Orders of the Day — Flooding (Lewes)

– in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 11th December 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]

10 pm

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I welcome the opportunity to raise an issue of great and continuing importance to my constituents, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is aware, given the aftermath of the floods and the problems that are apparent.

As the Minister attended the debate that I initiated on 25 October, he does not need me to tell him of the major problems in Lewes and elsewhere in the south-east—including in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith)—and in towns such as Uckfield and Alfriston. People were evacuated from 400 houses and many have still not returned; the retail and business centre suffered significant damage. Even businesses that were not damaged have experienced a 50 per cent. drop in trade because people have not been coming into Lewes to shop.

The disaster is not merely localised in Lewes; it is national. If it had happened in the United States, for example, it might have resulted in presidential action under US legislation. That has not occurred in this country. A national disaster calls for a national response, but we have not seen that—even with the best will in the world on the part of the Minister.

I am grateful to the Minister for visiting Lewes so quickly and for his continued interest. His Cabinet colleagues have also shown an interest and I do not doubt the Government's sincerity and good intentions in trying to help people in my constituency. We have had plenty of tea and sympathy, but—I do not want to be aggressive—we need hard cash to deal with the problem; we cannot do it all ourselves. That is the strong message that my constituents want to give the Minister.

We have received some Government help: an indication that an extra £51 million will be spent on flood defences for the whole country over the next four years. The Environment Agency has noted, however, that £55 million will be needed for Sussex alone.

It is not even certain that the money allocated for flood defences will get through. The Minister may be aware of a meeting of the flood defence committee in Sussex only last week, when the Environment Agency's request for a 15 per cent. increase was rejected by the committee, which allocated only 10 per cent. An Environment Agency news release states: this will almost certainly mean cutbacks in work on new major construction projects such as Lewes. That is the last thing my constituents want to hear; it adds insult to injury. After all the devastation that they face, we are told that essential work that the Environment Agency wants to carry out cannot be funded. If it cannot be funded even now, when will it ever be funded?

I welcome the fact that the Government have asked the Environment Agency to undertake a study of the Ouse and the Uck basin so that we can understand exactly why the problems occurred and assess what needs to be done. That is absolutely right. The agency is working on that and a report should be ready by the end of January. That is the right response from the Government.

We need a further response from the Government to follow that up. Will they undertake to fund the works that the Environment Agency recommends for the Ouse and the Uck, or will the scheme gather dust until the next flood? That is my key question to the Minister. Will he review the arrangements for responsibility for flood defences to which I and other Members have drawn the attention of the House, and which were referred to in the report of the Environment Sub-Committee? Those arrangements do not work; they are ludicrous. As recently as last week, one body was making a request while another refused to grant it. Those arrangements need to be changed.

My constituents want other lessons to be learned. What the Government can do above all else is give an undertaking or guarantee so far as possible, given the powers of nature. I accept that nature has an impact that cannot be gainsaid. Nevertheless, my constituents want an assurance that, so far as possible, the necessary work will be done.

There is some concern about the predictive ability of the Environment Agency. It clearly did not anticipate the extent of the flooding in Lewes. People in Lewes are increasingly concerned about the perceived inadequacy of the warning system. The Environment Agency issued a severe flood warning at 11.10 am on the day of the floods, but, for one reason or another, it was not communicated to the majority of the population. That may not be the Environment Agency's job, but the fact remains that people were not aware that that flood warning had been issued.

In my view, there is no substitute for low-tech solutions involving sirens and loud hailer announcements in the town, but that was not done. Perhaps the broadcast media should be required to interrupt their programmes, whatever they are, to warn people that a severe flood warning has been issued. I believe that no such requirement exists, so I should be interested to hear the Minister's response to that point.

The Government have made much of the support that they provide under the Bellwin scheme. The Prime Minister has said that 100 per cent. of local costs will be met. In the previous debate that I initiated, the Minister told me: Local authorities need applications to be dealt with as quickly as possible so that funds are released.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 66WH.] My information from Lewes district council today is that its claim was submitted early and in due course, but there still has been no written acknowledgement of the process time for its claim. If that is true, it is outrageous and unacceptable and, frankly, there is no excuse, given the strong commitment that the Minister has made. I have no doubt that he wants the claims to be deal with quickly, but that is not happening and he needs to ask his civil servants why.

The county council has told me that it has submitted a £6 million bid under the Bellwin scheme. It is concerned that it will get nothing like that amount, for reasons that I gave in the previous debate. The Bellwin scheme does not take account of all relevant factors. It assumes an excess of £100 per building in insurance terms, when the excess is actually £105. Will the Bellwin scheme be remedied for the current claims to ensure that the Prime Minister's wish that 100 per cent. of local costs will be met, or will the flawed formula be applied, in which case local authorities will receive nowhere near 100 per cent?

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) not only for giving way but for initiating this debate. I want to emphasise—not to him, but certainly to the wider public, including the Minister—that the anxiety is that, although we know that a long-term scheme can be prepared, we want some immediate compensation for the damage that has been done. So far, we are not getting the information that will give people hope that a start can be made in alleviating the awful problems that they face.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I wholly concur with that intervention.

I remind the Minister that in 1987 the county council claimed £9 million for what it thought was legitimate expenditure under the Bellwin scheme, but it was paid less than £2 million—less than 25 per cent. I do not believe that it was adding things on for the sake of it; it was a genuine claim. As the right hon. Member for Wealden rightly says, the consequence is that we have problems with current services. It is estimated that the damage to the county council's road network will cost £3.5 million to put right. I have a list of closed roads—the Minister is welcome to a copy if he wants one—which the county council has no money to open. There are pages and pages of roads that are shut until further notice in East Sussex.

I previously mentioned to the Minister the impact on listed buildings in the conservation area in Lewes. He said, in his helpful way, that English Heritage might look into that matter and provide funds. Indeed, his colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, helpfully sent the district council information about that. However, I am afraid that Ministers have been misinformed because when the district council contacted English Heritage's south-east regional office, it received a very discouraging letter. The letter, which is dated 8 December—it is very recent—states: You are quite correct that although we have the power to offer grant-aid to grade II listed buildings in Conservation Areas we do not generally have the resources to do so. The … main exception is our Emergency grants scheme. Unfortunately, I am not sure that this scheme will be able to provide much help in the context of the Lewes flooding.As you will see from the desk instructions, the Emergency grant scheme refers to emergency in the restricted circumstances in which events have caused significant damage or structural instability which may lead to imminent collapse or subsequent loss of historic fabric. My guess is that the main impact of flooding on buildings in Lewes has been to create a situation where the buildings need to dry out and be "restored" before they can be brought fully back into use … I am very sorry not to be able to write with a more positive message. Therefore, that avenue, which the Minister helped to identify, has been shut off by English Heritage. Will the Government provide money to help with listed buildings, because English Heritage clearly will not do so under its terms of reference?

I remind the Minister that 134 grade 1 and grade 2 buildings in Lewes have been damaged by the floods, together with 230 unlisted buildings in the conservation area. That has had a major impact on the townscape of one of the top 50 towns in the country. The owners cannot rectify all the problems themselves, and the insurance companies will not cover problems that have been unearthed, such as the need for restoration work or work to deal with woodworm. Problems that could not have been anticipated needed to be dealt with there and then, but they were not covered by insurance.

On insurance, I have previously raised with the Minister the plight of those most affected. The Government's response—I entirely understand it—was that they were not responsible for making up the deficiencies of those who have not taken out insurance. I accept that view, but it does not cut much mustard with the 70 or 80-year-old pensioners who cannot afford insurance. They went out for a bag of beans and came back to find their houses under water. They have been out of their houses ever since and they have lost everything.

The district council chairman, Maureen Messer, and the mayor, Jim Daly, have set up an appeal fund and the Government could salve their conscience at little cost—without paying to individuals—by making a significant contribution to the fund. The money could be used to help those most badly affected. Will the Government contribute to the appeal funds set up by local authorities to help those who are most in distress? The Government make great play in their policies such as the new deal of helping the most vulnerable. Here is a classic case of people who are vulnerable. If the Government put in money, it would be very well targeted and used effectively.

The Minister has considered the issue carefully, so he will know that there has been wide variation in the response times from insurance companies and in how sympathetic they have been to householders. Unfortunately, some insurance companies have been unnecessarily difficult or have asked for ridiculously increased premiums. I am aware of one business in Lewes that has been asked for a sixfold increase in its premium by its insurance company. The Minister will also be aware that some insurance companies are reluctant to renew the policies at all.

In one case, the insurer of a commercial property wants to deal with a claim on the ground of diminution in value. That means that the insurer will pay out less on the claim because it says that the property is now worth less and that it is unlettable because it is on the flood plain. Such an attitude cannot be allowed to continue. Other insurance companies have been very good, but there is clearly a need for the Government to introduce a regulation of standard terms and conditions for insurance companies to ensure that such wide variations do not occur.

Insurance companies should be encouraged not simply to replace like for like. It may be in their interest to upgrade the protection available to buildings because that would reduce future claims on themselves as well as providing extra protection for the insured. Like for like has no future in this regard.

On council tax exemptions, the Minister may have seen national coverage—in The Guardian and elsewhere—of my constituents who have unfortunately been asked to pay council tax on the temporary buildings, such as caravans, mobile homes and shacks, that they have occupied since they were forced out of their houses. I have looked into this issue and the district council has no alternative but to send out such bills. That is very regrettable, but it is the law. I suggest to the Minister that there is a difference between people who choose to live in a caravan as a normal habitation and those who are forced into a caravan for a temporary period against their wishes because their property has been damaged. The Government should be sympathetic and exempt from council tax the people who live in caravans or other mobile homes temporarily while they are out of their houses.

The Minister might be aware from previous conversations and from representations that have been made to him—either directly or indirectly—of the severe impact that the floods are having on businesses in the town. Even multinational companies such as Safeway are yet to reopen. That company is not short of money and could pull a shop off the peg, but it remains shut. If Safeway cannot reopen, what hope is there for small individual businesses?

The Government need to help such people. I am not asking them to give each business a sum, but the businesses are doing well to get themselves back on their feet. They intend to have a promotion in Lewes early in the new year and it would be a nice gesture for the Government to help that promotion by providing seedcorn funding, perhaps to Sussex Enterprise, so that businesses are made aware of their support. That would help local businesses to communicate with the public so that they get people to come to Lewes and get used to the idea of the shops being open.

The Environment Agency is dealing with some businesses unsympathetically. I refer in particular to Caffyns, the motor dealers, which has asked me to mention its case. It lost a multi-million pound sum in the floods, but received a letter from the Environment Agency saying that, following the floods on 12 and 13 October: it appears that you lost a quantity of oil. This oil escaped from your premises and polluted controlled waters. The Environment Agency has powers to recover reasonable costs incurred in establishing the source of pollution … This is a preliminary letter advising that an invoice will be sent in the future. Not only had the company lost a massive sum, but because it was flooded and not properly warned the agency was charging it for oil that leaked out. That is hardly business friendly and Caffyns is understandably upset by that letter.

On farmers, the Minister's office has been helpful about payments for flax, which I raised with him. However, he should take note of other issues. As the right hon. Member for Wealden said, farmers have suffered. Their fields are still under water and they face a desperate winter. That issue needs to be considered separately.

Sussex Enterprise is going to help, but its budget for this year is running out. It needs help. Will the Minister consider supplying extra funds for those businesses through such channels? Lewes people are responding well and with spirit to a desperate disaster. Against all the odds, a late-night shopping event was successful because the people of Lewes came out in their droves to support the shops. It was great to see. Lewes people and the council will do all they can to get the town back on its feet, but we cannot do that alone. The floods are a national disaster and need a national response. We need Government cash. Will we get it?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 10:18 pm, 11th December 2000

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on the way in which he has represented his constituents and their needs. No one denies that Lewes experienced severe flooding. As the hon. Gentleman said, I, as the Minister responsible for the matter, went to Lewes at the peak of the floods. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office also went there to talk to local people, including the hon. Gentleman, traders and business people, about the pressures on them and the costs of recovery. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, also went to Lewes very recently, and wrote to me with a number of detailed points about concerns that local residents and traders had raised with him.

The Government have stressed repeatedly that we do not want to leave people on their own following what have been the worst floods in this country since 1947 and the wettest autumn for over 330 years. We recognise that there is a need for clean-up and for support, and we want to play our role in that. We are trying to find ways of helping, especially in partnership with local authorities, which are the main point of contact for communities. I shall try to tackle a few of those points.

I know that other hon. Members present represent flood-hit areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) represents the village of Gowdall, which has had national publicity and is one of the places that I visited, accompanied by my hon. Friend. I have spoken to local residents and I well understand the concern and misery felt by those whose properties have been flooded and the disruption that floods cause to businesses.

On the question of declaring a national emergency, the floods have indeed been widespread, but I sometimes feel that the phrase "national emergency" is the subject of confusion. Declaring a national emergency does little except give the Government additional powers—powers which, I am glad to say, we did not need in relation to the recent floods, because the existing framework, involving local authorities, emergency services and the Environment Agency, worked efficiently, and the response from the various bodies was excellent. Nothing would have been gained from declaring a national emergency: no extra money or resources would have become available and the powers for central Government that a declaration would have provided were not necessary.

As for money, the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the sum of £51 million. I should stress that that is additional to an already increasing budget and it means that we can bring forward more flood defence schemes. We have increased the grant for river-based flood schemes by 20 per cent. and made funding available for whole catchment area studies; the hon. Gentleman's area is benefiting from the latter funding. Regional flood defence committees play an important part, although I do not have any information on extra spending in the Sussex area and I am not familiar with the figures bandied about as to how that money might be spent.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin formula and whether flood defences identified in his area would be funded. If the catchment area study identifies ways to strengthen the protection for Lewes and they meet the criteria laid down—relating to environmental impact, technical standards and cost-benefit analysis—they will qualify for grant aid from my Department, and I am sure that any such scheme would be advanced by the regional flood defence committee. Funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defences in this country are under review. People have raised questions about how they work and whether they are efficient, and we are prepared to examine those issues carefully.

The hon. Gentleman must remember that the floods that affected Lewes and Uckfield were wholly exceptional in terms of the volume of waters and the time scale in which the waters went down. That has a bearing on the attitude of insurance companies, which are well aware that the situation is atypical.

Flood warnings were issued in Lewes. When I spoke to local people, they confirmed that. Some local people, for various reasons, might not have picked up the warnings, but they were broadcast on the national media—I saw the warnings about Lewes 300 miles away—and local media. Leaflets have been distributed in flood-risk areas in Sussex warning people that they might live in such an area and telling them what action they need to take when Environment Agency warnings are issued. In addition, loudspeaker vans toured Lewes warning people.

People can opt into the automatic voice-messaging warning system, which is provided free of charge by the Environment Agency. Any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who would like to take advantage of that facility can do so simply by contacting the agency. The system is quite sophisticated: not only does it ring up the desired number, but it is possible to programme in numbers to be rung if the person is not there, so that the message can follow that person; and it can ring portable phones.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I understand all that and agree with most of it, except for the bit about loudspeakers, but the fact remains that a large number of people—for various reasons—did not know that a warning had been issued. That is what we have to address.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

In one of the follow-ups from the floods, I asked the Environment Agency to provide me with a detailed report. It is one of the issues that it will be addressing. I have made it clear that although I think that the national flood warnings worked well and the response was good, we can make improvements. We can learn lessons from what happened in the October floods, and we are more than willing to do that.

I know that councils have submitted their bids, but I do not know details of the Lewes council bid. However, I know that bids under £10,000 are automatic. Understandably, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, bids of more than £10,000 have to be audited. I shall follow up the matter to ascertain whether progress is being made. I am anxious that bids be resolved as quickly as possible.

Excesses for buildings insurance are the normal part of the Zűrich mutual insurance policies that local authorities tend to have. They can address the excesses within their own insurance cover. The Bellwin formula has been uprated. I think that most local authorities appreciate that it is now 100 per cent., and automatic. It is designed to speed up payments, and it can make interim payments. Following discussions with the Local Government Association, I have made it clear that we are willing to review the full workings of the Bellwin system to ascertain whether it addresses all the issues that are required of it.

The claims that are being submitted come under the existing Bellwin scheme; the review is for the future. The Bellwin formula covers temporary road repairs but not road rebuilding, which is part of a capital programme. The Bellwin formula was not set up to deal with that.

I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments about English Heritage. Following previous discussions, I wrote to English Heritage—I promised that I would—and its reply is dated today. Its response is encouraging: English Heritage has offered Lewes's conservation officer, Mike Lea, a technical conference on flood damage amelioration and disaster preparedness. It is seeking a suitable venue.

The next paragraph reads: English Heritage's Regional Director … has offered Lewes Council grant aid assistance for a consultant or temporary member of staff to aid its conservation officer at what is clearly a stressful time. It has made the offer of technical staff to give advice to the local planning authority … on matters concerned with material damage, structural engineering, and the drying out of listed buildings. The letter continues: English Heritage runs an emergency grants scheme— that has been mentioned— and has sent guidance notes … to Lewes's conservation officer in order that he may advise the public. English Heritage do not have legal powers to grant aid Grade II listed buildings … except where they lie within conservation areas. It is also limited by resources to schemes already within our— that is English Heritage's— Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme areas. The emergency grants scheme is designed to deal with pressing structural instabilities threatening imminent collapse. That may be the case in some instances from flood damage. The scheme is not designed for general drying out after flooding, which in the majority of cases will be dealt with by the individual's insurance company. All this information has been made available on English Heritage's website.

Perhaps that goes a little further than what English Heritage suggested to the hon. Gentleman. I am surprised that it did not stress these points to him, which I think are helpful to Lewes.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about those who are uninsured. I met some people in that position in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, in Gowdall. It is a difficult matter for the Government, and there is not a great deal that we can do, as the hon. Gentleman has fairly conceded. We do not have assessors and we cannot handle the matter. We are not geared up for it. Basically, we cannot help people with insurable risks.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about local appeals, but there are potential problems. If one such appeal is granted, basically help will have to be given to all. Decisions will then have to be made on how to split funds. I can envisage many potential complications. I shall reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said about that. I have tried to help out farmers, and he is aware of the progress that has been made. I am aware of the work that has been done by Sussex Enterprise, and I pay tribute to it, and by the Small Business Service, in helping local businesses. Business rate exemption can be obtained, and I think that Lewes council has taken that up. Incidentally, 75 per cent. of that is paid for by central Government. That can help.

It is a good idea to give some support in the form of business promotion, especially at Christmas. It is a matter for other Departments, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will reflect on the suggestion and take advice from the relevant Departments to ascertain what we can do. Whenever I have approached the local media, I have stressed that many businesses in Lewes and Uckfield and other parts of the country are up and running and deserve the support of local people. I am delighted to hear of the successful venture that has been promoted, and I wish all businesses well in the run-up to Christmas. I hope that they get the support that they deserve from other people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.