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

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him very much for his kind words in welcoming me to my role. I am grateful for his tribute to the emergency services in these circumstances. I am delighted that he started his contribution by not seeking to allocate blame to any organisation. It is absolutely right that we all try to come together to ensure that we provide practical help to people.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about the financial support. In these circumstances, the Bellwin scheme will be extended to cover 100 per cent. of costs, and he asks why that is not the norm. We have made the change because we are looking at exceptional circumstances; the rainfall was unprecedented. It is right that the Bellwin scheme should continue and that we should have the flexibility to extend it in exceptional circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Bellwin scheme should cover capital costs, as well as resource costs. I understand that, in exceptional circumstances, if resources would be better used for capital rather than revenue expenditure, we could consider some claims for capital costs, but that it would be very unusual for us to do so. More often than not, local authorities need revenue for things such as immediate rest centres and immediate cleaning up. They are not really looking for capital moneys in these circumstances; they are usually looking to cover revenue costs.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether local authorities could offer council tax discounts. One of the issues raised in my initial discussion during my visit to Doncaster on Saturday was whether there might be some relief from council tax in cases where people cannot occupy their properties. That is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I have no doubt that it will be an issue in the longer-term discussions.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that information is absolutely vital. People have been reassured when they have been given good, timely and swift information about what is happening and about the resources available. Our flood defence programme is indeed not just about physical flood defences; there is also an extensive programme of flood warnings and other information made available locally to people.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Environment Agency database is available to other bodies, and I will certainly look into that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Information is important, but what is crucial is getting the right information, not information that could lead people to panic about the circumstances or to make hasty judgments.

As for the Thames Gateway and building on floodplains, the hon. Gentleman will know that about 10 per cent. of properties in England are constructed on floodplains. We have recently revised our planning guidance in planning policy statement 25, which provides a much more rigorous planning framework for building on floodplains. Plans must now be submitted to the Environment Agency for it to take a view. The presumption is that we try to direct development away from floodplains, but where development is necessary, there is now much more emphasis on risk assessment. I recently saw a scheme that diverted the watercourse to enable the water to spill over on to a wetland area, instead of it being constrained in a rigid watercourse, which in the past had led to flooding problems. Being more innovative and smarter about the planning regime will help in those circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the regional resilience teams established under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I hope that he would agree that that Act has put in place an effective framework whereby people can carry out exercises to cover the various eventualities. I was delighted to learn that the last exercise carried out in Sheffield in May dealt with the possibility of wide-scale flooding. Perhaps that contributed to the excellent provisions, including a humanitarian aid centre, that were put in place.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of institutional confusion and the absence of a single lead. I do not accept that, because there is a clear single lead under the 2004 Act. The police have the lead for a whole range of different emergencies. They establish Gold Command to take strategic decisions and Silver Command to look at situations across the area, and they usually have Bronze Command, which involves the taking of detailed tactical decisions on the ground. That kind of organisation has been proved to work in very many circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asked about money, which was inevitable. The £14 million package, £10 million of which is from my Department, is new money and I am sure that he will accept that.

The hon. Gentleman's final point was about whether our infrastructure can cope with changes in the weather. What we have seen over the past few weeks—and the devastation that has been caused to thousands of people, businesses and homes across the country—is perhaps a little more than a change in the weather, but he is right that we need to think ahead, to look at how the climate is changing and to see whether we need to take any further steps. The one overwhelming message that I received from my visits was that people were coping extremely well with what had happened this time, but that they would find it very difficult indeed if there were to be similar events in future.