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 Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:31 pm, 9th July 2007

First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new appointment and wish her well in her new role. I also thank her for the advance copy of her statement. I join her in paying tribute to the emergency services, councils and voluntary workers who have worked tirelessly over the last fortnight to help the victims of these terrible floods. I also join her in expressing sympathy to the victims of the flood. It will be a long time before those communities can enjoy anything like normal family life. It was evident from watching her on Saturday that she had seen people's distress from visiting those dreadful scenes, as has my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh. We should not be in the game of laying blame, but I have several questions regarding the right hon. Lady's statement. Financial support from central Government is essential to ensure that councils are able to rebuild; otherwise, they face cuts in local services or hikes in council taxes due to the cost of reconstruction. In Saturday's statement, the Department said that the Bellwin scheme reforms would not be permanent. Why is that? In 2001, its predecessor Department warned that the "main live issue" with Bellwin was

"local authority expenditure on flood protection and response to flooding".

Is there not a case for a complete review of the Bellwin scheme, including the capital costs of flooding, rather than using these short-term fixes? Councils such as Herefordshire and Carlisle have previously introduced local council tax discounts for the victims of flooding. Will the right hon. Lady encourage councils to adopt such measures? Can such expenditure by flood-hit councils be claimed back under Bellwin?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the public are entitled to have the best information available on flood risk? The National Audit Office has warned that fewer than half the country's high-risk flood defences are at "target condition". Will she place in the Library a list of the defences that are below target condition? Do not residents deserve more information not just about coastal and river flooding, but about urban drainage problems and our creaking sewerage system?

If the right hon. Lady believes in openness, will she speak to the Environment Agency about its clampdown on websites such as OnOneMap, which seeks to make the agency's public flood map data more accessible to the public? Insurers are calling for full access to the agency's national flood and coastal defence database. Should not both the public and insurers be given free access to that data, provided that insurers continue to insure at-risk properties?

The Government are planning extensive development on the Thames Gateway, much of which is floodplain. What plans does the right hon. Lady have to revise building regulations to ensure that new homes are built in a way that will minimise damage if there is flooding? What funding mechanisms will be used to ensure that the new developments are constructed with robust flood defences? What steps are being taken to encourage the use of natural wetlands and the restoration of natural floodplains to prevent upstream flooding?

The Secretary of State says that the rains were unprecedented, but we have witnessed a succession of major floods in recent years. The Government created the regional resilience team and regional civil contingencies committees to improve co-ordination of emergency responses. What role have they played in tackling recent flooding, and what lessons can be learned to improve their responses to other disruptive civil emergencies?

The Chief Fire Officers Association has criticised the "institutional confusion" among the myriad public sector agencies responsible for tackling flooding incidents and has called for a single lead agency to co-ordinate responses, but was that recommendation not made three years ago after the Boscastle and Carlisle floods? Will the right hon. Lady place in the Library a copy of the conclusions of Exercise Trident, the flood contingency planning exercise of 2004, so that we can judge what advice was given? Will she confirm that the £14 million that the Chancellor announced is to replace last year's £14 million cut in the budget? Are new moneys to be made available?

If the Minister is not to come to the Dispatch Box with ever-increasing frequency, we need to understand why our infrastructure could not cope with changes in the weather. We need to learn the lessons and to improve co-ordination. Above all, we need to know who is in charge.