§ [Relevant documents: The Environment Agency's response, HC 870, and the Government's response, Cm. 4832, to the Sixth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 34.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]9.35 am
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I am very grateful to have this opportunity to discuss the Select Committee report on the work of the Environment Agency. It is almost six months since we published the report, but the events of the past six or so weeks have emphasised not only the Environment Agency's general importance, but the specific issue of flooding. It is therefore apposite that we are debating the report today.
I should like, first, to thank the specialist advisers who helped us with our report, David Slater and Stephen Tromans, and to express my appreciation to the Clerks and staff of the Committee Office, without whose help it would be very difficult for Select Committees to do their work. I also thank everyone who submitted evidence and all those who came and subjected themselves to questioning by the Committee. One of the strengths of the Committee's report is that it is based on the evidence that we received. It is also extremely important to bear in mind that the report is based not simply on the views of Committee members, but on their views taking into account the evidence that we received.
Today, we are able to debate the Select Committee report, the Government's response, and—equally importantly, although it is not mentioned on today's Order Paper—the Environment Agency's response. In some ways, the agency's response was as useful as the Government's response.
The parentage of the idea of an environment agency goes back to a Select Committee report published in 1989, when the then Environment Select Committee strongly recommended that an environment agency be established. The then Government rejected the recommendation, and did not concede until 1995 that an environment agency would be a good thing. The record of Select Committees has often been that ideas expressed to them take some time to find their way into Government policy. I should add that in 1989, I was not a member of the Select Committee.
The Environment Agency was established in April 1996. I think that the hope was that it would bring a dynamic vision to environmental issues.
At the end of our inquiry, we were more than a little disappointed. When we published our report, I said:Our quality of life can no longer be measured solely in crude economic terms. It depends crucially on the protection and enhancement of the environment. The Environment Agency has a crucial role to play in delivering a better quality of life for the people of England and Wales.When the Agency was formed in 1996, the hope was that this single new body would bring additional benefits to the environment, industry and society as a whole. However, the conclusion of our inquiry is that progress in creating an effective, coherent and confident new body has not been as rapid in the 3;½ years since the Agency was formed as it ought to have been.551 I am almost tempted to say that since the report was published and I made those comments, a lot of water has passed under the bridge—but sadly, the water has gone over the bridge. Since the report came out we have also had a little more opportunity to see how well the Environment Agency is working.
It is very important that the position at the top of the agency be strengthened. We were told by Sir John Harman, the newly appointed chairman, that he wanted to give the organisation more direction and make more impact. We hoped that he would be perceived as Mr. Environment, but during the recent difficulties with the floods I was not absolutely convinced that he came across as giving that strong leadership, nor that the agency got its message across. Although I welcome the appointment of Baroness Young of Old Scone as the new chief executive, I feel that the agency should look very carefully at the roles of the chairman and the chief executive to make sure that they each have a clear idea of their responsibilities. It is important that over the next few years, the Environment Agency strengthens its administration and its public profile.
I now turn to some of the more detailed points in our report. We were concerned that the agency was not doing as well as it could in respect of managing and supervising landfill. The Select Committee is conducting another inquiry into waste, and again the evidence suggests that the agency is not totally on top of the problems. I understand the difficulties. Really big landfill sites run by the best operators tend to have good facilities for people to get washed and changed and to get cups of tea. It is tempting for Environment Agency staff to spend rather more time supervising those sites than small landfill sites that are not necessarily open for tipping most of the time, may have a couple of guard dogs, and generally operate in more difficult circumstances. It is important, however, that Environment Agency staff spend as much time, if not longer, supervising sites which are likely to be irregularly used, as on supervising the really good sites.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
I am very interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is a proposal to create a land-raising site in my constituency. The inquiry was held months and months ago and the case has been with the Government for ages—one hopes that that is because they are going to refuse it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Environment Agency should also take a close look at proposals to use this out-of-date technology?
§ Mr. Bennett
Yes. I hope that we can substantially reduce the need for landfill sites. We have a firm duty under EU directives to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. I shall not go into much detail this morning, but it is a crucial issue for society that we should reduce the amount of rubbish that we throw away, re-use as much material as possible, and minimise the amount of material that we use. It is almost obscene that the rich part of the world uses 80 per cent. of its resources, whereas the less developed countries use just a fraction of those resources. The developed world also produces most of the pollution. 552 If we are to have a more equitable world, it is essential that we try to maintain our standard of living by using far fewer resources and creating far less waste and pollution.
§ Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)
While the hon. Gentleman is on that point, can he tell me whether the Select Committee has found any evidence that the Environment Agency has done any work to prepare for 2002-03, when tyres will no longer be able to be put into landfill sites whole, but will have to be chopped up? I hear that no work is being done on that.
§ Mr. Bennett
That is one issue on which we would like the Environment Agency to do rather more. An awful lot of people are looking at uses for tyres, and during the Select Committee's current inquiry at least one person has told me that in future there might be competition for old tyres to be put to various uses. The sooner that happens, the better. Recently, a lorry-load of tyres turned up overnight on a piece of wasteland in my constituency. Someone had just dumped them there. I shall say something about fly tipping later, but the sooner we can get a market price for old tyres, the better. I am told that they can now be used for making road surfaces and for all sorts of other purposes. It is also possible to burn them, although I do not think that there is a great deal of enthusiasm for them to be burnt in cement kilns—certainly not among the people living nearby.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)
I can advise hon. Members that a company in the north-east will collect tyres and recycle them free of charge. Obviously, this information is not widespread. We should make more use of the company that collects tyres and recycles them.
§ Mr. Bennett
That was a nice commercial from my hon. Friend. It might do us all some good if he put the name of the company into the record during his speech so that we can all send our tyres there.
There are two sides to the agency's supervision of waste management. First, it has to put more effort into regulating landfill sites and making sure that they are properly supervised, that they are genuine and that there are no attempts to distribute the stuff that ought to go to landfill sites onto agricultural land, as is happening in some places. Secondly, the agency needs to do much more research into finding alternative uses for some of the more bulky waste. It also ought to have much better information about what is in people's dustbins, so that it can persuade us to be more sensible in our purchasing and buy fewer goods that are wrapped, for example.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as landfill becomes the preferred solution for less of our waste in future, it is important that we adopt a strategy based on waste minimisation, re-use and recycling, rather than filling the gap with incineration, which has its own problems?
§ Mr. Bennett
I certainly accept that. We must not waste resources through incineration or landfill.
I am concerned about the fact that the Environment Agency decided on the complicated idea of matrix management. The Select Committee found it difficult to understand—and so, I fear, did rather a lot of people in the agency. The agency needs to look carefully at some 553 of its management methods and consider who it recruits. We were told that it was recruiting a lot of young graduates. I am sure that some of them will do an extremely good job, but particularly when it comes to talking to industry about fairly complicated industrial processes, there is an advantage if the person who is doing the regulating has been involved in those processes at some time and can talk on equal terms with the representatives of a company, particularly if the agency is trying to persuade that company to develop a new best way of doing something, which the management is not that keen on.
The agency should also promote openness. Members of the Select Committee were most impressed when we visited the agency's headquarters when it was developing its web pages. I think that staff understand that the new technology available through the internet can have tremendous advantages in getting their message across. However, they must remember that a large number of people do not have access to the web.
The Committee received evidence that in pulling the new organisation together there was not evenness across all the regions. That issue needs to be considered carefully, particularly when the agency is controlling industrial processes. In the context of competition between different industrial producers, it is important to ensure that there is evenness between regions, and that the agency does not take a slightly more relaxed view in one region than in another.
There was a complaint, which I think was fully justified, that on occasions the Environment Agency was slow to respond to requests for information to get on with the process. For industry in particular, it is important that decisions are made quickly, as time costs money. It is also important that individuals who make requests for information receive timely and quick responses.
We had some reservations about the agency's attempts to name and shame. It is important to exert as much pressure as possible to achieve compliance with environmental laws and regulations. It is also important to give credit to companies and individuals who behave in an environmentally responsible way. If the agency shames people, it must make sure that it gets it absolutely right. Simply totting up the fines imposed and then naming the companies that had received the largest fines was not, in my view, particularly scientific. I do not particularly want there to be prosecutions, but when prosecutions are justified, that is the most effective way of shaming companies. However, it is sad that often the courts did not impose the fines at a level that I and many others believe would protect the environment. In their response, the Government have made it clear that they are encouraging the courts to take environmental crime seriously.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
At present, environmental cases are heard in the magistrates court, which cannot impose a fine above a certain level. Is there not an argument for allowing cases involving those crimes to be heard in the Crown court?
§ Mr. Bennett
There are arguments about where these crimes should be tried. The real point is that strengthening the impact of the Environment Agency would lead to enforcement, and we would not need prosecutions. In a sense, a prosecution is a failure on everybody's part—but we need to get the message across that environmental crime is serious.
554 On planning issues, there is a problem. The Environment Agency is in most cases a statutory consultee, and if it says that a planning application is not a good idea, but does not send someone to the public inquiry, it has been assumed that the agency does not consider the matter very important. It is essential that the agency look carefully at the use of its resources, but if a planning application goes against environmental policy, it should try to be represented at the inquiry. I shall say more about that when I talk about flooding.
It was hoped that the Environment Agency would be the country's environmental body, but with fly tipping there is a slight division of responsibility between the agency and local authorities. It was suggested, and I think that there is some evidence to confirm the idea—although the Environment Agency still denies it—that the landfill tax has led to an increase in fly tipping. We need more vigorous enforcement. Some people have to do the nasty job of going through the fly—tipped material to find evidence of whether it comes from industry—after all, industry and business have a duty of care when it comes to their waste—or from individuals. Those people should then be asked whether they really tried to dispose of that waste responsibly. If a bit more pressure was exerted by the Environment Agency with regard to one or two examples of fly tipping, the problem could be reduced.
§ Mr. Rowe
An important issue in my area, and many others, is that the fly tipping of disused cars has become a huge burden for local authorities, partly because they are now expected to charge for taking in abandoned cars. People simply make the cars unrecognisable, take them to a nearby field and set fire to them, leaving the farmer with the damage, and a terrible mess. Will the hon. Gentleman say a word about that?
§ Mr. Bennett
In the long term, the good news is that Europe is coming up with the end-use directive, which will require manufacturers to take cars back. I hope that over time, that will solve the problem. The only difficulty in the interim is that the car breakers have, in a sense, lost heart. Also, cars last longer; we do not have to go to the scrap yard to get replacement items for our cars after a few months. That business is a little rocky, but the long-term solution is the end-use directive. Incidentally, it is good that Europe is considering end-use directives for cars and white goods, but I would love it to issue an end-use directive for chewing gum—but I am moving away from the main issue.
There are problems with abstraction licences. I hope that the legislation on water that the Government propose will come before the House, perhaps in the next Session, and will deal with abstraction licences.
I would like the Environment Agency to take a much stronger role in giving the Government advice. The intention was that the agency would speak up loudly to the Government, but in all the discussions about what should go on at The Hague, about climate change and about the need for putting legislation in place, I have not heard a strong voice coming from the Environment Agency. In a sense, I think that the agency should be pushing harder than the Government, whereas my impression is that the Government are pushing hardest and the Environment Agency is following behind.
The Select Committee was fortunate in that the Environment Agency arranged a visit for its members. It strikes me that it is quite hard for people to take Select 555 Committee members round and then put up with them asking difficult questions. However, the visit to the Somerset levels and to various sites in Bristol was extremely useful, and we saw some of the flooding on the levels. I suspect that most right hon. and hon. Members will want to put on the record praise for the work that the Environment Agency staff have done during the recent flooding. They have worked extremely hard. On Wednesday, the Select Committee heard evidence on flooding from Jeff Mance of the Environment Agency. He emphasised just how much sleep, and how much opportunity to be with their families, some of his staff had lost. I have great praise for all the staff and the work that they have done.
We have to spell out that the flooding is almost certainly a result of climate change. I accept that the climate has been changing continuously over the centuries, but it looks as though human activity is changing the climate more quickly than before. Over the next few years we must think about substantial increases in flood defences. We must weigh up carefully how much it will cost us and the rest of the world to cope with climate change. It might be a much better economic investment to reduce our emissions rather than having to raise sea defences in so many places.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Somerset levels. Most people accept that more money must be spent on flood defences, and I am sure that a large part of our debate will be about that. However, the Somerset levels are a natural flood plain, and water has always settled on them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the moment we start to interfere with the natural flow of the water, we start to get floods elsewhere?
§ Mr. Bennett
That is a key issue with flooding. There are lots of places where flood plains used to flood year after year. In some cases that was part of the agricultural method, and farmers were disappointed if there was no flooding and they did not get a bit of high-fertility silt on their land. When I was a child in Manchester, the Mersey meadows were deliberately flooded every winter. If we were lucky, they froze after they were flooded and people could go ice skating. So long as the water was not very deep, they were a safe place to go.
Flood plains used to be used in that way, but in recent years planning permission has been given for people to build on them. In some cases, building on flood plains has gone ahead without the measures necessary to protect houses from flooding and divert water to an area where it can overflow. Like the Select Committee on Agriculture, our report recommended that the Environment Agency should have much greater powers to influence planning decisions to try to stop development on flood plains that could be disastrous for those people. People buying houses should be told if there is a chance of a flooding risk, but we should not make it impossible for people to sell houses in such areas; that issue needs to be explored. However, it is important that buyers know what the risk is.
It is possible to live in a reasonably satisfactory way in a house that floods fairly regularly, so long as the part of the house that is likely to flood is designed without electrics and has a floor covering of tiles, or something similar, that can be easily dealt with. It should be possible 556 to move furniture and other belongings above the level of the floods. Unfortunately, some people have bought new houses without being warned of the consequences, and we have to deal with that problem.
We also have to ask whether flooding is increasing as the result not just of climate change, but also of the speed of run-off. We must think about houses and industrial premises, as well as places such as supermarket car parks, that are being built, not necessarily in areas that flood, but when rain falls, all that hard-standing allows it to run off a little bit more quickly. When we took evidence this week, we were assured that the Government were considering building regulations. Those regulations should be adapted so that places such as car parks are made porous and can absorb water almost like a sponge, stopping it from running straight into rivers. A lot of work must be done on examining the way in which water can be retained in new developments, especially in the drier parts of the country where, despite the recent weather, water shortages in summer are possible. It would be more logical for people to store water on their own premises, rather than suffer from floods during one part of the year and drought during another.
My hon. Friend the Minister needs to examine farming practices. Changes in those practices mean that ground that used to absorb large amounts of water at this time of year now allows it to run off. If one wants to put in a car park, one almost certainly needs planning permission, so it is slightly odd that someone who wants to change their agricultural practice from one that allows water to be absorbed to one that increases run-off does not need any such permission. The Government have been considering the idea of environmental guidance for farmers on such issues for nearly 15 years, and I hope that they will get a move on.
I have taken up too much of the House's time, but I want to say that Members should consider this useful report. The Environment Agency has taken on board some of our recommendations and I hope that in the next few years it will punch its full weight—its 10,000 or so employees and the £600 million that it spends—so that we can improve the environment in England and Wales and give leadership to the world in trying to make ours a more sustainable society.
§ 10.6 am
§ Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)
I should declare an interest as chairman of Valpac, which is a non-profit-making organisation with responsibilities for recycling packaging. I come into contact with the Environment Agency in several ways, as I do regarding other business interests that are related to the environment. I know a bit about the subject from the consumer's point of view. I hope that Members agree that we ought to have that kind of interest so that we can bring to the House the knowledge that comes from a passionate belief in the issues and their importance.
The Environment Agency is crucial to the way in which Britain deals with the environment. I was the Minister responsible for setting it up, so I suppose that I must take both praise and blame. There is a good deal of blame to be apportioned, but that must be put in context, as the agency is a thoroughly proper organisation that does an essential job holistically. Prior to its establishment, a series of organisations did different things in different 557 ways and were often unable to do their job properly as the result of overlap and, more importantly, gaps in their work.
I am sure that the Select Committee agrees that the Environment Agency is essential both in the nature of its work and the coverage that it offers. Indeed, that is made clear in the report, which makes a number of recommendations and remarks constantly on the commitment of those who work for the agency. I hope that the House will not lose sight of the important fact that the agency is stuffed full of people with remarkable commitment who want to get things right and who work hard on emergency tasks—that was especially apparent during the recent floods—and on many other matters. I had a sense that the report was talking about people with hands-on experience, not the management higher up. However, from top to bottom, people throughout the organisation have set a remarkable example of commitment.
I wish to emphasise the changes that 1 should like to see, but I should like to stress that the organisation, in the main, does its job extremely well and is well worth supporting. Those of us who are concerned with management must begin with the organisation's management. I should like to echo what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said about matrix management, which is an ugly phrase. I am not sure whether anyone really knows what it means but, in some areas, it means that staff members are expected to do a range of jobs. They spend a few hours a week here and a few hours there on jobs for which they say that they have received training although, very often, those jobs are beyond their technical experience and ability. That is not a criticism of individuals. However, the structure causes real problems, in that those outside the Environment Agency who have an interest in part of the matrix find it hard to discover whether they are getting the total interest and commitment that they expect.
I shall give an example from my own experience, in relation to which I have already declared an interest. The packaging directive is an example of the vital part played by the European Union in dealing with the environment in this country. In general, it is extremely good, setting standards and targets while leaving nations to decide how best to achieve them. That means that we need the maximum coverage of companies producing packaging, if the burden is not to fall unfairly on those that obey the law and not on those that do not.
The key player in that process is the Environment Agency. Its task is to discover the people who are not doing their job properly, those who ought to register but have not done so, and those who are paying fees not for what they actually produce, but for a lower number that happens to be convenient for them. The sums involved are large, and avoidance is tempting. The fines imposed on those found to be avoiding payment are ludicrous compared with the savings to be made.
Major companies do not want the opprobrium of being found to be incompetent or dishonest. Much of the process is, therefore, self-policing. I return to the sort of example that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish put forward when he was talking about landfill operators. The best companies do the job properly anyway, because the cost to them of doing otherwise would be not in a fine but in the effect on their public reputation. However, 558 many major companies are paying the cost of the packaging put on the market by those who avoid making the contribution required by law.
I remain to be convinced that the Environment Agency is taking enthusiastic enough action against those who break the law, especially in relation to finding those people. That leads one to ask why the Environment Agency is unable to show in detail what it does with the fees that are paid to it. Fees, for example, are paid by those with an obligation to recycle and re-use packaging. Those fees are supposed to cover the costs incurred by the agency in carrying out its requirements under the law. The system is supposed to be self-financing.
If the system is self-financing, it is reasonable to ask that those who pay the money ought to be able to see where the money goes. If they are dissatisfied with the service provided, the agency's first defence should be: "This is the money that you have paid; this is what we are doing with it. Now you can see that we are doing it properly."
The first few years since the packaging regulations were introduced have been difficult, because the relevant figures have not been forthcoming. I am sure that the Minister will do his best to defend the Environment Agency on this matter, but I do not think that the figures were made available even to the Government. Those who are paying the piper and think that they know which tune ought to be played do not know what happens to their money, nor are they able to ensure that the tune is being properly played.
§ Mr. Bennett
Will the right hon. Gentleman remind the House who set up the structure? Did he envisage, at that time, that it would work in this way?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask who set up the structure. I feel so sour about the matter because it was not intended to work in this way at all. The system was supposed to be absolutely clear, but matrix management got in the way, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. Once people ceased to be specifically involved in doing the job, as they were when we set up the system, and once a system of matrix management was introduced in which no one was specifically involved, it became difficult to follow the costs. Matrix management may be right: it is not for me, or the Minister, to run the Environment Agency. However, if matrix management is necessary, it must provide clear accountability over spending and effective implementation of the purposes set out for it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to allow me to take pride in the fact that I set up the agency. However, I remind him that the change has been a proper managerial change unaccompanied by the kind of fiscal probity that he would expect in a Department, and that I would expect in a public corporation.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that the right hon. Gentleman has some responsibility in this matter. I served on the Committee that set up the Environment Agency. At the time, we reminded the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that its structure lacked proper resources or manpower. The result is that 559 too few people now have to do more jobs. The right hon. Gentleman should review the current situation, because he is responsible for it.
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is sheer nonsense for two reasons. First, we are talking not about a lack of resources but about a situation in which the fees should fully cover the cost of doing a job, and, if they did not, the Environment Agency could put them up. That has nothing to do with what the hon. Gentleman says.
Secondly, I was about to deal with the question of staff numbers. When the Environment Agency was set up, it had 9,000 employees. Part of the plan was that that number should be reduced—by contractorisation, by going out to other organisations, by becoming dynamic within the system—to about 5,000, because it was too big an organisation to be run effectively.
There were no plans to reduce resources or people. The intention was simply to organise the agency in a way in which it could be properly run. It was not for the Government to lay down how that should be done, merely to say that they wished the agency to move in that direction, because it was too big. However, the numbers have gone up: the agency now employs 11,500 people. The hon. Gentleman cannot say that there are too few people—there are more people employed now than there were when we set it up. In many ways, the agency is able to tax, in effect, to meet its costs.
The present resources were provided not by the previous Government, but by the present one. I was not going to complain about those resources, but the hon. Gentleman tempts me into a party political position that I do not hold in relation to the environment. I believe that our job is to get it right, whichever party we are in. I was not going to discuss those issues, but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to do so, I have a better answer than he has on that subject.
I return to the non-party position on which I wish to speak. I can talk on this subject without difficulty, because it involves money coming from industry at a rate determined by the Environment Agency, which advises the Government on the way in which it should be levied. The Government recently announced changes for which the agency asked. I do not happen to agree with those changes, but there we are. That is how the system works. The people who pay the money should know where it is going. They feel strongly that everyone should be involved and we feel strongly as a society that people ought to be committed to our environmental programmes. They cannot be so unless they know how the money is spent.
The remarkable and distinguished Baroness Young is to become the chief executive of the Environment Agency and I wish her well. I am a little surprised that she is prepared to take on that tough job, but she will do it extremely well. I say to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) that if that is not a non-party political comment, I do not know what is. Baroness Young has performed distinguished public service and is not afraid of speaking independently—even though she sits as a Labour peer.
Baroness Young faces a formidable job. I hope that she will make greater use of those outside the agency so that she has a more compact agency to run. I hope that she 560 brings real improvements in morale so that people feel that everyone is pulling together. I hope also that, out of matrix management, she makes a more simplified and sensible structure to enable the rest of us and the agency to understand what is going on. Those are difficult things to do and they are easy for me to say, but I would be the last person to tell Baroness Young how to do the job.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish referred to landfill, which is not the answer, rather the interim one. The finding of better answers ought to be an intrinsic part of the work of the Environment Agency. I declare an interest, in that I help a company involved in tyre recycling. I respect the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish very much, but I must tell him that tyre recycling is not as simple as he suggests. People have to pay for their tyres to be recycled. If there is a company that collects tyres and takes them away for free, it is doing a remarkable thing that none of us has heard about before. There are examples of the universal fly-tipping of tyres; people who rent land and buildings from farmers, get paid to take tyres away, put those tyres in the landfill, fill the buildings and then disappear, leaving farmers with buildings full of tyres for which significant sums have been paid. We have seen companies set up, with Government or City help, to try to recycle tyres. In almost every case, those companies are no longer in business and we have a serious recycling shortfall. I do not blame the Government, but their proposals on recycling tyres rely on many companies that are no longer operating. We are in a worse position today than a year ago—not because of Government action or inaction, but because the private sector has discovered that money cannot be made out of that industry. The Government must take action, and the Environment Agency must help.
There is a thing called the tyre recycling committee at the DTI. That committee is not widely known, which is not surprising because it does not do very much. It has produced five reports; again, that is not widely known. I do not believe that many people have read them. Remarkably, the membership of the tyre recycling committee, which includes tyre makers and tyre retreaders, does not include a single tyre recycler. The reason for that is simple: the tyre makers and retreaders are interested in a system that does not charge them for the job of recycling.
The Government should take a tough decision and say that it is the responsibility of the producers to ensure that they pay for the products which they recycle. That is the principle behind the packaging regulation. It is a cross-party principle; we introduced it in government and the present Government have continued to adhere to it. Why does it not apply to tyres? How can we have a tyre recycling committee which does not include people who could explain the realities of the business? I suspect that the matter has not been subjected to the pressure that we should have put it under.
§ Mr. Gummer
For the report to be recycled, someone must find it. That is another problem.
The principle of producer responsibility must be enhanced. If that is to be the case, the Environment Agency must play an important part in ensuring that it 561 works. I wish to emphasise that part of the report; the need for the Environment Agency to play a bigger part in helping the Government to legislate properly in these areas. That is urgent because soon we will not be able to put whole tyres into landfill. We will have to find ways of chopping them up and some tyres—bus and truck tyres—are very difficult to chop up. We are not there yet and we need to get there. By 2006, we will not be able to put bits of tyres into landfill.
I wish to refer to the effect on the Environment Agency and Britain of our membership of the European Union. The idea of an environmental policy which is not a European policy is batty. The things with which the Environment Agency deals are all, of necessity, things with which Europe has to deal as a whole. We export half of our air pollution to the rest of Europe. In return, we receive half of its air pollution. We cannot deal with pollution other than on a Europewide basis.
I wish to refer to the Environment Agency's concern about the cleanliness of water. There is not much point in cleaning up our seas by cleaning up the outflows of Britain if the Elbe and the Rhine are pouring filth into the water from the other side. We need a common policy on water. Also, a very large number of our birds are migratory. If the Spanish drain their marshes and the Italians shoot those birds, we will not get them.
Some of the most Euro-sceptical of thinkers have a limited geographical knowledge. I often wonder whether they think that this country is nearer to the United States than to the rest of Europe. Environmentally, we must be serious and say that we can only make progress from a common basis. What is more, we can prove it. Anyone who thinks that water standards in Britain would be what they are at present if it were not for our membership of the EU does not know the history. The reason why, at long last, our water standards are comparable to those of our neighbours is because we had to sign up for that—against the views of the industry and others. Those who are enthusiastic about privatisation—as I am—have to admit that we had to privatise because it was the only way to obtain the money to make the changes that had so lamentably been lacking while the industry was under state control.
§ Mr. Gray
I am reminded of conversations I held with my right hon. Friend on these matters when I was his special adviser at the then Department of the Environment. Does he agree that, although he is correct to point out that environmental issues in general and air quality in particular are trans-boundary in nature and must be decided at a European level, many issues, such as the quality of our domestic drinking water, of our inland waterways and lakes and other UK environmental matters, should be for this place to decide? They are not matters for the EU.
§ Mr. Gummer
That would be all right if we could make the distinction, but we cannot. Water is water is water. If we are trying to establish EU standards, we have to acknowledge that their management involves everyone having the same standards.
There should be a minimum standard for drinking water across Europe. I want to be able to drink the water in Italy, because—I am happy to say—I am a member of the EU. I want the Italians to have the same minimum 562 standards as us. If my hon. Friend wants higher standards in Britain, I am all for that, but one of our great pleasures is that, at long last, we live in harmony with our European neighbours—on the day after Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for that—and can accept certain common standards. Why the blazes should we think that we can set up different standards for drinking water quality in Britain, just because we do not want common standards?
§ Mr. Gummer
Because I want Italians to be able to drink UK water—that seems perfectly reasonable. As we are citizens both of the EU and of this country, we should be able to benefit from the advantages of that citizenship. I knew that my remarks would stir up my hon. Friend. It might be thought that I do so purposely, but there we are.
As we are on the subject of water, I shall speak about flooding, on which serious issues must be addressed. There is concern that what is happening is caused by climate change. "Climate change" is the wrong description; it should be "climate disruption". "Climate change" suggests that we are moving from one climatic state to another. The most serious problem of global warming is that it makes extraordinary incidents much more likely—more storms and more hot periods will occur more regularly. All the evidence points to that.
By probing the icecap and using other techniques, we can look back over 400,000 years. There is no period in which the temperature has changed as fast as at present. That is serious. Even if we do not accept the overwhelming consensus of scientific advice, we must accept that the effect of such change is extraordinary, while keeping a sense of proportion.
Like my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, I believe that pollution has a considerable impact on global warming. That is only to be expected. A century ago, it took 100 years to produce a billion people; now, it takes 11 years. There are a lot of people on the planet and they produce a lot of pollution; it is hardly surprising that the atmosphere is affected. In the billions of worlds that we seem to have discovered, this is the only world—as far as we know—that can sustain life as we know it. Our world might be rather rare; as it is rare, it may be fragile, so we should be careful about that which sustains our life. The Environment Agency should take a more proactive role in reminding us of such matters. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish is right to say that there should be a greater input from the agency so that the public is aware of current scientific views.
There are several local issues. We must be much tougher about building on flood plains. I cannot understand why the Government have not included in their famed project for the house-buying pack the direction that the buyer should receive a statement as to whether the house is in a flood plain or is liable to flood. I have grave doubts about this famous pack; people will depend on it when it is unreliable. However, if we are to have such packs, that point should be included—as indeed should a compulsory energy measurement, so that people know how much it will cost to keep the house warm. If the pack is to be of any use, those two matters could easily be included.
§ Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
Where did my right hon. Friend hear the news about the 563 house-buyers pack? I share his reservations, but I am not aware of any Government announcement on the subject—certainly none has been promised for today although the news has already hit the newspapers and other media. The matter is important and we have been awaiting the information for some time.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right, but we have come to understand how the Government make their announcements. First, a little bit is dripped out, then a word here and a word there and we hear a little more. Then, there is a gradual growth of general consensus that the Government are going to say something—a rumbling is heard. Finally, when everyone knows about the matter—every newspaper has covered it, every commentator has remarked on it and I have written about it in Estates Gazette—it comes to the House of Commons. Hon. Members all know that we are the last people to hear—the announcements are made in advance and that is how we find out.
I warn you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Minister for Housing and Planning will soon ask to make a statement to the House on that matter, but no one will be in the Chamber because we shall all know about it already. The hon. Gentleman will say a word or two at the Dispatch Box and we shall be expected to hear it afresh—there are supposed to be gasps of "ooh" and "aah" on both sides of the House as the turgid rice pudding, which has long been out of the oven, is ladled out to the Chamber. However, I have given up trying to explain that flawed procedure; I simply accept that it will happen.
However, that is not the subject of our debate, and I shall be in trouble with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I continue along that route. The Government will be extremely cross even though these antagonistic points are being made in an entirely friendly way.
The house-buyers pack could be well illuminated through the work of the Environment Agency. Why could there not be a system whereby people have to say whether the house they are selling is subject to flooding? We could have a grading system—from A to E, for example— for energy consumption. People might then do more to protect their houses. The system could also help home owners; they could be rewarded for work they had carried out—for example, double glazing or cavity wall insulation.
§ Mr. Bennett
The right hon. Gentleman worries rather more than is necessary. As I understand the matter, the Environment Agency will, from the beginning of December, put maps of all flood plains on its web page, so the information will be available. The problem will be convincing people that they need to consult it. Of course, houses built on flood plains or at risk can be adequately protected, but the onus will be on the seller to demonstrate that.
§ Mr. Gummer
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. However, my knowledge of house purchase suggests that it will take some time to encourage people to rush to the web page of the Environment Agency. I want to make the process as simple as possible.
To finish my comments on planning, I shall refer to what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said about agriculture. I am not sure that any of us has an answer, 564 but one has to admit that the change in agricultural practices has had the effect that the hon. Gentleman suggests. For example, in the village of Blythburgh in my constituency, the rather curious belief that pigs like being in the open air has had the effect that they are grazed and kept in a 100-acre field. Of course the effect that pigs have on the ground is wholly different from that of cropping. The water now runs off sharply into a village that has never before suffered from flooding, and 14 or 16 houses that previously were not subject to flooding are now regularly flooded because of a mixture of increased rainfall—the effect of global warming—the particular increase in rainfall this year, which might be a cyclical effect, and the fact that the water runs straight off without any protection.
I commented on the welfare of pigs because, in their natural state, they live in forests, where they are protected from the heat and cold. Pigs cannot sweat. I sometimes wonder whether there is a great welfare advantage in the proposals of those who live in towns. Very often, they have no real understanding of the nature of the animals that they are trying to protect, as people discover when they see the number of chickens that are pecked to death in some of the welfare arrangements that are made for them, but that is another issue.
The fact is that keeping pigs in fields changes the nature of the land and increases the run-off significantly. Frankly, we shall have to reconsider that. It is no good the Minister having a questioning look on his face. In a rotational system whereby pigs are on land for three years and off it for three, there is no doubt that flooding occurs in the three years when the pigs are on the land, not when the land is cropped. There is no argument about that, and we must consider how to protect people from its effects.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)
I do not necessarily completely disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, but there are welfare and, indeed, cost advantages to outdoor pig systems, and the kind of land that the pigs are kept on is the key. Many pigs are kept on well-drained land, but such problems may occur on heavier land. However, those problems can be tackled by a system of land rotation involving the outdoor units.
§ Mr. Gummer
The Minister does not disagree with me. The problems can be tackled in that way, but such a rotation is not possible on all land. That is one of the difficulties that we must face. I do not suggest that there is an easy answer. The Environment Agency should be involved in that matter, but it is the one agency that is not involved.
Evidently, because the problem did not happen to occur in juxtaposition to the river, the Environment Agency could not take it on. The effect of new agricultural practices on flooding must be looked at carefully.
I shall make two last points, the first of which is that of punishment. I do not believe in there being excessive numbers of court cases. I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that court cases represent an admission of failure—the Environment Agency has failed to ensure that people have done what they should do voluntarily, or even under pressure or threat. That is a pity.
If we are driven to take a case to court, the punishment must have some connection with the crime. We learn about such matters in the unfolding of a policy. The 565 problem is not that the maximum fines are too low, but that the courts have not imposed fines that are near enough to the maximum. The House determined the range of fines and perhaps they should be increased, but the fact is that people can be fined small sums for doing things that have netted them significantly large gains. We need to approach that matter with some vigour.
The Government have sought to ensure that magistrates are aware of the effects, but that is not good enough. Perhaps we need ensure that such cases are held in a higher court. That might be the issue. I do not want to encourage them, but if people knew that being caught would cost them more than they have saved by not obeying the law, they would be more likely to do the job better. I hope that the Government will deal with that matter because, unless we get it right, the Environment Agency will feel entirely unable to do its job properly.
The worst morale in the Environment Agency is found among those responsible for taking people to court. They find that the fines imposed are derisory and those who leave the courts put up two fingers because they know that they have saved themselves several hundred thousand pounds in the process. That also reduces the morale of the decent companies that have done their job and paid their money, but find that their competitor down the road has £300,000 on its bottom line. That is unacceptable.
I return to research and advocacy matters. The Environment Agency is a powerful body. It would be a better and more powerful body if it were to concentrate on ensuring that it really knew the answers to the problems and on advocating those answers effectively to the Government and the public. Therefore, it must look at its organisation more carefully. It would be a better organisation if it employed fewer people directly and if it put out to others many of the things that it does directly. It does a huge range of things, from collecting boating fees in some places and patrolling rivers with water bailiffs in others to undertaking the vast responsibility of implementing European Union legislation and the national additions to it that our Government have placed on it.
Within its large ambit, the Environment Agency should concentrate on the holistic business of ensuring that our environment improves all the time; on the research that is necessary to keep it ahead of the rest of the world; and on the advocacy that its experience and knowledge makes credible. It should increasingly seek to have a tightly driven and extremely efficient staff. I suspect that about 5,000 or 6,000 is much nearer to the number necessary for its core job. It could then control more effectively those who work for it indirectly through other agencies and organisations.
If we put all that together, we can make matrix management work. The matrix would be simpler, the explanations clearer and the route by which the money is spent more obvious. That is not to tell it how to do its job, but to say that an organisation as big as the Environment Agency has increasingly failed to meet the specifications that it was given in the first place.
I wonder whether we should return to the proposal made when we first launched the important change, which was to combine the three organisations to create one holistic agency and then to fine it down so that it would do the job that was essential for it to do directly and share its tasks with those on the ground who were more able to do the job as agents. If we did that, many of my criticisms 566 would soon be overcome and the work, enthusiasm and vocation that one sees in the activities of the very dedicated staff would begin to bear the fruit for which we all long.
In many ways, the Environment Agency is the most important non-governmental agency that we have. It reaches into every part of our lives. It ought to reach further and to be more powerful and its voice ought to be heard more widely. It is up to the House to ensure that that happens.
§ Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)
The debate so far has been extremely interesting. No one would want to criticise the Environment Agency's basic aim or the expertise and energy of many of its staff. It is a valuable resource to the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made clear in his opening remarks, however, we can make it much more effective if we check its relationships with other agencies, and planning authorities in particular, and sharpen its focus.
I shall illustrate the point with some examples from my constituency, in all of which the Environment Agency should have a crucial role. The most obvious issue is flooding. I am glad that both my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) spoke about the relationship between flooding and agricultural practice.
Flooding has been a serious issue in my constituency. I would not normally be banging on about flooding in Kemptown, because it is built entirely on chalk downland. We do not have a flood plain in my constituency to worry about—but we do have flooding. One simply does not expect houses halfway up a chalk down to get flooded, but in practice they do, and it will happen with increasing frequency unless we do something about it. The Environment Agency should have a clear role in that, but although it has the expertise, it does not have the effective powers to control the situation.
In the 1930s, Brighton spread a bit. It cannot spread too far because of the confines of the downs. Building spread up some of the dry valleys, or deans, as we call them in Sussex. They are areas that do not have rivers but drain, albeit slowly, large areas of rolling downland. The water comes down the valley and often feeds a dew pond. An estate that was seriously flooded recently was built over an historic dew pond, so it was unsurprising that when trouble came, that was where water collected.
There was no serious problem with buildings on the downland fringe until relatively recently, after the war. Before then, the downs were used almost entirely as pasture land, and run-off from such land is relatively slow, because it holds water well. Chalk is highly permeable, so the water soaks into the ground and does not present much of a problem.
During the war, the downs were extensively ploughed because of the need to produce more food, and that continued afterwards. More recently, arable production on the downs changed from predominantly spring crops to winter crops. There were economic pressures in the farming industry, and the way to get the best economic yield from the land was to grow winter cereals—and that is where the problems really start.
567 The ground has been not only ploughed but harrowed and seeded. It is sitting there, with a fine tilth on it, just as the equinoctial rains come. When they come with the force and severity of this year, and several years past, the run-off is dramatic: it is 10 to 100 times faster than it would be off pasture land or stubble. Not only is there a rush of water—great gullies are carved through fields, where rivers have suddenly grown from nothing—but soil is swept down with it, and houses are invaded by a wall of liquid mud. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the houses rely for their surface water drainage on soakaways. As soon as silt goes into a soakaway, it blocks and ceases to drain, so there is a real mess.
The problem results from a common, but bad and unsustainable agricultural practice, which not only brings hazards to buildings and people but destroys the basic landscape, because chalk downland has a fragile soil system that is easily destroyed by ploughing. The only way genuinely to sustain a chalk soil system is by keeping the land as grassland.
The problem is not confined to my constituency. Large areas of the south of England are affected, as there is chalk downland in Hampshire, Kent, Sussex, Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire, in all of which counties there is also severe housing pressure. Wherever houses have to be built on greenfield sites, those sites will almost inevitably be on the downland fringes and will be subject to the same sort of hazard as Bevendean in my constituency.
There is an imperative to examine agricultural practice and change it. I have discussed these issues with Environment Agency officials in my area, and they are in total agreement with my analysis.
§ Mr. Rowe
Implicit in the hon. Gentleman's important comments is the thought that houses built in flood risk areas should be designed in exactly the same way as those in other parts of the country, yet there are many places in the world where flooding is a regular danger so houses are built with a cellar, for example, or a garage underneath, so as to protect the main body of the house. Does he agree that it is time for the building industry to consider seriously the design of houses built in flood risk areas?
§ Dr. Turner
I do not disagree. Certainly, if one builds in an obvious flood plain, that would seem a sensible precaution for the future. However, I refer not to houses built on flood plains but to those built nowhere near a flood plain. The advice and expertise of the Environment Agency should be made available more strongly to planning authorities. Indeed, more than its advice may be needed—we may need to examine the interaction of the Environment Agency with planning authorities, and, in certain circumstances, give the agency a virtual veto over planning applications in environmentally suspect locations, unless the planning authority, and the applications, satisfy the agency that environmental objections can be met. That would ensure that developments in such sensitive areas proceeded knowingly. If the relevant objections cannot be overcome, planning permission should not be given to construct dwellings or other buildings.
Agricultural practice is critical, primarily because most of the risk in this context can be removed by changing that practice, ideally by going back to pasture— 568 preferably, proper downland pasture and not intensively fertilised pasture—or, as a second best, to spring cereal cultivation, because stubble fields do not cause anything like as much run-off as freshly cultivated winter cereals do. Policy changes could largely prevent such occurrences. That idea needs to be examined in a wider context, because development pressures mean that increasing numbers of such sites will be considered for development.
That issue shows that the Environment Agency needs to be involved, and needs greater powers to control agricultural practices. That would secure sustainable agricultural practice, which would preserve the quality of our environment. Currently, the Environment Agency knows full well what is going on, but it cannot do much about it. In this context, it could—I hope that it will—ensure that knowledge is spread. All the information is detailed in a very good publication from 1995, the "Journal of Geography", but no one knew about it. Professor Boardman of Oxford university studied and analysed those events, and all his findings are available. However, no one had read his paper—certainly not the farmer who increased his area of ploughing so that it went down a slope to people's back gardens. When half his field went into those back gardens, the residents were not happy bunnies.
Another example from my constituency involves a site called Portobello, which is right on the foreshore and on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty. Southern Water applied to build a massive sewerage plant in that exposed coastal location, but although, I am glad to say, permission has been refused by the county council, the matter is the subject of a planning inquiry. I do not expect the Minister to make any comment on the detailed planning issue because we are awaiting the announcement of the result of the public inquiry, so it is clearly sub judice.
The Environment Agency's role and its relation with the planning process was open to criticism. That is not the fault of the agency but a question of its terms of reference, which were not really right. In the context of a sewerage works, the role of the agency is to grant discharge consents. It is solely concerned with the quality of the water discharged into the sea. For the purpose of satisfying the requirements for a discharge consent, the primary data concern nutrients. Fine—that is important—but the microbial content of the outfall is of much greater importance to the public. However, that was not really an issue. The quality of the water being pumped into the sea is not an issue at all in the planning process, which is a very curious oversight.
We have a planning system and a discharge system that do not take into account the very things that the public are worried about, and a role for the Environment Agency that does not give it any input concerning the wider environmental implications of applications such as the one that I have described. Most of my constituents and I await with bated breath and fingers crossed—we have also crossed everything else that can be crossed—the outcome of this application, which has exposed an unfortunate shortcoming in the relationship between the planning system and the Environment Agency. That shortcoming should be addressed.
I want to discuss a further issue affecting my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who is looking anxious. I am sure that he 569 knows exactly what I am about to discuss—waste treatment. Government planning policy guidance PPG10 implies that because of the lack of landfill sites, there is considerable reliance on incineration to get rid of the residuum of the waste stream that is not recycled. The favoured option that is being considered and encouraged around the country is to obtain energy from waste. That, too, is of great public concern.
A major criticism of guidance from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and of PPG10 is that, although the listed planning considerations for waste disposal facilities mention various factors—they range from a. to o.—not one of them refers to public health. The fact that public health implications are not a planning consideration is a major oversight. In that regard, the role of the Environment Agency is, once again, critical, because it is responsible for pollution monitoring.
Incinerators, as everyone knows, have a reputation for being a grave health risk because of dioxin emissions. Unless organic materials are burned at a very high temperature, dioxin emissions will result. I am not much of a thermodynamicist—it was always my weakest subject—but I understand enough to know that it is difficult to maintain a combustion temperature of 1,200 deg C. If one takes further heat from that system to generate electricity, the task becomes that much more difficult, and if one uses such a poor quality fuel as domestic rubbish, one has a big challenge to convince people that one can continue the process safely and consistently without producing dioxins, which are carcinogens. People are genuinely worried, and the history of the first-generation rubbish incinerators illustrates why. Those incinerators produced massive quantities of dioxins, and, I am happy to say, have all been closed down by the Environment Agency.
We are told that the new generation of incinerators will not do that. Those installations rely on modern combustion technology to produce energy from waste. However, hon. Members will probably have seen press reports about papers that warn of expectations that deaths will be caused by the pollution produced by such installations. The Minister told me that the data overstated the consequences 65-fold. I have tried to obtain the original material to discover the exact truth, but so far, despite the best efforts of the Minister's office, the Library, and even the Environment Agency, I have not been able to get hold of the actual data on which the prognostications were made.
Meanwhile, the hon. Member for Lewes has many constituents who are desperately anxious about the consequences of having an installation in their area. Thousands of my constituents whose homes border his constituency are equally worried about that prospect, and there is the remote possibility that the installation might be in Brighton and Hove, in which case 250,000 people will be extremely anxious about pollution. It is vital that the truth, as it is best known at the moment, is made clear to the public.
§ Mr. Loughton
I have been listening with great interest and agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is not just 250,000 people who might be affected, but an additional 70,000 people in my constituency, which neighbours Brighton and Hove. In view of everything that he has says, it puzzles me why he has not been more vociferous in his criticism of the Labour council in 570 Brighton and Hove, which has the worst recycling record of any council in Sussex, and has been attempting to impose an incinerator on the borders of my constituency without consulting my constituents. Why has he not been more critical of his Government, whose policies will lead to at least 100 major incinerators being installed throughout the country?
§ Dr. Turner
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Let me make one thing clear. Brighton and Hove council has most emphatically not been trying to impose an incinerator on the borders of his constituency. It has made clear its intention not to permit an installation at Shoreham.
§ Dr. Turner
I am sorry, but that is the truth. The council is also aware of my views on the topic, and knows that I am not impressed by its recycling targets or its recycling performance. I have made no secret of that. I hear the hon. Gentleman's criticism and note that Adur council in his constituency led the country in recycling—I hasten to add that it was not, of course, under Conservative control at the time, so he should not take too much credit for that. None the less, Adur council had a good recycling record. There is no question about it, and I wish that Brighton and Hove council's record was as good. My colleagues in the council are aware of my thoughts on that matter.
As for the involvement of the Environment Agency with incinerators and their emissions, I want it to make a very clear public statement that sets out in the public domain all the information that is available, so that people—not just in my constituency or in that of the hon. Member for Lewes, but all over the country—can make a considered judgment about the safety of those installations for the future.
§ Mr. Gummer
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that it is all very well to say that we must not put waste down holes or decide to put sewage sludge in the sea or to spread it on the land, but not if we then say that we must not burn it either? The truth is that waste—some of which, such as sewage sludge, is unavoidable—has to be dealt with. Does he accept that it is not responsible to spread fears in such circumstances? He should be telling his constituents that if some form of waste treatment is necessary, he will insist, and try to ensure, that it is safe. He should not be frightening people, because we have to find a way to deal with the problem.
§ Dr. Turner
I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. If he is under the impression that I wish to spread fears about the installations, I apologise, because that is not my intention.
No matter how successful we are in recycling waste, we also need to reduce it. We do not pay enough attention to that. We over-package to a vast extent, and that accounts for a large proportion of our domestic waste stream. None the less, however efficient we are in recycling waste, such as by making compost, there will still be a residue —perhaps in the order of 25 per cent.—that cannot be recycled, and needs to be disposed of in another way.
571 We are running out of landfill sites. It is unfortunate that policy guidance, which stems from the previous Government and has been continued by this Government, says that waste must be disposed of locally, because we cannot contain waste in that way. It is a regional and national issue, and we do not make enough use of our national landfill resources. For example, the enormous brick pits in Bedfordshire could take much more of the nation's rubbish than they do. The waste disposal authority in my constituency does not have any holes in the ground, and could not land-raise—which I would not want it to do anyway, because it is a barbaric practice.
We must find a way of disposing of the residuum, so we must consider incineration. I say that with reluctance, and before the public will accept it, we have to demonstrate its safety. That is my point. The Environment Agency has the main role there. It could do a great deal to satisfy people's understandable fears. It is not me who has put the frighteners on concerning waste incinerators. People are already frightened, and I am trying to address those fears.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien
I am listening carefully to the incinerator scenario. Has my hon. Friend ever thought of recycling waste to generate heat and power? Surely that is the way forward.
§ Dr. Turner
That is precisely what we are talking about. I am not disagreeing that that process may have a legitimate role; that is not the point. The point at issue is that we must be sure that it does not result in emissions that are a danger to public health. That is the only point that I am trying to make.
§ Mr. Gray
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and finding his comments very stimulating. However, I am puzzled by the position that he is taking. He seems to be saying that Brighton, Kemptown has no room for landfill, that land-raising is not possible there, and that he does not want the incinerator in his constituency—although he has slightly modified the latter point—but that Bedfordshire, or perhaps, my constituency, would be fine. "Not in my back yard, thank you very much." Given the perfectly sensible constraints that he is describing, such as ensuring that emissions are safe, it is surely up to his constituency to accept a jolly great big incinerator. Will he come clean by telling us whether he wants an incinerator in his constituency?
§ Dr. Turner
The simple answer is that nobody wants an incinerator, but it must go somewhere. Nobody wants a landfill site, but some residuum may have to go somewhere. I am not advocating that everybody immediately rushes their waste to Bedfordshire. I mentioned it only because it already has massive brick pits—which form some of the ugliest landscape I have ever seen—that are used for landfill.
Let us remember that if we recycle as much as we should, we are left with last-resort disposal. Even if we use incineration for disposal of the non-recyclable content of the waste stream, there will still be a residual ash that must be disposed of. We will never be able to avoid landfill totally. My point was that we have some 572 legitimate landfill resources. Some counties have it in massive quantities, while in other areas there is none at all. However, so long as we insist on excessively localised waste disposal, we can never as a nation make the best use of our opportunities. I am not saying "NIMBY", and that we should force things on somebody else, but we must approach the issue from a rational point of view.
I return to the main thesis of my speech. The Environment Agency is the body in which our best expertise rests. It is the body to which we should be able to look to provide a rationale for our approach to many of our environmental problems. To ensure effective environmental protection, we need to do more than we are doing at the moment to clarify its role and its relationships with other agencies.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
One of the most interesting elements of this debate is that the Government have hardly been mentioned. Yet, if one looks at the limits on the Environment Agency's capacity to become the champion of the environment, one must also look at its relationship with the Government. I have taken three points from the Government's response to the Select Committee's report.
First, the Government state that, in fulfilling its role as the champion of the environment and sustainable development, the Environment Agency musthave regard to guidance from the Government.That is a perfectly reasonable thing for the Government to say, but if they strongly disagree with the Environment Agency, who would win? If we are to have a serious champion, we need to be able to listen to the debate.
The second point from the Government's response is that any disagreement with them must be discussed before the agency takes a public stance. In other words, before the Environment Agency says that it thinks that some element of Government policy is misguided, it must be subjected to all the arm-twisting of which the Government are quite capable. I wonder again how independent a champion that would make the Environment Agency.
On the vexed question of the Environment Agency's recommendations, especially about the danger of building in areas that are liable to flooding, the Government state that anappeal may reach a different view on the balance between flooding and other material considerations.In other words, if the Government are persuaded that in order to reach their obscene target for building in the countryside they should override the Environment Agency's advice, that is exactly what will happen. In those circumstances, we must look rather carefully at urging on the Environment Agency the role of rottweiler on our behalf when we know full well that every time it opens its mouth the Government will slap a muzzle on it.
Although in many ways I am happy to allow the consideration of the Lamberhurst farm application for a land-raising site in my constituency to remain undecided for as long as the authorities like, because it is an obscene proposal, we have nevertheless been waiting for the decision for months and months, and it might be time for them to say one way or the other. I know which way I hope the decision will go.
573 The relationship between the Environment Agency and farming has been raised in several different contexts. I have no clear picture of the Environment Agency's powers in relation to farmers' growing habit of ploughing into their fields the plastic with which they have covered their strawberries or other crops. Unless that is done extremely well and very deeply, fields are littered with little bits of plastic, which blow everywhere and are very unattractive. It would be interesting to know whether the Environment Agency feels that it has powers in that respect.
§ Mr. Gummer
Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a scheme to collect and recycle such plastic, but that it collapsed? Should not we have asked the Environment Agency why it did not play a more proactive part in ensuring that something was done about that? The question is not one of damage, but that the material could properly, and without too much difficulty, be recycled.
§ Mr. Rowe
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who knows far more about this subject than I shall ever know. I agree that the Environment Agency needs to look carefully at the growing use of plastic in British farming.
As is sometimes said, I have seen the future and it sucks. I sat next to a farmer at the Marden fruit show. He is developing hydroponic horticulture at speed and with a degree of success. The flavour of the strawberries, herbs and so on that he gave me to taste was wonderful. I, who had always thought that hydroponics meant flavourless produce, was dumbfounded. Although that gives enormous hope to an industry that is otherwise on its knees and about which, as far as I can see, the Government care very little, it means huge expansion in the use of plastic in agriculture. If the Environment Agency does not take the matter on board and deal with it properly, we shall all be losers.
One issue that has arisen from this debate, about which I feel strongly, is that the Environment Agency should have strong views on the design of new houses, to which we should pay a great deal more attention. Let me give one, rather trivial, example. If, in the plethora of rebuilt or brand-new kitchens that are created every year, there is only one, undifferentiated waste bin, a busy housewife—or householder—will, in the preparation of the evening meal, scoop all the waste into the same bin. If the presence of three bins in the kitchen units made doing so easy, it would be perfectly possible, without much effort, to differentiate the waste. A great many people in Britain would like to do more to differentiate their waste, but not if they have to create three separate heaps of plastic bags and carry them out individually in the pouring rain. The idea that one should build on a flood plain the sort of house that one would build in Bromley or Chislehurst is absurd. It is time that builders took seriously the notion that the danger of flood damage can be designed out of some of the houses that they build.
The report is extremely useful and I congratulate the Committee and its Chairman on it. One of the implications of the report and in the speech of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is that there is a conspiracy among householders to conceal from potential purchasers the fact that the house might flood, and that such risks must be made clear to such purchasers. There is little sympathy for householders. Fortunately, the worst of the flooding did not occur in my constituency, 574 but that does not mean that I do not acknowledge the human misery that it caused or that I am unsympathetic to those who suffered it.
My constituency borders on that part of the Maidstone constituency that has suffered flooding five times this year, three times in the past two months. Yalding, which has always been known as the sump of the Weald, has appeared on every television newscast as one of the places where houses have been flooded repeatedly this year. The people who live in those houses have to suffer not only the great misery of flooding, but huge anxiety about their insurance and their insurance status. I read that the big insurance companies, such as Norwich Union, are being leaned on by the Government and are spontaneously deciding not to create a welter of uninsurable properties, but there is no doubt that the premiums that they will demand and the way in which they will handle the problem are a major issue. I hope that the Government will provide strong assurances that people whose houses have been flooded repeatedly will not be made pariahs by the insurance industry. It they are so treated, the Government should give serious consideration to schemes of the sort operated in Florida and California, in which the Government take some share of the liability.
The vast majority of the houses in Kent that have flooded are not brand-new houses built by idiot builders on flood plains; many date from the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries and stood for hundreds of years without sustaining serious damage. All the changes about which we have heard so much in the debate—changes in agricultural practices and the creation of enormous areas of hard—standing which means that water cannot run off or does so far too fast and cannot be safely channelled—have made older houses vulnerable in ways that are no responsibility of their owners. Householders in that position are not only to be pitied for the horror through which they have passed in the past few months, but for the great damage that has almost certainly been done to the value of their largest asset.
§ Mr. Gray
Is my hon. Friend aware that, if associates at Salomon Brothers are to be believed, up to 1.2 million houses may be affected by an increase in insurance premiums of about 60 per cent.? Does he agree that the000 pitiful £51 million promised for flood defences in the statement of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which works out at £13 million a year, is a tiny drop in the ocean and wildly inadequate to cover the sort of damage that those households face?
§ Mr. Rowe
I agree. When the final bills come in, they will be colossal. Not only must there be far greater expenditure on flood protection once we have analysed what has happened—a job for the Environment Agency if ever there was one—but a way must be found to ensure that those unfortunate people are not stripped of the value of their asset. Although I am wholly in favour of making it easier for potential purchasers to discover whether a risk of flooding is associated with the house they intend to buy, we must also give consideration to those whose assets have been destroyed by the recent phenomenon of flooding.
§ Mr. Gummer
I hope that my hon. Friend does not focus solely on inland areas that are affected by flooding. 575 There are 74 miles of coast line in my constituency; severe cutbacks in MAFF support for sea defence, which have featured strongly in the past three years, have resulted in many of my constituents being threatened by the sea in a way that they were not previously threatened. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in urging the Government to restore the former rates of support and to increase them in local authority areas that are so threatened.
§ Mr. Rowe
I am grateful for that intervention. The Government face a major and difficult issue. In truth, there is something wasteful about putting one's finger in a dyke that is bound, ultimately, to give way and I understand the argument that, in respect of some parts of the coast, the only thing to do is give up. However, I have for many years been a proponent of changes being made to the law on blight—I founded the all-party blight group, which has had some effect on Government policy—and I believe that the problem to which my right hon. Friend refers is a new form of blight.
§ Mr. Morley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I understand that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) will have to leave the debate and I should not like him to miss what I have to say. There has been no Government reduction in coastal defence spending. There may well be regional differences, because regional flood defence committees propose different programmes in different years, but, under the Labour Government, the overall national spend has increased year on year. The only reduction in the national spend in the past decade occurred between 1994 and 1995.
§ Mr. Gummer
It matters little if a place elsewhere in the country gets more money if there is an increasing problem of rising tides in one's own area and the Government reduce the proportion of the money that they provide. The point is that the local authority has to raise more money than it once had to because of the decrease in the sums coming from central Government. It is no good quoting the total, without mentioning the fact that my constituents have to find more money because the Government have handed out their money to a place somewhere in the north.
§ Mr. Rowe
I take my right hon. Friend's point, but cannot elaborate on it, save to say that, given how great a thorn in the Government's flesh he is, I can well understand their desire to erode his constituency altogether.
On river protection, I have personal experience of what I consider to be well-intentioned feebleness on the part of the Environment Agency. I declare an interest. I fish in the Kentish Stour, which the last significant chalk stream in Kent. It passes under the pavilion in which Jane Austen wrote one of her novels, and has been almost unchanged for centuries. It is extraordinarily beautiful to look at and is extraordinarily important as a habitat for wildlife.
576 The river has been systematically undermined by abstraction carried out by the water companies. I held a meeting in this place with a number of the agencies concerned, planning authorities and so on. The Environment Agency had already confirmed that the Stour was under enormous threat. We must remember that the River Darenth in Kent had completely dried up and that, although it has been artificially restored in response to huge public pressure, it remains vulnerable.
When the Environment Agency stated that the Stour was at huge risk, just as the Darenth had been, the representative of one of the water companies present said, "If I had to choose between a man washing his car in Ashford and the protection of a river, I know which I would choose." He was quite clear that, in his view, the man washing his car had preference over some weird group of people—self-interested fishermen and others—who wanted to keep the river. The representatives of the Environment Agency looked despairing, and when I asked them afterwards about the prospects, they said that very little could be done.
The river is under enormous threat and will eventually disappear, because Kent has little water supply. It seems ironic that for four consecutive years, we were so dry that the water companies produced a model garden of plants that did not require any water, such as lavender. Now, no doubt because of the same circumstances of global warming, we have amazing floods.
The Environment Agency's power and confidence in its ability to influence the relevant decisions are too weak. We must protect the rivers.
§ Mr. Bennett
Clearly, one of the problems is the archaic system of abstraction licences. The draft legislation that is to come before the House on the water industry contains provisions to sort out that system.
§ Mr. Rowe
I wish I were confident that sorting out the system would mean that less water was abstracted from the rivers. I have my doubts. In recent years the state of the water industry has often been used as an excuse for not building any houses at all, so the influence of the Environment Agency on plans to build houses has been greatly reduced.
I am not entirely sure that I have got this right, but I understand that the Environment Agency is now back as a consultee, its predecessor having been deprived of that position for a while. However, it is a nominal consultee, and its opinions do not carry great weight. If we in Kent must accept the number of houses that the Government tell us we need, it is not clear where the necessary water will come from. The Environment Agency should be much more proactive in that debate.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—I believe it was he—said that it was a great shame that there was no way of storing the rainwater that ran off. When I did my national service in the Navy, I remember being very impressed by the way in which Gibraltar manages to secure much of its water, using concrete cliffs to catch the rain as it fell and store it in huge underground reservoirs.
Some of the water that runs off at great speed should be channelled into reservoirs, from which it could be taken and purified. That would be a great deal better than simply letting it flood people's houses and disappear to no purpose, especially in counties such as Kent, where water is in such short supply.
577 I end on a subject on which I have no specialist knowledge. I have a prejudice which leads me to think that compared to activity on the surface of the sun, human efforts to influence climate are pretty puny. We may well be hubristic in our idea that the best way to prevent global warming is through pollution control measures. I remember when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blew up, it was said to have put more muck into the atmosphere in 24 hours than the whole of human pollution for the previous 10 years.
Natural forces are colossal, and we may be exaggerating the effects of global warming, but if we are not over-estimating the effects of pollution on global warming, what on earth are we doing about the aviation industry? What relationship does the Environment Agency have with that industry? I do not know whether it is because Prime Ministers and presidents prefer flying to any other mode of transport, but for every airport in this country, a massive growth in air travel is envisaged over the next 25 years.
Nobody can tell me that that does not mean a lot more aeroplanes jettisoning fuel in order to land somewhere other than originally intended. Huge quantities of emissions will be released into the atmosphere at a level that I would have thought was even more dangerous than the level to which our normal pollution extends. If we are serious about human efforts to control global pollution, should we not think carefully about how fast and how large an increase in air travel we want? What is the role of the Environment Agency in that?
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on the sixth report published by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs and the response from the Environment Agency. I am also pleased to be a signatory to the report as a member of the Select Committee. I consider that the work of the Environment Agency is important to the House and to the nation. As I mentioned earlier, I was a member of the Standing Committee that dealt with the Bill under which the Environment Agency was established.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) who at one time I thought was the meat in the sandwich between my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when they argued about the money spent on coastal defences. I believe what my hon. Friend said. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal revealed today that he accepts that, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he made a great number of mistakes in the Bill establishing the Environment Agency. It is pleasing to note that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges his shortcomings but, unfortunately, many people have suffered as a result of those mistakes.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent mention some of those with regard to property planning, especially in flood plain areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) pointed out, however, the matter does not rest there. Other areas create problems for properties because of excess water. Normanton is not designated as a flood plain, but our open drains are surcharged because of the number of properties 578 that are being built in the area adjacent to the surface drains and because proper attention is not given to the need to consider planning applications comprehensively.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) pointed out, the Select Committee took evidence last Wednesday from the Environment Agency and from the Minister for Housing and Planning on proposals for future housing development, especially on flood plains. We were told that the Environment Agency had warned planning authorities that some planning applications did not accord with good practice. It advised some authorities that the design of properties meant that they would flood and that the people who owned them would suffer from such planning.
The Committee was surprised to learn that the Environment Agency has no powers on planning advice and applications. We were encouraged, however, when the Minister for Housing and Planning said that a new planning regulation guide was to be introduced, whereby the Environment Agency would have more influence on planning applications for the development of properties on flood plains by supplying advice and information on their value. That is encouraging, as it shows that the Government are listening and considering how to prevent the problems that we have witnessed in recent months.
The issue was highlighted because planning policy guidance note 25, which was issued recently, sought to address the flooding that occurred the previous year, especially in Yorkshire. That showed that the Government were working to guide planning authorities on planning matters regarding flooding. A great deal of work is being initiated by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ensure that the flooding that we have witnessed during the past few months does not recur. I look forward to further discussions with the Environment Agency and the Minister about progress on trying to prevent such flooding.
I witnessed flooding in my area. Water was not in the properties, but very nearby. The flooding occurred over the general area because its housing estates were developed with little thought to drainage. That created problems for some of my constituents, so I look forward to further debates on planning.
A great deal has been said about landfill sites, which are a serious matter. My constituency contains a large landfill area called Welbeck, which has been with us for the past 20 years. The site is a problem. The landfill process is reclaiming an area from which clay was removed for brickworks, which contains spoil from colliery waste and which suffers general dereliction. A decision has been made to reclaim the land by landfill. I have no objection to that, as I believe that we should reclaim areas that can be improved for the environment and the general good of the community.
The management of landfill sites creates problems for the local people. Two miles of the River Calder run through the Welbeck site—a fact that shows the size of the landfill area. It is important to safeguard the river and ensure that it is not polluted, but we must also ensure that no pollution goes into local communities.
As Member of Parliament for Normanton, I must try to ensure that my constituents, and also those in neighbouring areas, are safeguarded in respect of the planning and organisation of the landfill site. There are tremendous concerns about the issue. Although the 579 Environment Agency has been established and took into consideration the views of three organisations that were acting as environment agencies before the Environment Act 1995 took effect, questions remain about where some responsibilities lie, as local authorities still have responsibilities for environmental matters.
The responsibilities set out in the Animal By-Products Order 1999 are among those that still belong to local authorities, but the Environment Agency is the major organisation for the care and safeguarding of the environment. There are differences on where responsibility starts and where it ends. I should like to give my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary an example of which I believe he should take note and which will help him in trying to resolve the problem. In April and May of last year, 68 tonnes of untreated meat were disposed of in the Welbeck site. That should not have been allowed, and it caused a great deal of anxiety in the area.
I approached the Environment Agency to ask what action would be taken against the people who had breached the regulations, as they were responsible for polluting the area. I agree with the theory that the polluter should pay and I asked who would take action. The Environment Agency said that it was for the local authority to do so under the Animal By-Products Order. I took up the matter with the local authority, which said that it was for the Environment Agency to sort out. I then had to ask the relevant Minister to judge who should be responsible for taking action on the breach of law. The problem has not yet been resolved, although it arose 18 months ago.
The local authority, which is responsible for the environment in which the community lives, sent a warning letter to the landfill operator, the Waste Recycling Group, advising that such disposal should not happen again, but that is not on. People who cause such pollution should not be dismissed with merely a slap on the wrist. So much that took place demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, that there was a weakness in the management of the landfill site. There should be a more rigorous investigation. An operator of a landfill site incorrectly disposed of 17 lorry loads of meat and received a warning. However, aged constituents who are five or seven days late in paying their council tax are summonsed. Fairness must be applied, and the polluter should pay.
In February 1999, reference was made to the health hazards that could develop around a landfill site such as the Welbeck site. In a report in the local newspaper, the Wakefield Express, on 26 February 1999, the public were advisedHealth checks on people living nearby will now be fully assessed, after medical evidence suggested the public—in particular pregnant women—could be affected by so-called "special" waste.In this instance, the special waste is meat and other deposits.
I took up the matter with the Environment Agency. I wanted to know who was responsible for organising the health checks. I received a letter from the regional director. I have a good relationship with the agency in the Yorkshire and Humber region. It is always willing to help and there is full co-operation. However, where does its responsibility start and end? That is one of the problems that we are trying to resolve.
580 I was advised on 31 March 1999 by the agency that health checks were not its responsibility. I was told that it was a matter for the local authority. The health effects on people living near to landfill sites are to be assessed. I refer to the small area health statistics unit study, which has been commissioned by the Government. However, no one has accepted responsibility for the advice and information that was given by the Wakefield Express on 26 February. That is not good enough. If people are informed about the possibility of health hazards arising from landfill sites, that process should be followed through.
A few weeks ago, a person living near the landfill site was granted £1,000 in compensation by the local ombudsman because he had not been given information about the site when he moved into the area. That information should have been provided by the local authority. We must do a great deal more to safeguard the interests of those who live and work near to landfill sites. Recently, I received a report from a constituent, who advised me that one of the employees on the site is responsible for monitoring dust, noise, water and toxic waste. Another employee is responsible for deciding what is special waste and what waste should go into the cells on the site. Surely that is a responsibility of the Environment Agency. The agency should be monitoring pollution, be it from dust, toxic waste, water or noise. It should not be for an employee to register whether there is a breach of pollution regulations. The decision on what waste should be deposited in the site and the recording of it should not be the responsibility of the employee who drives the dumper truck and puts the waste into the cell. Responsibility for activities in landfill sites should be more precisely clarified.
As I have said, I wrote to the Minister for the Environment. I received a reply from Baroness Hayman, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She advised me that the matter is covered by the Animal By-Products Order 1999, whichplaces the obligation to comply with the Order on any person who has animal by-products in his possession or under his control. We take the view that this means that the originator of the waste, the collector and the person who disposes of it (eg the landfill operator) would each be responsible for ensuring that it was disposed of in a legitimate manner.As it was not disposed of in that manner, I consider that there should be a further investigation. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary examining the matter.
The Environment Agency should pay more attention to the supervision of landfill sites, especially the larger ones. As I said in an intervention in the speech of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I suggested when he set up the Environment Agency that it would have insufficient resources and insufficient manpower. He outlined what he considered would have happened if the Conservative Government had continued to have responsibility for landfill operators and the agency.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the idea was to privatise many of the Environment Agency's functions, and that the number of agency employees has increased from 9,000 when he had responsibility for the agency to 11,150. I believe that the staff number has increased because—as we pointed out in Standing Committee—the agency was understaffed initially.
581 God forbid that some of the agency's functions should be privatised. We know what happened when the previous Government brought in private operators to run the railways, the state earnings-related pension scheme, housing and health. If some of the Environment Agency's functions had been privatised, we would be in a terrible mess.
§ Mr. Loughton
Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on which of the Environment Agency's activities were to be privatised and on what effects that would have had?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Sadly, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal did not tell us which functions he was going to privatise. Today, however, as Hansard will show, he said that it was planned to give some of the functions to other operators. However, he did not say which responsibilities would be affected.
The possibility of privatising some of the functions was mentioned even in Standing Committee. Fortunately, however, in 1997, we had a change of Government, enabling the agency to develop and continue the work that it was established to do. However, although much has been done, there is still a great deal left to do.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal mentioned the anomalies that have been revealed with introduction of the packaging waste regulations. I believe that he got the percentages wrong in the initial regulations. Now, as an adviser to Valpac, he is saying that the regulations should be changed. However, in 1996, when he made the decision on the regulations, he said that they would not be reviewed for five years. That caused turmoil and suffering in the packaging waste industry. Fortunately, although discussions and consultations are continuing, the regulations were revised within 12 months of the election of the current Government, so as to re-balance responsibilities and percentages within the packaging waste industry.
Nevertheless, we are three years behind Europe in addressing the packaging waste issue, because the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, as the Secretary of State for the Environment, and the then Government were not pressing to introduce packaging waste regulations.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that the United Kingdom should be a leader on the waste control issue, and I think that we could be if we had co-ordination between local authorities, the Environment Agency and the Government, so that they all worked as they should. However, I also feel sure that the work that is being done will be built upon, and that our report's recommendations—most of which have been accepted by the agency—will enable some progress.
I should like to deal with a matter that has already been mentioned briefly today— responsibility for inland waterways. Two agencies—British Waterways and the Environment Agency—have responsibility for the inland waterways, and each has a department to discharge that responsibility. I think that the time has come to consider establishing one agency to manage the waterways. I believe that, as British Waterways has the singular responsibility for caring for our canals, rivers and coastal areas, it should have responsibility for our inland waterways.
The Transport Sub-Committee is conducting an inquiry and taking evidence from many people on how to manage the inland waterways.
582 As we are considering the responsibilities of the Environment Agency and the way in which it is managed, I consider that I would be failing in my duty if I did not draw attention to the duplication of services. Perhaps we will look into that in future.
Let me place on record my appreciation of the people who have helped the Committee draw up the report, to the Clerk and the Officers serving the Select Committee, to those who drafted and presented the evidence, to the members of the Committee and to the Chairman who worked very hard to make sure that the Committee received all the relevant information, worked in accordance with the rules set down by Parliament and presented reports such as the one we are considering this morning.
I should also emphasise the need for clearer demarcation between the environmental responsibilities of the Environment Agency and those of local authorities. I feel that I am witness to a great divide that it not to the benefit of my constituents, the agency or local authorities. I leave that point with my hon. Friend the Minister. My case rests on the evidence that I have put forward and I ask him to look into the matter. I have no hesitation in commending the report to the House.
§ Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)
I start by congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and wishing you all the very best for what I know will be a long and distinguished career in the Chair.
I should like to make a few comments about the part of the Select Committee report that refers to the powers that the Environment Agency has and those that it should have in relation to flood plain development.
I raise the matter not just because of the recent bad weather and the spate of severe flooding in many parts of the country, although that has brought the issue of flood plain development into much sharper focus. Nor do I do so because today is the last day of the climate change conference in The Hague, although recently we heard from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment that flooding and bad weather were in part due to climate change and that we should be prepared for more of the same unless climate change can be slowed down or reversed.
The reason for my contribution is that ever since I was elected to Parliament in 1997, I have received constant representations from my constituents and organisations in my constituency, drawing my attention to the problems referred to in the Select Committee report and to the shortcomings of the present system of regulation with regard to flood plain development.
The matter has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions, at my constituency surgery, during visits around my constituency and in letters. Only recently, Mrs. Margaret Pye of the West Barnes ward has been in correspondence with me in regard to two specific applications that seem to be about to get the go-ahead from Merton council in areas of my constituency that are liable to flooding. Mrs. Jill Truman of the West Barnes and Raynes Park residents association and the many hundreds of households that her organisation represents have been in correspondence with me for a long time about those issues. I have also heard from the planning committee of the Wimbledon Society and its secretary, 583 Mrs. Pat Keith, and Leonard Mostyn, the chairman of the Wimbledon Union of Residents Associations that brings together about 30 residents associations in my constituency.
My constituents and their organisations are worried about the fact that the Environment Agency apparently has inadequate powers in relation to planning applications. My constituents see the Environment Agency as a body that will take proper account of the relevant environmental issues in relation to planning, but they want to know that its view and any assessment that it makes, which they believe has a great deal of credibility, should have more effect and not just be overridden or ignored by the planning authorities. Perhaps my constituents and their organisations in Wimbledon will take heart from the results of the Select Committee inquiry into the work of the Environment Agency. They will see from the conclusions of the report, which reflected those of a similar report by the Select Committee on Agriculture on the work of the agency, that there is a need for local planning authorities to take much fuller account of the agency's advice in respect of flood plain developments.
My constituents will also ask, as do the reports, for much greater weight to be given to the Environment Agency's assessments by the planning inspectorate and the Secretary of State when planning applications are called in for appeal. If the Environment Agency's warnings that flood plain developments should not go ahead because of the flood risk are ignored or overridden at the initial planning stage, it should be possible for the planning inspectorate and the Secretary of State to take much fuller account of those representations at the appeal stage.
In both these respects, my constituents will share the Environment Agency's concerns about the recent actions of my local council of Merton. It continues to permit flood plain developments even on sites in which the council has an interest and could itself decide that it will not develop there rather than just resisting the attempts by private developers to develop the site. The agency advises against such developments, not only because of a risk of flooding on those developments but because, if allowed to go ahead, they will often pose a risk of flooding elsewhere.
We know from recent events just how much disruption and misery flooding can cause families, businesses and communities right across the country. Many of the losses caused by flooding are irreplaceable; much of the damage and trauma is irreparable. Perhaps that is why one of the Select Committee witnesses said that such flood plain developments were often nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen.
Planning authorities must take a number of factors into account when assessing individual applications. I am not arguing that they should take into account only environmental considerations and the risk of flooding—clearly, they must take a wider view. In coming to a decision, however, they should be made to take much greater account of the Environment Agency's view. It is not simply that the risk of flooding and the damage it causes is so serious—it is clear from the report that the Environment Agency does very valuable work in itself, as those of us who have come into contact with it know. 584 Its assessments are not scaremongering but have a sound scientific and factual foundation and are often proved to be right.
I would not go so far as to argue that the Environment Agency should have an effective veto on all developments, but its role, its voice and its reports need to be taken more into account. The role of the Environment Agency in considering local planning applications needs beefing up. The agency needs to be given greater powers—it needs more teeth. Let me give some practical examples of what I mean by that.
Where developments are permitted against the advice of the agency, I believe that there should be a duty on the developer to put proper flood protection measures in place. Even if the development is to go ahead and the advice of the agency not to allow it is not followed, at least the risk of flooding that the agency has drawn attention to should be taken into account by the planning authorities. The Environment Agency should be given powers to impose a duty on developers to put measures in place to reduce that risk. That would be an example of a practical power that could be given to the Environment Agency so that some of its work would be reflected in the final outcome. If a development were allowed to go ahead despite the risk, at least that risk could be mitigated to some extent. The cost of putting in place proper measures on flood protection should be borne by the developer.
Similarly, there should be provision for an urban drainage system, and perhaps some drainage measures will need to be strengthened if particular developments are allowed to go ahead. Again, the cost of that should be borne by the developer, and the Environment Agency should have power to recommend that extra measures are taken. Planning authorities should be able to make acceptance of planning applications conditional on such provision being made.
A full technical investigation of the extent of the flood risk, to which the Environment Agency will have drawn attention, should be carried out in the area where the development is taking place, as well as further afield where flood risk may increase as a result of the development. Those who seek to build on flood plains and those who permit such developments should recognise that they do so at risk not only to themselves but to those in other areas who may be put at increased risk of flooding. Risks to others should be properly assessed, and the cost of measures to mitigate those risks should be borne by the developers. I hope that the Government will draw that conclusion from the Select Committee report.
Finally, I return to the work and representations of my constituents and the organisations in my constituency that I mentioned earlier. We should never underestimate the value of such representations, which should be given greater weight in planning matters, especially in relation to developments on flood plains.
Often, the real experts on the benign effects, or otherwise, of developments are local people themselves. Local residents are the ones who have to live with those developments and suffer the damage caused by flooding. Sustainable development must mean development that is sustainable for the local community, residents and people who live on the doorstep of new developments. Local residents often have to live with the consequences of any such development. Local people also have detailed local knowledge and experience, often going back years and 585 decades, of potential risks in their area, not least the risk of flooding. We need to do more to tap into that knowledge which, together with the will and interests of local people, must become much more part of the decision-making process.
We should listen to residents and their representatives much more and involve them in decision making, as organisations such as the Wimbledon Civic Forum in my constituency have sought to do. We should empower local people by giving them access to the information that they need to make an informed judgment on these matters. In that connection, I strongly advise the Government to allow the Environment Agency to publish its flood maps on the internet. The public should be able to have direct access to information on the degree of flood risk. Steps should also be taken to make known to the public which buildings in a given area are at particular risk from flooding, perhaps by means of a plaque or sign on the wall.
In the aftermath of the severe floods across Britain, the Environment Agency will, at the request of the Government, conduct a review of lessons learned. I hope that the Government will act on that review, learn the lessons of the floods and, in doing so, respond as positively as they can to the Select Committee report and the representations of my constituents, the organisations that I have mentioned and many others. I hope that they will tighten the planning process with regard to flood plain developments and give local people the information that they need to be properly aware of flood risk. I hope that they will give the Environment Agency the powers that it needs to reduce such risks effectively.
§ Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
This is my first opportunity to offer you my congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker, although they may be rather passé by now. However, I offer them all the same.
The Opposition welcome this comprehensive report, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on his chairmanship of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. The report was, as he said, published more than six months ago, in May. It is a shame that the House has not had the opportunity to debate its contents before now, especially as the subject has taken on a new importance in the light of the recent floods. Many lessons might have been learned before those floods took place. I presume that that is why the Minister with responsibility for flooding and coastal defences, who represents the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is handling the debate, rather than the Minister more directly responsible for the Environment Agency.
The debate has been interesting and wide ranging, and it has afforded hon. Members the opportunity to take us round the world on a variety of subjects including tyre shredding, outdoor pigs, the hazards of Italian drinking water and an end-use directive on chewing gum, promulgated by the Chairman of the Select Committee. We also witnessed a learned delivery on agricultural land use by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who betrayed himself by the rather lofty intellectual nimbyism of supporting the idea of any authority dealing with his constituents' waste—so long as it was not his own authority.
586 The debate also afforded the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) the opportunity to trip deftly through his electoral roll. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) raised interesting points about the importance of design when building on flood plains, and the possibility of incorporating different kinds of rubbish disposal facilities into the design of new houses. He gave the example of what happens in Bromley and Chislehurst, which was apposite because I am sure that the only reason why my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not present today—as he usually is on a Friday morning—is that he is a regular devotee of the Bromley and Chislehurst bottle bank and composting depot. Indeed, I am sure that he is there now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent also touched on the subject of abandoned cars. I hope that the rural White Paper that we may discuss on Tuesday will address that issue, and respond to some of the proposals put forward by the Conservative environmental team during the summer, about distinguishing between the roles of the police and the local authorities in dealing with abandoned cars and allowing the retention of fines of fines locally to address the problem. We wait with great keenness to hear what the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will have to say about that.
On the report, let me start by saying that the Environment Agency is a good thing. We all agree that it was right to set up an integrated environmental body, formed out of the former National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and 83 other waste regulation bodies. At the time, the creation of the Environment Agency was described as one of the most complex tasks in recent public and private sector history. However, it was skilfully guided through the House, although hon. Members did not give him much credit for it this morning, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)—who has now left to attend an event in his constituency. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he was widely acclaimed as a champion of environmental issues, and he retains that reputation.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the ugly phrase "matrix management", for which we await a real definition. A different sort of matrix has come to haunt us today. It was slightly opportunistic of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) to apportion so much blame to my right hon. Friend for any shortcomings that the report attributes to the Environment Agency, and to fly kites, when my right hon. Friend was no longer here to respond, about possible privatisation fears, on which he was unable to elaborate. My right hon. Friend was in charge of the agency for one year and one month, whereas the Government and the DETR have been in charge of the Environment Agency for more than three and a half years, and have had opportunities before now to bring in changes if they thought them necessary.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the details behind my comments are on the Hansard record of when we debated the legislation. We supported the principle of the legislation, but our questions about the details were not answered by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. I consider my 587 criticism justified, although it is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman is not still here. However, the matters to which I referred can be read about in Hansard.
§ Mr. Loughton
The Environment Agency is a large creature and it is not inconceivable that certain of its activities may not be exclusively handled by full-time employees of the agency, which carries out some form of contracting out or privatisation. The Government may wish to look at that matter in future if they are to institute reform or improvement of the way in which the agency is run.
§ Mr. Bennett
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal said that he would like the Environment Agency staff to be reduced from 11,000 to about 5,000. In that downsizing exercise, one of the issues would be how far the rivers work could be contracted out. During the recent floods, the full-time employees have put in a phenomenal amount of work, and it is not particularly good for their morale to talk about downsizing. Also, there is a difference between getting one's own staff to put in phenomenal hours to deal with a problem, and getting contractors to do the same.
§ Mr. Loughton
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I do not take a view on it, one way or the other. I do not necessarily agree that people who would work beyond their normal hours in an emergency are exclusively those who work for a public agency; that happens in many other contracted-out activities. People are contracted to do a job of work; it is then up to them to make sure that the job is done. If it is not, they will be penalised or sacked. We may continue that debate in the future.
I shall refer later to the Select Committee's comments about morale and other matters. If those involved are to justify some of their charging structures, for example, they need to offer a speedier and more efficient service in many areas. I am sure that that can be achieved through a multitude of different solutions.
It is widely accepted that a joined-up, coherent and effective environment regulator is a necessary and desirable goal. That is not at issue. I am a member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit and our work has focused similarly on the genuineness of the greening of Government across all Departments, and on encouraging an integrated environmental appraisal in practice, not just in pledges and ministerial soundbites.
Three and a half years on, it is right that the House should have the opportunity, through the Select Committee report, to assess whether sufficient progress has been achieved towards the aspirations and goals set for this not inconsiderable agency, which employs about 10,000 people and has a budget of £623 million, and whether it is discharging its functions as defined in the Environment Act 1995.
The Act described the main purpose of the agency asso to protect or enhance the environment, taken as a whole, as to make the contribution—that Ministers consider appropriate—towards attaining the objective of achieving sustainable development.I do not take issue with that. However, in that context, it is pertinent to assess the changes that might have occurred in what Ministers deem to be environmentally appropriate.
588 The report confirms the perception that the Environment Agency has not lived up to those expectations—certainly not to those that say that it should come together as a coherent and integrated one-stop shop. That criticism is fair, although we appreciate that much has been achieved in some areas; of course, too little has been achieved in others.
The agency has failed to assert its credentials—its raison d'être—in the public consciousness. The public does not know why it exists—with the overriding exception, perhaps, of its appearance in a crisis management role during recent and previous floods, responding to events rather than pre-empting them. As one witness to the Committee states:practical implementation of the theory is confused and confusing for those whom the Agency is supposed to assist.The report notes thatthe Agency is currently "punching below its weight".A CBI survey concluded that that there was alack of functional integration… They have to pay more attention to making sure that the individual bits of the Agency work together, work cohesively.The Wildlife Trusts commented:there is a lack of cross-functional working in the Agency and this is hindering delivery of its core objectives.The Select Committee itself concluded that the agencyis responsible for implementing a large number of different pieces of legislation, many of which are themselves not conducive to integrated implementation.At that point, I did a double-take, because the report could have been describing the whole Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I shall be interested in the Committee's comments in its next annual report on DETR' s effectiveness in bringing together such wide and disparate roles.
The Committee's report accused the agency offollowing the debate, not leading it.Another witness said:At the moment I think we see the Agency very much looking towards the Government, trying constantly to please the Government and failing often, but not quite having the confidence in itself to stand up and say, "We think this is the right thing to do for sustainable development.That latter point is all the more worrying, given recent appointments at the head of the agency. Sir John Harman, a former Labour leader of a metropolitan borough and the author of the environment pledges in Labour's election manifesto, and Baroness Young, who takes the Labour Whip in another place, are immensely talented individuals with not impertinent credentials for their jobs.
However, there is a potentially worrying hint of cronyism—hardly allayed by the evidence of the Minister for the Environment to the Select Committee. He gave the thinly veiled caution:I would not expect the Chairman of the Agency to make an outright attack on the Government.Why not? If the agency is to be respected as a centre of excellence in environmental regulation, promoting sustainable development, with public funds of £623 million at its disposal and 10,000 public servants working for it—enabling it to research the environmental cause and effect of public policy or industrial practice—surely it should be given free rein to speak its mind if the evidence supports such a stance.
§ Mr. Rowe
My hon. Friend had left the Chamber when I pointed out that the Government's response to the report 589 noted that if there were a disagreement between the agency and the Government, they would expect that to be discussed before the agency went public. We are all aware of the extent to which Governments can twist arms.
§ Mr. Loughton
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point; he is right.
I do not see what the problem is. If we are to respect the agency for the objectives that we set for it, our aim should not be to muzzle it. Whatever twist of language the Government use, what they have been talking about constitutes muzzling.
The Select Committee on Environmental Audit, on which I serve, has certainly not shied away from publishing damning reports, even with its in-built Labour majority, in its role of scrutinising Government policy across Departments. That has proved to be one of its strengths, and long may it continue.
I shall deal with some of the specific criticisms in the report. It refers to allowing the agency to regulate industries in a more flexible way on a sector or cross-sector basis, or companies on a company-wide basis. That has merits because one-size-fits-all regulation is often not appropriate, especially if it does not acknowledge existing best practice in certain areas. It has merits especially as—however much we might object—the Chancellor of Exchequer is considering exemptions and agreements for reductions, on an industry-by-industry basis, when he eventually applies the energy tax if the agreements are reached by the next financial year. Such proposals would fit that type of regulation.
The second criticism is about what I call the "not me guy" mentality, to which the report refers. The report queries the responsibilities of different sections of the agency. There is precious little co-operation between relevant departments, and matters are pushed around from one department to the other. The Committee comments that perhaps the agency should create a team of specialists in particular fields, who are easily identifiable by their customer base. That is a strong recommendation.
There is cross-cutting across local authority boundaries. A great deal of waste and a lack of accessibility is caused by dealing with so many different departments, all with a degree of overlap. The agency is not so much a one-stop shop as a multi-shop department store spread across many sites.
Another point, which is not made in any great detail in the report, is that £108 million—almost a fifth—of the Environment Agency's budget, which is now up to £623 million, is spent on administration and a further £13.5 million on pensions, compared with the £156 million that is spent on capital expenditure and investment. That suggests that we are not getting value for money, given the cost of administration compared with that of delivering serious results, the capital spend and the investment in environmental control. Perhaps the Committee will return to that point, because it was not dealt with in much detail.
Another criticism involves the management, staff and charging structures. Having worked with the Environment Agency, the south-east area office of which is based at Worthing on the edge my constituency, I agree that it has a fully committed staff. I have nothing but praise for the way in which the people with whom I have dealt at the agency have executed their functions, especially during the recent 590 flooding problems, which we have experienced so badly in my part of the world. However, low morale is certainly an issue, and high staff turnover can only decrease the agency's effectiveness.
Perhaps the familiar idea of the poacher and the gamekeeper applies. Much more attractive financial rewards are available in the private sector, which is trying to recruit people to avoid being hit by the regulators. A good analogy is the financial services world, which I know well, where, because of the growth in regulation—some would say over-regulation—there is a shortage of qualified staff. People can virtually name their own price, as individual private firms bid for them so strongly, leaving many vacancies in the official regulator. When trained, its staff tend to leave and enter private practice. That problem needs to be addressed.
We need to look at the management structures—not least at this matrix management business—but not at the expense of simply jacking up the charges for the regulated customers, particularly as the standard and speed of service often leaves a lot to be desired, as the report states. We need to be able to offer value for money. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, there is a simple formula by which the Environment Agency's charges cover its costs. If its costs go up, so do the charges. That is no incentive in terms of the charges that it can levy, which people have to pay.
I like the idea of incentive charging. Again, we have lessons to learn from the world of financial services, in which firms that have earned a good reputation for compliance and customer service are inspected less regularly, although they will still suffer the full rigours of the disciplinary process if they commit a misdemeanour.
That fits in well with the vision of the agency's new chairman, whose consultation document says that the agency will rightly be assessed by the lack of need to take enforcement action, not simply according to the frequency with which inspections take place. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal made that point, which I strongly support.
I am slightly unclear about the report's intentions regarding penalties for offenders. At one point, it refers to the naming of offenders as a "hall of fame" exercise and to a "serious lack of judgment" and "seeking cheap publicity", but then it says that the Committee is very much in favour of the concept of naming and shaming. There seems to be a slight contradiction.
§ Mr. Bennett
If we are going to name and shame, we have to get it right, so that the shame sticks and it is not possible for someone to shuffle it off by saying that the statistics were not right or we made this or that mistake. If it is to be done, it has to be done well. We wanted to ensure that it was done right the first time.
§ Mr. Loughton
I completely agree with that sentiment. The report seemed somewhat ambiguous, but if that is the intention, I would welcome any practical proposals on how we can make that happen.
Many of us are frustrated about the inadequate level of fines that have been meted out up to now. It is patently absurd that a company can save hundreds of thousands of pounds by short circuiting proper waste disposal, taking a 591 calculated decision that it will at worst face a fine of about £20,000, if it gets caught, the chances of which are not high in any case.
The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about the possibility of referring cases to the Crown court, where fines can be greater, is certainly worthy of further consideration. If we are serious about environmental regulation, we must have serious financial penalties available for serious misdemeanours, balanced with a lighter regulatory hand on the majority of institutions that, to coin a phrase, do their bit. We must also make it as straightforward and as affordable as possible to comply with the regulations in the first place.
People from my local Environment Agency office have been conducting "stinging" operations. They engaged six different firms to dispose of six different piles of rubbish, which had been marked. I was appalled to learn that only one of the firms disposed of the rubbish in a legal and environmentally acceptable way. The other five fly-tipped it, dumped it elsewhere or inappropriately put it with other rubbish. Prosecutions are now being pursued against those firms, and quite rightly so. They should have the book thrown at them.
One of the worst infringements occurring at present is dumping and fly tipping, which has certainly increased since the introduction of the landfill tax, although I am fully in agreement with that tax and believe that we must pursue serious reprisals against those who try to get round it. Our environmental police may not wear uniforms, but their effectiveness as an environmental law enforcement body can only be enhanced by their being clearly identifiable as a determined and effective deterrent, not afraid to pursue offenders. With the help of the courts, we hope that they will be able to get a result.
I welcome the report's praise for the agency's improved transparency and accessibility: its open board meetings; the fact that it was the first Government agency to hold an annual general meeting for the public; the availability of information on its website; and especially the availability of flood mapping through that site in the near future, which can only be a good thing. I am concerned, however, about the report's recommendation:It is important that the Agency recognise that Regional Development Agencies are here to stay.Given the Conservative party's stance on regional development agencies, the Chairman of the Committee may not be surprised by my view. When the Deputy Prime Minister was quizzed by the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, he admitted that an RDA's top priority is the economic generation of its area and that environmental sustainability came very low down the pecking order—it seemed to be raised as an afterthought in Committee. Regional boundaries are perhaps even less a respecter of nature's landscape in this country than are local authority boundaries.
The main issue, which has been mentioned by just about every hon. Member who has spoken today, is flooding. I reiterate the praise given to Environment Agency staff, who worked like Trojans during the recent crisis. They worked particularly hard in Sussex, my part of the world, where Peter Midgely—the head of the local agency which is based in Worthing—has appeared in just about every news bulletin about the local floods. He looks 592 increasingly stressed, tired and overwhelmed, but he and his staff have coped incredibly well. I am sure that he will reintroduce himself to his family when the flood waters have gone down. His area includes Lewes, Uckfield, Robertsbridge, Selsey and Chichester, all of which were particularly hard hit. I know that the Minister, who visited many of those sites—
§ Mr. Loughton
Yes, the Minister visited all of them, as I did. We know only too well how hard those places were hit. The hard work of the agency, and its close co-operation with emergency services and West Sussex county council saved the historic heart of Chichester from going under water. They laid 13 miles of pipes to divert water away from the city centre and that, touch wood—or touch Dispatch Box—seems to have worked thus far.
§ Mr. Rowe
My hon. Friend mentioned West Sussex county council. In those areas that were subject to serious floods—Maidstone borough council, for example—local authority staff in many ways matched the Environment Agency staff in their devotion to duty and the assiduity with which they carried people about and provided services.
§ Mr. Loughton
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I fear that this part of my speech may become a Thomas Cook's tour of various local authorities and agency staff, all of whom deserve our praise. In my constituency, Shoreham is very prone to flooding and the whole town was within inches of going under. It was saved only by the coastal defence work that the agency carried out, which has worked up to now, although not quite as much has been done as we should like.
I introduce one point of criticism—the Government's folly in slashing West Sussex county council's emergency budget. The Home Office cut our emergency planning budget by 31 per cent. It was only because the county council decided that the budget simply could not be reduced below current levels without endangering West Sussex residents that it—or council tax payers—picked up the tab for the difference. We retained spending at previous levels.
§ Mr. Morley
I want to respond to that point, in case I do not deal with it in my reply. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Home Office budget was originally designed for civil defence purposes during the cold war. Given that we are no longer under the threat of nuclear war, it is not unreasonable to review the budget. Of course, we now face other dangers, such as the floods, which seem to have occurred much more regularly. My colleagues in the Home Office are giving thought to the budget's future role.
§ Mr. Loughton
I am relieved to hear that and I hope the Minister will impose his thoughts on the Home Office because, in the words of the leader of West Sussex county council,If we had not put this additional money into emergency planning—it was taken away by the Home Office—the current situation would have been almost hopeless in coping with the flooding.593 The money was important. The amount might have been relatively small, but it was large in percentage terms, and that had a big impact.
The big question is whether more preventive work could have been done and where blame can—if at all—be constructively apportioned for recent flooding disasters. I think hon. Members received a letter last week from Sir John Harman at the Environment Agency in which he rather nonchalantly stated thatall the lessons learned from previous events have been implemented.That is worrying because if that is as good as it gets then places such as Lewes, York and Yalding face bleak futures.
We cannot accept that the Environment Agency has gone far enough. It is possible that it has not been allowed to go far enough, or has not been given the resources to go far enough, to respond to the comprehensive criticisms made in the excellent independent review team report by Peter Bye and Dr. Michael Homer after the 1998 flooding in the midlands. The report said that such floodshad not been experienced in living memory in many places—until recently, of course. It also revealedInstances of unsatisfactory planning, inadequate warnings for the public, incomplete defences, and poor co-ordination with emergency services, that fell short of the Agency's own demanding performance standards.The Minister is well aware of that report. Indeed, he commissioned and responded to it a couple of years ago.
There is evidence that various improvements have come on stream and are working. The new warning system, which I helped the Environment Agency to launch in Worthing in the summer, is in place and has worked exceedingly well. Most people who watch news reports now understand what the flood warnings mean. They do not need to have water on their doorstep to appreciate them. That is a vast improvement, as is the accessibility of mapping.
The problem is that the agency is perceived as having wider-ranging responsibilities than it performs or is likely to be resourced to undertake, and I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that these criticisms are justified. There are still problems of split responsibility with other bodies, which was especially true of the sewerage authorities after the sewerage agreement between water companies and local authorities in which the demarcation of their roles and responsibilities vis-àvis the Environment Agency was not made clear.
Is there a consistent approach across the country based on best practice and including greater liaison between neighbouring local authority areas on developing flood threats close to common boundaries? Have the mechanics for the principle of a series of escalating safeguards, which were built into the flood monitoring procedures, been put in place, as recommended in the independent report? Has the Environment Agency addressed the problem revealed by the 1998 floods when insufficient rainfall information masked the severity of the event and flow measuring stations, not designed for flood monitoring, were literally overwhelmed?
In light of recent events, has the agency reassessed the annual probability of the Easter 1998 floods, which was thought at the time to be as low as 0.7 to 1 per cent.—a return period of between 100 and 150 years? Is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds justified in its 594 criticisms that the agency's approach to flood defence needs to be much more integrated with its other responsibilities such as managing water supplies and that regional flood defence committees had been a barrier to integrated thinking? All those questions still arise. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed now, or later, whether they have been fully taken on board.
A key consideration—perhaps most relevant to comments made today—remains the failure to integrate the flood defence requirements with the planning system. That is presumably why the Minister for Housing and Planning was this week summoned, together with the Environment Agency, before the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. News that the new planning guidance on building in flood risk areas is to be postponed is worrying. Undoubtedly, building on flood plains contributed to recent floods. Massive further house building on the scale that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to impose on the south-east in particular can only massively increase vulnerability.
How many homes have been built in dangerous areas? How many more will have to be built oil flood plains if the Government insist on sticking to their targets? How much extra will have to be spent on providing defences against flooding if we continue building houses in the wrong places?
§ Mr. Bennett
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the term "postponed" is a little misused in this context, in that the original hope was that the regulations would be out in December, but the Minister for Housing and Planning is now telling us that they will be published in mid-January? Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that anyone making a planning decision must take into account not only planning policy guidance but ministerial statements? The statement that the Minister made at the start of the Select Committee hearing was very useful and should be taken into account by anyone arriving at a planning decision.
§ Mr. Loughton
I will come to the issue of ministerial statements because, if anything, they add to the confusion.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire mentioned that between 950,000 and 1.2 million homes are in risk areas—particularly in London, which, proportionately, has the largest number, and in the south-east, where there has been most development. An area the size of Greater London has been developed since the war in the south-east of England. That amount of green land has been lost to development—double the average of any other region of the United Kingdom. That, of course, has serious implications for people gaining insurance for their properties, and potential implications for the value of those properties.
Yesterday, to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, we had conflicting news. Following his walk along the polders in Holland, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said that he was considering powers to veto developments on flood plains. That is fine. Perceptively, he proclaimed, according to the Financial Times:The areas that flood will be flood plains.At the same time, yesterday's papers carried stories that next week's long-awaited rural White Paper will include plans to remove the right of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to veto building on prime farmland, 595 opening the way for extensive development on flood plains. That is crazy. Has he learned the lesson of recent flooding, or not? Is the role of the Environment Agency to be strengthened or overridden by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Secretary of State?
The Environment Agency, in its response to the independent report, stated unequivocally thatin seeking to minimise the potential damage caused by flooding, we will continue to defend vigorously our advice to planning authorities to prevent inappropriate development adding to the problem of flooding.That is quite right; I agree.
§ Mr. Bennett
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the key word is "inappropriate"? In describing the flood plain to the Select Committee, the Minister gave us a map of the Thames, and on that the House of Commons is shown to be on the flood plain. The House of Commons is not necessarily in danger of flooding unless we take away the Thames barrier. So, some places on the flood plain are protected. As long as that protection remains, there is no risk to buildings on it.
§ Mr. Loughton
I do not disagree with some of the hon. Gentleman's points, but we are not talking about every inch of every flood plain. The word "inappropriate" is right in that context. Patently, the policy has not worked up to now. The advice that the Environment Agency has given has in many cases not been heeded, or, if it has been heeded, it has simply not worked.
I was brought up and went to school in Lewes, so I know it well, but when I visited the town, some parts of it that I saw under water were unrecognisable. I saw some new social housing, built, in the past couple of years, within feet of the River Ouse on a level that is lower than the top of the bank of the Ouse, which is well known for flooding. The houses have little driveways for parking cars that slope down toward the houses from the central road running through the estate, which acts as a neat conduit to bring flood waters straight down into the front rooms of those houses.
Those houses have been built in the past few years, with or without the advice of the Environment Agency ignored or not by the local authority and obviously not overridden on appeal or by the Secretary of State. Can the Minister honestly say that he is happy with the post-1998 improvements? Why has so much Environment Agency advice to planning authorities been ignored? Does it come down to lack of resources, lack of proper management, or lack of support from the Government? Is the agency's role in advising on planning for developments on flood plains to be strengthened, or taken away altogether? Will Environment Agency advice be given far greater weight by the planning inspectorate in appeals? Those are legitimate questions arising from the Select Committee report and from the flooding that has affected so much of our country in recent weeks.
The report has made a useful contribution to the way in which we will police our environment in future. It highlights how the Environment Agency must be given an important role in that effort and the Government must support it if the agency is to be taken seriously. I look 596 forward to hearing a constructive response from the Minister and an assurance that the many criticisms that have been levelled will be addressed urgently. I hope that if legislation is required to improve matters, he will press forcefully for it. The ball is in the Government's court. I now ask the Minister to respond——[Interruption.]—although it appears that we might have an additional response from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)
I welcome the opportunity to debate the report and I am pleased to be here in my capacity as Minister with responsibility for flooding and coastal defence. My presence here demonstrates something that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will be pleased to see in action: that we as a Government work together; our Departments co-ordinate with each other. The fact that I can speak on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on some issues and Ministers at that Department can speak on some issues relating to agriculture demonstrates that we are developing a more joined-up, integrated approach to environmental matters.
I shall try to go through the points made in the debate, especially those made by my hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, which has done an excellent job. I have always been a supporter of Select Committees and I served on one—the Select Committee on Agriculture—after I was first elected in 1987. Select Committees do influence Governments. Much of the report being debated today is good and well argued and it will influence the Government's course of action in future.
I believe that the Environment Agency is developing a clear identity and role. That takes time. The Environment Agency brought together a wide range of different organisations-85 in all—and to weld them together in a single form is quite a job, but I believe that the agency is succeeding. The agency has a new chairman, Sir John Harman and will have a new chief executive, Baroness Young of Old Scone. I was slightly disappointed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), who levelled mild criticism at those appointments on the grounds of the Labour party connections of the people appointed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those two are highly independent individuals. In the Government's dealings with Baroness Young in her former role as chairman of English Nature, we learned that she pulled no punches when defending the interests of the body she represented and furthering the interests of nature conservation. I am sure that that will be a formidable team, who will make sure that the Environment Agency fulfils its role as a Government adviser and carries out its obligations in relation to the environment, waste management and the supervision of emissions.
On waste and supervision, I recognise my hon. Friend's point about risk assessment. That is becoming a more common aspect of regulation. I also appreciated my hon. Friend's comments about tyres and the related problems. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) spoke at length about tyres. I have some sympathy with those views, as I have in my constituency a situation similar to that outlined by the right hon. Gentleman.
597 Someone took over a disused airfield and began to store car tyres there, in breach of planning permission. The local council, the former Glanford borough council, gave retrospective planning permission, which I thought was not a great idea, but by then there was a huge mound of tyres and the situation was getting out of control. The company concerned made all sorts of promises and asked for all sorts of grants to deal with the problem. In the end, it declared itself bankrupt and cleared off, leaving a gigantic mountain of tyres on the airfield, which threatened adjacent villages.
Hon. Members may be interested to know that many of the car tyres from that site have been used by the local council. One of the uses for them is to line landfill sites. I understand that that is also helpful in the collection of methane gas which, in the case of my local authority, is collected and burned in a power station to produce electricity. That seems an environmentally friendly method of dealing with it. Bus and lorry tyres are much more difficult to dispose of, and I know that the agency is working towards a strategy for dealing with tyres, which should be in place by 2002.
I understand the point about naming and shaming. My hon. Friend explained the Committee's thinking, and I believe that there is a role for naming and shaming but, as he rightly said, it must be based on sound criteria. I agree with him about the level of fines. There has been some disappointment about the level of fines for some major pollution incidents, not least the tanker incident that took place off south Wales.
Although that is a matter for the courts, which are independent, it has been made clear to them that we expect environmental pollution offences to be dealt with strictly and with appropriate fines. Many cases involve multinational companies, which can afford to pay fines. The fine must be substantial if it is to be effective. I know that the Departments of Trade and Industry and of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are examining the matter of company regulation and the associated costs.
With regard to waste and local authority links, the agency is developing a strategy for waste management and preparing for the implementation of the landfill directive. By 2002, 90 per cent. of sites will be classified, so progress is being made.
Fly tipping is a major problem for any urban or fringe area. Some of my local farmers and landowners have great difficulty with that. There is no definitive evidence that fly tipping is linked with the landfill tax but, no matter what the reason for it, the Environment Agency has an important role in dealing with it, working with local authorities.
I accept the point about the end-use directive and the way that it will apply to the recycling of cars. The House may be interested in research that MAFF is doing to promote industrial crops. Some fibre crops can be used to make dashboards and interior panels for cars, so in future, in addition to recycling the metal, we may be able to compost other car components. That would certainly be a green way of dealing with them.
My hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) mentioned planning, which is a key issue. Over the years, bad decisions have been made about flood plains. The Environment Agency has produced flood risk maps, which are a great advantage. They were one of the high 598 level targets that were set after the Bye report. I understand that the flood risk maps that have already been circulated to local authorities will be available on the internet in December. People can thus access them on the internet, identify their exact area and the way in which the flood risk maps apply.
Planning policy guidance 25 will be reviewed in the light of the recent floods and the appearance of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning before the Select Committee. Some of the comments that were made at that meeting will influence the method of introducing the proposal. The guidance will be sharpened and take note of the recent floods. As my hon. Friend said, we intend to introduce it in January. It will therefore not be greatly delayed, but it is important that it takes the points that I mentioned into account.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a point on new development. I caution the Opposition not to get too excited about future development. Of course we acknowledge that it is important. However, it would be a mistake to adopt a predict and provide approach and say, "You can't at any time, under any circumstances, have any sort of development on a flood plain." Such an approach is unnecessary; each application should be judged on merit, and planning policy guidance 25 recommends that. Some developments should be refused because they are inappropriate or should not happen in a specific area; others may be satisfactory. Some may require flood mitigation measures. In those cases, the developers may have to pay for them. That is not unreasonable.
Let me deal with the policy of best and most versatile land, which will be addressed in the rural White Paper. I have already read some press reports about it. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food deals with that policy, but it has never been effective. MAFF has requested a public inquiry under its intervention powers only once; that has happened since I have been Parliamentary Secretary. Our objections on grounds of best and most versatile land did not make any difference; the policy does not work. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about retaining it. However, that could have the opposite effect to that desired by the hon. Gentleman.
Under current regulations, MAFF can intervene on grade 1 and 2 land if it is up for development. We can hold up the process and request a public inquiry. That could mean that development is directed towards lower-grade agricultural land, which is less appropriate for the purpose. Development on higher-grade agricultural land, which may be better for the purpose, could be delayed. Again, we return to the point about treating issues on their individual merit. Changing the regulations on best and most versatile land will not mean opening up agricultural or greenbelt land to some new form of development.
§ Mr. Loughton
Surely the Parliamentary Secretary cannot dispute that, if the regulations are relaxed, the only possible result is that more land is available for development in the countryside.
§ Mr. Morley
Absolutely not. I stress that development remains covered by normal planning conditions. Although we shall ask planning committees to take agricultural 599 grading into account, decisions about whether land will be developed, whatever its grade, will not mean that more land is available for development. Individual cases will go through normal procedures when they are considered by the planning authority, within the guidelines that planning policy guidance provides. It is a sensible approach. Some lower-grade agricultural land can, in some circumstances, have higher biodiversity and environmental benefits than some better-quality land which has been intensively farmed and has low environmental benefits. In some instances, developments on better-quality, intensively fanned land is less damaging than developments on poor-quality land.
§ Mr. Loughton
I hope that that is the result of what the hon. Gentleman says. However, the fact that he has unofficially made a statement—it seems that it will be an official statement—will have an impact on planning authorities, which can only surmise that more development is acceptable. Opening up land for development sends out a signal that more development is more acceptable now than it was previously.
§ Mr. Morley
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand planning law. There will not be the slightest difference. The planning procedures will continue to apply. There have already been some slight changes to the regulation. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the White Paper, which will set out the full details. The current situation has not made the slightest difference to planning applications. There is logic in planning applications being based on individual issues, and there has been no change in that regard. Extra land is not coming on to the market. Much will depend on structure plans and planning authorities, as it does now. Any changes in procedures will not make extra farm land or greenbelt land available for development. I put that on the record because I am sure that there will be further discussion of these matters.
Abstraction licences are a big issue, and agriculture is involved. I have discussed it with many organisations. Ironically, although we have had the wettest autumn since records began, generally speaking there have been problems with long-term water management, which is another big issue. We must think about abstraction in terms of domestic users, industrial users and agricultural users. In due course a draft water Bill will be brought forward. The Environment Agency will be drawing up catchment area management plans by April 2001. We want to make some progress.
I shall talk about floods in some detail. There are costs associated with flood defence and flood management. Another factor, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) touched upon, is changes in farming methods over the years. The Ministry has had a role in that it has provided grants for draining. It has encouraged the move away from grazing to a range of arable crops, and that has had an impact.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish asked about the environmental impact assessment from MAFF, which has been delayed since 1985. To be honest, it has been sat on for many reasons. However, I am glad to say that the assessment, in relation to ploughing up 600 natural and semi-natural grassland, is going ahead with the support of my right hon. Friend the Minister. The draft proposals will come out in the near future.
Other issues are increased run-off and building regulations. We need to think more about such things as water recycling in terms of building regulations and the impact of landscaping and balancing ponds. MAFF takes these issues seriously through its green buildings initiative, as part of the process of greening government with which the Green Ministers deal, and I am the MAFF Green Minister. We do so in relation to our own estates. The Central Science Laboratory, at York, which is a very new building, has a landscaped central pond that not only has enhanced the area, but is part of the water run-off catchment system, preventing that water from going into drains and ditches and adding to some of the problems that we have seen recently.
There have also been questions on today's announcement on buyer's packs for new house buyers. The proposal is, however, more of a legal issue and part of the Government's proposals to try to speed up house transactions. The buyer's pack would contain all the relevant legal documentation, which could be transferred quite quickly.
The packs are being trialled in one area before being used more widely, and could contain information such as whether a house is in a flood risk area. It has been suggested that energy ratings should be included in the packs, and I am sure that that could be considered. However, difficult issues such as how, and by whom, energy ratings are assessed would have to be addressed. Nevertheless, including energy ratings is not a bad idea, and it is certainly worth thinking about. The Environment Agency and the Law Society are in consultation on environmental information, including flood risk, that could be included in the packs.
Hon. Members have also raised the issue of insurance. I have recently had meetings, as have Treasury Ministers, with the Association of British Insurers, and I was asked whether the Government would share risk for properties in flood risk areas. However, we do not want to remove responsibility from insurance companies, which operate as a business and know and ascertain risk.
Nevertheless, the Government share risk with insurance companies in that we pay for flood defence and provide great sums for flood and coastal defence, thereby reducing risk and helping insurance companies to calculate premiums and to decide on which risks to take.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown that there are real problems with run-off from fields. A consequence of changes in agriculture, such as the switch to autumn sowing and much better field drainage, is that water can run off fields much more quickly. However, although those changes are an issue in flooding and run-off and need to be considered in investigating particular problems, they are not the only issue. We should not try to blame one particular group.
The Ministry of Agriculture produces soil codes for the agricultural industry that address issues such as run-off and the problems associated with mud slides, and we expect farmers to follow that guidance.
Other issues for the Environment Agency include the design of new houses. Additionally, houses that are subject to frequent flooding can be re-designed to be fairly resistant to flooding. This week, I was in Shrewsbury and 601 spoke to a resident whose home had been flooded on various occasions. It had been flooded in the recent floods, but the way in which the floors had been relaid, the walls re-plastered and—as mentioned today—the sockets moved up the wall made it look quite undamaged. Although she was drying out the room with a de-humidifier, she was confident that, once that was completed, there would be minimal damage to the room.
Such re-design, combined with better flood warning systems, can help many people whose homes are subject to frequent flooding. However, I am not pretending that re-design is the answer for everyone affected by flooding. Unlike most people, the woman to whom I spoke in Shrewsbury had an old house in a vulnerable area that had been flooded frequently.
I join hon. Members who have given great praise to the way in which the Environment Agency reacted to the recent floods. It is fair to say that many agency staff worked around the clock and showed great dedication. Staff from unaffected regions have been moved in to bolster staff in the affected regions. I have been round many of the control centres and talked to Environment Agency staff. Environment Agency staff—with all the other agencies and the local authorities that have all played an excellent role in dealing with the floods—deserve great credit for all that they have done. I am proud to be associated with the Environment Agency in my role as sponsoring Minister for the agency's flood-related operations. It has done a great job.
As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham quite rightly stated, part of that followed on from the Bye report. The Northampton floods illustrated a range of weaknesses and the Bye report was commissioned to address them. Peter Bye made a series of sensible recommendations which the Government are implementing. One was to upgrade the national flood warning system and in the past two years we have spent a lot of money on that. The success of that programme was demonstrated in the recent floods, where, by and large, warnings were given in plenty of time. The warning systems worked well and clearly there had been a great improvement.
The flood awareness programme was established in response to another recommendation and over the next 10 years we plan to spend £100 million on it. The Environment Agency has been putting leaflets through people's doors in flood risk areas, drawing attention to the fact that the area is at risk and advising on what response to take, and what the warning symbols meant. That was also very helpful. Following the Bye report, we also set new targets for emergency response exercises. Exercises were carried out in some areas during the summer and that also paid off during the recent floods.
We should put the issue into perspective. In the recent floods, 1.8 million homes were at risk and some 6,500 properties were flooded. I am not being complacent about that and it is not much consolation to the unfortunate people whose properties were flooded, but on the scale of risk and the number of properties at risk, the flood defences worked. We should not forget that many people were protected by the investment that had been made in flood defences over many years. I also pay tribute to my Ministry's flood and coastal division which made a technical assessment of the defences and worked very hard.
602 The Government have provided an extra £51 million for flood defences, on top of the rising spend. This year, we are spending about £400 million from all sources on flood and coast defence. Extra funds are being provided for catchment studies and on upgrading weather radar, to meet the point that was made about more accurate forecasting of rainfall. We have also increased the grant for river flood defences schemes by 20 per cent.
§ Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)
I thank the Minister for giving way and I apologise for having had to miss much of the debate as I was unavoidably detained elsewhere. I strongly agree with what he said about the superb work that the Environment Agency has put into defending many cities, including Chichester, in recent weeks. He also mentioned the extra investment that is being made available. Can he give any assurances that the review of the allocation of long-term funding will speed up the process whereby the project can be put under way? We knew about the problem in Chichester as long ago as 1994, when Chichester flooded. However, the scheme has still not been implemented. Can the Minister give us any assurance and encouragement?
§ Mr. Morley
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman encouragement. As he is probably aware, the 20 per cent. extra funding that we have announced will of course apply to Chichester, which has been given priority funding. Chichester would have received 45 per cent. capital funding from the Government and it will now receive 65 per cent. That will enable the scheme to be accelerated and it will certainly help the regional flood defence committee.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the only delay to the scheme in Chichester involves not funding but an objection to the compulsory purchase order, so it is a procedural delay. Once that delay is resolved, which I am sure that it will be, there is nothing to stop the scheme going ahead. It has planning permission and funding is available and I am sure that it will be a great relief to the people of Chichester.
When I visited Chichester with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I was most impressed by what the local council and the fire brigade were doing to pump water around the town centre to make sure that it was protected from flooding. Those temporary arrangements have worked well so far and I hope that they will continue to work through this winter until the scheme is put in place.
In relation to other points made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the Environment Agency is not a campaigning organisation, something that was recognised by the Select Committee. However, it should give a clear lead on environmental issues, and I am quite sure that it will do that. Under the new chairman, the agency is developing clear principles with regard to what it should be concentrating on and doing, and that will be a big advantage. The staff are working together; the agency's turnover is dropping, which is a good sign. Sustainability is a key issue for all departments, as I have mentioned. The Environment Agency will be going through its five-year cycle of financial management and policy review, and the terms of reference will be announced shortly. That will provide an opportunity to address some of the points made by right hon. and hon. Members.
603 The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal again gave his support for the Environment Agency. He mentioned matrix management. As I understand it, matrix management ensures that there is a clear line of management and one point of contact. So when people use the services of the Environment Agency, they have one point of contact rather than going through lots of different departments and being passed from pillar to post—something that is not unknown in Ministries or agencies. I understand the concept behind that, and I think that it is right.
Transparency of cost was mentioned in relation to the waste packaging regulations, and a case was made for incentive charges. They should be fair and transparent, and any such proposals should have to deliver clear overall benefit. That is the Government's view. We do not rule out the idea of ring-fencing funds. Of course, we have to weigh up the bureaucracy involved in relation to the benefits provided.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown mentioned the problems that he has with sewage outfall, and I will look at that carefully. I know that, in some cases, if it is felt appropriate, ultraviolet light treatment can be used to deal with bacteria.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal was absolutely right that there is a role for incineration. Issues such as air quality, emissions control and temperature are for the Environment Agency. Consents must be obtained for any kind of incineration. The Environment Agency can set those standards. With modern designs such as fluidised beds, there is better incineration: waste can be burnt at higher temperatures.
Of course, incineration is covered by the environment protection directives. Whether we like it or not, we need a whole range of options including more recycling and the need to reduce the amount of waste going into landfill. However, the need for some incineration will never be completely removed. In some cases, incineration may be the most appropriate method, so we need proper controls to protect the environment and adjacent residents. There are procedures for that. So we should not say that incineration should never be considered at any time for any thing. However, incinerators have to go somewhere, and I appreciate that, wherever they go, there will be some local resistance. That is an appropriate issue for local Members of Parliament to take up.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke about plastics in agriculture. There are guidelines for dealing with plastics; I know that the Environment Agency takes an interest in the appropriate use of plastics, as do we at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton raised some detailed questions about the Welbeck site in his constituency. I understand that, living, as I do, adjacent to a landfill site. No one can accuse me of being a NIMBY. It is a well-run landfill site. I was pleased to be invited to open the reverse osmosis digester—it was an important part of my role as the local Member of Parliament. The site also collects the methane and burns it in power stations. I opened that facility as well, and was pleased to see it introduced.
604 My hon. Friend also spoke about the condemned meat that was put into the site and the fact that there appears to have been a division of responsibility between the local authority and the Environment Agency. It is not right that there was an 18-month wait for an answer. I will follow the matter up and make sure that my hon. Friend gets a reply about the current situation.
A number of hon Members mentioned climate change. I was pleased to see the Deputy Prime Minister taking such a robust line on that at the conference in The Hague on behalf of our country. We can be proud about what we have done to meet to meet our targets on reducing CO2 We should be proud that we have a better record than just about any industrialised nation, even though costs and tough decisions are associated with that. There is no doubt that other industrialised countries must do more and I very much hope that an agreement is reached at The Hague. The United States, which has 5 per cent. of the world's population, is the biggest industrial country and produces 25 per cent. of the world's greenhouse gases. It must recognise, as we all do, that it has an international responsibility. I very much hope that an agreement is reached.
The House may wish to hear some statistics that struck me as interesting. Average temperatures have warmed by 0.6 deg C in the last 100 years. That may not sound much, but it is significant. In the UK, 1999 was the joint warmest year on record and four out of five of the hottest years ever recorded in a 330-year period have occurred in the past 10 years. There is no doubt that the climate has changed and, although there are arguments about whether weather patterns are linked to global warming, the fact that global warming is taking place is not disputed. We need to understand more about how the link between climate and global warming works. The Government are committing £11 million a year to studying climate change and global warming. Most of that work is being done by the UK climate impacts programme at the Hadley Centre. It aim is to see whether predictions on tides and extreme weather patterns have altered, as that is important for the way in which we deal with these issues.
§ Mr. Morley
Some of that money is being used for weather predictions. As the hon. Gentleman says, we must consider the best use of that funding. We are already building rising sea levels into our assessment of coastal defence. Our long-term projections take that into account and we shall also consider it and cost implications when defences come up for renew and repair.
This September was one of the wettest since records began. Last October was the second wettest October since records began in 1766, and 29 October was the wettest October day since daily records began in 1931. The beginning of November has been unusually wet, with three-quarters of the expected monthly total falling in the first seven days. I am sure that hon. Members remember that bonfire night was a bit damp, and 5 November was the second wettest November day since daily records began in 1931.
605 The Select Committee report is thoroughly well presented, as I would expect, given the commitment of its members and the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish is its Chairman. It makes a series of important recommendations on how the Environment Agency operates, which the Government are taking seriously. I hope that I have answered some of the points that it raises but, if others remain, I should be only too pleased to answer them later in more detail. This is an issue for all Departments, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that we shall work hard to ensure that his recommendations are put into effect.
§ Mr. Bennett
First, I thank all the Members who have participated in our debate, and I thank the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues for their useful responses. I shall also say a few words about what the Select Committee and the Environment Agency ought to be doing as a result of our debate. I have always seen the Select Committee process as on-going. One does not simply take evidence, produce a report and that is the end of the matter. Certainly, this area is one in which we need to continue to work. The Environment Agency needs to take careful note of what has been said in the debate. Hon. Members seem to wish the agency well, but feel that it could do a little better in some respects.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised the question of packaging regulations. The Select Committee is making inquiries into that matter, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the regulations are not working. I have previously mentioned the packaging that surrounds men's shirts, which does not seem to have decreased over the years. The use of bubble packs round goods in supermarkets continues to increase. The Environment Agency must take a tougher line in trying to reduce packaging.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) talked about not wanting an incinerator. I agree that he should work out a compact with the people of Brighton: if they could manage to have between 55 and 60 per cent. of their waste recycled, there would be no need for an incinerator. Certainly, once the material had 606 been recycled, very little calorific value would remain in it. That should be a challenge for the people: if they get their recycling right, they will not need an incinerator.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) talked about plastic being ploughed into the ground by strawberry farmers. The Environment Agency needs to look more closely into the kinds of materials going into the land. At least one can say that the plastic on strawberry fields has been used in production. However, it is a worrying development that waste paper and other materials are being spread on land, and 1 hope that more work will be done on that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) raised the question of the Welbeck site. Representatives of the Environment Agency will appear before the Select Committee relatively soon, during our inquiry into waste, and we shall ask some detailed questions about the site. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) has always put forward his constituents' views strongly. He mentioned the design of dwellings, and I think that designs that deal more effectively with water retention would be most useful, especially designs that ensure that hard standing allows water to be absorbed.
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister said that there would be environmental impact studies on new ploughing up of land. It is a pity that that has taken so many years to achieve, because I suspect that most of the land that can be ploughed up has been ploughed up. This could be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, the measure is welcome, even if it has taken a long time to achieve. Many useful points have also been made about flooding.
I believe that the Environment Agency has started to get its act together. Recent floods have been far more severe than those of two years ago, and the agency's record has been very good. I hope that debate on the issues will continue, and that the Environment Agency will move from strength to strength as it works hard to make life in Britain more attractive for us all.
§ Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.Motion, by leave, withdrawn.