Reports that talks have stalled on a flood insurance scheme for high-risk areas are absolute nonsense, Owen Paterson insisted last night.
The Environment Secretary hit out as a damaging row between the Government and the insurance industry escalated.
He also stressed that new homes should not be built on the flood plain, and promised to discuss with the Environment Agency the issue of keeping watercourses clear.
Ministers were angered when the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said talks on a “safety net” deal for those in flood-risk areas were at “crisis point”.
As the Daily Press has reported, the issue of whether people whose homes are in areas prone to flooding can get affordable – or even any – insurance cover is controversial.
Since the devastating floods that hit Gloucestershire and other West counties in the summer of 2007, there has been anxiety that some families will be abandoned.
Nick Starling of the ABI yesterday claimed ministers had rejected their solution, and there was an impasse.
He said: “We want a solution even more now after the difficult events of the weekend.
“We have had two years to sort this out. During that time the insurance industry has put a massive amount or work and money into coming up with an insurance-led solution.”
But, making an emergency statement to MPs last night, Mr Paterson said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest negotiations had stalled.
There were detailed discussions at senior level last week, and they were looking forward to receiving the ABI’s final proposals.
“We want to come to a system which is affordable, comprehensive, and which is not a burden on the British Treasury, which is not an easy series of demands to meet.
“Currently we are waiting for the ABI to come back to us, and I am not prepared to negotiate on the floor of the House of Commons.”
Earlier his deputy, Floods Minister Richard Benyon, had gone further and criticised the ABI for its timing: “I think it is actually rather demeaning at this particular moment in time to be talking about this.
“It is rather a shame that is has been raised at this particular moment when there are a lot of distressed people with flooded homes.”
MPs including Laurence Robertson had voiced concerns about building on the flood plain – his Tewkesbury constituency is often badly affected, yet has seen a rash of proposals.
Bridgwater & West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said successive governments had refused to spend money on the pumps system for the Somerset Levels, and asked him urgently to look at upgrading it.
Mr Paterson said he had travelled through the Levels on a train earlier, and they looked like the Irrawaddy River in Burma in spate.
“It is a huge challenge to keep it clear, but if he writes to me I will take it up with the Environment Agency,” he promised.
Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: “Flood-hit communities are growing more and more anxious over the availability and the affordability of flood insurance once Labour’s deal with the insurance industry expires next June.”
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