HL Deb 07 November 2001 vol 628 cc197-200

2.44 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking to ensure that local authorities, in areas where there were floods in 2000, are taking all possible steps to protect towns and villages from similar disasters this winter.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Environment Agency is primarily responsible for providing flood defences and flood warnings but local authorities also have a crucial role in providing funding and in leading the response to flooding emergencies.

Flood defences that were damaged last year have been reinstated so that communities are now at least as well defended as they were before the floods, and in many cases are better defended. Where appropriate, new flood defence schemes are being developed, although that often requires longer-term planning.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, does the Minister accept that for areas such as those that are close to me in East Sussex—I fortunately live half way up Mount Harry, but our neighbouring towns of Lewes, Uckfield and Robertsbridge were seriously flooded last year—very little has happened during the past year in terms of long-term improvements? In Lewes, for example, there is a greater availability of sandbags but of nothing else.

The Minister referred to the Environment Agency. Is he aware that it calculated that the cost simply of maintaining flood defences in Sussex at their present standards was £55 million? However, the Government have made available for the maintenance of land and flood defences only £51 million, and that sum has to be spread throughout the country and over four years. Is there not a huge potential problem here that the Government have yet to recognise? If it is not recognised, it will make the long-term capital investment problems of Railtrack seem like a flea bite.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is not going to tempt me into discussing the railway system. On flood defences, I do not quite recognise his figures. In total, via the SSA, well over £400 million is being allocated on an annual basis and, in terms of capital grants, the provision by DEFRA has increased from £66 million to £114 million over the coming two years. Those are significant increases. However, that is not to minimise the problem. In the case of Lewes, the problem is particularly complex because there are substantial heritage considerations. As yet, the full scheme that will be needed to defend Lewes from all eventualities relating to flooding has not been developed because of those complications. Only temporary measures have been established. There are several other examples that are complicated in that way.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the most important consideration, in terms of reducing the flooding of rivers, is to ensure that the outflow parts of rivers are wide and deep enough to take an increased flow of water and that the river authorities are responsible for that? Will he bear that in mind and give such instruction and help to the river authorities as may be necessary?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is certainly true that the outlets and estuaries—and the continuous dredging thereof—are an important part of total flood management. In most cases, that responsibility rests with the Environment Agency, which has overall responsibility for the management of floods in the total river system. It is therefore already clearly its main remit to prioritise the measures that are necessary in a particular flood system. That includes dealing with outlets.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, will the Minister explain what changes have been made to planning policy guidance since last year's floods to stop continued building on flood plains? I also refer to the use of surfaces that soak up water, as opposed to those that cause run-off into drains and hence into rivers.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the development dimension, planning guidance has been altered so that it recommends that planning authorities should restrict more substantially developments on vulnerable flood plains and those that use water or transfer water as a result of being close to the main river system. That has been tightened up. It is up to individual planning authorities, when considering particular planning applications, to bear those matters in mind. Clearly, some planning decisions were taken in the past that have aggravated the problem substantially in some areas.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, the Environment Agency has told many areas that protective measures are too expensive. Is that really the Government's thinking? Many householders and businesses are now being denied insurance cover because of the high risk of flooding. Do the Government acknowledge that that will pose a real threat to the economic survival of those vulnerable locations?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the threat of flooding is pretty widespread. The Government and local authorities have to prioritise those areas in which the defences will be most effective. Therefore, by definition, other areas may have a lower priority. As I said, there has been an increase of about 70 per cent in the capital expenditure for flood defences from DEFRA and an increase in the money that is spent by local authorities in that area. Some economic problems were, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, aggravated by inappropriate development, which I hope planning authorities will in future avoid.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can give me comfort in relation to the area of the Ouse from Boroughbridge to York. As I suspect the noble Lord knows, the old, historic town of York is one of the country's main tourist centres. Are the Government aware that year after year the foundations of some of the lovely historic buildings are becoming more and more endangered and that such damage may be experienced in other parts of the town that have not yet been hit by floods? Can the Minister give me any comfort in that regard?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can give a degree of comfort. Clearly the floods in the Ouse area and in York over the past years have been substantial, but some improvements have been made along the river and in York itself. Heritage buildings cannot be defended from floods in the same way as modern housing. The town of Lewes has the same problem. It is a substantial problem and will require a long-term developed plan in order to minimise the risk to buildings in York.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I welcome the extra sums that the Minister has announced are to be allocated to flood defence. Can he give the House a guarantee that there will be no underspend on such funds?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in relation to government expenditure, we shall endeavour to spend up to the limits. Clearly, the money that is dealt with by the local authorities will go via the SSA. Local authorities have to establish priorities for flood defences and for other pressures on their budgets. Therefore, I cannot give that absolute guarantee. As I believe the Liberal Democrat Benches constantly emphasise in other circumstances, some discretion is required by local authorities in this matter.