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Pitt Report

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 2nd April 2009.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 10:30 am, 2nd April 2009

How many of the recommendations made by Sir Michael Pitt in his final report, "Learning Lessons from the 2007 Floods", have been implemented.

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

The Government's response to Sir Michael Pitt's review in December 2008 set out what recommendations had already been implemented and what further steps were required. The Government will report on implementation every six months, beginning in June this year.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

One of the key recommendations of the Pitt review was the establishment of a Cabinet Committee to oversee flood prevention plans and strategies, yet we learned last month that the Committee has never even met. Thousands of my constituents were driven from their homes in 2007; many of them are traumatised every time they hear the sound of heavy rain. All they ask is that their Government do everything possible to ensure that such a catastrophe is less likely to happen again. Will the Minister confirm whether that Committee has met and, if not, when it will do so? Why are the Government not acting with greater urgency, and when will they take a grip of this issue?

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

We have taken a grip of the issue; and the Cabinet Committee will meet when it needs to. The question is whether we are getting on and doing what is required. I want to update the House: since the floods of 2007, we have completed 55 flood defence schemes that have protected 37,147 homes, which shows a Government who are getting on with it in order to protect people. I also inform the House that yesterday the flood forecasting centre, which was one of the recommendations of Michael Pitt's report, started operation, bringing together the Met Office and the Environment Agency. We are on track to publish the draft floods and water Bill in the spring. We have signed the first six contracts for surface water management plans with Hull, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Warrington, Richmond upon Thames and West Berkshire. We have had 100 applications for the household flood protection grant scheme. We have agreed three demonstration projects that will look at how land management might be able to help us to manage flood risk. That record shows the Government taking the matter seriously, getting on, and making things happen.

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Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Environment Agency in my constituency, which, following the floods of 2005, has done a magnificent job of building flood defences? Three quarters of the city is now protected, and it was done on time and on budget. However, coming back to the Pitt report, the really important thing is protecting public utilities—the electricity supply, the fresh water supply and the waste water supply. Is that work being done?

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

The short answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes. A programme of work is under way. As I previously reported to the House, one example of that is the purchase by the national grid of moveable defences that can be taken to particular parts of the network that might be at risk. The flood forecasting centre is all about giving better warnings and greater accuracy about where there will be a problem, so that people are forewarned, prepared and can respond.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the Environment Agency. I know that his constituents suffered grievously in the terrible floods. It is right and proper that, as well as recognising that we need to do more, the House wants to say thank you to the agency's staff, because the 55 flood defence schemes and 37,000 homes that have been protected since the summer of 2007 are down to their hard work.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The question is about how many of the Pitt report's recommendations have been implemented, so I hope that the Secretary of State will not be coy and will tell us. Following the question by Mr. Martlew, will he also confirm that the programme of work that the Environment Agency has agreed with the water companies to protect the critical infrastructure from flooding this spring—before the publication of the Bill—will not be thwarted by any outside body?

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

I do not know what outside body the hon. Lady is referring to. I take very seriously the responsibility to ensure that critical infrastructure is properly protected, as do the water companies and the Environment Agency.

As for progress on the implementation of Pitt's recommendations, the hon. Lady will see what we published in December, and she will see the first progress report when it is published in June. [ Interruption. ] I am happy to write to her with further details, if that is what she wants. I have just provided an update on a range of things that have happened since I last reported to the House, and we will carry on implementing Sir Michael Pitt's recommendations. As she will be only too well aware, he himself has expressed satisfaction at the progress that we are making.

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Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Have all the householders affected by the 2007 flooding been able since then to get adequate insurance for their properties? Eight years ago, when some 200 households were affected by flooding in Keighley, people had real problems in getting renewed insurance. Because of the good work of the Environment Agency, that has all been put right, and they now have insurance.

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

I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend that that is the case. The circumstances of individual householders will depend on the case and the approach that insurance companies take, but the single most important thing that we did to ensure the continued availability of insurance was to renew the statement of principles with the Association of British Insurers representing the insurance industry. The deal is the continued provision of insurance in return for the increased investment that the Government are putting into flood defence. That is the single most important step that we can take, and that increased investment has allowed me to report that we have completed 55 new schemes since the summer of 2007.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Shadow Secretary of State (Environment)

How many of the recommendations implemented will relieve the threat of flooding to farmland? Given that the 2007 floods saw 42,000 hectares of farmland flooded and therefore unusable for a significant period of time, and that demand for food across the world will double in the next 20 years, does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot allow productive agricultural land to be squandered in that way again?

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

Nobody wants to see productive agricultural land squandered, but in the end there has to be a system of prioritisation. This point has been the subject of debate, and indeed, I was expecting Mr. Stuart to raise the matter, because we have discussed it. We need a scheme of prioritisation that balances the value of the assets that we seek to protect, the density or sparsity of population, the value of the agricultural land and the number of homes that can be protected. One can cut the prioritisation system a lot of different ways, but the most important thing that we can do to protect more property and, where possible, agricultural land is to increase investment, which is what we are doing.

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Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

I face the difficulty that the previous question almost got to the point that I want to make; let me press the Secretary of State. An important part of our consideration of the flooding of agricultural land is the hydraulic survey of the Humber basin, the Trent and the Tame, which will shortly be available. What is the Secretary of State doing to work with authorities that do not suffer flooding in their areas, but that must make preparations to absorb water before it goes down the river basin, flooding property and families further down the river? That is important; when will we get the details, and when will the Secretary of State give us the priorities for the work that needs to be done for future flooding areas?

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

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the way in which we look at the problem. The whole purpose of the catchment flood management plans is to do precisely what he asks, which is to look at a catchment, see where water will come from and where it might flow, and understand what the consequences might be for flooding, so that we can bring everything together and take the right decisions on that basis. A number of plans are being developed involving the East Riding and the Humber, which I know is the subject of some controversy—the Environment Agency has said that it will consult further on the area represented by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. But we have to look at the matter on a catchment area basis, so that we can work out where the water will go, how we can manage it and how we can protect as many homes as possible.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

It is a curse of our modern times that while Sir Michael Pitt can warn us about the severe risk of dangerous, life-threatening flooding, the Government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, can also warn us about severe, dangerous, life-threatening droughts. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in trying to meet both those serious challenges, our reservoirs, our inland waterways and the terrific asset of our network of canals might be part of the solution for the future?

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

My hon. Friend is right. One of the tasks that we all face is preparing for a future in which, in some places and at some times, there is too much water and, in other places at other times, there is not enough. The warning of Professor Beddington is extremely timely, and it makes the point that in adapting to the changing climate, which is with us whatever happens while we try to avoid making the problem worse—that is why the meeting at Copenhagen at the end of this year is so important—we must use all means at our disposal to ensure that we conserve and use water as effectively as possible. We have taken it for granted for too long; we have to protect and conserve it much better in future.

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