I hope that I shall not be ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I begin by wishing you and our colleagues a very happy Christmas. I extend that wish to House of Commons staff—including the Doorkeepers, who have advised me not to take too long over this debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the plight of Robertsbridge in my constituency, where more than 70 homes have been flooded several times over the past year. Some of those houses have been under water on no fewer than six occasions since last Christmas.
The House has already held a number of debates on the problems of flooding, which affected so many parts of England and has devastated whole communities in Sussex. Today, I want to focus specifically on the difficulties and challenges facing the village of Robertsbridge.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food replied helpfully to the earlier debates, and listened sympathetically in the Lobby when my Sussex colleagues and I canvassed his support. I know that he and his officials, as well as the Environment Agency and other participating authorities, are determined to help. Today, I hope to concentrate the hon. Gentleman's mind on the speed with which action needs to be taken, and on the extent of financial assistance that is required, if practical solutions are to be implemented without delay.
I am mindful that the timing of the debate is a mixed blessing for the Minister and his team of officials in the Box, as it is late on the last day before the Christmas recess. However, I know that he will appreciate that the more than 200 Robertsbridge residents who joined me at a public meeting on Monday last week will welcome this early chance for me to express the feelings that they put across, fairly forcefully, at that meeting.
There is an added bonus for the Minister in that his reply will be the last speech in the Commons this year—just as mine is the last speech from the Back Benches. Furthermore, by my calculation, this is the last parliamentary debate of the millennium; as we count from one to 10, not zero to nine, I reckon that December 2000 brings the second millennium to a close.
The public meeting in Robertsbridge on Monday 11 December, which I have already mentioned, turned into what can euphemistically be described as a full and frank exchange of views between aggrieved Robertsbridge residents and officials of the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, East Sussex county council and Rother district council.
Quite understandably, the villagers wanted immediate action to minimise the risk of repeating the nightmare of flooded homes. Local residents know the streams, ditches, drains, gulleys and culverts, and the whole flood plain, better than even expert outsiders can possibly do. Most speakers at the meeting had lived in Robertsbridge for years. They saw the bypass built over the flood plain; they saw the old Kent and East Sussex steam railway embankment demolished; they have seen new houses built on the flood plain, in defiance of local advice, adding to the problems of water run off. They know their territory.
The local Robertsbridge people were frankly impatient with officials for their no doubt painstaking explanations of where the flood water flowed from. To the flood victims, water in their kitchen or living room, rising step by step upstairs, is nasty, dirty water that ruins their carpets, floors, walls, cooker and so on—not to mention their sense of personal security and privacy.
Everything that belongs to the victims is ruined—as the people of Robertsbridge have repeatedly found out. The prospect of a contested insurance claim—for those who have been able to afford insurance—or, worse still, the fear of growing debt, and the disruption of the family life that people called their own, behind their front door, is devastating.
The residents hotly contested the Environment Agency's version—that the nearby Darwell reservoir was full and thus added to the floods—because Southern Water has told the local Salehurst parish council that the local reservoir was in fact only 52 per cent. full on the night of the great October flood.
There was little comfort for the villagers in Dr. Buckley's thoroughly well meant assurance that she had told the Minister—in my opinion, she was right to do so—that Robertsbridge was the worst hit community on her watch, which covers not only Kent but a large stretch of the Sussex weald that includes the Robertsbridge catchment area. They lost patience with the scrupulous, but in the event perhaps tactless, attempt by officials to explain the priority rankings that had eliminated Robertsbridge's planned capital improvements for the stream behind Northbridge street and Rutley close in 1997. They did not want to know about the engineering consultants' review of what is, for Robertsbridge, a stark and obvious fact: that the culverts under the bypass are too small to allow floodwater to flow away as freely as it should. That was demonstrated by the fact that water levels on the village side of the bypass were 4 ft higher than on the other side, downstream of the bypass.
Many local people dispute the official view that the Rother is no longer tidal as far upstream as Robertsbridge.
Local villagers want officials to dispense with studies and reviews. Instead, they want money spent now, as a matter of absolute priority, to speed up maintenance projects and capital works and to enlarge the culverts under the bypass.
Residents of Rutley close and other home owners are demanding compensation from the Highways Agency, with which I have a meeting after Christmas on that subject, or from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, because they are convinced that the bypass has exacerbated the floods and rendered their homes unsaleable.
The Environment Agency was under some pressure for not having its final report and analysis to present to the public meeting 10 days ago, but in all fairness the agency arranged the meeting before Christmas, with only its preliminary findings available, because I had very strongly urged its representatives to meet local residents at the earliest opportunity, and they were trying to be helpful.
Since the meeting, Dr. Buckley and her colleagues have submitted a helpful draft memorandum defining the up-to-date position. I commend the agency's willingness to help, but it can no longer be in any doubt about the anxieties and growing impatience felt in Robertsbridge.
Today I want to go a stage further and list for the Minister the practical demands that I hope he will be able to meet, to help Robertsbridge. First and foremost, we need, as a priority a reassessment of the effect of the bypass across the I Rother flood plain, where it acts as a dam wall, holding back water. We want larger culverts under that stretch of the bypass, and we need them as soon as is practicable.
Secondly, we want the Government to consider whether some houses in Robertsbridge have been made unsaleable because the bypass caused worse flooding than would have occurred had it not been constructed there, and to address demands for compensation.
Thirdly, we want the storm drain that runs down Silver hill—which, unbelievably, fed the flooded village with yet more water from the surrounding higher ground—to be diverted on to the other side of the flood plain.
Fourthly, we want implementation of the plans to clear the stream bed under Northbridge street, to construct a flood defence wall there, and partially to divert the channel. Those works were mooted in 1994 and 1995 and put to the present Government in 1997, but they were rejected—for lack of funding, I understand—and not given sufficient priority.
Fifthly, it is essential that the flood plain outside the village is cleared of any surplus soil, spread after the demolition of the old steam railway embankment some years ago.
Sixthly, it is not only the culverts that need de-silting. The ditches and stream channels also require attention, to remove brambles, secondary growth and other obstacles that impede the normal water flow. This work is under way, but it needs to be completed without interruption. I am pleased to say that, perhaps prompted by the public meeting and the announcement of this Adjournment debate, it is under way fairly busily. I hope that it will continue without interruption.
Seventhly, I should like to repeat the request that I made in the House to the Deputy Prime Minister when he made a statement on the flooding—with the Minister who is present today sitting beside him. My request then was to expedite the maximum assistance under the Bellwin guidelines. As the Minister knows, East Sussex county council has applied initially for £6.35 million. However, the council needs £3.3 million for road repairs as a result of flood damage in the county, and that is a preliminary estimate. The figure might rise to £5 million or even more.
Eighthly, I hope that the Minister will keep in mind Rother district council's call for co-ordination among all the relevant agencies and authorities to ensure that repairs and improvements are delivered against a tight timetable. In that context, I hope that Salehurst parish council will have a useful and important liaison role in Robertsbridge.
Ninthly, I support the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) in his recent Adjournment debate on flooding that council tax rebates would help householders whose homes have been affected by flooding. The Minister addressed that problem when it was raised the other day by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and the hon. Member for Lewes.
Tenthly, as a practical precaution for the rest of this winter and to provide reassurance to householders, further supplies of sandbags need to be stocked locally given the possibility of yet more floods.
No one disputes that the weather is beyond our control, nor that the emergency services and local volunteers have done wonders in Robertsbridge and elsewhere during the floods. The Environment Agency, the Highways Agency and local authorities are committed to do what they can to help. Inexplicably, the flood defence committee has rejected the Environment Agency's request for higher-level funding in area. Again that was flagged up during the recent Adjournment debate on floods in Lewes. Ownership of the problem and the remedies lie with the Minister and the floods taskforce that he leads. Like him, I have in the past chaired a Cabinet Sub-Committee tasked with specific objectives. May I suggest that it is up to him to impress upon the Treasury that £50 million of extra funding will not be nearly enough to mend and improve the national flood defence infrastructure.
In East Sussex alone at least £55 million is needed, compared with the £3.2 million that East Sussex county council contributes annually to flood defence projects. Its mammoth task lies ahead, and it needs co-ordination, funding and the sense of purpose that I am sure the Minister is determined to provide. It is up to him to cut through the reviews, the red tape and the bureaucratic procedures to get the work done. I hope that he will succeed, and I wish him well in that important role.
I am grateful to the Minister for his offer to meet me early in the new year for further discussions. I hope that he will let me bring representatives from Robertsbridge to the meeting. It would be even better if he were to find time in his busy schedule to visit the village himself in the new year. I can assure him that the efforts being made in East Sussex cut across party political lines in a united effort. With the Minister's help, we can put Robertsbridge back on its feet—on dry land.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) on raising this issue. I should like to put on record my sympathy for his constituents, especially those who have experienced repeat flooding. I have read a detailed report about the situation, and understand residents' concerns, especially those of people who have been flooded more than once.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, mine is the last contribution of the year, and I add my season's best wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the staff who are here for the bitter end of the debate. Residents' concerns are a priority, and I have no objection to being here this evening to discuss flooding and to listen to the hon. Gentleman's speech. I shall try to respond to the points made, and see what I can do to assist.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the weather in October was wholly exceptional. The records of flooding in Robertsbridge show that the highest-ever flood levels were reached. Residents have a point about flood plain development. Again, looking back on the area's history, it is fair to say that there has been some questionable development. I understand that some of the houses affected were flooded during their construction. That calls into question the original planning permission and whether building them in that place was appropriate. Of course, that is no consolation to the people who live there, but we have to consider the problem as we find it.
I understand that a disused railway embankment was removed at about the same time as the bypass was built. The Environment Agency, or its predecessor organisation, the National Rivers Authority, was not consulted about that at the time. Generally speaking, I understand that the culverts under the bypass are large enough to cope with normal flood flows. However, the culverts could not cope with the flows that occurred in October. The agency will have to re-examine the issue and it will have to discuss it with the Highways Agency.
The hon. Gentleman outlined a comprehensive range of perfectly reasonable points. I understand that a Rother strategy study has been established to consider all the issues that he raised. They have to be considered overall in terms of the most appropriate scheme.
The original scheme considered was not progressed, not because of lack of funding but because it did not meet the priority score. Technical and environmental assessments have to be made and a cost-benefit analysis carried out. If a scheme costs a great deal more than what it is defending against, it will come down the priority score.
It might reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, to learn that, as a result of the October flooding, the Government have raised the scoring for urban river defence schemes. They receive a higher score, and the fact that we have made more money available also means that the threshold score has been lowered from 23 to 20 points. I do not know whether that will help the scheme in the hon. Gentleman's area, but it will not be unhelpful. I shall be very interested to learn the details of the scheme when it is introduced by the Environment Agency.
The original scheme that was proposed was designed to a one-in-50 years standard. Even if it had been built, it would have been overwhelmed by the October floods. The water levels were so high that even that scheme would not have worked. That is another reason why there has to be a re-evaluation in Robertsbridge; we must find the right way forward.
The hon. Gentleman also made several points about local authorities. I am aware of them, and I have written to every chief executive of local councils in flood-hit areas. I also attended a constructive meeting of the local-central partnership in which central Government meet the Local Government Association. Many of the points about local authorities, the workings of the Bellwin scheme, flood defence programmes, investment strategies and fundraising were all mentioned and discussions are on-going. We take those points seriously and we shall respond to them.
Local authorities are responsible for the supply of sandbags, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman's council about the matter. If the Environment Agency has spare capacity, it is always willing to help out locally, but I must emphasise that it is responsible for the defences, not individual householders, who are the responsibility of the local authority.
One can dispute the figure of £51 million; nevertheless, it is £51 million on top of an increasing budget of £30 million over the next three years. The £51 million is capital grant aid, so it levers out about £70 million, which is a considerable sum. I have heard it said that £55 million is needed for flood defences in the hon. Gentleman's area, but I have never seen a breakdown of that figure, so I cannot say whether it is accurate. However, I can say that the Government do not dispute the need for more investment in flood and coastal defences. We are investing more, and we will continue to review the situation, in consultation with local people.
I am very willing to meet the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to bring some of his constituents to represent the residents, I should be only too pleased to meet them too. I certainly have no objection to visiting the area. The only difficulty is that recent events mean that I have spent an awful lot of time in different places around the country, and there are many demands on my diary. However, I shall certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion in mind. I can assure him that if he would like to bring a delegation, I should be only too pleased to receive it, and we can talk about the issues in greater detail.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the occupant of the Chair should have the very last word, so I, in turn, wish all hon. Members a happy Christmas and extend that wish to all the members of the House of Commons who serve us so well throughout the year.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Six o'clock.