Speaking at the Bill Committee stage of the Flooding and Water Management Bill on the 2nd February, John Redwood sought detailed answers from the Government on a number of flooding and water management issues that have been raised by his constituents in Wokingham.
The week before the debate on the Bill, John drew the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s attention to the fact that the Government’s centralised planning policy means a large number of homes have been build on the flood plain in Wokingham, despite the local authority not wishing such developments to go ahead.
While speaking on the Bill, John concentrated on two main issues. The first is the situation where water companies fail to prevent sewage rising out of the water system and mixing with flood water, which then causes damage once it enters people’s homes. John sought clarification on whether the law as it stands places a duty on the water authorities to deal with foul water that escapes from the sewer system, or whether the law needed to be strengthened further through the new Bill. The Minister replied by saying that Section 94 of the Water Industry Act gives householders and local authorities sufficient power to insist on repairs and improvements to prevent this happening.
The second area John focused his attention on was cases where local rivers flood. John urged the Government to impose a duty on the Environment Agency to keep the water courses free of debris so rivers can flow freely when there is heavy rain. John drew the Government’s attention to the fact that the Emm Brook and Loddon in Wokingham have flooded on a number of occasions, with flood alleviation being made more difficulty by the failure of the Environment Agency to keep the waterways clear. He pointed out that, while it has been very easy to get expert opinion, reports, memos, legal advice and Parliamentary debates on flooding issues, it has proven much more difficult to get the Environment Agency to actually start the physical work of clearing the ditches and water courses. The Minister offered assurances that the Environment Agency already has the powers it needs to carry out any necessary repairs to the flood defences.
On the issue of charges for water consumption, John asked who would be eligible for assistance in meeting their bills under a proposed plan from the Government to help low-income families who use water meters. John cautioned that it would be counter-productive to start taxing medium income and moderately worse off families to subsidise other people’s water bills, and sought clarification of how the Government defined “low income” families and what the cut-off point for support would be. He also suggested that the introduction of greater competition into the water industry would help keep prices down.
John’s contribution to the debate and his interventions, taken from Hansard, now follows:
(1) Mr. Redwood: In appraising the proposal, it is crucial that we know how the Minister defines people “who would have difficulty paying”.
Cross-subsidy might be involved, and we want to avoid the pretty poor cross-subsidising the even poorer, so it is important that we know where he is minded to draw the line.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but that is absolutely why the Bill should not include specific definitions of who does or does not fall into that category. That is exactly the purpose of going out to proper consultation-so that those terms can be defined and we can accurately reflect not only how those individuals or households are defined, but how such definitions in a local area tie in with complementary national schemes.
(2) Mr. Redwood: The issue is the level of income, because I cannot persuade my fairly poor constituents to have a big increase in order to pay for somebody else.
Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Some of the figures put forward by Thames Water, which I can share with him another time, suggest that the number affected is a small percentage of the overall total. That means that if the money was to be recovered through other people’s water bills, the increase for everybody else would be miniscule in practice, so the slightly poor would not have to pay an undue amount in order to subsidise the very poor. However, he makes a fair point. The key issue with new clause 22 is the need to put the legality of social tariffs beyond doubt. While we have the Bill before us-what the Minister said is quite true: we might not see another water Bill for some years-new clause 22 is a timely amendment.
(3) Mr. Redwood: Has my hon. Friend considered how the introduction of proper competition into the water industry, for retail as well as for large customers, would solve many of the problems and probably bring prices down without a Bill?
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment. We are doing some serious work in that regard. We have had some meaningful discussions with the authors of the two reports. We need to take a longer-term view, and that would be part and parcel of the White Paper, but it certainly could have a positive impact on bills.
(4) Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful to the Minister for being so helpful, but will he answer my query? Does the law as it stands place a duty on a water authority to deal with foul water that escapes and causes problems, or do we need to strengthen the law?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I shall return to that issue in a moment. I believe that such powers exist-not in this Bill, but under existing water industry legislation. However, I shall seek some inspiration to recall the exact Act.
(5) Mr. Redwood: That goes to the heart of a big problem in my constituency, where the rivers Emm and Loddon have flooded on all too many occasions in the past decade. Part of the problem has been the failure of the Environment Agency to maintain the free flow of the waters, which means blockages that exacerbate the flooding. I hope that my hon. Friend is successful with new clause 2.
Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for that support from my right hon. Friend. There is an argument that the Government have reduced the maintenance programme while increasing along with inflation the budget for substantial infrastructure projects. Capital expenditure has been maintained and even modestly increased, but the same has not happened on the same scale with maintenance.
(6) Mr. Redwood: Is not one of the problems with this whole area that we can all get access to lots more experts, memos, legal advice and buck passing, but we cannot get access to any money for men in diggers to get the ditches cleared?
Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point. The spirit of it is exactly right. It underlines the risk of endlessly creating more and more bureaucracy and responsibility. Some of it may be welcome, but if it is allowed to grow without restraint, we may find that the practical result is less flood defence, not more.
(7) Mr. Redwood: I welcome in particular new clause 2, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues. First, I welcome the fact that it states:
“The Environment Agency must undertake a programme”.
We need greater clarity throughout the legislation on who is responsible for what, and the new clause gives a lead on that. Secondly, I welcome the requirement that the Environment Agency undertake regular maintenance of the major watercourses. Under existing legislation the Environment Agency is responsible for the major watercourses, but as I discovered when trying to follow up on the persistent-the all too regular-flooding incidents in my constituency in recent years, it is terribly difficult to get any single body to take responsibility. There is always buck passing between the EA, the water companies and the local authority; each of them makes out a case that it is not technically responsible.
Clarity is essential and, unfortunately, I do not believe that the Minister’s legislation, in its widest sense, provides that. The Bill seeks to provide it in some areas, but in other areas it will be a lawyers’ charter. I have a heavy feeling in my heart that there will still be endless battles to establish who is responsible for what. I hope that we have not lost the clarity provided in existing legislation on the fact that main rivers and watercourses are the responsibility of the Environment Agency. That should remain the case; the Environment Agency should maintain them to ensure that the flows are as good as possible, given the existing channels and water flows in those rivers, and should come up with major and minor capital schemes to improve them where we persistently and regularly encounter obvious flooding problems.
My constituency is typical of those which were badly attacked by floods in 2007-but this flooding did not just happen in 2007. We have often been told that these events happen once in 100 years, but for many of my constituents such flooding might be a two or three times in a decade event; it is becoming extremely persistent.
The main reason is overbuilding on the floodplain, which is often forced on the council against its will and when its judgment was rather better. In such situations, I have always encountered a secondary problem of inadequate facilities and the inadequate maintenance of facilities. That means that water flows are impeded or are simply too great for the facilities provided by the Environment Agency, the water company and, in some cases, the local authority, and thus there is bound to be another flood. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort in addressing the initiative proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).
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.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Deepest red.
Mr. Redwood: Exactly. I am sure that the Minister is upset that the notes on the Government amendments are only on mild pink paper.
Martin Horwood: I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that if he had tabled any amendments, the notes on those would have been on extremely dark blue paper.
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 has 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 have to continue to be flooded.
(8) Mr. Redwood: I rise to discuss Government new clause 22. As I have said in interventions, we all feel well disposed and warm towards the aim of more affordable water for people on lower incomes, but I find it difficult to welcome the way in which the Government propose to do that, as we need some indication of the detail that needs to follow to make this a sensible and workable scheme.
The best way to make water more affordable for those on low incomes and for those on any kind of income is to introduce competition and get the costs of producing the water down. I believe that it would probably cut the cost by about a fifth if we introduced comprehensive water competition and used the pipe network as a common carrier. It is easy to do. It has already been done in the case of gas and other fluids requiring access to pipelines. There is no natural monopoly in the provision of water, the collection of water or the delivery of water. If there is any monopoly element in the provision of pipes, it can be dealt with quite easily by a proper common-carrier regulated system.
However, those who are introducing the new clause need to give us more indication of how poor people have to be to qualify under it. It seems to be a cross-subsidy scheme. As the Minister has been gracious enough to accept, if the very poor are beneficiaries, everyone else could be losers. The Liberal Democrat spokesman suggests that it will not mean much of a loss for people on fairly low incomes because not many people would be helped by the scheme. That may be true.
Martin Horwood: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was listening carefully, but that is not what I said. I said that, because the subsidy was going to be spread across a very large number of people-in Thames Water’s proposed scheme, the suggestion is that 95 per cent. would be subsidising and only 5 per cent. benefiting, although that might be a bit niggardly-that would mean a terribly small increase for everyone else. That is what I meant-that the moderately poor would have hardly any increase at all.
Mr. Redwood: I think that that is what I said in slightly different language. I said that not many people would benefit. The hon. Gentleman is saying that only a very small percentage of people would benefit. However, I think that he will find that quite a lot of people think that their water bills are too high. It is not just the people on the lowest 5 per cent. of incomes who think that their water bills are too high. I suspect that perhaps half the people think that their water bills are too high and a lot of them will be very disappointed, so we need to send the right kind of signals if we are really talking about only 5 per cent.
While the hon. Gentleman is right that, on the numbers, the increase for the other 95 per cent. will not be huge, there will none the less be some increase for people who are clearly really quite poor as they are in the bottom 6 or 7 per cent. of the income scale-because, on the hon. Gentleman’s numbers, they will be excluded. We therefore need to have a better feel for the numbers before we can come to a fair conclusion on this; we need to know how big the increase will be, how many people will be paying it, and how many will benefit. I still think it would be much better to find a way of reducing the bills generally, as that would alleviate problems for the many people who find the water bill difficult to afford and feel that it has increased too much in recent years with no improvement in the service.
I also wish to make a few remarks on new clause 18, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues. It may be sensible, but both the Government and Opposition Front-Bench teams need to help me a little by explaining what they mean by sustainable water management. It is one of those phrases that people trot out; they say, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have sustainable water management?” It is very difficult to say, “No, we don’t want that,” as nobody wants unsustainable water management, but we have to unpack this common jargon and explore what it means. If it means we are going to have some common sense on the provision of clean water in adequate quantities at all times of the year and in all years to my constituents, I would welcome that. If it means that the water companies will do rather better in handling the disposal of foul water than at present, which would also matter a great deal to my constituents, I would welcome that very much, too.
Let me offer one of quite a few possible examples of poor water service in my constituency from the main monopoly provider. There is an area of nice housing where there has been over-building on floodplain land. That has led to too much surface water, which the drainage system cannot handle, so the surface water rushes through the housing area, hits and knocks out the pumps that are meant to take the foul water safely underground, and the foul water then swells up from underground and mixes with the surface water already running around in this low-lying housing area. As a result, people have very unpleasant things coming into their drawing rooms and kitchens, and they then cannot live in their houses for the next year while they are being cleaned out, dried out, re-plastered and so forth. That is totally unsatisfactory in 2010 in the United Kingdom, which is meant to be a rich and caring country with lifestyles of a sensible level.
If having sustainable water management means stopping such things happening, and saying to companies that allow them to happen, “You have some responsibility and you need to come up with solutions more urgently out of your rather generous cash flows and large capital programmes,” I am all for having sustainable water management. I suspect that this is what a lot of Members would find that their constituents want. They want more than the sensible and fine words in these various new clauses; rather, they want to know that something will actually happen. That is why I say this could be a very good idea, and I welcome what my Front-Bench colleagues are trying to do, but it can work only if the Minister both agrees that it is a sensible idea and then puts the detailed provisions into the regulations, so that monopoly local providers are under an obligation to deal with the obvious offences that we see in the service they are delivering.
The water industry as a whole has all the characteristics of a monopoly provider. Were we to have three dry and hot summers in a row-oh, blessed memory, when we had such things-I am sure that we would run out of water very quickly and be told we had to kill all our plants in our nice gardens because we could not afford to water them any more. That should not happen. These companies should be able to handle such weather conditions. Above all, however, they should be able to handle conditions in which we have quite a bit of rainfall. This country has had a lot of rainfall over many years; we seem to be having a succession of wet and damp winters and summers at present. Companies should be made to organise things so that they are able to handle such eventualities, because if customers cannot switch to another company that will do the job properly, it is terribly important that there is a regulator in place that will take the necessary action. I therefore hope that if we are in favour of sustainable water management, that means we are in favour of tackling these problems vigorously and thereby giving reassurance to my constituents that they will not be flooded in future.
(9) Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the Minister aware that her top-down planning policies mean that places such as Wokingham have to build on flood plain, leading to flooding of adjacent dwellings, because they are instructed to do so when they would not otherwise dream of it?
Ms Winterton: Considerable guidance is in place on building and flood plains. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that guidance applies at various levels. It is important that councils are able to take decisions according to the situation that they face locally.