Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 25th June 2012.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:31 pm, 25th June 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will update the House on flooding.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Over recent weeks we have seen extraordinary amounts of rainfall, culminating in the flooding earlier this month when parts of Sussex experienced almost two months’ rainfall in just 36 hours, and most recently over the past weekend.

Some areas in Cumbria, Lancashire and west Yorkshire saw a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours, but Cumbria had the highest rainfall, at 210 mm, with 200 mm in Honister, compared with between 80 mm and 100 mm elsewhere in the region. That extreme rainfall caused rivers to rise to unprecedented levels in some cases, and to flooding being experienced on Friday and overnight into Saturday.

I do understand the devastation that is caused to people whose homes and businesses are flooded; it has happened to me. We expect the number of properties affected to be at least 1,200 as final numbers are collated throughout the impacted areas. My thoughts go out to all those who have suffered flooding, especially those in the worst affected areas, including Crawshawbooth, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd. I know that local communities rallied round as the recovery operation began in earnest, and I hope that all will be able to return to their homes as soon as possible.

I should also like to take this opportunity to praise the excellent response from our front-line emergency services. I am delighted to report that, thanks in no small part to their efforts, there was no loss of life and few serious injuries. I am also very grateful for the diligent work of the Met Office and the Environment Agency staff in the Flood Forecasting Centre. Their forecasts, from the middle of last week, foresaw the event unfolding and meant that much work was possible in advance to lessen its impact.

Teams of Environment Agency and local authority staff were out before the flood waters arrived, clearing drains, testing defences and preparing flood basins. Flood warnings were issued to more than 7,000 properties, and flood warning sirens sounded in Todmorden and Hebden Bridge.

Protecting our communities against flooding is a vital area of the work of government, and I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency estimates that 11,000 properties were protected in the areas affected through a combination of flood defences, maintenance work, storage basins and temporary measures. For every property flooded, another 10 or so were not.

In Carlisle, the defences built following the 2005 floods have now prevented a repeat of that devastating event twice: in 2009 and this weekend. On Saturday, river levels in Carlisle were actually higher than they were in 2005.

In our changing climate, we will never be able to prevent flooding completely, as we have seen over this past weekend and earlier in June. Through the excellent preparations and work of front-line responders, including the police, the fire service, the Environment Agency and local authorities, and through the more than £2 billion of investment being made by the Government, however, we are better prepared for flooding than ever before.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the Secretary of State for updating the House on the flooding in the north of England over the weekend, and I echo her tributes to the emergency services and voluntary sector, who worked to evacuate homes and keep people safe. I also thank the Environment Agency and local authority staff, who worked throughout Friday night to ensure that flood defences were activated in places such as my constituency of Wakefield, which was flooded in 2007, and the Lower Aire valley in Leeds.

Will the right hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to businesses that have offered help to businesses affected? Hon. Members on both sides will be relieved that no lives were lost, but the severity of the floods has meant that the communities affected face months of disruption and upheaval. What contact did the right hon. Lady have with the Cabinet Office civil contingency secretariat? What detailed information does she have on the number of homes and businesses affected in the areas of Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Todmorden?

What will happen to those who have been made homeless by the floods, and what housing arrangements are in place—particularly for the frail elderly and the disabled? What contact has the right hon. Lady had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the recovery effort? I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Robert Neill, is here. Which Government Minister will lead on the flood recovery and on providing support for the affected communities?

Following the floods of 2007 and 2009, the Government set up a flood recovery grant as a one-off payment to councils to help households seriously affected by the floods. Do the Government intend to help councils and communities in that way this time? If so, when can communities expect that help?

When Wakefield suffered from floods in 2007, the loan sharks were out on the streets there the very next day. What contact has the right hon. Lady had with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that crisis loans are available to families left destitute by the floods, to ensure that families do not fall prey to loan sharks?

What estimate has the Department for Communities and Local Government made on the cost of flood recovery to local authorities? Is the Bellwin scheme likely to be activated by the floods? In 2007 and 2009, central Government covered 100% of local authority costs under the Bellwin scheme. Is the right hon. Lady planning to do the same again? What contact has she had with the Department for Education to ensure that children whose schools have been flooded continue to receive their education? Will she review the flood warnings given by the Environment Agency and local authorities, as issues have been raised about the timeliness of the warnings?

When I spoke to representatives of the Association of British Insurers this morning, they said that the initial estimate was that about 500 properties had been flooded and that the likely cost to insurers was in the low tens of millions of pounds. Can the Secretary of State give an estimate of the value of uninsured losses? What support will the Government give to the under-insured or uninsured? Will she encourage the loss adjusters to get into the affected areas as quickly as possible to provide help to people?

Every £1 invested in flood defences saves £8 in costs further down the line. This weekend, we had a reminder once again that floods are the greatest threat that climate change poses to our country. The right hon. Lady mentioned how much the Government are investing in flood defences, but that is a 30% cut from the 2010 baseline. In the light of what has happened, will she undertake to review the figure? Will she reassure the House that she will resist any pressure from the Treasury to cut flood defence spending in next year’s comprehensive spending review? Communities that have been devastated by flooding should not have to go through that terrible experience again.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I certainly join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the businesses that have helped with the situation on the ground—as they always do, in my experience. Every time I have visited a flood situation I have found that the whole community has rallied round, and I applaud that.

The Department has a procedure for dealing with flooding at three levels of risk: low, medium and high. Civil contingencies arrangements are not triggered at the medium risk of flooding, which is what we faced this weekend. We have arrangements in hand that cover all flooding eventualities. They were activated the week before last in Sussex and over the weekend in the north-west and west Yorkshire. The current state of play is that 1,200 homes have been registered as flooded, but the number could still rise as it becomes more accurate over time. I have a breakdown by community, if the hon. Lady is particularly interested, but without a doubt the most affected communities are Todmorden, Walsden and Callis Bridge, with 540 properties flooded, followed by Hebden Bridge, with 245 properties flooded, and Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge, with 145 properties flooded. The numbers then reduce, but the flooding extends across a very wide area.

Homelessness is principally a responsibility of the local authority. The local authority in each of these areas takes a lead role in the provision of homes for those affected. I have been in contact with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make sure that our actions are joined up across Whitehall.

Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, we make specific grants available to assist local authorities, with £21 million-worth of grants provided this year and a higher figure to be provided in subsequent years of this Parliament.

On crisis loans, in the first instance the flood-affected can turn to a local authority for help through social funds. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, the trigger for the Bellwin formula is 15% of a local authority’s income, and current estimates from the Department for Communities and Local Government, through the Secretary of State, suggest that it is unlikely to be triggered in this case. The scheme is there to deal with a catastrophic situation facing a local authority, and any final decision on this will not be made until we know the full extent of the damage.

The local authority has primary responsibility for ensuring that schools are safe to return to and, in turn, informing parents.

We now have available a sophisticated system of flood warnings. Perhaps it is helpful for me to make all Members of the House aware of the new facility whereby anyone in a flood-affected area can register to receive a text message flood warning. There has been a very substantial uptake of this service. However, it often increases after an event has occurred, so the Environment Agency plans to proceed with text message flood warnings on an opt-out basis in future. Where households do not have a mobile phone to receive a text, it can be received in digital form on a landline, so no one should be unaware of a flood warning. In addition, I commend to the House the use of flood wardens who can knock on people’s doors to forewarn them, especially in the case of the vulnerable and the elderly. Communities that have been flooded often subsequently seek volunteers in this role.

On flood insurance, we are at an advanced stage in intensive and constructive negotiations with the insurance industry on alternative arrangements for when the statement of principles expires this time next year. As the hon. Lady will be aware, in 2008 the insurance industry notified her party, when in government, that the statement of principles would come to an end. Her party in government did not find a successor to the principles but, as she will have heard me say, we are well on our way to doing so. The average insurance premium is roughly £300 a year, while the average estimated claim in this regard is so far estimated to be £15,000. That shows the benefit of households being insured.

On flood defences, I do not accept the hon. Lady’s figure of a 30% cut. She is not comparing like with like. If we compare how the previous Government funded flood defences in their last four years in office with our commitment to fund flood defences for the four years that succeeded their loss of power, we see that the reduction is just 6%. When she considers the mess her party left the Government in, she will recognise that that was no mean achievement. In addition, a new method of partnership funding whereby third parties come in to help to get some of these new flood defences built has brought an extra £72 million into such works in its first year of operation.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Conservative, Calder Valley

The Environment Agency has invested millions of pounds in Calder Valley’s flood defences over recent years, but nothing could have stopped what happened with the onslaught of water on Friday night. My wife and I saw first hand, from the valley bottom to up to 1,000 feet above these communities, a month’s rainwater coming down the country lanes in waterfalls and torrents. Will my right hon. Friend join me in saying to the communities of Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd that our thoughts are with them, and will she explain what extra help may be available to them to make sure that they quickly get back on their feet?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Through my hon. Friend, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to those communities. I know how they feel, having had to evacuate my home for 10 months after flooding. It takes a long time and a great toll on people’s mental health to get things back to the state that they were in before the flood occurred. There are two practical things to say. First, the completion of the third phase of the flood defences in Todmorden will help to protect more properties. Secondly, the community in Hebden Bridge might like to consider the partnership funding model, which might bring useful assistance. My hon. Friend is right that when a month’s rain falls in 24 hours, virtually no infrastructure can prevent flooding completely.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

Is the Secretary of State confident that post-2013 flood risk insurance will be available and affordable to those who are most affected by the floods?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I am confident of that because we have reached an advanced stage of negotiation with the insurance industry to secure universal and affordable flood insurance. It is often misunderstood, but the statement of principles was no guarantee of the affordability of insurance. We understand how important that is, and will make a statement shortly.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

It seems that the heavens are opening with distressingly increased regularity and intensity. Given that the science of forecasting is improving and the growing responsibility of the Environment Agency, what more can be done to ensure that that science is harnessed and that mobile defences are put in place to respond to it?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is right that the capacity to forecast has improved. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gives the Flood Forecasting Centre £2.9 million per annum, which continues the funding position from before we came into government. The accuracy of the forecasting means that we can give communities vital hours in which to give advice to home owners on how to protect themselves and their possessions. I suggest that communities that face flooding regularly, which substantial parts of Cornwall do, consider technical provisions, such as text messaging, backed up by flood wardens who knock on doors personally. I saw people in Sussex resist moving even when all the advice had been given to them. There is no substitute for the human touch.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Opposition Whip (Commons)

Many of my constituents have benefited from the flood defences put in place by the last Government. However, they are now looking to renew their insurance premiums for a further year. I am pleased to hear that the negotiations are at an advanced stage. However, given that people have to take out insurance now for 2013, when will the matter be decided?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I have indicated, good progress has been made. I spoke to the annual general meeting of the Association of British Insurers last month to indicate to the insurers that we were close to reaching agreement on a basis that will guarantee the universality and affordability of insurance.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I was in Rossendale last Friday night and I have never seen rain like that before in the United Kingdom. It was shocking. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when there is warning that flooding is likely, one person in the north-west, or in any other region where flooding might occur, is responsible for rapidly co-ordinating the emergency resources?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend, who, with his military background, will know the importance of a command and control structure. The response is linked to the severity of the risk. There is a very clear structure involving silver and gold commands, led respectively by the police and the local authority, which ensures that wherever such an event takes place—he is right that we are seeing extreme weather events with increasing frequency—a tried and tested procedure clicks into place. We practised that structure last year in Exercise Watermark.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Labour, Wentworth and Dearne

Which of the flood-hit areas has the Secretary of State visited? There was nothing in her statement about the actions she will take, and little that showed that the Government understand that, when the waters recede, so does public and media interest, but the problems that families and firms face simply do not. It can take months to get those problems, including insurance claims, sorted out, so will she call in the insurance companies and ensure that claims are speeded up, as the Labour Government did after the 2007 floods?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said. I know from personal experience exactly what flooding feels like, having been flooded out of my home for 10 months. I visited the flooding in Sussex the week before last, but there is a clear procedure for Ministers, which I imagine he knows. Ministers are not welcome in the immediate emergency because we might get in the way of the emergency services doing their job. We wait to be advised by them on the right time to visit. Had the urgent question not been asked today, I could have been on site. The Under-Secretary has kindly agreed to go to the north-west and west Yorkshire, because there is no substitute for hearing from the ground in the aftermath, as the clear-up operation takes place, what, if anything, we could learn to do better.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

Has the Secretary of State been able to measure the impact of the habitats directive on the Environment Agency’s ability to maintain main rivers and prevent flooding?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Environment Agency has drawn praise not just from the local communities that were flooded this weekend, but from those that were flooded the week before last in Sussex. In my experience, including of the severe flooding event in Cornwall in 2010, the agency constantly strikes a balance to ensure that the forces of nature, which we admire on a fine day when the rivers are not bursting their banks, can be contained, and as far as possible directed not to do damage, to the built community in the event of such adverse weather conditions, which we see more frequently.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Environment Agency’s assessment that it should spend an additional £20 million on flood defences each year? Instead of disputing whether there is a 6% or 27% cut, does she not realise that the failure to invest that money costs Great Britain plc far more in the costs of clearing up after floods?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We would all like to spend more money on flood defences—there is a very good return on investment: for every £1 of taxpayers’ money spent, there is an £8 return—but the reality of the situation is that the Labour party left the nation’s finances in a very bad state. When in government, the hon. Gentleman’s party indicated that it would cut capital by 50%. In the circumstances, therefore, he should see a 6% reduction as a significant improvement on what his party pledged.

In addition, I could not underline more the importance of the new approach to funding flood defences, which is to encourage partnership funding to bring in extra resources, so that more homes can be protected. In its first year, partnership funding has brought in an extra £72 million—much of that from local government. That means we will exceed our aim to protect better at least 145,000 more homes in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on using partnership funds to create better flood defences. May I echo the words of my colleague who said that the dredging of rivers and tributaries by the Environment Agency can help a great deal in the long run with flooding?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is no doubt that the judicious management of our watercourses can help substantially in times of very heavy rainfall. Given the steepness of the valleys in places such as Cornwall and Cumbria, such action poses a significant challenge. The community of Hebden Bridge had not qualified under the old approach of 100% of state-funded flood defences, but it has the opportunity under partnership funding to get the flood defences that are much needed.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am sure the Secretary of State knows that today is the fifth anniversary of the dreadful flooding in Hull. In the light of that and Hull residents’ experience of getting insurance at a reasonable cost, without excessive premiums or excesses, can the Secretary of State assure me that the new agreement will open up the insurance market in areas such as Hull?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance; details will follow shortly. As I said, however, having inherited a situation in which the previous Government failed to come up with a successor to the statement of principles, I am proud that we have found a way forward with the insurance industry that, above all, guarantees that universal and affordable insurance remains available to all, including her constituents.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

The flooding in west Sussex has been of great concern, but will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Government’s significant investment in the upper river Mole flood alleviation scheme, which is now starting to protect homes and businesses in Crawley constituency?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I welcome it, and, through my hon. Friend, I would like to pay tribute to the emergency services, volunteers and communities following that severe flooding incident in Sussex. Almost two months’ rain fell in 36 hours. It was encouraging that the equipment we provided, within the county and across county boundaries, was brought into play in that time of need, as the procedures required.