Flooding (England)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 9th July 2007.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party 3:31 pm, 9th July 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about recovery efforts following the recent flooding. Above all, I would like to express my deepest sympathy and the sympathy of the whole House to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with them.

The scale of devastation in the flood-hit areas is enormous. Our current assessment is that 31,200 homes and 7,000 businesses have been affected. Many roads and rail links remain closed. Schools have been damaged. Agriculture has been hit hard and the lives of thousands of people have been disrupted.

The recovery effort will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. The Prime Minister and I have agreed that the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend John Healey, should take the lead to co-ordinate Government support. He has been working closely with colleagues across Whitehall to do so and I am grateful to him for all the work that he has done so far. He, like my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary, has visited some of the worst affected areas. Indeed, just this morning he met the chief executive officers of key affected local authorities. We will follow that up with a further meeting in Leeds on Wednesday, and other visits from colleagues are planned.

Media reporting has tended to focus on particular areas such as Hull. But the fact is that a large number of areas and a very large number of people have been affected across the country. We recognise that and our commitment is to mobilise assistance to every community that has been affected.

I myself have visited communities in Toll Bar in Doncaster, and in Sheffield. Physical damage is the most obvious effect of flooding, but I was struck by its emotional impact, too. I have met people who have been devastated by what has happened: such as the elderly man living alone who had lost not just his possessions, but the phone line that was his link to the outside world. Luckily for him, his daughter was around to help him. I recognise, too, that many others feel angry about what has happened. We must help them to try to pick up the pieces of their lives.

I have also met some of the brave men and women who have made a real difference at a difficult time. Families and friends have helped each other out. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service, and the police have done an excellent job. Local authorities have stepped up to the mark and I would like to acknowledge their resourcefulness, and the way that they have prioritised to give most support to the most vulnerable. The voluntary sector has really come into its own.

In fact, a whole range of organisations has worked together to give people the practical help that they need. I have seen fantastic co-ordination of services, such as the Sheffield humanitarian aid centre which was set up immediately. In Sheffield, the local authority visited 2,000 families in the first 48 hours. I have been impressed by how very testing events have brought out the best in people.

Communities want to get back to normal as swiftly as possible. Our priority now is to support them in doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will continue to work closely with the local authorities, the fire and rescue services, the insurance industry and other partners, who have already done so much, to ensure that everything possible is being done.

We are providing vulnerable people with access to crisis loans and community care grants, so that they can afford basic essentials such as fresh clothes and bedding. We are giving people advice so that they can help to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. We are meeting the Association of British Insurers tomorrow to ensure that hard-hit households and businesses get the support that they need urgently.

We are working to protect jobs. The regional development agencies have set up a range of funds to support small businesses affected by the floods but there is much more to do. We are now gathering information daily on the scale of the challenges, and the visits will carry on. We know that we need to maintain our efforts and that there are long-term problems that we have to face across a range of areas. Where schools are still closed, councils have swiftly arranged alternatives to ensure that children are educated. The Department for Children, Schools and Families stands ready to work with schools to look at re-profiling some capital expenditure to help get buildings up and running again as soon as possible, and especially by September. While local authorities have undertaken sterling work in assisting with short-term homelessness, many homes are going to be uninhabitable for some time and we know that medium to long-term temporary accommodation will be needed.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keeping the situation under review and remains in close contact with the National Farmers Union. Transport and infrastructure is an issue; rail links have been affected, some roads are closed and others are seriously undermined. The Department for Transport will assist local authorities once the full scale of the damage has been assessed.

It is because there is much more to do that, on Saturday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government will be providing a rescue fund of £14 million. We are working to get these resources to local authorities as soon as possible. These funds will be in addition to the significant extra resources that local authorities can access through the Bellwin scheme.

Some £10 million will go direct to local authorities in the flood-hit areas to support the work that they and other organisations are already doing, particularly to help those who have lost everything and need immediate support. We will work closely with the Local Government Association to help local authorities deliver this support quickly and effectively, and with the minimum of bureaucracy. Communities told me that they wanted the money to get to them as quickly as possible. Some £3 million will meet immediate claims from local authorities to help with the cost of repairing roads and bridges, and £1 million will help some of our most vulnerable people to replace essential household items, such as cookers and beds.

The Prime Minister also announced that we are making changes to the Bellwin scheme, which is designed to help local authorities reclaim costs in emergencies. Instead of having only two months to claim under the scheme, local authorities will now have six months. Instead of being able to claim 85 per cent. of the expenses incurred, local authorities will now be able to claim back the whole costs of eligible expenditure. This will help to ensure that assistance reaches those who need it most. Debate has already started about what more we can do in the long term to reduce the chances of this kind of destruction happening again. This is a real concern among those who have been hardest hit by the flooding.

It is clear that we need to continue investing in the fire and rescue services, so that they have the equipment they need. The Government have invested £200 million in "new dimension" equipment for the fire and rescue services. I saw the crucial difference that this could make, with new high-volume pumps being used to drain flood water in the midlands and the north.

We also understand the need to continue investing in flood defences. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced to the House last Monday, Government investment in flood defences will rise from £600 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. We have strengthened planning policy on development and flood risk; this makes sure that planners and developers work together to locate new developments away from flood risk areas where possible. It also makes sure that any necessary new development in a high-risk area is safe and does not increase flood risk.

We must learn from the events of recent days. These rains were unprecedented, but it would be wrong to suppose that such an event could never happen again. We must consider what more could be done to prevent this scale of damage in the future. It is right to be thinking for the long term, but we should not let that detract from the urgent business of giving practical help to the people who are suffering now.

The new measures that I have outlined today are essential, but let me reiterate that they are a first step. In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to work closely with local leaders to help all our communities get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.