Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.
Who? The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asked the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey and her department’s permanent secretary, Tamara Finkelstein, questions about the work of the department.
When? Tuesday 24 October 2.30pm.
What? The topics included: water companies, flooding, solar farms, the Canals and Rivers Trust, labour shortages, XL Bullies, and biosecurity (AKA, how much meat can be brought into the country from Europe after Brexit; Coffey used croque monsieur from France as an example). The committee chair, Robert Goodwill MP, also took the opportunity to chide the government for not responding to its reports on rural mental health, marine mammals and species reintroduction.
Why did this come up? Coffey’s appearance was not part of a specific inquiry, but part of the standard committee schedule to scrutinise the overall work of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
So, what did they say? Coffey was quizzed on the increasing challenge of flooding. She countered that £3.6bn had been invested in “protecting homes and businesses” since 2015, with another £5.2bn allocated up to 2027. So far 310,000 homes had been protected with a target of 336,000 by 2027, she said, adding that “there is a concern that we may not be hitting that target”. She also acknowledged this won’t mean much to someone who has lost their home to flooding.
The Secretary of State also said that while the Environment Agency and the Met Office had dealing with rain from the west down to “a fine art”, they were less prepared for rains from the east. As a result she has asked the chief executive of the Environment Agency to review their response to see what lessons could be learned.
She also pointed out that the government has been working to improve access to affordable flood insurance through Flood RE, a flood reinsurance scheme. Committee members picked up that the maintenance of flood defence assets was also below target (94.5 per cent rather than 98 per cent). Coffey said the target was “ambitious” and added that, where defences had failed in the past, it was mainly because they were not designed to withstand the level of flooding rather than from poor maintenance. She added that this is an important consideration in adapting to climate change.
[See also: Greening the grid]
Water companies were another item of interest, with parliamentarians challenging the Secretary of State on proposed business plans that would mean bills rising by £156 a year while the companies are being investigated over breaches of environmental safety. She passed the buck on prices rises to Ofwat, the regulator, but said that “it’s not about paying for the past. It is about paying for the future,” noting that price rises and investment are needed in the water network to address these same issues. “There has been too much focus on keeping bills low at the cost of the environment, particularly with dealing with storm overflows,” Coffey said.
She added that the largest-ever criminal investigation is currently under way by the Environment Agency into the breaches of environmental standards, and that the cost of licences had risen to enable the cost of inspections to be met.
Any conclusions? Defra seems like a large and unwieldy department compared with others, covering an array of issues. The session felt rather scattered as a result, with parliamentarians not really pinning down key challenges and weaknesses. Flooding and the ongoing crisis in sewage discharges are bound to return to public notice again in the coming months. The key question is whether this government or the next one is prepared to invest enough in the water network to address. But with a privatised utility it seems more likely that customers will pay.
What next? The hearing was a gentle working over of the Secretary of State. Defra has a huge range of responsibilities, from climate adaptation to farming to dangerous dogs. It remains to be seen when Defra will respond to outstanding committee inquiries. However, two days after Coffey’s session, Ofwat issued a warning about the financial health of four water companies serving more than 20 million people in the UK.
[See also: Rising sea levels around the world mapped]