Pitt Report

HMRC – in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 25th June 2008.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:19 pm, 25th June 2008

Sir Michael Pitt has today published his final report on last summer's flooding. I thank Sir Michael and his team for the professional way in which they have gone about their work of identifying the lessons to be learned. I also welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, to which Government are responding today.

This month marks the first anniversary of the start of the floods. The lives of many people and businesses were turned upside down and the costs—human and financial—were considerable. Our thoughts will, above all, be with the families of those who lost loved ones, as well as with communities still trying to recover. I am sure the House will wish to thank all those who have worked so hard to help those affected over the past 12 months, and I would like to pay tribute to the contribution of my hon. Friend John Healey, the floods recovery Minister.

As Sir Michael says:

"Last summer's flooding was exceptional".

While we recognise both the huge emergency effort at the time and the investment over many years in flood defences—without which the effects would have been much worse—I said to the House last year that we would learn the lessons.

Sir Michael's report sets out more than 90 recommendations including: establishing the right legislative framework to tackle flooding; clarifying who is responsible for what; ensuring that the public have all the information and guidance they need; working with essential services to assess risk and protect critical infrastructure; and having a clear recovery plan right from the start of any major emergency. I welcome Sir Michael's report and the direction it sets. We will prepare a detailed response, with a prioritised action plan, in the autumn. We have already taken a number of steps that respond to Sir Michael's findings, and I wish to report them to the House.

The Government have made available up to £88 million, with a further £31 million to come, to help local authorities assist those in greatest need, as well as repair infrastructure and help schools and businesses to get going again. A lot has been achieved: most of those affected are now back in their homes, and we will continue to work with local authorities and the insurance industry to help the rest to return to them as soon as possible.

Flood warnings save lives. Since last June, more than 73,000 additional people have registered with the Environment Agency flood warning system, and the EA will now automatically register properties to receive flood warnings where telephone numbers are publicly available. The EA has also improved its advice to the public and run flood awareness campaigns, and is working with the Met Office to improve the quality of flood warnings. The EA has spent £5 million on repairing defences damaged last summer. Current improvement schemes include a £5.9 million project refurbishing the Hull barrier and remedial works to culverts in Gloucester.

As I informed the House last week, I have decided that the EA will now take on a new strategic overview role in England for managing flood risk from whatever source, and that local authorities will take responsibility for surface water management, including surface water management plans, under the EA's overview. We will now sort out the detailed arrangements for that, drawing on responses to the "Future Water" consultation and the results of the 15 pilot projects on urban drainage, which we are publishing today.

On critical infrastructure, electricity and water providers are responsible for ensuring continuity of supply. The electricity industry has identified just over 1,000 grid and primary sites that are in flood zones, and is working with the EA to see which of them might need additional protection. Every water company is reviewing how its critical assets may be at risk from flooding in order to prioritise investment plans. This information will be used as the basis of a planned nationwide programme to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure, which the Government will produce later this year. Most local resilience forums have now been briefed on critical infrastructure in their area, and the remainder will be by the end of August.

On reservoir safety, we will now go ahead to prepare flood maps for reservoirs coming under the Reservoirs Act 1975, and to ensure that where these are not already available, they are provided to local emergency planners before the end of 2009. They will decide the best way to ensure that communities are informed. We will also modernise reservoir safety legislation.

The Government will produce an outline for the national flood emergency framework by the end of July, with a draft for consultation by the end of the year. This will be part of a major programme to improve preparedness for severe flooding. We will bring forward a draft floods and water Bill in the next session. That will enable us to respond to many of Sir Michael's recommendations

The Government are increasing investment in flood-risk management from £650 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. The EA's defences protected 100,000 properties from flooding last year, and this new investment will protect a further 145,000 homes across the country. We are also developing with the EA a long-term investment strategy for flood defence.

We have set aside £34.5 million for priorities identified in Sir Michael's report. We will need to consider the detailed recommendations and their funding with local authorities and other partners before making a final allocation, but in order to make progress I am announcing today that at least £5 million will be made available to develop surface water management plans in the highest priority areas, and at least £1 million to improve reservoir safety, specifically for inundation mapping. I have also set aside an initial £250,000 to plan a major national floods exercise to test the new structures and arrangements being put in place, to ensure that we are better prepared in future.

We must recognise that we can never eliminate the risk of flooding, particularly as climate change takes hold, but all of us—Government, water and electricity providers, local communities and individuals—must take flood risk seriously and be as prepared as we can be to deal with it. Sir Michael's report will help us all to do that. I know that he will be taking a close interest in its implementation, and I will invite him to attend Cabinet Committee discussions on progress. I will report further to the House in the autumn with a detailed action plan.

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

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and congratulate Sir Michael Pitt and his team on producing a very thorough and comprehensive report? One year on from the disastrous floods of last June, the thoughts of the whole House will be with those who tragically lost members of their families, and with those whose homes and businesses were wrecked and whose lives were indeed turned upside down.

Anyone who has met the victims of flooding knows only too well that, as well as the physical damage to property and the disruption to daily life, there is often a lasting, less visible but none the less real, emotional impact to cope with. It is essential that everything possible is done to protect communities against the risk of flooding, and to ensure that when flooding occurs, the response is swift and efficient. I pay tribute again to the work of the emergency services last year, who in often hazardous circumstances did an extraordinary job with great determination. Those circumstances were often made even more difficult by other factors; we know from the chief fire officer that he felt that there was "institutional chaos", which affected the emergency services' work. We must learn the lessons from that.

Although Sir Michael's interim report published last December recognised that the weather events last year were exceptional, it found that the United Kingdom's response was ill prepared. At that time, he made 15 urgent recommendations, and the Government rightly said they would act on them. However, in a progress report published in April, Sir Michael was critical, saying that insufficient action had been taken on key infrastructure and raising public awareness. He said:

"The public remain little better prepared than they were before last summer's floods."

What confidence can we have in the Government's promise to act on today's recommendations when previous urgent recommendations have been largely ignored?

Sir Michael's interim report said that the floods were a "wake-up call", but after a bit of progress has been made on some of the recommendations somebody seems to have hit the snooze button. It is one year on from the floods, but three years since the Government first announced plans to give the Environment Agency a strategic overview of all types of flooding. Last week, the Government re-announced plans to extend the role of the EA as part of the proposed floods and water Bill, but there is no intention to do anything but consult on possible legislation, and then not until 2009. Is that the rapid implementation that is needed, or is it dithering?

Last summer, the Prime Minister said, "We will do all we can to help people living in temporary accommodation after the floods." What does he say now to the 11,000 people who are still out of their homes?

The Government also promised that local authorities affected by the floods would be compensated for the cost of clearing up. We have spoken to local authorities and they have told us that they are collectively some £50 million out of pocket, because the money that they were promised has not been delivered. Does the Secretary of State expect the council tax payer to pick up the bill?

We welcome the report's recommendation that there should be a presumption against building in high flood risk areas, but what are the Government doing to ensure that that is implemented? The report is correct to recommend that there should be an end to the automatic right of water and sewerage companies to connect new properties to the drainage system regardless of capacity, but where is the Government's policy to deal with that and ensure that it happens?

On critical infrastructure, the report says that

"the approach taken by the Government to mitigating the risks from flooding and other natural hazards has been uncoordinated and reactive."

It calls for the urgent publication of a national framework to reduce risks to our infrastructure. That was one of the "urgent recommendations" made last December. Is not vital infrastructure as vulnerable today as it was a year ago? When can we expect a national framework to be implemented?

The Secretary of State says that flood warnings save lives, and another of last year's urgent recommendations was to introduce an opt-out telephone warning system. In April, Sir Michael warned that "insufficient progress" had been made on this. Today he says that the issue is "not yet resolved". When will it be resolved?

Sir Michael says of his 92 recommendations that

"strong national leadership will be needed to make them a reality."

I suspect that what he really means by that is that more dithering simply will not do. Is not that the single most important lesson to be learned? What people are asking is when we will get strong national leadership from this Government. I fear that they know the answer.

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

The hon. Gentleman thanked me for advance sight of a copy of my statement, but it is clear from what we have just heard that he did not do the House the courtesy of reading it or listening to it when I delivered it a moment ago. I do not share his assessment of the performance of the emergency services, and it is no good saying that he pays tribute to what they did. The reason that the emergency services were able to deal with the emergency in the way that they did was precisely the planning that had been put in place.

Nor do I share the hon. Gentleman's assessment of progress on the urgent recommendations that Sir Michael Pitt made in his interim report. On the question of infrastructure, the hon. Gentleman has just heard about the progress that has been made. There are 43 local resilience forums in England, with 38 to be briefed—because the six forums in London will be briefed as one—and 29 of which have been briefed, so there are nine to be done by the end of August. Those nine have not been done because they have said that they want to wait for a revised list of essential infrastructure to be published. Once that happens, they will be briefed.

There are 4,716 households out of their homes, 58 per cent. of which are in Hull and the East Riding, and 8 per cent. in Tewkesbury. We will continue to work hard to get those people back into their homes, but we should pay tribute to the enormous effort that has resulted in most of the people affected going home. Some 48,000 homes were affected by the flooding and great progress has been made in the past year: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not prepared to acknowledge that.

The money that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has promised local authorities has been delivered—up to £88 million—and, as I said, there is more to come in the £31 million that will be allocated by the end of next month.

The question of connection to sewerage is something that we will look at in the proposed Bill. I gave the hon. Gentleman the answer to his question about the national framework in my statement and I hope that he will welcome the fact that the outline will be published by the end of July and the first draft by the end of this year.

On the opt-out, the hon. Gentleman clearly did not listen to a word I said, because I told the House that the Environment Agency will now automatically register people whose numbers are publicly available and is in the final stages of sorting out the problem of ex-directory numbers. Of course, people have the right to opt out of a warning in those circumstances, but I am sure that all hon. Members would advise them not to do so.

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Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, but I wish to make two points. First, we should not believe that the privatised utilities will take the action that is necessary. After the 2005 floods in my constituency, of which I was a victim, they should have learned the lessons, but they did not. If they had done so, the problems last summer would have been lessened.

My second point is the need for more money for more flood defences. The Government have been very generous, and the Secretary of State has said today that more money will be spent, but there will never be enough taxpayers' money, and money will have to come from other sources, whether it is the businesses or the individual households that will benefit from those defences or the insurance companies. I hope that future legislation will ensure that if the Government keep their side of the bargain and put in extra resources, other resources will also be brought in.

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

The responsibility that falls on the utility providers to ensure continuity of supply is clear. My hon. Friend can rest assured that the steps that we are taking will ensure improved protection for that infrastructure. Part of the process of the assessment is to identify where a piece of infrastructure is critical and where a way round it can be found, such as pumping water by a different route if a water treatment works is submerged, as happened with Mythe in the flooding last year.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about increased investment, and I am glad that he recognises that money that the Government are putting in. However, when it comes to the privatisation of schemes, we may find local communities, businesses and local authorities being prepared to put some money in. The question that we will have to address together is how we can draw on such contributions while also ensuring that we have a fair system, so that it is not only areas that can afford it that get flood defence schemes. The truth is that we all have a shared responsibility.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Sir Michael Pitt and his team for their report. I understand that Sir Michael made special efforts to ensure that the report was so straightforward that even MPs would read it. He has achieved that and deserves credit for doing so. I also salute the work that has been done at local level through the emergency services over the past 12 months, and we should record our appreciation.

It is true, as the report says, that the 2007 floods were exceptional. Sir Michael describes them as the "most expensive" in the world in 2007, so they were an extraordinary occasion. However, as the Secretary of State said, they will become more common. In that context, is it not outrageous that in one of the world's richest countries there are still 4,700 households out of their homes? Is the Secretary of State convinced that every stop was pulled out to get those people back in their homes, given the trauma of being out of their homes for a year or more? Given the urgency of the situation, why is the Secretary of State talking about draft legislation in the next Session, which would involve actual legislation in 2010 or beyond? Why are we not legislating rapidly? We would all be willing to comment on drafts now, so that we can get on with it. Where is the urgency in this very urgent situation?

In terms of the funding, I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement of £250,000 to plan for a national flood emergency exercise. Can he confirm that one will go ahead, because I would warmly salute that. Householders have some responsibility and a national exercise would educate all of us. Can he confirm that it will go ahead and when?

On the issue of money, the Secretary of State talked about the budget going up in 2010. That is a long way away, so is he convinced that the Department's budget for flooding is adequate now, given that we are likely to face the same risks over the coming 18 months.

My final concern, as always, is about DEFRA's weakness, and that of other Departments, on the issue of flooding. The critical issue in this case is housing. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government's target of 3 million new households by 2026 stands? Is he aware that that would mean more building on the floodplains? In my constituency, in Yate in Chipping Sodbury, the local council has earmarked housing development in flood risk areas because the Government are imposing absurd targets. Will he and the Minister for Housing bang some heads together and get rid of those absurd central targets so that local people can plan sensibly and not be forced to build on floodplains. Sir Michael says that that should be the absolute exception, and he is absolutely right.

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

I echo the hon. Gentleman's praise for the clarity of Sir Michael's report and the practical way in which he went about his task. Today, Sir Michael has presented us and the nation with a guide to why we need to do better in the future, and how we can do so. Today's discussion is part of the process of making more people aware of the steps that they need to take—an awareness that will grow as a result of the coverage that I hope his report will receive today.

Why are 4,716 households still out of their homes? Principally, the answer is that their homes are still drying out. If anyone has any ideas about how that can be done more quickly, I am sure that insurance companies and those householders will be keen to hear them. Some people might be out of their homes because they have insurance problems—we think that about one in eight of those households did not have any insurance at all—and one lesson that we need to learn is that people cannot afford not to take out insurance.

Why have I set out such a timetable for the legislation? First, we believe in pre-legislative scrutiny. Secondly, Sir Michael's report has been published only today and we need to think through the consequences of his detailed recommendations, which we have just seen, so that we can update the legislation, some of which goes back to the 1930s. We will have a floods exercise, but it will not be immediate, for the simple reason that we have had quite a lot of flood exercises in the past year: they have been real floods. The purpose of the exercise will be to test the national flood emergency framework, when it is in place, to see whether we have dealt with all the issues that have been identified. The budget is rising from £650 million this year up to £700 million and then £800 million. The Environment Agency will say that it needs time to plan, to gear up and to prepare the new flood schemes. We will, of course, need to do more about such schemes in future.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about housing, but as Sir Michael says in his report, the planning guidance is very clear. The responsibility is on the local authorities and we have made clear what their responsibilities are— [ Interruption. ] It is. In the end, the local councils that give permission for building or refuse it will bear the responsibility. However, the Environment Agency has been given a statutory right to be consulted because, after all, it is the expert on flood risk.

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Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Labour, Sheffield, Brightside

May I repeat the appreciation of Sir Michael Pitt and of my right hon. Friend's response? I also appreciate the commitment to early legislation. May I reassure my right hon. Friend that in Sheffield, at least, there was no institutional chaos and gold command worked extremely well? May I put two questions to him? First, in the midst of the damage and hurt caused, can we not take heart that in civil society the fact that individuals and communities came together to help and support each other was a signal that our country can go forward with pride in terms of what people are prepared to do for and with each other? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend talk to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about the need to monitor and support those with emotional and physical needs that arise from the floods, which could have a long-term detrimental effect, particularly on the frail and very old?

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

May I echo what my right hon. Friend had to say about the effectiveness of the emergency response in Sheffield and his comment about the extent to which neighbour has helped neighbour in these terrible and trying times? Out of this terrible adversity has come community spirit—a spirit that has had key responsibility for the progress that has been made.

On my right hon. Friend's second point, I am happy to give him the assurance he sought. I know that that requirement was discussed at the last floods recovery meeting and I will follow it up. It is important that we provide support, and continue to do so, to individuals who have been severely affected by what happened to them, their families and their homes.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I congratulate Sir Michael Pitt on a meticulous report. He assured the Select Committee that he would fully cost his recommendations. The Secretary of State has referred to £34.5 million being put to one side by his Department for the implementation of Pitt. Will he tell us what the full cost will be of its implementation? Secondly, in terms of the skills that will be required in hydrology and flood engineering, what steps will be taken to ensure that not only the Environment Agency but local authorities, with their new responsibilities, will be equipped with the right skills to implement Pitt in full?

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

Sir Michael Pitt has not costed all the recommendations in his report—we will need to do that in preparing the detailed action plan that I have promised to present to the House—but he said that most of his recommendations do not involve more money but are about doing things differently.

On the second, important point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, the Environment Agency, as he might be aware, is already working with the university of the West of England on a scheme to produce the required staff. Some 56 engineers and other staff have graduated, and 52 of them are working for the Environment Agency while others have gone to local authorities. Another 80 are going through the programme. I pay tribute to the way in which the Environment Agency has responded to the need to find more trained people, and I am sure that local authorities will wish to work with the agency and others to ensure that they have the required skills to undertake the responsibilities that they will now be given.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I attended a consultation meeting on Monday of the upper Severn catchment flooding management plan—that just slips off the tongue. One issue that came out of the meeting was how that plan sat with what the Environment Agency has in place for the individual river catchment plans, let alone with the water framework directive. Will those plans be pulled together by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? The Select Committee has views on that. Will those plans be pulled together with the Pitt report? It is important that we have joined-up thinking and action.

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

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. One clear lesson from what we have all experienced is that we need to look at how all the bits of the river system fit together so that we can understand where the water will flow if there is flooding. The same issue arises in relation to surface water flooding. The purpose of giving the Environment Agency that overview is precisely so that all the bits can be joined up. As it plans its work on further flood defences, it can then take account of what it has identified to ensure that those defences are put in the right place. This is work in progress, and the purpose of the report and of learning the lessons from it is that we can do a better job in the future.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

May I say that people in my constituency will be rather disappointed with a lot of what the Pitt report says on housing? All Sir Michael does is refer back to planning policy statement 25, which was published in December 2006, seven months before the flooding that we are discussing today. Will he also understand that people in Tewkesbury will look on with incredulity at the fact that while we are having this debate the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is considering the draft regional spatial strategy, which proposes building thousands of houses in the area that flooded and close to the power station that almost went down because of that flooding, which would have caused an evacuation of the county? We are rather disappointed with the weakness of that section of the report.

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

We are all thinking of the households—385 at the last count—in his constituency that have been unable to return home. In relation to PPS 25, my understanding as far as Tewkesbury is concerned is that the local authority has applied for growth status. The question is whether, in making decisions about planning applications, we can adequately protect the houses even if they are on a floodplain. After all, this House stands on a floodplain, as do 2 million homes in the country. In London, we are protected by the Thames barrier. Planning authorities have to take into consideration—as the guidance in PPS 25 makes crystal clear—whether adequate protection can be provided when they make decisions about whether to grant planning permission.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

Given my right hon. Friend's comments about fairness, he will be aware of the feeling in rural areas that they are disadvantaged when it comes to resource allocation for flood defences. For example, the Environment Agency is putting a multi-million pound flood defence scheme in place in the Nottingham conurbation, but for villages affected downstream, such as Lowdham and other villages in the Trent valley, the resources are more modest. The Select Committee report suggests that there should be discrete funding for rural areas. Will the Secretary of State look closely at that recommendation?

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

I am aware of the argument that my hon. Friend puts forward. The difficulty with allocating a specific sum is that that must be balanced with the Environment Agency's overall prioritisation system for deciding between schemes using the additional money that it has been given. Ultimately, the agency will have to consider a combination of factors, including the number of properties that will be protected and a scheme's economic impact. I am not persuaded that a specific sum for rural areas is the right way forward, but my hon. Friend raises an important point about how protection can be provided under the schemes that meet the criteria and how we can support local communities in doing other things. That is relevant to the question to which I responded a moment ago.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

The Secretary of State will be aware that my right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory and I have continually raised the problems affecting the Somerset coast and the Somerset levels. Between us, we represent the major part of both areas. After the flooding in the seat represented by my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson and elsewhere, the Environment Agency's funding for capital projects in our constituencies was either slowed or stopped. Will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure, following this report, that capital projects for both coastal and inland areas liable to flooding are reinstated? Unless they are, I am afraid that 1,000 years of history shows that it is only a matter of time before we have another flood. The protections that we have now will not be adequate.

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

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look into the specific point that he raises, but he will accept that flood defence spending has doubled in the past 10 years. The Environment Agency now has more funding than it had before, and the increase that it is going to get will enable it to carry out more schemes. In the end, it will always have to prioritise between schemes, but I will look into the point and respond to the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

My right hon. Friend mentioned reservoir safety, but is he aware that the main reservoir serving Northampton has been infected with cryptosporidium? As of this morning, a quarter of a million people have been left unable to drink their tap water, so will he endorse the advice from the health authorities that to protect their health, people should make sure that they do not drink untreated tap water? Will he also call on shops and supermarkets to make sure that they keep adequate supplies of bottled drinking water, and that they keep the prices down? Finally, will he ensure that his Department learns all the lessons from what has happened? We will not know for up to two weeks exactly what has happened and what needs to be done, but will he ensure that adequate steps are taken to make sure that the reservoir is made completely secure, so that people can rely on having safe drinking water?

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

I am aware of the problem that has been identified at the Pitsford reservoir, which serves large parts of Northampton, and of the advice that has been given to local residents that they should boil tap water before drinking it. I shall of course look into the circumstances of what has happened there but, if a problem arises with drinking tap water even when it has been boiled, the water companies have a responsibility to provide bottled water, as happened during last summer's floods in Gloucester and elsewhere. The companies must provide at least 10 litres of bottled water per person per day, but one of the recommendations in Sir Michael's report is that we should see whether that figure is adequate.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

First, I must declare an interest, in that my constituency home is next to a river and is therefore a flood risk. The Secretary of State has talked about the importance of insurance, but when I purchased the house in 2005, I at least had the benefit of knowing that there is an understanding in the insurance industry that companies will continue to underwrite their existing flood risk policies. I wanted to transfer the previous owner's insurance policy to me, which meant that I had to go to a higher level of the company involved. Insurance is essential for everyone who owns a home in a flood-risk area, as a mortgage cannot be secured without that protection for the home's capital value.

I have not had a chance to read the report, so what does Sir Michael say about insurance? More importantly, what is the Secretary of State's view? I enormously welcome the approach adopted by the insurance companies, but it is very important that the understanding to which I referred earlier remains in place. If it does not, millions of people risk incurring an enormous loss in the capital value of their principal asset.

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

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We are still in discussions with the Association of British Insurers. He will be aware of the statement of principles that has ensured the provision of insurance cover to large parts of the country. Fundamentally, the deal is that the insurance industry will continue to provide that cover, in return for increasing Government investment in flood defence. I announced last summer that that investment will reach £800 million by 2010-11, and that is slightly more than the amount for which the ABI called immediately before last year's floods. We hope to put discussions about any changes to the statement of principles to bed before very long, and we should also acknowledge the incredibly hard work that the insurance companies have done over the past year. They dealt with four years' worth of claims in about two months.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

I welcome the statement and the Pitt report. We need even more funding for inland and coastal flood controls, as those are one of the major elements of adapting to climate change, which is already well under way. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that enough time will be set aside in the Public Bill Committee considering the Climate Change Bill for a thorough discussion of the part of the Bill that deals with adaptation? Will he reconsider and give adaptation equal prominence in the Committee, and make sure that it is not merely relegated to a Sub-Committee?

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

How members of the Committee divide up their time is a matter for them, but there is no doubt that the consideration of the Bill in another place left it stronger in the way that it deals with adaptation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the tenacity with which he has pushed this issue.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I was going to ask about the problem of skyrocketing insurance charges, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that later. However, he deserves a third chance to answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend Steve Webb and Mr. Robertson. Will he explain precisely how a local council can challenge housing that it believes will exacerbate flooding, when the rigid numbers at national level will not change? They are handed down through regional spatial strategies on a very specific basis that has the developers laughing all the way to the inquiries.

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

I can only say, for the third time, that the planning guidance is crystal clear, and that the responsibility rests on the local authorities—

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

Local authorities must have regard to the expert advice from the Environment Agency when they consider whether the homes that are built can be adequately protected from flooding.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh PPS (Rt Hon Andy Burnham, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement and the Pitt report. I thank my right hon. Friend for the extra funding being given to the Environment Agency's flood defences. It means that work on the £9.7 million defence of Ings Beck in the Wakefield area will start early next year—although that is too late for the residents of Rufford street, who were flooded last year.

I return to the point about the provision of information. The report contains some excellent recommendations on how local authorities can work with communities on prevention, but what about the aftermath of flooding? Two people telephoned my office after the Government handed out compensation in the wake of last year's floods. In the first call, a woman said that a neighbour had told her that she could not get compensation because she was not insured. That was completely wrong. In the other call, a man of Pakistani origin said that he had not realised that such compensation was available. When the Government are giving out resources, is it not incumbent on councils to make sure that everyone who has been flooded gets the information that they need afterwards?

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

First, I am glad to hear about the progress on the flood defence scheme to which my hon. Friend referred. Secondly, I agree completely about the importance of making sure that there is adequate and timely information. One of the many recommendations in Sir Michael's report has to do with how that can happen more effectively in future. One of the most important things that the Government did in the wake of the flooding was to give local authorities a sum of money through the flood recovery grant and then leave it entirely up to them to decide how that money should be used to respond to the needs of their communities and residents. That was exactly the right approach: we did not hem it in with restrictions but said, "There's the money—you go and decide how to use it." That is a really good example of how the Government ought to help local government and communities when things are tough.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

Is the Secretary of State aware that if last summer's very heavy rains had fallen slightly further south, the disaster area would have been the Somerset levels? I share the representation of that area with my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger. One contributory factor would have been the unresolved tension in the Environment Agency between its drainage responsibilities and its environmental duties. In Somerset, that tension means that the agency does not dredge, clear and maintain the inland rivers properly, even though they are essential for drainage. Will the new strategic authority resolve that difficulty in favour of giving priority to land drainage? In that context, will he ensure that the agency works better with the existing local drainage boards, which is where much of the practical expertise lies?

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

The right hon. Gentleman is making really important points, particularly his last one. Part of what I have said today is indeed about getting together all those who have responsibility, as Sir Michael says, to sort out who is going to do what.

On the right hon. Gentleman's question about drainage and clearing, the truth is not always as simple and clear-cut as some may argue. If we speed up the flow of water in one place, we may just make it arrive faster somewhere else and add to the problem downstream. That brings me back to the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping. We have to consider the totality of the impact and ensure that we are doing the right thing to minimise the risk of flooding. It is very important that the Environment Agency works with local communities to explain the process by which it reaches decisions on that, so that at least there is understanding on all sides of what we are trying to achieve by working together.

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Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments today and his promise that legislation will be introduced to bring into force many of the report's recommendations. However, I must say that I find it unacceptable that a year on, people are still living in temporary accommodation. That is not just caused by the need to allow houses to dry out. In many cases it is to do with loss adjusters and insurance firms. What can be done to speed up that process, and what will be done to ensure that drains, ditches and dykes are kept clear, to minimise the impact of floods, particularly in rural areas?

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

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the families who are still out of their homes. As she rightly identifies, the bulk of the problems are to do with insurance. It is notable that of the 4,716 households affected, I think only 173 were families in local authority or registered social landlord accommodation. That tells a story about where the difficulties lie. It is also worth remembering that 18 months after the terrible floods in Carlisle, one in 10 households were still out of their home. We need to acknowledge that it takes time for homes to be ready.

On my hon. Friend's second point, as I said to Mr. Heathcoat-Amory a moment ago, it is important that we get the balance right and that everyone who has responsibility works together.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I have two questions about urgent matters. First, given that hundreds of my constituents and more than 2,000 people in Hull and the east riding are still not back in their homes, will the Secretary of State visit Hull and the east riding? Today, the Hull Daily Mail and the East Riding Mail launched their "Back Home" campaign, and his visit would be appreciated locally.

Secondly, I wish to ask about flood rescue. Pitt suggests in his recommendation 39 that

"The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned, as necessary, by a statutory duty."

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if this has not already happened—my perception is that it has not—he will ensure urgently that fire and rescue services hold the proper safety equipment in case such a disaster happens again?

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

I would be happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's invitation. We will just need to sort out a date. On his second point, he will be aware that some fire and rescue services already have flood rescue capability and have trained their personnel, even in the absence of a statutory duty, and others do not. As I saw for myself during the floods last summer, an effective system of mutual aid is in place so that resources, boats and trained staff can be provided where they are needed. We will consider carefully Sir Michael's recommendations on the matter, and our response will be included in the plan that I have promised the House.

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Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

Many of the communities in my area that were flooded last year will welcome the Secretary of State's commitments today. Does he agree that if only the agencies would take care of their own responsibilities, we could obviate some of the risk even now? In that regard, will he remind local authorities that they ought regularly to clean gully grates to allow the land drains to drain away? Many areas in my constituency were flooded simply because the grates were silted up. More particularly, will my right hon. Friend get to the bottom of why Hague Hall beck, in South Elmsall in my constituency, is still not being cleared of rubbish and is badly silted up—or at least ensure that someone else gets to the bottom of it? That would bring great security and reduce the anxiety of people like Mrs. McCusker, who lives there.

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It's not just the Local Authorities who have responsibility for maintainance of these becks & water courses. After 12 months we have just found out that Network Rail have responsibility for a water course in the South Kirkby area which caused our property, and a number of others, to flood last year. My neighbour and I are determined that this situation is rectified and have been liaising with Jon Trickett and the Local Authority and will be taking this up directly with Network Rail. Other residents...

Submitted by Lorraine Simpson-Housley Continue reading

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

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has already talked to the Environment Agency about Hague Hall beck, but since my hon. Friend has mentioned it, I shall follow that up. I understand that one of the pilot surface water drainage projects is in my hon. Friend's area, and we have been funding it precisely so that we can understand better what needs to be done to ensure that local authorities fulfil the new responsibilities that I shall be giving them. In the end, it is about bringing together all those who are responsible for how water drains away, so that there is clarity about who is looking after what, and if one organisation is clearing in one place, the next organisation in the line is clearing in another.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

May I take the Secretary of State back to the comments about long-term investment in flood defence? In my constituency in Chesterfield, three rivers flooded last summer—the Rother, the Hipper and the Whitting. The Rother and the Hipper flooded about 500 houses. Plans for flood defences for those two rivers have gone ahead very quickly in the past year, but the Environment Agency has told public meetings in Chesterfield that even when the extra money for flood defences comes along in three years' time, Chesterfield will be competing with places such as Sheffield and Hull. Can the Secretary of State say how long my constituents should wait—three years, six years, nine years?

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

I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer that I am sure he would like to hear. I am glad to hear that two of those schemes are going ahead. As I indicated in answer to an earlier question, there is more money, but in the end the Environment Agency has to prioritise from among a lot of competing schemes across the country. It is right that it should decide which schemes will go ahead. My job is to give it the money to help it to do that.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to give local authorities responsibility for surface water management plans. When localised flooding hit my constituents in Beighton last year, they were affected not only by surface water but by culverts overflowing and back-flowing, by a river overflowing and by a manhole cover blowing off a sewer and sending sewage into their homes. There has been some progress since, through the various agencies working together, but there are still some issues of disagreement about what to do. I wonder whether local authorities should be given a slightly wider remit to pull together all the various utilities and organisations, to ensure that we get a comprehensive approach to trying to prevent such events in future.

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

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is exactly what is required, and it is what the proposals that we will put in place will do, so that local authorities can undertake that task.

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Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State rightly praised the joint working of local emergency services in their response to the floods last year. Does he share my concern that that joint working could be undermined in future by the regionalisation of some emergency response services such as fire control centres?

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

No, I do not accept the concern that the hon. Lady expresses. In the end, those decisions have to be taken on the basis of what will be most effective in enabling the emergency services to do their job. All I can say from my personal experience last summer is that the way in which the emergency services worked together, giving mutual aid and sending pumps across the country, shows that there is an effective system in place. I am quite confident that no changes will be made that would affect or impair the emergency services' ability to continue to do an outstanding job of helping people when there is trouble.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Rt Hon Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

I have 13 reservoirs in my constituency, so I very much welcome the investment in reservoir safety and the forthcoming legislation. Although it is of course necessary to invest in hard flood defences, does my right hon. Friend not agree with Natural England that it is also necessary to invest in the capacity of our upland catchment areas to manage water effectively in the first place, to reduce the incidence of water surging downstream and damaging cities such as Sheffield?

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

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If upland peat bogs stay wet and do not get drained, they are better able to absorb water, and it does not flow as quickly downstream and flood many hon. Members' constituencies. This is a good example of thinking in the round about what we do with water and how we make space for it, and Sir Michael's report will help us to do that.

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