for 70 years, which caused widespread flooding with 50 homes affected. Harbertonford was flooded several times over Christmas and, in spite of 30 tonnes of sandbags supplied by South Hams district council, several feet of water swept into the public bar of the local pub and gumboots were provided.

The serious conditions in Harbertonford coincided with the arrival of the parliamentary spokesperson, as she calls herself, of the Liberal Democrats. She has made as much party political capital as she can over these natural disasters. I deeply regret that, and there is a level of arrogance for someone to call herself a parliamentary spokesperson when she has not even been elected by the electorate to that role. Unfortunately, she has her facts all wrong—and that is not a good start for a parliamentary spokesperson. She has misunderstood the district council's responsibilities, which is not surprising because it is a Conservative district council. It provided well in excess of its duties with the chief executive visiting the village twice just before Christmas to ensure that what could be done was being done by the labour force.

The parliamentary spokesperson would have done better to talk to the Liberal Democrat county councillors in Exeter who have responsibility for flood defence. They have failed again to provide minimum funding for the Environment Agency and the south-west regional flood defence committee. The message is clear: if the burghers of Harbertonford want to avoid further flooding, they should ensure that the parliamentary spokesperson is moved to higher ground.

The question now is what the response should be. There are those who believe that we should be ultra-cautious and that public money should not be gambled on flood defences since the weather is unpredictable and it may turn out to be a waste of time and effort. The dry, sunny weather with white clouds may come back. At the other extreme are those who shout for more money to be spent, no matter what the cost or the risk of future flooding. Both views gamble with lives and public finances, and those gambles are wrong and unnecessary.

A balanced approach to flood defence is needed. A review is under way on the structure of flood defence provisions in England and Wales, and I hope that the Minister will talk about that and tell us when the review will be complete. Flood defences in the south-west have been weakened by a number of financial setbacks in recent years. The south-west regional flood defence committee is underfunded, and I pay particular tribute to the work of its chairman, Deborah Clark, who faces a difficult task and has done very well.

The problem is that the county council and unitary authorities in the south-west have responsibility for flood defence, but are failing to discharge that responsibility effectively. The regional flood defence committee would have done much more if the county and unitary authorities had used a £6 million match fund waiting in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the communities suffering from the failure to implement that urgently needed flood defence scheme is Ottery St. Mary in my constituency. The town has been flooded out four times in three years to such an extent that many of the shopkeepers cannot get insurance for their premises.

Mr. Steen

I hope that the Minister will deal with Ottery St. Mary because, beyond the three areas that I have mentioned, the flood defence committee is particularly concerned about the capital sum that it will need to raise to deal with Ottery St. Mary. We certainly do not want my hon. Friend to be flooded or washed away.

There seems to be a failure by certain county and unitary authorities to discharge their responsibilities.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I gave notice to the hon. Gentleman that I wanted to intervene. Will he join me in paying tribute to the emergency services who waded through the flood waters in Galmpton and assisted in that operation? That needs to be put on the record.

The unitary authority of Torbay pays into the Environment Agency, contrary to comments that have been made in the press, but the difficulty is that there is not a statutory responsibility to match fund the agency's expenditure, as there is with social services and education. The money has to come from the council this year, when it does not have it, and it must claim it back later. The Government need to consider that matter.

Mr. Steen

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interventions because he always sticks up for his own party, even when it has got it wrong. In this case, I pay tribute to the services that came to Galmpton and dealt with an unpleasant, difficult situation.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, even though I do not agree with it. I am sure that the Minister will pick up his point that, although Torbay's unitary authority could spend more money to trigger the MAFF money, it does not have the money and it is not allowed to borrow it, even though it would get it back the following year. I know that the Minister will want to deal with that, and I am glad that it was raised by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). His constituency has two thirds of the bay, and my constituency has the other third.

Mr. Sanders

We have three quarters.

Mr. Steen

I do not think that we have measured it properly.

The regional flood defence committee would have done much more if the county and unitary authorities had utilised the £6 million match fund waiting in MAFF. That would have been triggered year after year if the county and unitary authorities had put in what was needed. Although the authorities may say that social services, education or highways are more important, they could have done something about flooding but they did not. They chose not to. I understand that, since 1995, the south-west regional flood defence committee has been allowed to increase its levy on the local authorities by only 5 per cent. In effect, it has withheld money given by the Government for flood defence.

Neighbouring Wessex regional flood defence committee has, by comparison, increased its levy not by 5 per cent., but by between 32 and 50 per cent. over the same period. In real terms, the levy for the south-west by the county and unitary authorities is now worth only 89 per cent. of the 1995 value. One can understand why. There have not been many floods before, and the county and unitary authorities thought that it would not matter. They have, in effect, been caught with their trousers down. I am sure the Minister will amplify the point.

The south-west has been facing a funding crisis in flood defence. That must not and need not continue. The problem is not the money. The Minister announced in April last year that funding for flood defence for the next year would total £230 million. The blame lies with the south-west county councils and the unitary authorities—both Plymouth and Torbay must take some of the blame—which failed to put up the money needed. They are putting at risk more property and more lives.

As the south-west regional flood defence committee struggles under the strain of limited resources and greater demand, I urge the Minister to remind the county and unitary authorities in the south-west that they have a duty to provide adequate flood defence now.

Will the Minister also examine the priority score scheme? That is not something to do with cricket. It has to do with flood defence and was introduced by his Ministry. Under the scheme, regional flood defence committees can apply for grants in aid on capital expenditure.

Not surprisingly, the scheme discriminates against the south-west. The criteria on which the grants are based favour urban flood defence, on the grounds that it is more cost compliant, and probably also because there are more Labour voters in urban areas. In evidence before the Select Committee on Agriculture, the National Farmers Union stated that it was extremely difficult for a rural scheme to qualify for grant funding". That view was endorsed by the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association.

The Agriculture Committee recommended in its report that the Ministry introduce priority score criteria to reflect the social and economic disparities within regions, to redress the inequalities in grants in aid. What progress have the Minister and his Department made towards implementing that recommendation? Considering that Devon and Cornwall both suffer from structural economic, geographic and social problems, as highlighted by the granting of objective 1 and objective 2 aid to the region by the European Union, I suggest that that should be reflected in the priority score.

Unless the score criteria are changed, the shortfall in flood protection which has emerged as a result of county and unitary authority intransigence in the south-west will become worse. As matters stand, the Government could understandably be accused of favouring the cities and neglecting the countryside.

The Environment Agency and the south-west regional flood defence committee perform an excellent job in circumstances that are undoubtedly difficult. They deserve our thanks. However, the south-west is not receiving its fair share for flood defence.

The immediate fault may lie with the county and unitary authorities. They would get back money spent now on flood defence through next year's standard spending assessment. Their approach is short-termist, intolerable and shows a wanton disregard for the needs of the region as a whole. They would prefer to protect their own coffers to providing adequate flood defence in the south-west.

The county and unitary authorities well understand that the public—and some Members of Parliament—are unaware where responsibility for flood defence lies. That has led to confusion in the South Hams case and ill-judged campaigns orchestrated by Liberal Democrats in the district council chambers, where responsibility for flood defence does not lie. The four Liberal Democrats out of 40 council members in South Hams mounted a debate that was wholly based on false facts which they had been fed.

The Minister should stress to county and unitary authorities the need for flood defence. He should publish his review of flood defence so that the relevant organisations, the public—and the Liberal Democrats—know where responsibility lies. The priority score should reflect the structural deficiencies of Devon and Cornwall so that capital long-term works can be undertaken in the south-west to alleviate the problem of the number of flashpoints in the region—I am told that it runs into hundreds. That would shift the focus of flood defence from large to small-scale projects. Given the frequency of flash floods in the south-west, that is vital for unprotected villages and hamlets the length and breadth of the west country.

I have crammed a lot of information into the short space of 16 minutes. I hope that the Minister, whom I hold in high regard with reference to fish, can keep my attention, and hold us in high regard with reference to flood defence.

11.10 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on raising an important and topical issue in a well-informed manner. He is right about the division of responsibility for flooding and expenditure.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made about Ottery St. Mary, and I know about its problems. I have read reports about it, and I know that the regional flood defence committee is considering ways in which to tackle the problems. After the debate, I shall find out what progress has been made.

The hon. Member for Totnes is right about weather patterns. In recent years, they have shown shorter, more violent downpours. We do not know whether that trend will continue, but the amount of rainfall has been extreme, and we witnessed its results in the south-west over the Christmas period. I express my sympathy for his constituent's loss of life.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the priority score. However, I believe that it is the right method. As he will appreciate, there are many demands for flood defence projects, and it is right that money should relate to priority. The priority score reflects that in the number of properties, the number of lives at risk, the infrastructure, and the cost-benefit analysis. Urban areas do better because they contain more houses, have greater needs and are at greater risk. That is the nature of the priority score. However, the Government have, for the first time, included environmental issues in the priority score. That helps rural areas. In North Norfolk, some rural areas already receive grant aid for flood defence. They would not have received it without the environmental criteria in the priority score.

I take the hon. Gentleman's points about social disparities. We will review the points system and the priority system. That is right and proper. I shall take his comments into account, and we shall consider them in the review.

Between 17 and 28 December, the south-west of England experienced the most extensive and prolonged flooding for 20 years. It resulted from unusually high rainfall—more than double the average—which fell on catchments that were already saturated by preceding rainfall. Conditions in low-lying areas were aggravated by high tides, especially on 24 and 25 December. Across the south-west peninsula, including the Somerset levels and moors, approximately 300 properties were affected to varying extents, and considerable, persistent flooding of farm land also occurred.

I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in tackling the flooding over the Christmas and new year holidays. They include the Environment Agency, local authorities, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the emergency services. Those people did a sterling job of protecting others, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. I wrote to the new chairman of the Environment Agency to ask him to pass on our appreciation to the staff who worked during that period to tackle the emergency.

No Government can prevent floods, even a Government with such an impressive records as ours. We have our limitations. [Interruption.] I shall not go into that. However, we can limit the risks and improve warnings.

The Ministry provides grant aid for capital flood defence and coast protection schemes which are technically sound, economically worth while and environmentally acceptable and which achieve the appropriate priority score. We recognise the importance of sustaining flood defences and coast protection and the outcome of the 1998 comprehensive spending review was an additional £23 million for Ministry funding over this and the next two years, bringing the total available in those three years to £230 million. That is a considerable sum, although it is certainly not enough to meet all the demand.

We recognise that we need to do more, and I was pleased to announce that the allocations for this year involved a reduced priority score threshold for Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funding, which means that 30 extra schemes have been included. We are dealing with some of the problems and the south-west regional flood defence committee's capital programme has been given grant aid of £1.3 million. The Ministry provides agency regions and districts with varying grants for flood and coastal defence with the intention of providing higher grant support where needs are high and local resources low. Schemes in the south-west may be in that category. The general principle is that the grant rate may be increased if the capital programme increases, and vice versa.

That brings me to the point about the south-west that the hon. Member for Totnes made. The area's capital programme has been reduced because of the spending problems of the flood defence committee, which means that the grant available has been reduced by 10 per cent. for 2000–01 to 25 per cent. with a supplement of 20 per cent. payable for tidal and sea defence works. I have set out the position on MAFF support for flood and coastal defence. Put simply, the more money regional flood defence committees raise and the more programmes they suggest, the more money they attract from MAFF in relation to capital grants.

There has been a problem with levies in the south-west. In the current year, the English local authorities will pay £206 million in levies to the agency. Those levies and local authorities' other expenditure on flood and coastal defences are recognised in their standard spending assessments and reflected in the distribution of revenue support grant. In recent years, increases in flood defence SSAs have been above the rate of inflation: 6 per cent. in 1997; 5.1 per cent. in 1998; 6.3 per cent. in 1999–2000—which is way above inflation—and 3.2 per cent. for 2000–01.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the problem of flood defence in the south-west. The difficulty is that the south-west councils have not always provided adequate funding. In particular, they have not always passed on the increases that the Government have made in SSAs. The Environment Agency reports that levies in the south-west region in 2001 will be only 5 per cent. higher than those paid in 1994–95. That compares to a 28 per cent. increase in the SSA over that period, so he is right to point out that shortfall. I was so concerned about the situation in the south-west two years ago that I wrote to all the chief executives of the unitary authorities that make up the south-west regional flood defence committee to express my anxiety about the inadequate funding being passed on to that committee. I have not written to any other council in this country.

I am pleased that in the past couple of years the local authorities have agreed levy increases in line with the increase in SSA. That is welcome, but the problem is the shortfall that has accumulated as a result of the years of underfunding. The authorities are still paying the price for that. Although they have been passing on the full SSA, which is a great improvement, they need to allow for that shortfall if they are to make up the years of underfunding. The Environment Agency calculates that the increase in the south-west for this year should have been 6.9 per cent., not the 3.2 per cent. that was levied.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the problems of underfunding, which, in all fairness, were chronic before the unitary authorities were established. Devon and Cornwall county councils were mainly responsible for the underfunding at that time.

Mr. Steen

I thank the Minister for all that he is saying. It is music to my ears. I hope that it is also music to the local authorities' ears and that they do something about it. Am I right in thinking that district councils have very little role in flood defences, other than sandbags and a few other things?

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman is right. The main responsibility for the levies and deciding the levies lies with the county and unitary authorities, which send representatives who sit on the regional flood defence committee. It is those representatives who are responsible for deciding the levy that the committee raises each year.

Mr. Sanders

Will the Minister confirm that in the lifetime of the unitary authority it has paid over the money it should have paid over, and that the problem lies with the county councils, not the unitary authorities, in the last two years?

Mr. Morley

It is all the councils involved in the area of the south-west regional flood defence committee. I confirm that since there has been a division with the new unitaries they have paid over the full SSA allowance. The problem is that there is chronic underfunding, and there is a black hole in the budget of the regional flood defence committee. Unfortunately, to deal with some of the problems we have been hearing about, it needs to raise some extra money to make up for the years of the underfunding.

As the hon. Member for Totnes rightly says, following on from the 1998 Agriculture Committee report on flood and coastal defences—a very good report—the Government are reviewing those funding mechanisms. The consultation exercise has been completed, and the options arising are being considered with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I do not have a date for an announcement. I will make inquiries, and if there is an indication of when it will report I shall write and let him know.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will any regard be given to properties—whether residential or business—that find it difficult to insure because of constant flooding?

Mr. Morley

At present there is no facility for that, because generally speaking floods are an insurable risk. Where there is chronic flooding there could well be insurance problems, but chronic flooding needs to be addressed by the regional flood defence committee. We will look at that sympathetically, in the light of the priority scoring system and the other details that have to be applied.

The matter is being considered very carefully. Another issue that is being considered is whether levies raised by flood defence committees should remain ring-fenced for use only in that committee's area, or whether, as the Select Committee suggested, they should be more flexible and used in the context of national rather than local priorities. I hope that it will be possible to announce preliminary conclusions on that funding review as soon as possible.

Mrs. Browning

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley

I am afraid that I have only one minute left.

I join in the welcome that has been given for the work of the regional flood defence committee. Deborah Clark is doing an excellent job. She is working very hard. I have met her, and members of the committee, on a number of occasions to express my support for the work that they are doing, and to try to work with them to deal with some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In some areas there may well be alternative sources of funding, such as EU funds, or discussions about whether partnerships with others or imaginative approaches to projects with multiple functions can yield better value for money. I understand that Deborah Clark has convened a meeting tomorrow, 9 February, to look at ways of raising alternative funds, and I look forward to hearing the outcome.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his knowledge of this issue. I can confirm some of his fears. There are issues to address, and we are prepared to address them, both in relation to reviews of the funding mechanisms and in relation to the priority scoring system and how that applies. I am pleased that more money has been passed on in the last two years in relation to the flood defence committee. That means—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes past Eleven o'clock.