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Flood defences remarkable - MP

A senior Conservative claims it was " remarkable" Britain's flood defences held to the extent they did, insisting the Government must review its repair budget.

Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, also asked Environment Secretary Owen Paterson to look favourably on maintenance measures that can protect farmland and properties.

Mr Paterson countered by suggesting 97% of flood defences were judged to be in a good condition in November 2013, adding they would remain so with his department's existing budgets.

The Cabinet member later claimed that "if you want flood defences, you vote Conservative" following exchanges with shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle.

Communities across Britain have been warned further flooding could occur, with figures released yesterday showing m ore than 1,700 homes and businesses have been flooded in England since the beginning of the Christmas period and around 550 properties flooded since the new year.

Some 140 properties have been flooded in Wales while flood defences are said to have protected around one million properties.

During environment questions, Miss McIntosh told Mr Paterson: "I think it is remarkable that the flood defences held to the extent that they did [with] the battering the country has seen.

"But will you give a commitment to the House that you will review the budget for repairs to existing flood defences and look favourably on schemes such as drainage boards maintaining the regular water courses that can protect farmland and other properties too?"

Mr Paterson replied: "You make absolutely correct issue of maintenance and in November 97% of defences were seen to be in good condition and would remain so with our existing budgets.

"But I repeat again to you, we have made a very clear commitment to 2021 and what I would love to see is (shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle) stand up and say the Labour Party would back that commitment."

Labour's Ms Eagle focused on Mr Paterson's priorities when he took on the role of Environment Secretary in September 2012, which she said made no reference to preparing and managing flooding risk and other environmental emergencies.

Mr Paterson replied that his first priority is to "grow the rural economy" and the Government's "ambitious" flood schemes had helped free up blighted land for development.

Ms Eagle continued to the Environment Secretary: "When asked by the select committee where the £54 million of extra savings from your departmental budget announced by the Treasury in June 2013 would come from, you said 'We will concentrate on my four priorities'.

"So it's as simple as that - pretty well every single activity in Defra has to be focused through those four priorities. They don't include flood protection.

"How can people facing increasing risk of flood damage due to the effects of climate change have any confidence in (an Environment Secretary) who has downgraded flood protection as a priority and who thinks climate change is benefiting Britain?"

Mr Paterson replied: "Dear oh dear, this is lame stuff. We are spending £2.3 billion over the course of this Parliament with £148 million partnership money.

"We have got an extra £5 million for revenue in the course of the recent reduction across departments. I specifically excluded flood defence from that so the reduction is spread across the rest of Defra and uniquely we have a programme going right out to 2021, £2.3 billion capital money and yet again - this is the fifth opportunity - you have not agreed to match our commitment.

"So if you want flood defences, you vote Conservative."

Conservative Gary Streeter (South West Devon) told Mr Paterson: " Every time we have floods in the far South West, our vital rail link with the rest of the country is either severed completely or severely disrupted.

"Are you confident that within existing resources and your excellent existing budget within the department that we are giving sufficient priority to flood prevention measures for vital transport infrastructure?"

The Environment Secretary replied: "You make a very important point and when I went to Exeter I saw the real damage to the economy of the South West by the very important link to Exeter being interrupted by floods last year.

"And I can reassure you in our Cobras (emergency committee meetings) we've had senior ministers from (the Department for Transport) who are fully aware of the consequences and have been working very hard to ensure our transport links have been restored rapidly."

Mr Paterson, who is widely viewed as a climate-change sceptic, seemed unable to bring himself to endorse his party leader David Cameron's view that the recent spell of severe weather was man made, prompting a roar of laughter on the opposition benches.

Labour MP for Sedgefield Phil Wilson asked: " In PMQs yesterday, the Prime Minister said he very much suspects that the recent abnormal weather events are a result of climate change. Do you agree with the Prime Minister?"

Mr Paterson replied: "What the Prime Minister said is we should look at the practical measures we're taking, and I entirely endorse his questions."

He added: "And perhaps you will get after your front bench and see if they will endorse the very ambitious spending plans we have for flood defences, which so far, they have been very, very reluctant to do."

During his weekly exchange in the Commons yesterday, Mr Cameron was asked whether he believed climate change was to blame for the wave of severe weather. He said: "Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not. I very much suspect that it is."


From Belfast Telegraph