Flood and Water Management debate

Neil Parish raises the issues of water rates, competition in the water industry and flooding. He also calls for better management of our rivers and drainage.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for initiating this important debate. It is great to see the Minister here. I echo the words said about what a great job he is doing. His practical background helps in such matters.I will make some general points. First, I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), and I reiterate that the west country has 3% of the population and 30% of the beaches. We also have an elderly population whose incomes are often fixed. High water charges are an issue for them, whereas in many parts of the country, water bills do not represent such a major percentage of income as in the south-west.South West Water does a good job, but will the Minister consider more competition among water companies? My constituency borders Wessex, and Wessex Water customers pay a good deal less for their water than customers of South West Water. Is he considering it? I know that the Scottish model means that there is only one water company, but there are five retailers who buy wholesale from Scottish Water, resulting in competition, not among householders but among businesses. That could affect even bed and breakfast establishments. Would some competition not ensure that water companies deliver at competitive rates? Ultimately, we must secure value for money for our consumers. Also, I know that he has ruled out a national levy, but 3% of the population pays for 30% of the beaches. It should be shared around. I welcome the Government money offered by the Chancellor, and I look forward to what the Minister can do to alleviate the problems with water charges.Lots of villages in my constituency have flooded, particularly Feniton. I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and others. The village includes lots of bungalows, and elderly people were stranded in them and had to be rescued from their lofts. That is an absolutely terrifying experience, and there is a social side to it as well as a cost.Turning to costs, Labour Members made great play of how much this Government have had to cut flood defence money, but it is no good for them to say that when they spent all the money and left us with a huge deficit. We must make the money go further. I make a plea to the Minister—I know that he is already doing this—to ensure that the Environment Agency works with landowners and others to come up with schemes that are not expensive or elaborate but do the job. There are lot of practical things that we could do to make the money go further. Insurance companies that insure properties in flood risk areas charge the owners huge premiums. Is there any way—I do not know whether it is possible—to tap into some of those resources? We must think outside the box. Other hon. Members have asked how much water companies can contribute in future. Only taxpayers’ money is involved, but we are borrowing so much money just to pay the interest on our deficit that we know that huge sums will not be available.Perhaps I ought to declare an interest on the matter of managed retreat. I am not a great admirer of it. The Netherlands has been mentioned. If the Dutch practised managed retreat from the sea, they would retreat from their country. The world’s population is growing, and we are going to have to feed that population. Is it right to retreat from land and let the sea come in? People often do not realise the difference between freshwater and seawater flooding. Freshwater flooding does some damage to the land, but it recovers quickly and grass and crops can still be grown on it. Seawater flooding destroys the land so future generations cannot produce food on it.Working with the Environment Agency and with farmers, we could find ways to save a lot of money. Protection is in place, but with the sea rising, we might need to raise sea walls. We could do so using systems involving earth banks, perhaps, rather than elaborate banks. I urge the Minister to consider it. We live in an age when people are concerned about flooding and their homes, but I repeat that we must also get the best value for money. I know that the Minister is considering ways to do so. I welcome the chance to speak in this debate to present the worries that people have.On a final point—my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury mentioned this—although the Environment Agency has got better, we use our rivers for too many things. We are inclined to say that they are great for conservation. They are, and we want to keep water levels high, but in doing so, we let rivers and tributaries silt up. Somerset, for instance, has the Rivers Tone and Parrett. At Burrowbridge, the river is virtually completely silted up. One of these days it will rain and rain, and Taunton and Bridgwater will flood, because that water will not be able to get out to sea in time. It is good to keep water penned at conservation levels during the summer, but let us dredge those rivers properly so that the water can get out to sea. It is not hugely expensive, but it is a matter of foresight.Culverts, ditches and other water channels have been mentioned. Again, I declare an interest, as I farm in an area that has such features. Internal drainage boards are good at managing things, and I know that the Minister is considering how they can do more. If we rethink how we drain our water, we will not have so much flooding. I agree again with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury: if it rains and rains, we will have floods, but not if we prepare the proper drainage channels. That is what they were designed for, but at the moment, many towns, such as Taunton, have narrow pinch points where the water comes through the town. It all looks beautiful; the only thing is that if a lot of water must go through the town, it will not go through a smaller channel.All those things should be considered, but I know that with a Minister of the calibre and experience that we have here, we will have no problem. I welcome the chance to raise these issues.| Hansard