Thank you for sending me the National Flood Forums Manifesto for flood victims. I have set out my answers to your questions below;
Conservative Government will ensure an early implementation of the Floods and Water Managements Act. Whilst we were opposed to the slimmed down Bill and accepted the criticism of the legislation from the EFRA Committee we thought it was important to support the Government to get as many of the recommendations from the Pitt review on to the statute books as quickly as possible so that measures can be improved to limit the risk for people living in areas at risk from flooding.
It is my Party’s policy to build on the findings of Sir Michael Pitts review to ensure that floods and flood prevention will be given a much higher priority across Government. We hope that the Flood and Water Management Act will end the intuitional confusion over responsibility for flood risk management, implement necessary measures recommended in the Pitt Review and ensure England and Wales are better prepared for a flooding emergency. There are several ways we will seek to strengthen the legislation:
We welcome the strategic overview role of the Environment Agency for all types of flooding but we must also ensure that the legislation does not centralise power. The legislation must recognise the importance of local knowledge in reducing flood risk. Local flood risk management strategies, instead of being consistent with the national strategy, should have regard to it. There should be a right of appeal against decisions by the Environment Agency to carry out work on private land.
Greater clarity is needed on the costs involved for local authorities. It is important that local authorities are properly funded to fulfil their new responsibilities.
We welcome steps to develop sustainable drainage systems which are essential to reduce the risk of surface water flooding – as occurred in West Berkshire in 2007. We must ensure the legislation fully ends the automatic right of developers to connect to the sewer network for surface water drainage. Water companies should also be consulted on all new building developments to ensure capacity. Greater clarity is needed on the funding arrangements and responsibility for the maintenance of sustainable urban drainage systems.
Greater commitment must be given to the maintenance of rivers and watercourses and the Environment Agency must regularly publish details of work. I am aware that this is not necessarily pertinent to Thatcham but I support the work the Environment Agency has done in West Berkshire to train local communities to carry out proper weed clearance on rivers where the amount of weed in the river was a major contributory factor in flooding in 2007. However, I will also continue to ensure that the Environment Agency does carry out weed clearance on a regular basis concentrating on the highly at risk communities on the rivers Lambourn and Pang.
I remain concerned that a number of Pitt recommendations have been slow to be implemented.
A national emergency framework, one of Pitts urgent recommendations and promised by the government by the autumn of 2008 has still not been implemented. We will make sure that it is as soon as possible after the election.
A National Resilience Forum to facilitate multi-agency planning has still not met.
The Natural Hazards team, which is assessing vulnerable critical infrastructure, was only established in May 2009 – two years after the summer 2007 floods. Details of their findings are expected soon.
In addition, nearly a year after the floods nearly 5000, many of them in West Berkshire, had not returned home and, in summer 2009, 168 families were still waiting. Pitt called on the Government to provide monthly updates on the recovery effort but the Government failed to produce these. A Conservative Government will regularly report on the circumstances of displaced households.
We have to learn from the floods in 2007 of the importance of command and control and decision-making as flooding emergency takes place. There was a general consensus that the Council’s Emergency Control Room worked well with Silver Command and that there was general good co-ordination across agencies at a local level. This was not always the case elsewhere but we do want to ensure that lines of communication are clearly understood. One area of concern on the day was lack of information available to schools. Schools did not know if it was better to send the children home or find somewhere for them to remain under supervision whilst their parents were dealing with flooding in their homes. This matter has been recognised by the Council and the LEA will have involvement in the emergency control room in future.
I have worked closely with the Environment Agency and have built up a good working relationship with their area manager, Simon Hughes. If re-elected, I will build on this relationship to ensure that the measures they are carrying out across West Berkshire are clearly understood and are reflective of the views of local communities and local people. I believe it is beholden on all of us in elected positions at every level and for agencies such as the Environment Agency to inform local people about the mitigation measures being carried out. This could go a long way towards bringing peace of mind to a great many people who suffer stress and anxiety whenever heavy rainfall occurs. It is for this purpose that I have written on a number of occasions to households in Thatcham to inform them about measures being carried out on their behalf.
At a meeting with the Secretary of State immediately after the 2007 floods, I raised concerns with the then Chief Executive of the Environment Agency about their approach towards flooding of rivers that are Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Chief Executive more or less said to me that concerns for wildlife and the natural environment must not be compromised in order to mitigate the effects of flooding. I believe that this was an insensitive and wrong approach at a time when huge distress was being caused to communities across my constituency. I am glad to say that a different approach seems to apply now and while I will always be concerned for the natural environment and the maintenance of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, we cannot allow communities to live under the threat of future flooding because of a valid commitment to precise management requirements of river systems.
I am troubled by the many reports I receive about the massively increased insurance premiums and excess charges. As you will know, I have taken this matter up with the Association of British Insurers in seeking to get their members to understand that the floods that place in Thatcham and in many other parts of the Newbury constituency should not be equated to the problems suffered in places such as Tewkesbury. In our area it was a matter of surface water flooding. The chances of this happening again do exist but are remote. Insurers need to take into account the many measures that have been taken by Town and District Councils and by the Government through he Environment Agency. There should be no excuse for the kind of insurance premium hikes that have been reported in Thatcham.
I am a firm believer in keeping as much of the effort to mitigate flood risk as local as possible. I believe elected members at every level should work closely with organisations such as the Thatcham Flood Forum to ensure that all their concerns, which will reflect the hopes and fears of many, form part of the decision making process. I very much hope we can all tap in to the wealth of local commitment from Town Councils and interested local people to ensure that it is not just left to Government to solve problems relating to flooding.
This concept fits neatly into David Cameron’s call for a “Big Society”. It is all about harnessing people’s natural enthusiasm to volunteer and making sure Government is there to support them wherever needed.
I hope you feel this answers the questions raised in the manifesto. I remain willing to clarify any points made at any stage.
West Berkshire Conservative Association
6 Cheap Street
Tel: 01635 40786