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Let us consider the problems in my area. The River Emm is a rather small stream at most times, but can swell quickly; the River Loddon is a fairly big river, because it is close to joining the Thames by the time that it flows through my area; and on the edges there is the Thames itself and some Thames floodplain. All of those flood, and it is clear that some of the problem is the aggravation that comes from improper maintenance. All too often branches get caught in the River Emm, resulting in the detritus of leaves, litter and so on which creates a mini-dam at various places along the watercourse. Vegetation grows extremely quickly in the rather wet summers that we are having these days and that creates another barrier to the free flow of water. Clumsy people sometimes do not help the matter by putting a shopping
trolley or an old pram into the river, thus adding to the trees and the vegetation, and before we know it, there is a dam in the river. Maintenance work cannot be done once a year; people have to be sent out regularly to inspect and to supervise. If a little work were done often, it would not be so expensive. We need boots on the ground; we need someone who walks the course. We need someone who has the tools and equipment necessary to remove that detritus.
One of the obstacles on the Loddon, which is a bigger river, results from the fact that people dropped a lot of masonry some years ago when they were building a bridge-undoubtedly this was a public sector project that caused problems. These people never bothered to take the masonry out of the river bed and so at a very crucial point where the river abuts a pub and houses there is insufficient depth. That is where it naturally floods. It also usually floods the main Reading road.
In the most recent bad floods, all the main roads to Reading were cut off, with the exception of the motorway. It is odd when someone in high-tech valley 35 miles from London cannot for a whole day make a simple journey into the main town in the middle of our high-tech valley because the rivers have not been kept clear or the necessary capital works have not been carried out to handle the water. I hope that the Minister will take this more seriously.
I am glad that the Liberal Democrats support the proposal. Their spokesman, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), has brightened up our debates, because it is the first time that I have seen someone come along with carefully prepared and beautifully typed-out scripts on each of the provisions, with his notes on the Liberal Democrat amendments on yellow paper, his notes on the Conservative amendments on blue paper, and his notes on the Government amendments on light pink paper-that paper should probably be dark red now, as they have moved on.
Mr. Redwood: I think that was a compliment, but I cannot be sure. The hon. Gentleman's well-prepared support is welcome, and I am sure that he speaks for his community, as I speak for mine. I think that all sensible right hon. and hon. Members of this House would wish to support this proposal, because it is clear and positive, and it addresses one of the reasons why we have all too frequent flooding in our constituencies despite the fact that a stitch in time-simple action-would save nine.
The proposal would even be a public expenditure cut, and we need that at the moment. Little-and-often maintenance would mean that we would not have huge clear-up and clean-up costs and we would have none of the bureaucracy that one encounters after a big flood, when one sees inquiries, lawyers, highly paid executives, more quangos and more legislation. I assure the Minister that we are not short of any of those things.
When dealing with the flooding issue I have found all too many expensive and intelligent people to whom to talk, write or complain, or to receive memos or arguments from. I have met all too many people who work out strategies and plans, and who tell me why one cannot do it today but that one might, after spending a long time in a queue, be able to do it tomorrow. As I keep saying to these people, all we want is someone who does something: a man or woman in a digger who clears a ditch; someone who puts a new pipe in; someone who goes out to cut the vegetation down; or someone in a pair of gumboots with good sturdy tools that can clear a ditch that is too small for a digger to go down. That is what we need. I suspect that it would cost a lot less than the massive bureaucracy that this legislation and its predecessors have created. I want an Environment Agency that actually gets out there and does some physical work; I do not want an Environment Agency that gives 1,000 clever excuses while my constituents continue to be flooded.
Bob Spink: I have an Environment Agency that is pragmatic and is out there working right this moment, looking at Canvey Island's defences. It is led by Daffyd Davies, the area manager. He is a fantastic man and I congratulate the Environment Agency warmly, as it is helping to defend my constituents. I shall discuss that in a moment, but first I must congratulate the Government on this Bill. In particular, I must congratulate the Minister, who has driven the Bill through in his characteristically courteous style.
I shall ask the Minister to go a little further tonight on new clause 20, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and which I support strongly. I particularly ask the Minister to provide help, because of what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said about this perhaps being our last chance for a number of years to put the role of the fire service on a statutory basis. Such an approach is necessary, and it is what new clause 20 and the other new clauses seek to do. It would enable the fire service to get proper training, equipment and clothing-we have heard about those things tonight-so that it can carry out its flood rescue responsibility, which it does assiduously and extremely well and for which we are all very grateful. The proposal would also give greater protection to certain fire stations, such as the one on Canvey Island, which I have fought to save on two occasions since I first came to this House in 1992-thankfully, I fought successfully. I hope that I do not have to fight again, but if I did, a statutory duty in respect of flood rescue would make my task that much easier.
I am sorry if I misrepresent the Conservative Front-Bench team when I say that my feeling was-they will correct me if I am wrong-that they did not seem fully supportive of new clause 20 and its proposal to put the fire service's flood rescue responsibilities on a statutory basis. I am sorry if that is their position, and I know that my constituents will be sorry too. I hope that the Minister will indicate a willingness to help the House. If he does not do so, I hope that we can put the matter to a vote and see where everybody stands on it. I shall certainly be voting for new clause 20.
Let me set the issue in context. Canvey Island was a victim of the big flood of 1953, when 58 men, women and children were drowned. They died in that flood; this is not an academic matter for my constituents.
Almost 10 times as many people are now living on the island, and they still have totally inadequate access arrangements. An evacuation in an emergency situation would be problematic. We see the probability of emergency situations arising and of extreme weather events and flooding increasing. The 1,000-year flood defence that was put in for Canvey several decades ago might now need to be carefully managed. That is why I am so grateful to the Environment Agency for keeping a sound weather eye on this matter.
That brings me to the next issue, which is my final point, as you will be pleased to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is addressed by new clause 9, which was tabled by the Conservative Front Benchers. I support the new clause and think that it is extremely sensible. I congratulate them on it. It goes to the heart of the effectiveness of the Environment Agency. It provides it with staffing, resources, equipment and clout-as it was put a moment ago. It would make the Environment Agency more effective in controlling and minimising flood risk if Environment Agency advice to local planning authorities was put on a statutory basis and made binding on those local authorities. At the moment, the agency is a statutory consultee when there is a proposal to develop on the floodplain, but agency advice objecting to that development does not have to be followed by the planning authority. It sometimes is not-too often it is not.
We end up with development on the floodplain that is dangerous not only for the people who will eventually occupy that development, but for everyone else. It removes flood storage, increases concrete instead of drainage and displaces flood water so that the flood levels in other areas of that community are higher than they would have been if the floodplain had not been developed. That is why I introduced a private Member's Bill to make the Environment Agency's objection to building on the floodplain binding in law. If that were done, it would help me to stop my local council's plans to put hundreds more houses on Canvey Island's floodplain, even without proper access for people to be evacuated, putting everyone else on Canvey Island at greater risk of increased flood levels-
Huw Irranca-Davies: Again, we have had a good and full debate. May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) for his kind words about the work of the Environment Agency? We can always criticise the agency, but let me remind hon. Members that in Cumbria, where only 80 per cent. of the Carlisle defence work was due to be completed in February, the Environment Agency, with its contractors, worked through the night to ensure that the final 20 per cent. was shored up with temporary defences. That saved homes and people in Carlisle, which was not flooded. Where criticism is due, it is due, but although it is very easy to criticise the work of the EA, I see it improving constantly. Its integration with communities on the ground and with local authorities is getting better every day, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's words.
Let me begin with my customary assault on the "glass-half-empty" brigade. I did not expect the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) to sign up to that point of view. He said that there was not enough in the Bill to address flooding. Let me reassure him and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), whose contribution to the debate I welcome. The Bill implements the key recommendations from Pitt, including those on clarity of leadership locally and strategically on a national basis. It will make substantial improvements to flood risk management. That is what the Bill is about. However, it is not the be all and end all. We have made good progress in many areas already that do not require legislation. I refer hon. Members to the way in which this Bill fits in with our wider work, as shown on the Pitt progress report back on 15 or 16 December, which showed exactly how much work has been done. Rather than the glass being half empty, it is more than half full.
Let me reassure the right hon. Member for Wokingham. This is not just about clear leadership-that is the fundamental point of the Bill-but about clear co-ordination and leadership on the ground, too, as regards flood risk management. Let me pick up on the point made by a couple of Members, including the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), on the maintenance of watercourses. The Bill does not distinguish between maintenance and capital works. It provides for a wide range of approaches that will be used only when they are more effective than conventional methods. The national and local strategies will set out how risk is to be managed and provide for a better planned approach. That is likely better to identify clearly on the ground those issues that need prioritisation, including maintenance.
Let me pick up on the point on the publication of what the Environment Agency is doing and the communication of it. The Environment Agency and wider government are working always to make information more accessible. I see it myself. The local flood risk management strategy in the Bill should provide a very useful starting point, particularly since clause 9(7) requires it to include guidance about the availability of relevant information. The deliverables-maps, plans and assessments of work being carried out-from the floods directive will also help, since they present co-ordinated information. Maintenance schedules, in line with Pitt recommendation 25, are published on the regional pages of the EA website.
The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked why some of the technical amendments-she is right, they are technical-are coming so late. To pick up on the comment made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), Government amendments 31 to 34, 48 and 49 are being tabled not late but in good use of my role as a Minister. They respond to amendments that were proposed in Committee. I make no apologies for bringing them forward late-they actually respond to what we heard. Amendments 31 to 24 are tabled in response to amendments from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) and others, whereas amendments 48 and 49 are tabled in response to proposals from the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and others. I am glad to be able to introduce them.
Mr. Redwood: I wish I shared the Minister's enthusiasm for the clarity of the Bill as drafted. It leaves plenty of scope for legal and budgetary rows between the Environment Agency and the principal council in each area under the consultative and committee structure that he has set down.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I disagree fundamentally. Without veering too far off the subject of the amendments before us, I want to say that the Bill has two aspects. One is the clarity of lead responsibility, both locally and nationally, and the other is a duty to co-ordinate and share information as well as to co-ordinate responsibilities on the ground. Those for whom the glass is half empty will say that that allows opportunity for fuzziness and legal challenge, whereas I would say that there is a duty in the Bill that will compel people to co-ordinate their activities on the ground. Curiously, that is what has been asked for, including by the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues: for example, we have been asked to allow lower-tier authorities, internal drainage boards and local flood risk management groups to key into what the Bill does. What he would interpret as legal obfuscation, I would interpret as the necessary flexibility with clear accountability. However, I am going away from the amendments, so let me move on.
New clause 2 was tabled by the hon. Members for Vale of York and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)-in fact, five amendments in the group were tabled by the hon. Ladies. Most of these issues were thoroughly debated in Committee, as the hon. Member for Vale of York pointed out. I shall try to convince her and others again, but I have a feeling I shall not. Let us see how we go. I have good intentions, and I hope for good outcomes.
New clause 2 would require the Environment Agency to undertake a programme of annual maintenance work on major watercourses, with quarterly reports to both Houses of Parliament. As a devolved matter, reports would also need to go to the National Assembly for Wales. As I explained during Committee, the Government are committed to taking a risk-based approach to maintenance, and that approach has been endorsed in recommendation 25 of Sir Michael Pitt's review. The EA's progress on the maintenance programme is reported to regional flood defence committees in quarterly meetings that are public, not held behind closed doors. Minutes are available, and that transparency allows anyone, including Parliament and its Members, to take an interest in maintenance schedules where there are concerns or simply a desire to do so. The Bill also improves the arrangements for additional local authority influence and for the scrutiny of flood and coastal erosion risk management activities in each area. That approach is, again, consistent with the relevant recommendations of the Pitt review, and it is right that authorities should be held to account by local democratic bodies. I therefore do not believe there is a need for additional legislation on this matter.
"make an assessment of the staff, equipment and resources required by the Environment Agency to implement the provisions of the Act".
Let me remind her that Government funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management has increased significantly in recent years and will reach £780 million in 2010-11. That compares with Government funding of £600 million in 2007-08, and-let us go back a little-funding of £310 million in 1997-98. All the costs and benefits of this legislation have been set out in the impact assessments that were published alongside the Bill, and more detailed assessments will accompany the regulations and orders that will come from it. Further assessments will be made at the next formal spending review and as part of the Environment Agency's business planning processes, in which wider pressures and capacity issues are assessed by the agency and the Government.
The hon. Lady asked about capital expenditure and about the increase in the figures that I have used but not in EA spending on maintenance. As I have said, the focus on funding has been on capital improvements, but the funding of maintenance has not been neglected. Some capital projects will include work to improve and extend the effectiveness of existing assets, and we are working with authorities to ensure that they take a proper, whole-life approach to asset management. The hon. Lady, the right hon. Member for Wokingham and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury all made the point that regular maintenance must be seen to be done. Let me refer again to the local flood risk management strategies that provide for the first time a proper, joined-up, co-ordinated, area-wide, and-that horrible word-holistic approach to the management of risk in an area. Those strategies can include the responsibilities of the Environment Agency as well as those of the local authority. They will ensure that the priorities that the hon. Gentlemen and the hon. Lady have articulated can be identified, and that available resources can be used to best effect. Local and national strategies will also clarify roles and responsibilities.
The hon. Members for Vale of York and for Upminster tabled amendment 5, which refers to instigating, publishing and having regard to an independent review of the recruitment, training and equipment costs that will be incurred by local authorities. We discussed that issue in depth in Committee, but it is worth restating that the Government have carefully assessed the new burdens that we are placing on local authorities and that we are committed to providing the necessary funding in full. From commencement, we will provide an extra £36 million a year to lead flood authorities, in area-based grants, to fund their new role in England. That will allow local authority-led flood management activity to triple from around £18 million to £54 million a year. There were long discussions in Committee about similar amendments, and hon. Members will recall that I undertook to put on to a formal footing the discussions that we are already having with the Local Government Association about cost and resource implications. Since then, officials have had detailed discussions with the LGA about the terms of reference for a joint implementation review panel. Rather than consider this issue in one, two or three years' time, we are putting it on a solid basis. I have written formally to Councillor Gary Porter of the LGA to seek his agreement to co-sponsor the panel, and I hope that the first formal meeting will happen shortly. We hope to gain from those discussions a clearer understanding of the LGA's position, because we do not think that we have done anything unusual in our assessment. The purpose of the panel will be to investigate concerns and to flesh these matters out.
The hon. Member for Vale of York has tabled amendment 28 on another matter that was thoroughly debated in Committee. It would require the EA, when doing environmental works, to have regard to the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy and to create no increase in harmful effects. Like the hon. Member for Cheltenham, I would not like to be the person who had to balance the relevant considerations on that issue. The amendment appears sensible on the face of it, but the Government think that it might render the provision useless. I support the need to have regard to the national strategy, but the Bill already goes further, in clause 38(5), by making the same requirement in respect of local strategies and local and national guidance. That part of the amendment is unnecessary. The wording in the draft Bill was altered in the final Bill in response to representations that simply prohibiting work that increases any of the harmful consequences that I have mentioned would render the powers unworkable. That is because any flooding or erosion caused for the purposes set out in clause 38 would almost inevitably impact on some aspect of the things listed in clause 2. That is why clause 38(3) requires that the benefits of the work must outweigh the potential harmful effects mentioned.
The hon. Members for Vale of York and for Upminster have also tabled amendment 4, which would require reports that are made by the EA under clause 18 to be laid before both Houses of Parliament and to be approved by a resolution of each House. I share the hon. Ladies' ambition and interest in ensuring that there is proper scrutiny of flood and coastal erosion risk management, but I do not consider the amendment to be necessary or appropriate. The Government intend to ensure that the EA reports regularly on the management of flood risk from all sources. The publishing of those reports will mean that the public and wider stakeholders with an interest in flooding, as well as MPs, are informed about flood management. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also be able to scrutinise reports and to invite evidence as appropriate.
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