HL Deb 18 December 2001 vol 630 cc214-38

8.1 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what measures they are taking for long-term defences against floods, including the restriction on the building of new houses on flood plains.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I decided to raise the subject of flood defences and building on coastal plains as a result of visiting a doctor's surgery in Lewes a month or two ago and picking up a pamphlet informing residents where to obtain sandbags, how long they had before receiving a warning call and where they were to go in the event of another flood. I came to the conclusion that it was time we moved on from what the Norwich Union has called "the sandbag culture" of inadequate defences and poor planning to a more rational and, I accept, more expensive approach to flood defences.

I shall speak primarily about Lewes and Sussex. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me but that is the part of the world I know best. I realise that other noble Lords will speak about other parts of the country which have experienced the same problems. My wife and I are lucky because we live halfway up the hill outside Lewes and were not affected. Other people we know well were. It is worth remembering that during 24 hours on 11th and 12th October 2000, 134 millimetres of rain fell and there was a two-hour flood warning. As a result, 600 homes were dispossessed and 200 businesses evacuated. Some people have not returned to their premises either because there was too much damage, because they cannot afford the insurance or because sewage was in the floodwater and there is still a health and safety risk. That problem is faced by people in the neighbouring towns of Uckfield and Robertsbridge.

I have great respect for the work being done by the Environment Agency. It is examining a number of plans for Lewes which involve options such as upstream storage, new dams, altering the course of the river and even evacuating houses in the lower part of the town. However, the agency hopes to do that in a shorter time than usual. Its last big project in West Sussex was in Chichester where it moved the River Lavant sideways. That took seven years. The view is that the project in Lewes would take at least five years and that it is not a capital spending priority.

That brings me to the position of East Sussex County Council. It has a 5.7 per cent increase in this year's standard spending assessment for flood defence. But that has to be set against an increase of 10.5 per cent in the precept for the Environment Agency for flood defences and proposed increases of 14 per cent next year. The flood defence committee which met two or three nights ago—it comprises East Sussex, West Sussex and Brighton and Hove—decided that it could afford only 9 per cent. Therefore, despite all the difficulties, dangers and worries, there will be underspending on capital assets which need restoring because the local authority cannot afford to take the money out of its current short-term spending. Where assets are rebuilt or restored, that will probably be done to an inadequate standard.

I wish to put two or three specific recommendations to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. First, I know that there has recently been a review of the Bellwin rules, but I suspect that the issue of capital spending is still not adequately covered. The Bellwin rules need reviewing to see how local authorities should be helped more in relation to necessary capital spending which arises out of emergency or disaster.

The Environment Agency needs to interfere more at the local planning level. I see no reason why, when it gives a flood direction to a local planning authority but that authority ignores it, stating that it will none the less go ahead and build on the land which the agency sees as unsuitable, it should not have the ability to appeal directly to the Secretary of State for the decision to be reconsidered. PPG25 is certainly a step forward: it is well-intentioned and it has greatly strengthened the hand of local authorities. However, it has been suggested to me that it should be made retrospective. It is argued that where developers already have outline planning but have not proceeded they should fall under PPG25.

One of the most depressing and frightening statistics in all the material sent to me when it became known that this debate was taking place is that in the year 2000–01 year 27 per cent of planning applications by value were on coastal plains. In the light of what has happened in the past year or two, that figure is incredible.

As regards individual people, there is a problem of insurance. We know that the Norwich Union and other insurers have stated that they will continue to cover people until the end of 2002, but two difficulties arise out of that. First, as some local businesses pointed out to me, the cover has remained but the excess has risen from £100 to £2,500. In the case of one small shop in our town, if it were flooded it would have to pay the first £20,000 and that would put it out of business.

Furthermore, as some who have returned to their houses have said to me, "It is all very well our having insurance cover but if we want to sell we can't. A buyer will not get a mortgage without insurance cover and the insurance companies will not give cover to a new owner entering a previously flooded house". I cannot believe that in this day and age those problems are tolerable.

I turn from the consequences to the causes. West Sussex is an extraordinary example of difficulties which arise in respect of land use. Thirty-six per cent of the land will be in the new national park where maximum building protection is given. At the same time, West Sussex has been told that it must build 46,500 new homes during the next 15 years, far more than the county council wants to build, and that 60 per cent of that development must be on previously used land. Of course, in Sussex so much of the previously used land is around Lewes, Uckfield, Chichester, Arundel and Newhaven, it predates the planning system and it is all on the flood plains. One therefore has a paradox of three contradictory objectives which need to be examined. I suggest closer examination of land availability and suitability to meet housing targets.

One cause of the problem in the South Downs is without doubt the effect of intensive agriculture, especially as a result of the sowing of winter cereals. They are often sown on steep slopes which are unsuitable for such crops. The ploughing and winter sowing lead to soil erosion and the rainwater then carries silt and debris down the hills. Small gullies turn into big ones and in October and November in particular, the rainy season, the water floods off the hills on to the flood plains and into the towns. It is essential to have new environmentally sensitive agreements which leave the land fallow during winter and encourage farmers to leave the autumn stubble. That will revert to grass or remain as stubble so that the land continues to act as a sponge, a moisture absorber, rather than what has been described as "sponges turned into draining boards" allowing the water to run off the hard compacted land on the hills that has been sown and down on to the flood plains.

Finally, I turn to the most difficult point of all; that is, how to predict whether the rainfall of the past year was a freak or whether it will occur more frequently in the coming century. It seems to be commonly accepted that floods are now occurring about twice as frequently as they used to and that climate change will bring more rain. Some have even forecast that flooding will take place as much as 10 times more frequently in the century ahead. I believe that we have to consider the matter on that basis. It will cost money, but it is necessary to spend that money, as it is necessary to spend money on the NHS. It will have to come out of taxes.

Equally, this is not only a question of defences. We have to go back to the sources and consider building on flood plains, look at the effect of agriculture and winter cereals and evaluate how, in tackling those problems, we can try to turn nature to our advantage, as we have done with wind power, rather than simply to react in fear and terror. I often wonder how many times Shem, Ham and Japheth told Noah to build his Ark before he actually did so.

However, when one has to deal with such a diverse bunch of people, as I have had to do over the past week—the Environment Agency, the Association of British Insurers, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, chartered surveyors and engineers—and finds that they are all singing the same song saying, "Beware of the real dangers ahead", then that is a song worth listening to and one that any government should take very seriously indeed.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for tabling the Question on flooding, which is probably the greatest disturbance facing British communities at the present time. Around 10,000 properties were flooded during autumn 2000 at an estimated cost of £1 billion. But more than a quarter of a million properties were at risk and were protected by various measures. No other physical danger even comes close in its magnitude.

Fortunately, in this country those dangers can be considered only as disturbances causing great inconvenience and cost, but with little loss of life. However, in other parts of the world floods are fatal and each year many thousands of people die as a result of tropical storms and cyclones hitting vulnerable communities on the coasts of America and Asia. However, as I shall explain briefly, technology and science are making many contributions to the reduction of flooding, or at least to reducing its impact on communities. Those advances involve all areas of science, including agriculture, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

A well-attended meeting was organised recently by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. I learned about some of the latest developments and looked at the future prospects. In November an excellent document funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and drawn up by the Institution of Civil Engineers entitled "Learning to live with rivers" was published.

I should like to make two points. First, the forecasting of floods is improving both in accuracy and in the length of warning given. Warnings depend on forecasts of rainfall and how the rain drains into rivers, requiring a combination of meteorology and hydrology. Whereas well-publicised targets and performance indicators are set for weather forecasts—they have to improve by a few percentage points each year and steadily extend the accuracy of longer-term forecasting; that is set out in the annual report of the Met Office—such specific and technical targets are not available in the case of forecasting river flooding, either in the UK or in any other leading country.

However, evidence suggests that warnings are improving, in particular as regards reaching more people in a timely fashion. I should add that the freedom of information approach taken last year enabled far more information about the risk of flooding to reach the people who needed it. I hope that the Government will press the Environment Agency and the United Nations agency responsible for the prevention of flooding—the World Meteorological Organisation—to move further in this direction. It will certainly help the public to gauge the reliability of flood warnings, as well as to act responsibly once they have been issued. The BBC, the Met Office and the Environment Agency are to be congratulated on the effectiveness of the short-term flood warnings that were issued in the media.

However, the report from the Institution of Civil Engineers recommends one important change in regard to public information on flooding; that is, to abandon the practice of describing floods in terms of their "return period". A one in 100 chance is far more understandable, in particular to a gambling British public, than a 100-year return period. We all know that one or two lucky or unlucky events can occur one after the other. It is the same with floods.

The second point I wish to make is in part reflected in the ICE report. The practices of assessing the risk of flooding and the forecasting of particular events by engineers and government organisations are not as advanced as they should be, given the scientific and technological progress made and the considerable investment that has taken place. It is a stimulating experience to be subjected to a Public Accounts Committee inquiry—as I have learnt myself. It makes one conscious of the need for public investment to be used effectively. In the UK, Europe and the United States it has long been noted that despite the huge investments made in weather radar—at £1 million to £2 million each—and in satellites to measure clouds, precipitation and river levels, their data have not been fully utilised or have not been utilised in the same way in different parts of the country. Sometimes they have been ignored by those responsible for gathering flood statistics and producing forecasts. Just as meteorology has improved through a combination of better observation and more powerful computer calculation, such developments are now imperative for the study of river levels. The investment that was made 30 years ago in meteorology—with the remarkable understanding of HM Treasury at the time—needs to be repeated for flood warning systems.

Better understanding and prediction of flooding should lead to better planning for housing, agriculture and flood defences. That is essential not only to ensure that new urban developments associated with a growing economy and changing patterns of habitation—the noble Lord pointed out the example of Sussex—are not vulnerable to flooding, but also to allow for the effects of climate change, which are likely to increase the intensity of winter rains as well as to cause sea levels to rise, up to 0.8 metres in the coming century. Many international and government reports have emphasised that climate change will result in more frequent flooding of coastal communities and quite possibly the total abandonment of some of them by the middle of the century. A study of those drastic changes, which will affect the health and welfare of the affected communities, should encompass not only climatology, hydrology and oceanography, but also social, medical and political issues in order to explore how such potentially difficult decisions will be reached.

I was pleased to learn recently that the Government Chief Scientist is taking an interest in these wide-ranging matters, but it is even more wide-ranging than that. Parliament will need to keep both the decisions and the decision-making process under continual review. That is particularly important in light of the current policy which states that these are essentially local issues. That point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

Technology and engineering can also contribute greatly to the direct reduction of flood damage through fixed and moving barriers, allowing controlled flooding into designated areas. Since those measures are expensive and may not always be funded in time, it is important to note that temporary barriers are now being considered for wider use in the UK, as they have been used to good effect in river basins on the Continent. The Government should be encouraged to conduct extensive trials here in the UK in order to familiarise engineers and the public and to ensure that the systems are used effectively in combination with appropriate and timely warnings. I suggest that the Environment Agency and DEFRA should encourage more public discussion and information on this development.

Finally, perhaps I may ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are likely to change their policies on insurance against flooding in the UK, in particular whether in future those living in exposed locations will have to face much higher insurance premiums. No doubt the UK insurance industry will continue to behave responsibly both here and abroad, but it has expressed its wish to make changes and the Government will need to set out the overall structure.

8.19 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, there can be few of us who did not "brush" with the wide-ranging effects of flooding in this country last year. Many experienced the personal misery of a flooded home. Added to that has been the huge financial cost, not merely to individuals but to communities and businesses. Many Members of this House suffered disruption to transport. All that had a big effect on the economy. Less publicity is given to the ongoing effects of last year's flooding, including effects on the health of many people. Not only were the problems still being felt a few months later; they are continuing.

The scale of the problem has been amply demonstrated in the increase in the number of areas that have become uninsurable for flood risk. Many factors contribute. British insurers highlight three: the frequency of rain; the fact that when it comes, there is much more of it because of climate change, which was referred to in the previous speech; and, it is claimed, poor maintenance of our flood defences and the inadequate protection of properties built in areas at high risk of flooding.

I want to highlight a number of other factors which I believe are important. In recent years, there has been increased density in building. It is not merely a matter of the buildings themselves, but of the higher proportion of hard surfaces in many modern estates. And dare I mention the fashion for "hard gardens" that we see on many television programmes? All of these result in greatly increased run-off of water into the drains. People do not have to live on a flood plain to be affected. Furthermore, as a result of modern building there is a great deal more water going down the drains of individual houses. These days, people do not merely want one bathroom; they want two or three. Although modern estates will have new drains, they often feed into very old drainage and sewerage systems. We do not build them very differently, and we do not maintain them. Many are relics of the Victorian age. That point needs to be examined.

More resources are needed for flood defence management systems. Maintenance plays an important part. As we have heard, climate change means that there is a need to spend more in this area. I want to refer to two matters which I believe can alleviate the risk of flooding, not merely in flood plains but in other areas. I shall refer to planning—in particular to building design and estate layout—and also to building regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, to whom we are grateful for introducing this debate, mentioned PPG25. I understand that this directive means that the susceptibility of land to flooding is a material consideration when planning consents are considered. Local authorities are also asked to take a sequential approach in the planning of house building, based on risk assessment. But as the noble Lord said, 27 per cent (by value) of planning applications which have already received consent are for areas where the land is known to flood.

I understand that, under PPG25, the Environment Agency will monitor progress on planning decisions. However, it will not be able to direct planning authorities where it believes there is a high risk of flooding on land to be developed. I wonder whether the Minister heard a discussion on Radio 4 in October on the situation in Cambridgeshire. The county council has been deliberating on whether to build a new town near to the village of Oakington, which was recently the scene of severe flooding.

Lawrence Rag, vice chair of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, voiced his concerns about the weakness of the planning system and also the weakness of the Environment Agency in that process. He was particularly critical of the inability of the Environment Agency to veto planning decisions when it knows very well that the site under discussion is prone to flooding. When the Minister replies, will he clarify how PPG25 will assist in the planning process as regards minimising the risk of flooding for new homes? Secondly, how can we deal with planning consents which have already been given in areas where there is a high risk of flooding?

I turn finally to site planning and building regulations, with particular reference to drainage. What consideration have the Government given to the role of design in minimising run-off? What research has been done? Even new drainage systems are not designed to cope with low severity flood conditions. For example, in times of flooding, back-up through toilets and baths into houses could be avoided if we always built with one-way flat valves. Are the Government considering changes to the building regulations to take account of these matters? They affect not only those who live on flood plains, but people all over England. My noble friend Lord Greaves may refer to the fact that he lives on the side of a hill and has seen houses above him flooding as a result of run-off.

I recognise that flood defences play an important part in limiting flooding. However, we need to examine planning and building regulations. They are just as important. I look forward to the Minister's response.

8.26 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I hate to say it, but I harbour a suspicion that the Government do not wish to know much about flood dangers, much less instigate measures to tackle the evil. Yet the appalling difficulties of having flood waters in one's house are almost incalculable. The misery of seeing treasured carpets ruined, soft furnishings, chairs and tables stained beyond redemption, and one's home becoming impossible to live in are almost unbearable. And let us not forget the foul, ghastly smell that pervades the whole house when it has been flooded.

I must declare an interest, which is in no way a pecuniary one; and, thank god, I have never suffered the effects of flooding. I am president of the Nene River Flood Prevention Alliance, a group of interested people in my home area. They come together to try to ensure that planning committees recognise where local flooding can take place, but also to stop permission being given for new homes to be built in such areas.

Northampton is one of the many areas which have suffered grievously from flooding in recent years. The alliance has worked and researched extremely hard, and I admire its members greatly. They have submitted firm evidence of a head of flood water gathering above Northampton. They have told the local authority that a drainage scheme which will store or drain the flood water is essential. They feel strongly—and, I believe, reasonably—that until that is done there should be a moratorium on further development in the area. Alas, no such moratorium is in sight. More and more houses are going up.

I do not believe that the question of possible flood danger is considered properly when planning permission is granted for housing developments. In one area, warning was given that either a pond should be constructed before building commenced or pipes should be laid to the local river. But the river had no capacity to absorb further water and the pond was never made. However, the houses went up just the same. I should not want to live in one of them.

I am told that the Environment Agency does not provide accurate surveys, merely computer-generated maps, and often old ones at that. Some are from 50 or 60 years ago, although many changes have taken place, not least house building. Many people do not realise the extent to which putting new houses in an area increases the flood danger, or makes it even more certain that there will be floods as more people move into the area.

Old maps do not give a true picture. There should be a complete up-to-date survey of all river areas in the country, but I fear that that will not happen. Accounts of big money to be made are welcome, and heard, but no one wants to hear warnings of bad consequences. It is better not to listen. Builders or, dare I say it, Ministers know to be well out of the way before anyone notices the dangerous position that certain new houses are in. There is money in development and builders are aware of that.

The Secretary of State is sometimes called in to give the go-ahead. But I am told that he sees no reports of flood dangers when he gives the green light. No survey of the dangers is submitted with the application or structure plan. The Water Resources Act 1991 says that the Secretary of State should have such information, but that Act appears never to be invoked. Much more notice is taken of house building quotas. Every local authority is virtually ordered to build a certain number of houses but the question of whether those houses will be safe from flooding never arises. Ministers never see reports on that, or so I am told. I should be delighted if the Minister were to contradict me.

Mr Elliot Morley, the relevant Parliamentary Secretary, recently issued a press release on flooding. He made no mention of funding for infrastructure of flood storage reservoirs, although I should have thought that any press release on flooding would include that. He announced a funding increase for flood defence, which is up from £76 million last year to £114 million in 2003–04. But an insurance company, Norwich Union, pointed out that the £200 million already spent by local authorities on building and maintaining flood defences is barely half of what is needed. We still go on building homes in areas that are likely to flood.

As my noble friend Lord Renton and others have said, the question of insurance is deeply worrying. The insurance companies are just not interested in paying for mistakes or in the lack of proper care in building housing estates. I fear that within a measurable time thousands of homes will become uninsurable and unsaleable. Then what will we do? Will social security help? Will people be rehoused on council estates? Will there be health care for depression? Many problems could arise from this issue.

Last Wednesday I obtained from the Printed Paper Office the new White Paper on planning in local government regions. I rushed along to get it as quickly as I could. I welcome its intention to speed up the planning process and I am pleased that the flaws and inefficiencies in the present system will be attacked. But I was disappointed not to see anywhere in its 64 pages a reference to the vital need to bring flood hazard scrutiny into planning. Page 31 gives 12 points that should be included in a model planning application. There should have been 13, and the thirteenth should have mentioned land drainage and flood dangers. It is said that 13 is an unlucky number, but it will be worse than unlucky if someone buys a house that is sitting on a swamp.

I should perhaps give notice that I have further criticisms of the White Paper, but I shall reserve those for another day. My motive tonight is to support my noble friend and to beg the Government to recognise the seriousness of what we are saying.

8.34 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, we have heard some fascinating speeches about the problems of flooding. I want to refer more widely to the problems of the management of river basins and rivers generally. We are talking about flooding on coastal plains and fluvial flooding from water courses. Floods can happen anywhere, as my noble friend Lady Maddock said. I live on a steep Pennine hillside and we were astonished a few years ago when it opened up and turned into a mass of foaming water. Fortunately a row of houses above where we live managed to act partly as a dam and the water poured through the back door and out the front, and was fortunately diverted into the lane.

Most flooding occurs on flat land and areas that most people recognise as flood plains. It occurs mainly in the lowlands where the rivers flow across wide plains that turn into coastal flood plains, which are dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry.

There almost certainly has been increased flooding because of climatic change. But we should remember that only about 10 years ago we were all concerned about summer droughts and falling water tables. Everyone was worried that the rivers were drying up. That may happen again because climate patterns are cyclical. There is a danger that we may experience a dry period in a few years' time and everyone will think that flooding is a thing of the past. It is important to regard it as something that will happen even if there are short-term fluctuations.

Flooding is part of the natural processes of river basins. That is now beginning to be understood much more widely by agencies and government. Ten years ago no one thought about looking at flooding as a whole across the river basin, from the catchment areas to the run-off, and infiltration that occurs and which often reappears further down the system as ground water. What happens in the upper reaches of rivers is integrally linked to what happens in the middle reaches and the lower flood plains as they enter the sea. That is vital to this question.

We have to understand that the present drainage network is not natural. It looks and feels natural and people think that the rivers are natural, but the streams and rivers in this country have been controlled, straightened, contained and, in many cases, modified by development. Some of it is large-scale such as industrial development in cities and some of it is small development, such as bridges, and so on.

The flood plains that we now see are unlike those that would have existed a few thousand years ago when the river courses were split up and braided. There were lagoons, flood channels and lakes, and all kinds of natural flooding occurred. That has been stopped in order to allow efficient farming, urban development and communications.

The issue is now much more widely understood. The flooding last year in the Vale of York and the drainage basin of the Ouse and the Derwent is closely related to what happens in the uplands where the famous Yorkshire tributaries of the Ouse and the Derwent in the North York Moors originate. Flooding occurs in ways that we do not want because of the lack of a sufficient amount of active flood plain, or washlands. Often it is connected with developments lower down in the estuaries.

PPG25 is welcome in that it recognises these processes. It states that planning policies and decisions should recognise that flood risk management needs to be applied on a whole-catchment basis and should not be restricted to flood plains". The introduction states: High-water events in rivers and coastal waters are natural processes that play an important role in shaping the natural environment. The flood damage that results to people and property is a consequence of previous human decisions about settlement and land use"— and, indeed, the decisions that we are still taking.

That is a vital concept when dealing with flooding, but we need to go much further than merely controlling new developments and considering whether they are in appropriate places and of the appropriate type. In some cases we may need to reduce the nature or intensity of the agricultural land use in the catchment area where the rivers originate. Draining moorlands, draining and improving upland pastures and increasing the run-off, which are all thought of as improvements to land, may be having a significant effect on what happens downstream. If so, there has to be a system for looking at the issue as a whole.

We may need to allow some intensively cultivated farm land on flood plains—perhaps some of the best farm land in the country—to revert to much less intensive land use. It might revert to grazing land, as used to happen on marshes and meadows, so that it can act as overflow and as reservoirs. We may be looking at creating new wetlands, which would have environmentally desirable spin-off effects. That type of habitat has been severely reduced over the past 300 years, and particularly in the past 50 years. If that is to happen, the people who own, farm or otherwise use that land now have to be compensated for the new uses. At the moment there are very few ways in which that can happen.

There was an interesting discussion in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in another place on 28th November, when Elliot Morley, the Minister, was quizzed about the subject and asked whether the model of the national forest could be used for that purpose. His answer was: Not at this stage but all options are open as far as I am concerned. The idea of flood storage catchment and using farm land for that is a very interesting one, and it is certainly one that we are giving very serious thought to in river plains and river catchment areas". It is good news if the Government are looking at the issue seriously. It may currently be possible to use some agri-environmental money for that, but the scale and nature of it is nothing like what is required. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on how far the Government's thinking is going.

My final point is that any management of river basins has to have an administrative basis. One of the problems of current flood control and management is the large number of different agencies and bodies involved. River basins by their nature rarely coincide with neat administrative boundaries. They would not be suitable as administrative boundaries in many places because of far more important factors. My party's policy of regional government, which seems now to have some favour with the Government, would be a way of integrating many of the agencies and organisations involved in dealing with flooding. That should be seriously considered as part of the responsibilities of new democratic regional authorities in England if, as we hope, they are eventually formed.

8.44 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord. Lord Renton, on initiating a most interesting debate. I do not have first-hand experience to declare of having been subject to a flood—yet—but I am a civil engineer and I look at the issues from my experience in the construction industry.

Two problems have been identified tonight. One covers the existing problems of houses, run-offs and agriculture and the other relates to new developments on what might be called flood-susceptible areas or flood plains.

It is extraordinary that many existing properties on flood plains may have to be abandoned because they are uninsurable or uninhabitable. It is also extraordinary that we have not done more to sort out the agricultural problem that several noble Lords have mentioned, because it is not as if we are short of food in this country any more and have to cultivate every square foot of land. There is plenty of land that could be used.

Several noble Lords have referred to the problems caused by increased quantities of roads and paved areas. I recall a major flood of the River Mole in the lower Thames area about 30 years ago, which flooded vast areas of Molesey near Kingston. It was obvious that the enormous development in the 1930s had caused all the water to run off into the river rather than being soaked up in the good old bog.

We should not forget the problem of sea floods. My understanding is that the Environment Agency is no longer protecting land in certain areas. That is fine for those who do not happen to live in those areas. Occasionally we see high profile buildings falling into the sea. I was interested in the comments of my noble friend Lord Hunt that the sea level is going to rise by 0.8 metres—that is about two feet and six inches—in 100 years. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can hazard a guess as to how much of England and how many properties will be flooded if that happens. I do not have a clue, but it would be interesting to think about.

That leads on to the question of whose fault it all is. Is it a question of caveat emptor? Should compensation be payable? Should the taxpayer be asked to compensate those who suffer from higher floods and higher seas? Would they then argue that governments collectively were responsible for the cause—global warming—and should therefore contribute to some general compensation? That is an interesting question. I do not know whether my noble friend has an answer, but the question will come up more and more.

I was astonished to hear the noble Lord, Lord Renton, say that 27 per cent of planning applications are on coastal plains. That confirms my view that the pressure on local authorities for major development is very hard to resist. I have also started to read the new planning documents referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight. There are proposals to remove or reduce the scope of county councils, which are probably better placed than district councils to have a view on the consequences of floods. We shall probably debate that next year.

Another example close to your Lordships' House came to my attention a year or two ago. There is a great big development in Battersea. The river wall along both sides of the Thames was built before the Thames flood barrier was completed. It was designed to keep the river out of London. The developer was supposed to build the flood wall all the way along, but he decided to put a nice cast iron fence by the Battersea development instead so that those living in the ground floor flats could see the river. That is fine, as long as you do not live in the house one row behind, as I do sometimes. I wonder what might happen if they do not shut the door. Why did not the council, the Port of London Authority or somebody tell the developer to put the wall up? It may be that they did and that it has been sorted out. That is another example of the enormous pressure on local authorities, which I am not sure they are strong enough to resist.

As to assessing the risk of a flood, according to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the Institution of Civil Engineers no longer refers to a 100-year flood but to a one-in-100 risk. My experience of construction sites near rivers is that one might have planned for no floods during a two-year period but there always were. I reached the conclusion that the risk was of a two-year flood. That exemplifies how difficult it is to get the calculations right. I am not sure what can be done because floods are a combination of rainfall and runoff. It is nice to get flood warnings but it is much nicer not to have a flood at all. I am not sure how we get there.

What are the Government doing to prevent the causes of flooding? Your Lordships have mentioned run-off, rain and high sea levels—probably all caused by global warming related to CO2 and energy policy. There is currently a government review, presumably being undertaken by the Department for Trade and Industry, but it appears that there is a parallel report from the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit, which the Financial Times summarised on 13th December. Perhaps my noble friend can explain why two reports are being produced simultaneously and the relationship between them. I am sure that there is a terribly good reason. The Financial Times reports that the report proposes a substantial increase in investment in wind-farms and other renewable energy projects, greater energy efficiency and more investment in energy efficient combined heat and power projects". The report says that the PIU report attacks the institutional barriers to progress. These include heavy financial penalties imposed by the new electricity trading system on small and intermittent (typically wind) generators". Lord Montagu and I visited a house in Oxford that had solar power panels installed on its roof. It cost quite a lot of money but not an enormous amount. What stunned me was that the electricity board generously offered to buy the power at less than three times the price that the board charged. The board was also going to charge £30 every time the meter was read—which could be done at least every hour. Things may have got a bit better since then but there is a long way to go before people will be encouraged to build wind farms.

The Financial Times commented also that the government may have to return to its previous support for congestion charging if development of new fuel technologies based on hydrogen fail to deliver Does my noble friend agree that congestion charging in London and elsewhere is a good thing? It is a tenuous argument but the question is worth asking.

I remind your Lordships that the recent Environment Agency discussion paper suggested that it should be possible to reduce the UK's primary energy input by 50 per cent by 2050—which would cut enormously the risk of floods as well as the risks posed by CO2.

8.54 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I come from Somerset which, as one of the lowest lying counties of the United Kingdom, has long experience of flooding. I declare an interest as a Somerset county councillor and because my husband is chairman of the flood defence committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and my noble friend Lord Greaves mentioned working with nature. The Government need to pursue that approach with all speed. I would have felt happier if the Unstarred Question had asked the Government what measures they are taking for the long-term management of floods. We cannot continually defend ourselves against what is clearly a huge flowing-down and flowing-in tide. It is a question of making sure that the floods are in the right places, not the wrong ones.

Somerset is starting to pilot that approach in the River Parrot catchment area. I am delighted that Sir Don Curry's Policy Commission on Farming and Food and the Minister with responsibility for flood management, Mr. Elliot Morley, have been to Somerset and were encouraged by what is happening there. I hope that will become a national model.

I was surprised by the report "Learning to Live with Rivers" from the Institution of Civil Engineers because, like many people, I imagined that engineers take purely an engineering approach to problems. Instead, the report identified that we must learn to live with rivers and that we cannot always control them. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the ICE's belief that there is a great skills shortage and on whether there is a sufficiency of people to cope with the volume of work that must be undertaken.

Local drainage boards, flood defence committees and others bring years of local experience but Government financing for their work has become extremely opaque. When priorities are set, local people need to know why those choices were made. Rivers do not necessarily respect local government boundaries. Somerset's river catchment covers the whole county but Surrey and Sussex have to share resources. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, may agree that while Surrey may understand the problems of Sussex, the democratic input is opaque.

I shall not rehearse the issues surrounding PPG25 except to say that retrospective applications are extremely important. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's views.

What is also important is the Minister's ability to consider how to shift payments to farmers for long-term flood storage. At present, only environmentally sensitive areas that can benefit waders and similar birds qualify for flood storage payments. If we expect farmers to store floods on land in areas where the water wants to be, we must move away from that approach. It may benefit the wildlife but we cannot be so selective as to allow only environmentally sensitive areas to qualify.

As to agricultural practices, perhaps the Minister agrees that countryside stewardship or a completely new scheme should be introduced, to compensate farmers who undertake flood storage on their land for the good of the public and towns downstream. The name Somerset derives from the fact that it was agriculturally useful only in the summer, as it was essentially a county of islands in the winter. Although I would not want to return to those days, I believe that we can learn something from previous conditions and that we can benefit from controlling water in a natural manner when it is possible to do so.

The RSPB believes that continually seeking to repair sea defences is a losing battle. It has also strongly stated that it would be much better if the Environment Agency were given power to purchase from farmers land that is immediately adjacent to the sea. As the agency is currently unable to buy such land, it must continue instead to repair flood defences. Substantial sums could be saved in the long term if the agency had the power to buy such coastal land from farmers who wish to sell.

I have a couple of specific points on finance to which I should like the Minister to respond. The 2000 comprehensive spending review allowed a notional increase of 4 per cent for flood defences, whereas spending by flood defence committees increased by 10 per cent. Although the Institution of Civil Engineers has suggested that the budget for flood control should be doubled, nothing in the Pre-Budget Report suggests that there will be such an increase.

Currently, councils obtain money for flood defence in precepts. Therefore, those sums count in the figures used to calculate the council tax benefit limitation subsidy. In the recently published paper entitled Strong Local Leadership, the Government proposed to phase out that limitation. Although the proposal is welcome, the limit may not be removed for a couple of years. Consequently, local authorities that are responding to the Government's call to do more about flooding may well be penalised.

I ask the Minister to reply to those two points. Additionally, does he think that the next comprehensive spending review is likely to provide the type of increase that we shall need to tackle the problem? Although it is very likely that the spend will be very high in the next four or five years, it will taper off as we become better at long-term flood management.

9.3 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for asking this Question and allowing us to have what I hope the Minister will agree is a very comprehensive and objective debate.

Last year, 10,000 properties were flooded. Such devastation is sufficient to remind us that flooding is a problem that cannot be put on the back burner. Time is running out for proprietors whose insurers have imposed a time limit on their policies, and for those whose property remains unprotected against flooding the possibility of material damage and real distress is high, especially at this time of year. Promises of long-term solutions alone are not enough. As many noble Lords have pointed out, although long-term strategy has a crucial part to play in the broader approach to the flooding problem, we should now ask ourselves whether vulnerable areas are any better protected than they were last year.

The good news is that some of them are. The report of the Institution of Civil Engineers suggests that 270,000 properties are now successfully protected. However, although that progress is most welcome, there are numerous reports from forecasters, from residents who suffered such misery last year and from professional bodies such as the association of insurance brokers suggesting that the problem is likely to become much worse. I should declare a small interest as, last year, my nephew in Hampshire was twice flooded out. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, clearly explained, in the not too distant future, sea levels could rise by, I believe, two and a half feet. He also said that freak storms occur no longer every 100 years but—at least in his experience— whenever he is on site.

Seriously, we have to ensure that a carefully considered and adequately funded policy is in place so that we are ready for the storms when they come. That entails thinking about protecting property now, in the short term. Residents and businesses already feel abandoned. Although they acknowledge that flooding is a natural phenomenon and cannot be prevented—your Lordships may not agree with that, as some speakers have suggested ways in which floods could be prevented—they feel that the Government are not doing enough to protect them. We should not allow that impression to remain, however difficult it is to deal with those concerns.

I turn now to the more long-term possibilities. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry also for focusing on the building of new houses on flood plains. Many noble Lords have spoken about various aspects of such building, which is an important issue. I understand that, earlier in the year, the Government issued guidelines on the subject. The principle encapsulated in those guidelines is both simple and welcome, directing development away from high-risk areas in a risk-free and preventive manner. The consequence is that money will be saved and distress avoided.

The Government acknowledged at the time that such guidance was overdue, and I agree. However, guidance alone will not be effective in dealing with current concerns. Nor is it likely to be put into practice uniformly across the country. The guidelines will do little to stop development in areas that already have planning permission. In this debate, however, several noble Lords suggested what action should be taken in areas where planning permission has already been given although it is known that there is a flood risk.

In his Answer to a recent Starred Question on this subject, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that development on flood plains has been "tightened up". He also said: It is up to individual planning authorities— we have heard a lot today about individual planning authorities and the pressures that local authorities are under when considering particular planning applications, to bear those matters in mind".—[Official Report, 7/11/01: col. 199.] I wonder whether the division of responsibility between local authorities, DEFRA, the Environment Agency, DTLR and internal drainage boards will mean that guidelines are not followed as closely as they might be. That is hardly joined-up government. I understand that the Government are considering the need for a flooding direction under planning Acts. I should be interested to know whether the Government have made any progress in their consideration.

The Institution of Civil Engineers report also called for the establishment of a new executive agency which would have extra powers over other operating authorities. The authors clearly saw the drawbacks of the current division of labour and responsibility. They suggested that it might have money allocated to it directly as part of an overall increase in capital investment. I should be grateful if the Minister would give us some idea of the Government's thinking in that area.

There is another concern that the planning guidelines do not address. If we continue to build on greenfield sites outside flood plains, the ability of land and rivers to absorb excess rainwater will reduce dramatically. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, talked about "hard gardens" in that respect. Government building targets are such that development is going ahead on greenfield sites. As long as that continues, it will detract from any positive measures such as those outlined in July—yet more evidence to suggest that flooding policy will be most effective if we are mindful of a broad range of issues.

I mentioned insurance a few moments ago, as did, I believe, the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Knight, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. The Association of British Insurers has commented on numerous occasions on the severity of the flooding problem. Insurance firms have said that they will not cover beyond the end of the year for more than 1.7 million homes unless the Government take drastic action to boost flood defences. The economic implications for those areas are significant, dare I say awful? It would be a dreadful state of affairs if almost all properties located near rivers became uninsurable, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said. The industry has hinted that that may become a reality in the future.

The consensus is that more money is required and required quickly if vulnerable areas are to be protected from material and economic disaster. As well as emphasising how serious the situation is, and is likely to become, the Institution of Civil Engineers has made two additional points that I wish to raise. The first concerns abandonment. It has been suggested that residents and businesses might abandon those areas that are most under threat, allowing the areas to return to their natural role as emergency reservoirs. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke of a strategy for settlement and land use in the future and the management of it. I should be interested to know whether the Government are considering abandonment as a possible course of action.

The second point concerns the inclusion of human distress as a factor in future policy calculations. It has been argued that a wholly economic approach to assessing the benefits of flood mitigation has overlooked the human misery caused by flooding. I wonder whether that has been considered by the Government in their assessment of future flood mitigation measures.

Finally, I should like to reiterate my concern that this is not just about future development but about properties that already exist and are already under threat. People living in vulnerable areas should not feel abandoned. In the longer term, by taking a broad view of the problems associated with flooding, we are perhaps more likely to come up with a series of measures that address people's real concerns and problems. By a broad view, I mean considering the implications of flooding in every aspect. The AA, for example, warned recently that long-term flood damage to Britain's roads was responsible for an increase in the number of accidents across the country. Last year's widespread flooding caused severe damage to the foundations and surface quality of many roads and several are in need of extensive work as a result. We should address that in the context of other concerns.

Promises for the future have been plentiful. New guidelines are welcome, although, as I have mentioned, their effect could well be limited. I hope that swift action can also be taken to avoid a repetition of last year's costly experience in the short term and in the future.

9.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for raising this debate, which has been wider ranging than perhaps he or I anticipated. I hope that I can answer some of the points, but certainly not all of those raised tonight.

The key issue here is that flood defence, and the way in which we deal with the growing problem of potential floods, is a long-term business. There are clearly short-term issues, but we have to have a long-term strategy. We need to look ahead and to consider what defences will be needed in 10, 20 or even 50 years time. As the noble Lord. Lord Glentoran, said, that requires a long-term strategy.

It also means that there will be some areas that we cannot defend. It is no use committing future generations and current resources to maintaining unsustainable defences or unsustainable management systems. As my noble friends Lord Berkeley and Lord Hunt pointed out, sea levels are rising and climate change is bringing an increased incidence of extreme weather. We need to ensure that we have a viable long-term approach to the matter. We also need to ensure, both in the long and the short term, that defence in one place does not create additional pressures and problems elsewhere. So sustainability and a long-term approach are core to our strategy.

It is true that the floods last year were the worst most of us can remember. Indeed, it may be a sign of things to come with the increased unpredictability of the weather. We cannot prevent all flooding whatever management systems we introduce, but we can and must prepare for it. We also need to keep the problem in perspective. At present there are about 1.8 million people living at risk of flooding in England alone. Approximately 300,000 properties—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, put the figure at 250,000, but it is slightly higher than that—were at direct risk last year, but the vast majority of them were protected by defences. The flooding of 10,000 properties—tragic and devastating as it was for those living in them—needs to be seen against those numbers. The devastation to residences is clear and all of us have sympathy for those affected, but it is also clear that there is a balance of risk here.

The nobles Baronesses, Lady Knight, Lady Maddock and others, pointed out the cost of the disruption and the terrible devastation, which was graphically described by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight. That indicates what people experience in such circumstances. But we need to look at how we can identify better those areas which are at most risk and how we can develop a strategy for dealing with them.

The increase in flood risk is in part to be dealt with by improvement in flood defences, in part by approaches through planning policy and, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, indicated, through fluvial area management. PPG25 marks a new and more sustained approach to planning guidance which the department hopes local authorities will follow.

The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, emphasised the need for accurate flood plain maps and for anticipation of flood risk. That is possible in some cases. More information is now being made available, both through local information and the Internet. Those measures are constantly being improved arid updated. A great deal of that information is therefore available to residents and authorities.

PPG25 contains guidelines on developments as regards flood plains. They are clearly identified and local planning authorities are paying increased attention to flood plain risks. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, indicated that she believed that the Government were perhaps not giving as much attention to this matter as is needed. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and others indicated that they thought the resources were inadequate.

We are investing very substantially in flood and coastal defences. Over £400 million a year is being spent in England. That will increase to £450 million by 2003/4. The Government fund the lion's share through DEFRA funding and through DTLR local government funding. DEFRA funding is to increase by 70 per cent over the next couple of years. Local authority funding is also increasing significantly ahead of inflation.

The defences damaged last autumn have been repaired and reinstated. The Government have met most of the cost. They provide as least as much protection as last year and, in many places, better protection than last year. We have also provided additional funds to accelerate major river flood defence schemes in a number of areas. That would not have happened for a number of years had we not stepped up the provision of resources We have also been able to put in place new catchment flood management plans to ensure that a strategic approach is adopted to flood risk and flood management on a catchment basis. This follows the line of the earlier initiative on shoreline management plans for the coast.

Building new and improved flood defences is, of course, a very important means of reducing flood risk. It is not always a sustainable proposition to build defences against every eventuality, but the impact of flood risk, even in those circumstances, can be reduced. That is the object of these plans. The Environment Agency is developing the initiative through five pilot schemes, with a view to preparing a plan for each new catchment area in the medium term.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was concerned about the overall catchment approach. I can assure the noble Lord that that approach is being developed substantially and that flood storage areas already form a significant component part of the flood defences of both rural and urban communities. In the urban context, for example, the scheme for Lincoln was developed in the early 1990s and was first used in earnest in response to last year's floods. The Environment Agency is required to exercise a general supervision of all those flood management schemes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, reminded us that we cannot expect to remove all flood risk, but that we should introduce a flood management approach. We agree. In particular—

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, before dealing with that point, will the Minister comment on my suggestion that the Bellwin scheme should again be considered, which would give local authorities a greater possibility of obtaining payment for the replacement of capital assets? The recent report on Bellwin showed that inadequate money is available for the restoration of capital assets, as a result of which some local authorities will severely suffer.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government have significantly increased the formula in relation to Bellwin from the 85 per cent payment by central government to a 100 per cent payment in post severe-flood situations. I agree that there is some concern about balancing the way in which that money is spent and we shall certainly keep that matter under review. In particular, we need to ensure that the bulk of the money is paid in effective schemes—not all of which will be capital and some of which will be revenue management. However, we need to ensure that money given through the Bellwin formula is deployed effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, mentioned Lewes—an example of a particularly difficult area for which we need a long-term approach, especially having regard to the severe complications relating to heritage requirements as well as the straightforward defence of buildings. The noble Lord also referred to the role of county councils and the amount of precept that they had determined. County councils and flood management committees bear some responsibility to raise adequate resources, and there is a responsibility on central government to support those schemes. The situation in Sussex was particularly bad last year. Over the next few years we shall need to develop an overall strategy for protecting Lewes and other neighbouring areas in East Sussex.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, also raised the question of the impact of soil erosion on effective intensive agriculture in Sussex, a problem which also occurs elsewhere. That matter was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley. It is certainly true that last autumn's exceptional rainfall led to a much more widespread and noticeable erosion and run-off from farmland in many parts of the country, particularly in the South-East. That was a demonstration of a localised, but nevertheless very severe, long-term problem. The Government have therefore taken a number of initiatives to improve soil quality, including issuing best practice guidance and information packs to farmers and managers to try to develop an approach that limits run-off from agricultural land. The problem of diffuse origin of soil erosion and its effect on the water system is significant, and we need to take it into account as we develop a new approach to the management of agricultural land as a whole.

Flood warning arrangements are also being improved—322,000 more people had flood warnings this year, compared with last year. That indicates an improvement in the prediction system at local level.

Many noble Lords have referred to the report by the Institution of Civil Engineers, which we in DEFRA commissioned. It gives some indication of the way in which we need to move forward, and we need to take its recommendations into account.

Several noble Lords referred to insurance and development controls. Clearly, there is a problem with the availability of flood insurance, which is of great concern to many in the flood plains and to the covering local authorities. We maintain close links with insurance companies and are determined to ensure the continued availability of affordable flood cover. There is agreement among ABI companies that in all but exceptional circumstances they will continue to provide flood cover over the next two years. They have undertaken to investigate any alleged breaches of that agreement by members.

However, there is clearly a long-term insurance problem. Insurance companies say that more resources from local authorities and central government should be used in flood defence. They are also concerned about development controls. However, they apply by and large to future property rather than property that is already there. In that regard, there is a difference in terms of what our approach can deal with. PPG25 deals with future developments more robustly than was the case with earlier planning guidance. We also have a responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of the flood defence arrangements in relation to those areas that have already been built on.

Future building on functional flood plains should be wholly exceptional in all circumstances. That is the responsibility of planning authorities. We have a responsibility for those who already live on flood plains—

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I am conscious that we are about to finish, but the Minister has not discussed planning permissions that have already been given in flood plains but where the property has not yet been built. We should deal with that serious matter, and I hope that he will comment on it.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that I can give a general answer. Planning authorities and the call-in system have some responsibilities in that respect, in terms of the Secretary of State and the local authority. Where only outline planning permission exists, there is a responsibility on planning authorities to review the situation.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I realise that we are nearly out of time. Will the Minister undertake to write to me on the question of council tax benefit subsidy limitations?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that matter is not the direct responsibility of my department but I shall ensure that the noble Baroness gets a reply.

I believe that I have gone over my time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and other noble Lords who have participated in this debate.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, before the Minister concludes, will he clarify one matter? After September 11th, when insurance companies refused to cover airlines because of the greater risks, the Government stepped in and contributed to premiums to keep people flying. If insurers will not insure people's homes—the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned the figure of 1.7 million—should not the Government step in to ensure that people can continue to live in those homes?

Lord Whilty

My Lords, I had occasion to say to the House in an entirely different context that the Government are not the insurer of last resort. A temporary—and somewhat unique—exception to that was made in relation to airlines, but that is not a sustained or sustainable position. It is not the Government's job to provide insurance for householders, but it is perhaps the Government's job, along with the insurance industry, to try to ensure that, so far as possible, such insurance is available and that local and national government observe their responsibilities in relation to flood management and flood defences, where that is sustainable. Where if is not sustainable, some degree of strategic retreat occasionally has to form part of the strategic plan.

House adjourned at half-past nine o'clock.