Floods (England)

Oral Answers to Questions — Leader of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 2nd July 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:37 pm, 2nd July 2007

With permission, I should like to give the House an update on the serious flooding that has affected large parts of England and which will continue to have an impact for some months to come.

The flooding has claimed at least four lives, and the circumstances of three other reported deaths are still being investigated. I am sure the whole House would wish to express its profound sympathy to the families who have lost loved ones.

The Environment Agency currently has in place three severe flood warnings, 25 flood warnings and 55 flood watches in Yorkshire, the midlands, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. All the severe flood warnings are on the River Don in Yorkshire, where flood waters have not yet receded, despite considerable progress as a result of pumping. More than 300 people remain in temporary shelters, although many more have had to leave their homes and are in other temporary accommodation. The Environment Agency believes that it may be some days before the full all-clear can be given in those areas, and I should like to echo its warnings about the dangers of people going into flood waters unnecessarily. Police presence has been stepped up to counter fears about theft from properties, although, thankfully, there have been few actual cases.

Across the country significant efforts have been made by the Environment Agency and emergency services, with military assistance, to avert the risk of flooding to properties. The House will be aware that pumping of water from the Ulley reservoir has been under way for a number of days and has significantly reduced the risk of the dam collapsing. Work continues to shore up a flood bank to protect properties at Bentley, near Doncaster, and to remove water at Toll Bar and in Hull and the surrounding areas. In many areas, the worst of the immediate flooding has passed and clean-up operations are well in hand.

Fortunately, the heavy rainfall at the weekend has not added significantly to the flooding, and the weather forecast for the next few days is consistent with continued falls in river levels. However, further heavy rainfall is predicted for next weekend and I must caution that, with saturated ground and very high groundwater levels in some areas, further flooding might occur. The Environment Agency is working hard to ensure that all flood defence works and control structures are fully operational, including flood forecasting and warnings. Water levels in flood storage areas are being reduced as quickly as possible to allow capacity for any future flood flows. The emergency services are fully prepared to respond to any future emergency, with military support as required. I encourage the public to seek advice and to use the Environment Agency floodline or website.

Most electricity and gas supplies have been restored, although property-by-property checks are needed where there has been flood damage. Some flooded sewerage plants might remain out of action for several weeks, although steps are being taken to minimise pollution. Many schools are reopening, although some will be out of action for some time to come.

The Environment Agency knows of at least 3,500 properties that have been flooded from main rivers in south and west Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and elsewhere. The final figure will be higher. When account is taken of flooding from surface water that has been unable to escape into drains and from groundwater, the total number of properties affected could be over 20,000. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the costs of flood-related claims could run to £1 billion. The costs to local authorities of responding to the flooding will be covered by the long-established Bellwin arrangements. More severely affected homes and businesses will take a considerable time to recover. Experience from the Carlisle flood suggests that some properties will not be fully habitable for many months, and that will mean that those affected will have to be temporarily rehoused.

I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the continuing heroic efforts of the many who have responded so magnificently to this exceptional rainfall. They include the staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and local communities—neighbour helping neighbour. I appreciate how hard everyone has worked; some people are very tired. I am grateful to them, and for the help they have received from other regions.

As the flood waters recede, we will move into the recovery effort, which will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has today agreed that the Minister of State at her Department, my hon. Friend John Healey, will take the lead on this matter. He will co-ordinate Government support for the local authorities and other agencies which will deal with this major task. Both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will be visiting affected areas later this week and will keep the House fully informed.

There will be lessons to be learned, and we will learn them. However, one thing was already clear before the recent floods occurred: the Government have always recognised the need to spend more on flood defence because of changes in climate, and we have increased spending from £307 million in 1996-97 to more than £600 million this year. I can today inform the House that we will further increase spending across Government on flood-risk management and defences to £800 million in 2010-11. I will, of course, keep the House informed if there are any further significant developments.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Before I welcome the Secretary of State to his new brief—and welcome his team, too—may I join him in offering my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who, tragically, lost their lives in the floods, and in congratulating the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities who worked so hard to deal with what was a very difficult situation? Opposition Members also send our heartfelt sympathy to those whose homes have been ruined, whose businesses have been wrecked and whose lives have been put on hold by these wretched events.

The Secretary of State is most welcome to his new role. He has a reputation as a thoughtful member of the Government and he will need to put on his thinking cap at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As he has already learned, it is one of those Departments where events have a nasty way of leaping up and grabbing the agenda. What has happened is particularly hard for him, as his constituency has been severely affected by the floods.

Where the Secretary of State and his team do the right thing, we will offer our wholehearted support, as there is a lot at stake in respect of the DEFRA agenda—too much for there to be party politics. We will offer our support when they do the right thing but, given what is at stake, we will not hesitate to hold them to account. We are not interested in playing the blame game on flooding—bad things just happen. The most that we can ever hope for is that we minimise the chances of their happening, and respond effectively and efficiently when they do.

Last week, the Chief Fire Officers Association raised a couple of issues. First, it warned that, despite its essential role in managing localised disasters, the fire service currently has no legal duties regarding flooding. This, the association warned, can make it difficult to get things done as quickly as it would like. Do recent events give the Secretary of State cause to rethink that? Does he think that there may be a case for involving the fire service in flood management on a statutory basis?

Secondly, the CFOA suggested that too many agencies were involved in handling the floods, and said that that had caused some confusion and overlap. A flood support centre has now been set up in Worcester to co-ordinate fire and rescue resources nationwide. Is that likely to be a permanent fixture, or is it merely a temporary arrangement?

Although the emergency services have done a sterling job, the damages, as the Secretary of State said, are still huge. The Association of British Insurers puts the cost of flood damage at £1 billion. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor promised to inform me of his estimate of the value of uninsured losses. Is the Secretary of State now in a position to tell us what that figure is and how it divides regionally? What support are the Government able to give those who are under-insured or uninsured? How much money has been allocated under the social fund in respect of these events, and how will it be distributed? What qualification criteria will be attached to any grants made? How much money is available to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme? Has the Secretary of State made an application to the EU solidarity fund to help with the restoration of vital infrastructure?

Turning to the question of flood risk and prevention, the Environment Agency has been warning for some years that increases in the amount of cash for flood defences have not kept up with increases in the rate of flooding. Indeed, according to some reports, cash increases have not even kept up with the real world. Reports that the proposed flood schemes in Leeds and York were shelved because of funding constraints are of particular concern. How many flood protection schemes have been shelved or postponed in the past two years because of funding problems?

We know that last year, because of financial difficulties at DEFRA, it slashed £200 million from its agencies' budgets, including £15 million from flood defence work at the Environment Agency. According to the Environment Agency, that move was "tactical and opportunistic". Can the new Secretary of State guarantee that under his management the agency's flood defence work will be accorded a proper priority? I welcome his announcement this afternoon on increasing the budget for flood management in two years' time. Would his Department's funding problems have been so severe if the new Prime Minister, when Chancellor, had not repeatedly dipped into the Treasury's contingency budget?

Does the Secretary of State not think that a good way of minimising damage from flooding might be to avoid building on flood plains in the first place? Half the post-war building in the UK is on flood plains, and a lot of new building is destined to be so built. At present, a quarter of all planning applications opposed by the Environment Agency still go ahead. Does he regard that as acceptable? As the Secretary of State knows, the Environment Agency was given new powers in January to refer such developments to him. Will he do everything in his power to see that the agency's concerns are acted on by the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Finally, although we cannot prove that this year's weather is due to climate change, all the expert advice suggests that climate change will increase the risk of flooding in the United Kingdom—by 20 times, according to the Government's own foresight report. Will the Secretary of State use the forthcoming climate change Bill to commit to an annual report on climate change adaptation measures? As the Stern review has stressed, the costs of dealing with the consequences of climate change will escalate each year, as will the costs of mitigating it. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a step change in the approach that we take towards flood defences? Is this not a classic case of a stitch in time?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very kind words about all the people who have worked really hard in response to the emergency, and about my arrival at the Dispatch Box in this new capacity. I look forward to working with him and his colleagues in the spirit that he has offered. I take this opportunity to welcome my new colleagues as part of the DEFRA team, because I look forward to working with them, too.

We are prepared to consider giving the fire and rescue services a flood rescue duty, if and when full equipment and training are in place—but they contribute enormously already, as I saw for myself in Doncaster on Thursday evening, when I talked to firefighters from that area and to some from Herefordshire and Wales who had come with high-volume pumps to help pump the water out.

On the question of too many agencies, I have to say that that is not my experience from the meetings and discussions that I have had every day since I took up post on Thursday. It seems to me that the agencies that need to be there are party to those discussions and, more importantly, are taking action. The system appears to have worked pretty well, and has been well co-ordinated, so I do not recognise the problem that was identified by one chief fire officer.

The flood centre has been set up in response to the particular circumstances we are facing. I do not yet have an estimate of uninsured losses. As soon as I do, I will provide it to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. On help for those who are not insured, which is a real problem—in one of the streets in a very poor area that I visited on Thursday, it was estimated that some 50 per cent. of households did not have insurances—leaflets have been produced and distributed. Staff from the job centres have been in the rest centres offering advice. Crisis loans are available for those who have left their houses with literally nothing, and there are community care grants. There is £170 million in funding for the latter and a contingency reserve. They are available for people on jobseeker's allowance, income support and pension credit, but there is—as the hon. Gentleman will know—a capital limit.

The money that will go to local authorities through the Bellwin scheme will depend on the costs that they incur above the threshold, so I cannot give an estimate at this point. On the EU solidarity fund, the rules are that one can apply when the costs exceed either €3 billion or more than 0.8 per cent. of gross national income. I am not aware that we have yet reached that threshold. If we do so, it is something that we would consider.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there will be a proper priority for planning new flood defence schemes. Well, a new priority will certainly be given, not least because of the increase in funding that I have announced today, which all hon. Members who have constituencies where flooding is a problem—that includes mine, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out—will welcome. On the building of houses on the flood plain and other places where there is a risk of flooding, planning policy statement 25 clearly states that the Environment Agency must be consulted, and it has the power to ask the Government Office to call in applications where its advice is not being taken. I will indeed undertake to look at how that is being applied.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the flooding may be a consequence of the changing climate with which we all have to deal. I will look at the suggestion that has been made about reports on adaptation, because it is something that we are all going to have to learn to live with.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Labour, Scunthorpe

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new appointment. He will find that it is never dull in DEFRA. Does he agree that still only very few people are on the Environment Agency flood warning system, and will he raise awareness of it? In relation to the work that is being done by the Environment Agency, people often look for someone to blame in these circumstances. Will he join me in emphasising the huge commitment of those who have worked round the clock to deal with this emergency, some of whom are invisible—such as those who operate the internal drainage board systems, which also contribute to dealing with floods?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I very much welcome both my right hon. Friend's points. First, the flood warning system is a good one, as I know from personal experience. I urge everyone to get plugged in to it, because it gives people notice and enables them to take action in such circumstances. Secondly, I agree that, faced with such difficulties, some people do get angry, and it is hard to say about what we saw last week, "This is pretty unprecedented." The current estimate is that such things happen once in every 150 years. The truth is that, with rainfall at that level, even the best defences in the world are likely to be over-topped, and rivers will overflow. We have seen the consequences of that.

As the mood of the House reflected, it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to those who have worked incredibly hard over the past few days. If I may use the expression, they have bust a gut to help people who are distressed because of what has happened to their homes. We should applaud them for their efforts and continue to work with might and main to help those who have suffered.

H

Can I please make a suggestion to the Hon Secretary? As he is just starting in his new role I feel that it is appropriate to to out a particular way that he could help improve the public understanding of flood risk. Last week David Miliband described the base flood and flooding probability generally as being "a one chance in 100 years". I see that Mr Benn yesterday implied the same understanding. Now, this may appear to be a matter of semantics but flood probabilities are actually calculated as being "the chance in any one year" they are not return periods. i.e. Mr Miliband's 1 in one 100 year event should actually be understood and conveyed as...

Submitted by Hugh Deeming Continue reading

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I also join in the praise of those in the emergency and other public services who have struggled with the aftermath of the flooding, and extend our sympathy to all those families who have lost loved ones and whose property has been affected by the flooding? I also extend our best wishes to the new Secretary of State on his appointment to what is an increasingly crucial job of national security as well as environmental aspects.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the cause of the floods in Hull, Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Shropshire and elsewhere was, overwhelmingly, the failure of storm drains and sewerage systems to handle the enormous rainfall? It was therefore surface water, not traditional fluvial or coastal flooding. Will he now review the requirements placed on the private water companies to provide adequate drainage in co-ordination with their regulator Ofwat? Does he recognise that the Government's last statement on the subject, "Making Space for Water", has become substantially outdated since these events? Will he also ensure a mapping of flood risks from surface water, not just fluvial and coastal flooding? Will he publish a list of towns and cities that might be at risk of flooding as a consequence of similar extreme weather events?

The Liberal Democrats welcome the substantial increase in flood defence spending announced by the Secretary of State. Previous announcements of big increases in spending, however, have been substantially delayed, as the chief executive of the Environment Agency testified to the Public Accounts Committee recently. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us the path of the welcome build-up to £800 million in 2010-11? In particular, what figures has he now agreed for 2008-09 and 2009-10? Does he also agree that the increase highlights how ludicrous it was of his Department to cut flood defence spending by £15 million last year?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department and the Environment Agency were asked by the Treasury, as recently as two weeks ago, to make cuts of £20 million in their budgets for next year, before the floods struck? Is the belated and grudging conversion to the need for more spending just another example of the new Prime Minister's lamentable failure to understand the significance of climate change? Does not that show a devastating lack of foresight on his part?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind words at the beginning of his speech, although it went downhill thereafter. I simply do not agree with what he has just said. When I have come to the House to announce a significant further increase in expenditure on flood defence, it is pretty churlish of him to have a go at the new Prime Minister; I would hope that the House would welcome our determination. Many Members in the Chamber represent areas that have been affected by flooding, and all will welcome the increase in investment.

I accept that the system was overwhelmed; that is true. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the considerable impact of surface water, as well as river flooding. As I indicated previously, however, even the best defences in the world will sometimes be over-topped and overwhelmed by such concentrated rainfall. The arrangements put in place are therefore not at fault. In the end, the cause is a lot of rain, and the House needs to recognise that.

I have already said that there are other lessons to be learned, and we will do so. I cannot, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, undertake to forecast which places might be likely to flood in the future because that depends on where it rains and what happens, but I accept that further work needs to be done to improve the quality of the information available about where particular properties are at risk.

We will publish the path to the figure of £800 million in 2010-11 later, but I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. We did not cut the capital budget for expenditure on flood defence, and it is important that I make that clear to the House.

Photo of George Mudie George Mudie Labour, Leeds East

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the uninsured and he will know that people can be uninsured either because they are too poor to obtain insurance, or, like some of my constituents and his, because they are facing their third flood in three years so that their premiums have soared and they cannot afford them.

The Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend John Healey, sent out a letter today stating:

"The provision of additional help to the uninsured would undermine the incentive for households to take out insurance, but will be considered on an ongoing basis."

Will my right hon. Friend undertake such consideration or reconsideration urgently, and much more sympathetically than just with regard to essential items? Will he assure us that the Department is speaking to the Association of British Insurers to persuade the insurance companies not to raise premiums to such an extent that further people are uninsured?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will certainly give the maximum help that we can under the arrangements that I have outlined through both the crisis loans and the community care grant. There is a real issue, which I am sure my hon. Friend would acknowledge, that if the Government were generally to compensate people who were not insured, people might draw the conclusion that they did not need to insure themselves because in the end they would be bailed out. But he makes a really important point about the cost of premiums, and I undertake to talk to the ABI, both in relation to responding as quickly as possible in providing assistance to those who are insured in regard to the current emergency, but also in relation to what might be done in future to deal with the problem that he has rightly identified.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

On behalf of myself and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. We look forward to our dialogue with him on flooding and other matters.

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, produced a foresight report that counselled us to take into account extreme weather events when looking at flooding issues. Most people would say that June's weather has been, to say the least, extreme, so will the Secretary of State think about asking Sir David King to chair an expert group as soon as possible to re-examine our preparedness for extreme weather events and, in particular, the models that exist to enable us to predict the effects in the light of the welcome increase in funding to ensure that it is applied in the most effective way?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who so ably chairs the Select Committee, for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and members of his Committee on all the matters for which I now have responsibility. I am happy to go away and think about his suggestion; I said that I wanted to learn the lessons. There are a number of matters on which we will need to reflect and I will add his proposal to the list.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

When my right hon. Friend talks to the ABI, will he also mention that, in 2002, 200 families in my constituency were rendered homeless by the floods at Stockbridge, and more than anything else that their situation was exacerbated by the attitude of just one major insurance company, which I will not name? However, I threatened to do so at the time, and that was the only thing that led it to exercise its brain to sort the matter out. One elderly lady was out of her house for a year because the insurance firm insisted that she accepted the lowest tender, which meant that cowboys took over and worked only part-time. It was only when I threatened the company that it took action and employed some decent workers. Will my right hon. Friend mention that?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am concerned to hear about that case after the previous flooding in my hon. Friend's constituency. If Members have concerns about the way in which insurance companies or others are responding to the floods, and they think that I can be of assistance, I ask them to get in touch with me, as I shall be happy to raise such issues with the ABI in general, and if necessary in serious cases, with particular companies, too.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ministerial appointment, although I am sorry that he is leaving the Department for International Development where he has done such a splendid job.

As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, a great majority of the houses I have visited in my Lincolnshire constituency in recent days were uninsured against flood. It is a serious and urgent problem, which is difficult to resolve. People were uninsured not because they were feckless, but because they had repeatedly been refused insurance cover, and the few who thought they could obtain it could not afford the high premiums. In addition to crisis loans, which are welcome but will worry people who do not want to get themselves into debt repaying them, will the Secretary of State hold a meeting with the insurance industry as a whole to see whether there could be some form of Government subsidy for such uninsured flood groups? As the Prime Minister said in another context, the first duty of a Government is to protect their citizens, and that applies to flooding as well as to terrorism.

A

Sir Peter Tapsell - What concerns me about your justified plea, is that successive Government have failed to halt the building of Domestic Properties, Schools, Hospitals, Surgeries (Medical/Dental), on flood plains. You are tackling a result and symptoms, and not the cause of the problem! People are weak and will buy any property within their ability, and often now beyond their means. As you have stated: It is the Government's Duty to protect and you are a part of that Government - Are you not?

Is greed the reason that building took place in Sprout Yard in Louth? Low cost housing as well?

Submitted by Anthony WALKER

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have moved from dealing with one group of farmers—in the developing world—to another group here in the UK, some of whom I met at the Royal show this morning.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The Government have worked with the ABI over time to ensure that the possibility of insurance is available to most homes, but I know that does not cover all properties so I recognise the dilemma that he raises of people who cannot get insurance. As I said in answer to a previous question, I undertake to add his point to the list of issues that I shall raise with the ABI.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

Exactly a week ago, my constituency of Rotherham and the wider borough were turned into a maze of lakes, rivers and streams where houses, roads and shops had stood. I pay tribute in particular to the work of Rotherham council in co-ordinating relief help and to the chamber of commerce, which has not been mentioned, but has been out and about helping to dry out business properties. I have three specific questions for my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

In that case, I shall write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest

As vice-chair of the all-party flood prevention group, I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and I welcome, too, his thoughtful and caring approach. Obviously, I welcome the extra money for flood alleviation. In my area, the problem this time was not the big rivers but surface water, so I should like to suggest just three things for the Environment Agency to—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I point out to the hon. Gentleman and to the House generally that this is the second statement today. I am anxious to call as many people as I possibly can but I have to protect further business. Unless Members are brief and ask only one question at a time and the Secretary of State gives reasonably brief answers, an awful lot of people will not be called.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State encourage the Environment Agency to carry out camera studies of culverts under new builds and to look at the new type of grids that are more effective and let water through more easily, while holding back extra detritus?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I shall willingly raise both issues with the Environment Agency.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Yvette Cooper, Minister of State), Department for Communities and Local Government

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. I welcome, too, the support he has offered the people of south Yorkshire. Last Friday, I visited a large number of constituents who were badly traumatised by the flood. That experience persuaded me that I shall have to continue to press my right hon. Friend to ensure that support is delivered as quickly as possible to people who need it. Will he talk to the ABI on the varied experience that is already materialising in relation to insurance claims? Will he ensure that—

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to provide all the support that we can. I visited one of the rest centres in Doncaster with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, and the care being provided was frankly outstanding and was an example of the community at its best. If she lets me know the rest of the point that she started to make, I will happily raise it with the ABI.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The very future of many parts of my constituency depends on proper sea defences. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the promised increase in expenditure will cover sea defences as well as inshore flood defences?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will need to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, because I am still in the process of understanding exactly how all the bits work. I hope that he will accept that reply.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

When the present crisis is over, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look at how resources are allocated to rural areas? Villages in Nottinghamshire, such as Lowdham, Lambley and Woodborough, have been badly flooded, but on the present cost-benefit analysis look unlikely ever to receive any protection. Should not people be safe and secure in both urban and rural areas?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

People certainly should be protected, but in this emergency lots of places have been affected and, in the end, the Environment Agency, with its resources, has to decide on priorities.

I can save Mr. Bellingham the cost of a stamp, because the answer to his question is yes. Both coastal defences and inland defences will be covered.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Will the Secretary of State tell the Environment Agency that people expect it to maintain its flood defences to a good standard, which it does not, and to improve those defences to stop flooding, rather than putting people's homes on a map of properties at risk, which makes it very dear to insure them?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am sure that the Environment Agency would say that it does its best to make sure not only that new flood defences are provided, but that the existing ones are properly maintained. If the right hon. Gentleman has concerns about particular flood defences where he thinks that that is not the case, will he please draw them to my attention and I will raise them with the Environment Agency?

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as a Leeds MP, will be aware that both the River Aire and the River Wharfe have given us great problems, along with surface water. In the light of recent experiences, what plans are there to improve co-ordination between the Environment Agency, Leeds city council and Yorkshire Water? Many of my constituents are really confused about who is in charge.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If my hon. Friend would like me to look at that matter as a response to the flooding that Leeds has recently experienced, I would be happy to do so. I know that the Environment Agency works hard in partnership with a wide range of agencies to ensure that there is clarity of responsibility, but I am happy to take up the point he raised.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

It is only just over three months ago that we were told that, due to the acute lack of rainfall, no matter what happened later in the year, we would probably face hosepipes bans and standpipes. Presumably that is no longer the case. Can the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has to build more reservoirs so that we can find somewhere to put the rainfall when it comes so that we can use it when we have dry period?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The problem that we are dealing with and to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention is that there is not enough rain in some places and far too much in others. In the end, we are going to have to ensure that we have got the right systems in place to cope with both, and I would be happy to come back to him and tell him more about how we might do that.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

My right hon. Friend will know that I represent the constituency of Crosby, which has 15 miles of coastline, a river and thousands of properties that are either below sea level or at sea level. I am particularly concerned about my constituents who live in Hightown. The Environment Agency proposes to extend the ditch-and-dike system there and I thank him for the work that his Department has done to introduce that. However, the local council has just written to the parish council in Hightown to inform it that more than £1 million, which was provided by house builders for coastal works, will have to be returned to the Government because it has not been spent. Will he please do all he can to encourage Sefton council to put forward plans to spend that money quickly, given the level of concern and the demand for measures to address the terrible problem that my constituents face regularly?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will be happy to examine the case that my hon. Friend raises and come back to her.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment. Hundreds of homes in Beverley and Holderness were flooded last week. Untold misery was caused to residents, despite the heroic efforts of the emergency services and the local community. Residents want to know why pumps were not installed on the Burstwick drain, why the outlets into the Humber appeared not to work fully and properly, and why it appeared that the Environment Agency had not carried out basic maintenance of the drain ways. Will the Secretary of State visit my constituency and hear from local people and drainage boards about the solutions that they feel could be put in place so that devastation of such an extent need not be repeated?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I cannot guarantee that I will be able to come to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but if he would like to give me further details about the issues that he raises, I would be happy to meet him so that I can put the points to the Environment Agency and he can provide an answer for his constituents.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh PPS (Andy Burnham, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on their new appointments.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to join me in paying tribute to the staff at St. Catherine's church in Agbrigg, where 10 streets have been flooded and, sadly, four arrests were made for looting this weekend, and to council staff at the Lightwaves leisure centre. Both places opened crisis centres to deal with people who were temporarily homeless. In the past few days, insurance companies, Yorkshire Water, Yorkshire Forward, the council and the Environment Agency have given me information about what to do in the event of flooding. However, when I went to the East Flanshaw estate on Friday to visit people who had been flooded, they did not seem to have received any of that information directly from the agencies themselves. Is it not time for us to look at how councils can work together, bring information together and send it out, perhaps with council tax bills, to people who are at risk of flooding?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The most striking aspect of the visit that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I made on Thursday night was the issue of communication. People want to know how they might prepare in advance, and, when such circumstances arise, they want to know what is going on, what efforts are being made and where they can go for assistance. I assure my hon. Friend that we will examine that as part of the lessons-learned exercise. There must be clarity about who is responsible for providing such information to local communities. Local authorities should take the lead.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The Secretary of State is both a caring and thoughtful Minister. In 1953, 58 people on Canvey Island lost their lives in the floods, so this is a matter of great concern to my constituents. Can he give them a commitment to, and details of, changes to Government policy to give the fire service a statutory role in flood rescue that would make them, and their fire stations, safer?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, fire services and all other statutory agencies have a responsibility to participate in activities when such emergencies arise. We are prepared to examine the specific question of the flood rescue duty—I mentioned that in reply to an earlier question—when the fire service has the necessary equipment in place. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman. If he requires anything further, will he please let me know?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

May I commend to the Secretary of State the work that Shropshire's local authority's emergency services have done in Shropshire over the past 10 days or so? If he has not already done so, may I suggest that he reads with his usual diligence the National Audit Office report on flood risk management, which was reviewed last week by the Public Accounts Committee? He will see from the report that last year's funding for flood defence in inland waters was down by £70 million on the previous year. He will also establish that the Bellwin formula does not of course apply to the Environment Agency. Will he discuss with the chief executive of the Environment Agency how much of the additional funding that he has committed today will be available to the agency? The chief executive told the Public Accounts Committee last week that

"we will be talking to Defra about our budget. However, in their current parlous state I find it difficult to believe that we will get much from them, so it may well be we have to seek Treasury funding."

How much of the £800 million will go to the Environment Agency and how much will go to Bellwin?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

May I echo the hon. Gentleman's praise of everybody in Shropshire for their response to the flooding? I will read the National Audit Office report; I have not had time to do so, because I have been dealing with the practical problems on the ground. The funding that I announced is available to the Environment Agency, but it also supports the local authorities concerned, and later I will announce exactly what the rise will be that will ensure the £800 million figure. I informed the chief executive of the Environment Agency of the figure this afternoon when I was briefing in preparation for my statement to the House, and I think that it will be widely welcomed.