Flooding

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 6th January 2014.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:34 pm, 6th January 2014

I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I should like to make a statement about flooding over the Christmas and new year period.

I chaired a further meeting of the Cobra committee a short while ago. I am sure that the House would appreciate an update on the latest position on the severe weather that affected parts of the country over the Christmas and new year period, which caused extensive damage. Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected and whose homes and businesses have been damaged. Tragically, seven fatalities in England between 23 December 2013 and 5 January 2014 are associated with the severe weather conditions. The House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to their families and friends.

Late December saw a number of rain bands crossing the country in quick succession, accompanied by strong winds. Their cumulative effect meant that, by the start of Christmas week, the ground was saturated and river levels were high. On 23 and 24 December, there was widespread rainfall across the entire country—there was more than 100 mm on Dartmoor, 90 mm in Cumbria, and 70 mm in parts of the south-east—resulting in a number of rivers bursting their banks.

The band of rain was accompanied by gusts of up to 90 mph in southern coastal areas. The strong onshore winds and large waves, combined with high spring tides, led to a surge that brought coastal flooding to parts of the south and west coasts. Further bands of rain moved across the country over the subsequent week and into the new year. The latest rainfall is still working its way down some of the slower-responding rivers, such as the Thames, and more rain is expected this week. There is a risk of groundwater flooding in Dorset and Wiltshire for some time to come and we need to remain vigilant.

Approximately 1,700 properties have been flooded in England so far, with Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset particularly affected, although there were also impacts in the midlands and the north-west. In Wales, 140 properties were flooded, and there was also flooding in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

High winds led to many trees being uprooted, causing further problems, particularly for transport and electricity networks. Around 750,000 properties were left without an electricity supply, but electricity companies restored power to 90% of those within a day. A number of properties remained disconnected for longer in some cases owing to dangers connected to flooding and the complexity of the faults.

There was severe disruption to important transport links. Ferries were unable to dock at cross-channel ports and rail services were disrupted. A number of flights were diverted and Gatwick airport experienced severe disruption after losing the electricity supply to its north terminal.

Although it will be of little comfort to those affected by the recent floods, more than 220,000 properties were protected over the Christmas period. When added to the more than 800,000 properties that were protected during the coastal flooding in early December, our flood defences have protected around 1 million properties in total in England during the last month alone.

The Government are grateful for the excellent response from our front-line emergency services throughout the UK, and I pay tribute to the community spirit of all those who have rallied round to help their neighbours everywhere in difficult times. As far as England is concerned, I particularly praise the work of the Environment Agency, the local councils, and the transport and energy companies, whose teams worked tirelessly throughout Christmas and the new year period. The Environment Agency has deployed many hundreds of staff over the past six weeks to support communities.

The joint Environment Agency and Met Office flood forecasting centre consistently provided high-quality forecasts to predict accurately flood risks to allow for timely action on the ground. Some 147,000 homes and businesses have received flood warnings and advice since the beginning of December, enabling both individuals and organisations to take effective action before the storms struck.

More than 100 specialist flood rescue teams were on standby across the country as part of the national asset register managed by the Fire and Rescue Service National Co-ordination Centre. I am also grateful to members of Kent and Surrey fire and rescue services for calling off their planned strikes on Christmas eve, which coincided with peak river levels in those areas. I would also like to thank the military personnel deployed at very short notice to assist with flood defence preparations at Maidstone in Kent. The Thames barrier has been raised nine times in the past five days to safeguard more than £200 billion- worth of property in the capital.

There is still a complex picture across the country. Some areas are now focused on recovery, while others remain at significant risk of flooding, and, in many cases, repeated flooding. The Government are working closely with local councils, the insurance industry and others to ensure that people can receive the help they need quickly.

Today’s Cobra meeting agreed that, while we must remain ready to respond to further bad weather and the risk of surface-water flooding, our focus must turn to getting back into their homes the people who have had their Christmas and new year ruined and to supporting local communities with recovery. Tomorrow, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis will be chairing a ministerial recovery working group. People who have had their homes damaged should contact their insurance company for advice about claims and seek assistance from the local authority where necessary. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has triggered the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities with immediate costs caused by flooding, and the Government are in active discussions with Kent and Surrey councils.

The Government emergencies committee, Cobra, has met eight times through the Christmas and new year period. I have held meetings with relevant ministerial colleagues and officials across Government Departments and the Environment Agency on a daily basis. Those meetings ensured that all relevant agencies and organisations were doing everything possible to support affected households. We will undertake a full assessment in the coming weeks, but initial reports have identified a number of positive aspects, as well as some areas where lessons need to be learned.

The majority of local councils and utility companies responded effectively, but the response of a few left room for improvement. All received early warning from the Met Office and the Environment Agency that severe weather was on its way. The Government contacted all local authorities in England to ensure that all possible action was taken to support affected households and to ensure local emergency plans and out-of-hours help were in place to provide immediate assistance. My Department contacted the Association of British Insurers and was assured that the CEOs of all member companies would get loss adjusters to affected properties rapidly. The ABI has ensured that guidance on what those affected should be doing about their insurance has been provided.

People have a right to a reliable energy network. Despite the sequence of major storms that have hit the country in the past few months, the electricity network operators deserve credit for their hard work in reconnecting an unprecedented number of properties—some 700,000—within hours and in time for Christmas. There are, however, lessons to be learned about how customers are supported and informed during power cuts. We welcome the additional compensation some operators have announced and acknowledge that the response of some companies could have been better. The best performing companies set a high standard, which I would like all companies to be able to meet. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is meeting with distribution network operators and Ofgem to discuss how the response can be improved for future events.

Flood management is a real priority for this Government. It has a vital role to play in protecting people and property from damage caused by flooding, and in delivering economic growth. Over the current spending review period, more is being spent than ever before. In addition, from 2015-16 onwards we will be making record levels of investment in capital projects. We will invest £370 million in 2015-16, and then the same in real terms each year, rising to over £400 million in 2020-21—a record investment. That will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households, on top of the 165,000 households protected during the current spending round.

I would like to express the House’s sympathy to all those affected by the floods, and I convey my profound thanks to all those involved in responding across the UK. I can also reiterate the Government’s commitment to continue to invest in our flood defences to help us to continue to respond effectively to any future flooding.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:44 pm, 6th January 2014

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for updating the House at the earliest opportunity following the recess on the latest situation regarding the floods. I join him in expressing our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who have died. Our thoughts are also with the thousands of people affected. This is the worst series of winter storms to hit Britain in more than 20 years, so I also join the Secretary of State and I am sure Members on both sides of the House in thanking Environment Agency staff and the emergency services for their work over the past fortnight, since this period of extreme weather began.

Despite all the efforts of agencies and local government staff, however, it is clear that some communities have faced delays and difficulty in securing the help they need. The Prime Minister heard the criticisms for himself when he visited Yalding in Kent, which suffered severe flooding and where more than 100 homes had to be evacuated. One resident told him:

“We were literally abandoned… We had no rescuers, nothing for the whole day… The Environment Agency said it was up to the council and when I did get through to the council they said if you need sandbags, get your own. On Christmas Day we saw absolutely no one.”

Another resident said:

“The people he’s talking to, the Environment Agency and so on, weren’t here… I swam this road on Christmas Day pulling people out on my own. There was no one here on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.”

The Prime Minister was filmed next to an inflatable boat on his visit, but journalists reported that it had been ferried in 10 minutes before and departed soon after he left. Those affected by these floods do not need stunts or the buck-passing we heard from the Environment Secretary when he put the blame on staff absent over Christmas. They want to know that lessons are to be learned about why some communities faced significant delays in securing the help they needed, and they want to know why lessons do not appear to have been learned from previous flooding incidents, despite all the promises from Ministers at the time.

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has promised a review to ensure that lessons are learned, but can the Secretary of State assure the House and those forced from their homes that it will begin as soon as the current severe weather has subsided, and will he set out a clear time frame for when it will be concluded? Will he commit to returning to the House to make a further statement on its conclusions? Will he confirm that the review will focus specifically on preparedness for days such as Christmas day and Boxing day, including appropriate staffing levels, especially when storms are predicted?

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the review looks at whether there is sufficient clarity in the division of responsibilities among councils and the Environment Agency? Will the remit be wide enough to look at the performance of the energy companies? As he said, some companies clearly have serious questions to answer about the unacceptable delays in reconnecting homes, which ruined Christmas for many families, and it is also not clear that the Government acted with as much speed and firmness as they should have done in pressing those companies to act.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the review looks specifically at decisions taken on flood defence expenditure since 2010? His Department’s own figures, verified by the House of Commons Library, which I have here, show that expenditure on flood protection has fallen in real terms from £646 million in 2010 to £527 million this year and will be £546 million by 2015, meaning that we will be spending £100 million a year less at the end of this Parliament than at its start. Will the review therefore look at whether the right choices were made over how best to implement reductions to the Department’s budget, particularly in the light of the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves the country as much as £8 in flood damage?

Does the Secretary of State still believe that no other areas of his Department’s budget or those of its 28 arm’s length bodies were a lower priority than flood defences when it came to making decisions on reducing spending? Does that include, for example, the £7.3 million he spent in recent months on his failed unscientific cull of badgers—£4,100 for each animal killed?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the review will consider the warning from the chief executive of the Environment Agency that

“Flood risk maintenance will be impacted” by further planned budget and staffing reductions? In the meantime, will he reassure those living in areas at risk of flooding that, despite these warnings, he is confident that he can deliver the cuts in a way that will not reduce the Environment Agency’s ability to protect homes and businesses and respond when floods hit?

Will the Secretary of State reassure us that his failure to protect flood defence expenditure over other potential cuts has nothing to do with his personal scepticism about climate science? Has the Secretary of State listened to Sir David King, the Government’s special envoy on climate change, who has today again warned that

“storms and severe weather conditions that we might have expected to occur once in 100 years, say, in the past may now be happening more frequently....and the reason is—as predicted by scientists—that the climate is changing and as the climate changes we can anticipate quite a radical change in weather conditions.”

In the light of that clear warning, does the Secretary of State stand by his view that climate change will benefit the UK because of warmer winters? Will he now listen to the advice from his own independent advisers—the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change—who wrote to him towards the end of last year to express concern that his flood reinsurance scheme misses simple measures that would reduce cost, increase value for money and cope with increasing flood risk?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman look again at Labour’s amendments to the flood reinsurance scheme, which Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members opposed in Committee?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for her expressions of sympathy and her thanks to those who worked so hard in the Environment Agency and local councils through this difficult period.

The hon. Lady asked four questions about the review. She will have heard me say that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis is meeting tomorrow to work on recovery, and I shall work across Government with my colleagues to look at some of the lessons learned. The hon. Lady justifiably touched on one area which is, I think, a weakness. Although the Environment Agency and the Flood Forecasting Centre have put out very accurate short-term forecasts and although an efficient system was in place for distributing that information right across those on the ground—district councils, power companies, other utilities, transport companies—we saw a patchy take-up of some of that information and a patchy reaction to it. Some reacted very rapidly and were very effective; others had to be accelerated in their actions after a succession of Cobra meetings. The hon. Lady has touched on an area well worthy of investigation.

On expenditure, the hon. Lady is, sadly, simply wrong. Since I have been in this post—

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will tell the hon. Lady; the chronology is very simple. I met her former colleague, the noble Lord Smith, at a tremendous flood scheme in Nottingham, where £45 million had been spent, protecting about 12,000 properties. What was really revealing was not only the 8:1 gain on the properties protected, as she mentioned, but the huge gain in land on the far side of the river that had been blighted for decades. So there is no stronger enthusiast in this House for flood detection schemes than me. I agree with Lord Smith that if we had a programme of projects that we could press on with rapidly, I would do my best to get money from my colleagues in central Government. [Interruption.] All those Opposition Members chuntering have to get back to some pretty basic figures. When we came into office in 2010, this country was borrowing over £300,000 a minute, and we had to take some pretty difficult decisions. In the light of that and the dire economic circumstances, reductions in revenue inevitably had to be made. Following my meetings with the noble Lord Smith, we got an extra £120 million for capital and have consolidated that into an extended scheme that will see 165,000 properties protected up to 2015. What is absolutely unprecedented is our clear programme of a further £2.3 billion up to 2021 to protect a further 300,000 properties. For all the blather from the Opposition, the simple question for the hon. Lady is whether she will nod now and say that the Labour party will go along with our proposal to spend £2.3 billion on capital up until 2021. Mr Speaker and colleagues, it is very noticeable—[Interruption.]

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. There is a cacophony of noise. It seems invidious to single out individuals, but I confess a degree of disappointment as I had always envisaged Barry Gardiner as a future rather cerebral statesman, but at the moment that point seems to be some way off to judge by the cacophony he is generating. Maria Eagle took a little longer than her allotted time, and I allowed for that, but it is only fair to allow the Secretary of State to give proper replies. The House will make its own assessment of those replies, but the right hon. Gentleman must be heard.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, and I will be quick.

The shadow Secretary of State has very publicly not endorsed our programme to increase spending on capital to £2.3 billion up until 2021, so the facts are that in this spending round this Government are spending more than any preceding Government and we propose to spend more up to 2021. That is something on which she needs to reflect before making further criticisms.

The Government believe in the value of flood protection schemes. They deliver a huge advantage for those in private properties and in business and they free up blighted land, and we will continue our programme. It is noticeable, however, that the news today is that the Labour party will not endorse our increased spending programme.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

May I add my congratulations to the Environment Agency and the emergency services, including the lifeboat crews and coastguards who rescued those who put themselves at risk? It is noteworthy that the flood defences held firm and protected the properties that the Secretary of State has highlighted. Will he commit to reviewing his Department’s maintenance budget to ensure that the flood defences that held will have proper maintenance? Will he allow drainage boards to use their own engineers to ensure that the main water courses are kept clear in the future, as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recommended? Will he give the House some examples of imaginative partnership approaches, such as the Pickering pilot project, which is building a reservoir, starting tomorrow, to keep Pickering safe from future floods?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her supportive comments. Emphatically yes, we want spending on maintenance to continue. That is why I added a further £5 million to that budget for 2015-16. For further information, although there was a 1% reduction in budgets across DEFRA, I have not passed that on to the flood budget. Again, that shows our absolute determination to protect flood schemes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to praise partnership schemes. I have been around the country to look at tremendous projects, and only today I was on the Thames where there are prospects of extending the Jubilee river scheme that would require partnership spending by six local councils.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

Is it not the case that the sum being spent is way below what the Environment Agency said in 2009 would need to be spent to keep pace with climate change? Is not the real fact that, as the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change’s report states, the

“extreme events seen in recent years will become the new normal” and that we need to do far more? We need urgently and immediately to review the cuts being made to the Environment Agency.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee for her comments. Emphatically yes, we have reacted—look at what we are doing. I agreed a whole range of projects with the noble Lord Smith and we got them passed in a difficult spending round. We have agreed extra funding, as I have just told the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for revenue spending and we have agreed, unprecedentedly, a programme of increased spending on capital up until 2021. We are spending more money in this spending round than in the previous four years, we have brought in partnership funding and we have set out an ambitious programme. We are reacting—the hon. Lady needs only to look at what we are doing on the ground.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

Not unusually, a large part of my constituency is under water at the moment, and many people who live on the levels say that the situation is the worst that they can remember. I know that the Secretary of State understands this, but will he push the Environment Agency very hard to go ahead with the plans to clear the waterways and the rhynes and particularly to dredge the Parrett, the Tone, the Brue and the Axe, because if we have not got the capacity to get that water away, it will stay there for a very long time?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I worked closely on this matter when he was my colleague in DEFRA. Together, we have come to a number of schemes that are being piloted—seven across the country—allowing local farmers and landlords to clear their own low-risk waterways, under supervision from the Environment Agency; but obviously, if that work is to go ahead and be meaningful, there must be proper dredging of rivers, and we will work on that with the Environment Agency.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

How does the Secretary of State expect people to believe his claims that flood management is a priority for the Government when, in addition to the Environment Agency cuts, he has seen the decision to slash DEFRA’s team working on climate change adaptation from 38 officials to six and when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has scrapped the obligation for councils to prepare for the impacts of climate change? Will the Secretary of State not acknowledge that that illustrates an incredibly reckless approach to the risks that extreme weather presents? Will he confirm whether he has found time to hold even one meeting with his Department’s chief scientific adviser on this matter—something that he had failed to do until a few months ago?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I cannot blame her for the economic mess that we inherited, but sadly, when we were borrowing £300,000 a minute—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are still chuntering. They are still in denial, and they are not apologising to the British people. When we were borrowing £300,000 a minute, we had to make difficult decisions. The hon. Lady must acknowledge, because she has been here while I made these decisions in the past 16 months, that we have increased spending in this round up to 2015 and that we have an ambitious programme of £2.3 billion, as I have just said. Hon. Members should therefore look at what we are doing on the ground and look at the benefits, with 1 million properties protected over Christmas.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

I am sure the Secretary of State would like to clarify for the House that the Opposition’s claim that they could identify savings from arm’s length bodies falsifies the fact that when this Government took office, there were 91 arm’s length bodies under DEFRA’s wing, which I reduced to 28, and that those savings were directed precisely to help to improve flood defences.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and predecessor for her comments. She is absolutely spot on. By the very difficult decisions that she took and by reducing the number of bodies that were not absolutely key, she has enabled me to come forward with a programme under which this Government will be spending more in this round than any preceding Government.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Significant damage was done in Crosby and Hightown during the December floods. As a result, council officers told me this morning that we were very lucky to avoid further significant flooding this weekend. Cuts to flood defence funding since 2010 mean that many communities have now been left vulnerable to further flooding, so will the Secretary of State ensure that funding is made available for the early repair of the flood defences that have been damaged?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, his local council can now work with the Environment Agency on partnership funding. I am not sure of the exact physical circumstances, but if there is a possible scheme, there is now a real chance of getting that scheme over the wire. He makes a good point about the maintenance of schemes, and that has been a daily question in our Cobra meetings and our DEFRA meetings to make absolutely sure that any breaches were mended. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency for the rapid manner in which it worked through the night, certainly in early December, to put right those breaches.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State agrees that, in addition to wonderful flood prevention schemes, education is critical. In my constituency, one of the fatalities involved a misguided rescue attempt. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we should ensure that councils work with parishes to make sure that plans are in place? No plans were in place in some of my coastal villages, and that was exactly where we needed them.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and valid comment, and I hope that she will contribute to our review. She points out that several absolutely tragic deaths in recent weeks were really unnecessary—if only people had paid attention to the warnings. One cannot fault the Environment Agency for putting out a huge number of warnings using every possible medium, and we need to ensure that those warnings are heeded.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

The high tides and strong winds of recent days have caused real problems on Walney island, which is home to about 13,000 of my residents. We have had a long struggle to try to get adequate protection against coastal erosion, which threatens many homes on Earnse bay, so will the Secretary of State put a rocket up the Marine Management Organisation so that it issues a licence without further delay to enable such work to begin? Experts say that if we do not act, Walney could be split into two or three separate islands within 20 or 30 years.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He makes a valid point, and it would be appropriate if he put it in writing to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson, so that we can take it up

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that the river that gives my constituency its name flooded and devastated the north of my constituency, as well as the north of the adjacent constituencies to the east and west. The actions of the utility organisations and councils and neighbours in many areas were terrific and offset some of the damage, but the effects will take a long time to overcome. I am delighted that he talks of a review and more money, but I am cautiously aware that we in Surrey usually do not get a decent slice of what is available, so I am putting in a direct bid now. I will be asking the leader of Surrey county council to work with me, the Environment Agency and the utilities to put together ideas for a report. Will the Secretary of State accept that report and agree to meet a small deputation that will push the report?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend tempts me with his question, but I commend his plan to talk to his local council. The partnership mechanism that we have introduced has enabled several schemes that had previously stalled to get over the bar, so if there is a suitable scheme for his local rivers I strongly recommend that he work with his council to draw up a bid with the Environment Agency. Such a proposal will be assessed alongside all the other schemes.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He referred to the fact that certain areas in Northern Ireland were flooded. As the representative of such a constituency, may I ask him to hold immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that any cuts to coastguard services will not have an impact on coastal communities in Northern Ireland that were greatly affected by coastal flooding and surges?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond, is in the Chamber, and as the question is about a transport matter, it is probably more appropriate for the hon. Lady to write directly to him.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I commend the Secretary of State for his personal commitment and energy over the Christmas and new year period; while many of us were enjoying our holidays, he was working in his Department. I should also, of course, mention the hard work of the emergency services and the Environment Agency. What discussions has he held with the Association of British Insurers to ensure that those affected by floods will be reimbursed as quickly as possible?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and for reflecting the tremendous work of those in the Environment Agency and the other services. We raised this matter early after the first flood, and ambassadors of the Environment Agency went to check that members of the public were getting satisfactory responses from their insurance companies. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, spoke to the ABI on several occasions to ensure that that was being followed up, and the matter was raised at Cobra this morning. I am pleased to say that, at the moment, we have not heard of any complaints that insurance companies are being slow in sending out assessors. However, at that very difficult time when someone’s property has flooded, the one thing that they want is to get their insurance sorted out, so we would obviously welcome hearing from hon. Members about any cases where there have been problems.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

In the early hours of Christmas eve, 35 homes in Westhorne avenue in my constituency suffered an avoidable flood when a grill in the Quaggy river became completely blocked. It was only a few hundred yards away from a multi-million pound flood alleviation scheme, but, sadly, the water did not reach there because the Environment Agency had failed to ensure that the grill was kept clear. This has left my constituents in a difficult situation. What they need now is for the Environment Agency to ’fess up and accept its responsibility for the incident so that they can start to make their claims. Will the Secretary of State contact the Environment Agency on my behalf?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman reports on an unfortunate case. The appropriate measure is for him to send the details to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, and we will take the matter up with the Environment Agency.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does the Secretary of State agree that a number of small schemes to improve the capacity of ditches, culverts and streams could make a lot of difference? My constituency has had huge development on flood plain, and every time we have these situations we always get too many properties flooded because of defective maintenance or because the ditches and culverts are not big enough.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. A big difference can be made by micro-management of micro-problems, such as the one cited in the previous question. Not everything can be done by central Government, national institutions, local councils or even parish councils. In rural areas, we are setting up pilots to allow local landowners the right on the ground to maintain low-risk areas and to clear out small rivers.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

At the end of last week, high-sea surges and high winds brought water over the coastal protection in Porthcawl, both at West drive and in Newton. Local council staff were out quickly, clearing up the debris along the roadways. The Environment Agency was excellent. None the less, there are huge financial consequences because we have to repair the sea protection and pay for the staff coverage during the clear-up. What money will be available to the Environment Agency and local councils in devolved Administrations to ensure that repairs can be done and compensation paid so that councils can carry on with the much needed flood protection works?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Nearly all the issues that she raised are devolved responsibilities for Ministers in Cardiff. However, if she wants to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, we will see whether we can help.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

No one in my constituency of Gloucester or in neighbouring Tewkesbury will ever forget the devastation caused by the floods of 2007 and the remarkable reaction and community spirit from our constituents to deal with it. However, the recommendations of the Pitt report took a long time to implement under the previous Government, and it was not until 2010 that the Environment Agency spent significant sums of money to build up flood prevention measures in the city of Gloucester, notably the Horsbere Brook relief pond, which was opened by my hon. Friend Richard Benyon in 2011.

Although the floods in 2012 and this year have affected Gloucestershire—anyone who lives by the River Severn should expect some consequences—none of my constituents’ houses have so far been flooded, though I stress the words “so far”. I pay tribute to the work of the Environment Agency, the city and county council, Severn Trent, which spent £15 million on a project to improve drainage and sewers, and many other agencies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Environment Agency’s work and advance notice and warnings have been significantly improved by better technology which shows where the flooding is likely to impact much more effectively than it did six years ago?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments. I can confirm that we have implemented nearly all the recommendations of the Pitt report. One of the most important ones was the establishment of the flood forecasting centre, which brings together the Met Office and the Environment Agency. I pay tribute to the centre, whose work I have seen at very closed quarters in recent days, for its great accuracy. I also pay tribute to the Environment Agency for the rapid manner in which it got the message out. My hon. Friend touches on one of the most important recommendations that came out of Pitt.

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

The Government’s new flood insurance scheme excludes properties built after 2009, properties bought under the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, and small businesses and leaseholders. So can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s review will look at, and publish details of, the number of properties that have been flooded in recent weeks and those that will not be covered by the Government’s new insurance scheme?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have already had the Committee stage of the Water Bill, which comes back to the House immediately after this statement and that would be the appropriate moment to raise these issues. We have said that we have to have a cut-off point, and it was 2009, when the last Government firmed up on the whole idea of building on floodplains. There has to be a firm cut-off point, and the longer this goes on, the bigger the burden will be on other hard-working families who are helping to pay the cross-subsidy.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

My constituency has suffered from two sorts of flooding over this period, and some residents in Calstock and Lower Kelly are almost cut-off because the road collapsed into the river. The council has been really good in working with the local residents, but Cornwall suffers under the Bellwin scheme because a unitary authority was foisted on it by the Labour party, against the wishes of the people of Cornwall. Will my right hon. Friend speak to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether something can be done about the disproportionate way in which the Bellwin scheme works against Cornwall?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am pleased to say that only this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth met the leader and chief executive of Cornwall council to discuss the impact of the Bellwin scheme on Cornwall.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

As the former chair of Flood Risk Management Wales, which is charged with investing in flood defences and flood risk-management systems across Wales on behalf of the Environment Agency and the Welsh Government, I am very aware that although the Welsh coastline is more than a quarter of the size of the English coastline, we get only 5% of the money, because that is allocated on the basis of population. Given the severity of the conditions we face, will the Secretary of State look at the case, with the Treasury, for some contingency funding to deal with the damage caused in Wales and review that balance in the light of the growing risk from climate change?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and probably the appropriate route is for him to write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who liaises with the Welsh Government and with the Treasury here in Westminster.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

My right hon. Friend referred to the transport disruption caused by the weather conditions, and I should advise him that high winds have led to the closure of the Dartford-Thurrock bridge on three occasions during this period. Will he ensure that Cobra reviews the resilience of the road network on such occasions, so that that can inform future transport investment decisions?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Obviously, we had Department for Transport Ministers at every Cobra meeting. It is safe to say that, generally, the strategic road network worked extremely well, but my hon. Friend mentions high-profile routes that are exposed to winds, and my colleagues in the DFT will be examining that as part of the review.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (International Development)

My sympathies are with all those who have lost loved ones during this period, and I am sure the Secretary of State has said the same. May I tell him that Wirral organisations worked incredibly hard to keep going and to get back to normal during the adverse weather conditions? Unfortunately, their efforts, which should have been supported by the council, have been hampered somewhat by the extremity of the cuts that Wirral council faces at this time. He says that tomorrow the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Brandon Lewis will be chairing a meeting of a ministerial recovery working group. Will that discuss how to assist the councils that have dealt with the biggest cuts this Government have doled out?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and thank her for her expression of sympathy for all those who have suffered over the past few weeks. The Bellwin scheme is there to help exactly the sort of council she is talking about. She should work with her local council and encourage it to put in an application to the Department for Communities and Local Government. She can write to the Under-Secretary of State anytime she likes, because he will take it up.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

The Environment Agency’s flood-alert service is a valuable early-warning system, but unfortunately it is not available to many households in Littlehampton and Bognor Regis. Given the serious flooding in my constituency in June 2012 and the fact that it is on a low-lying coastal plain, will the Secretary of State use his influence with the Environment Agency to ensure that the service is available to all my constituents?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that useful point. I think that the best thing for him to do would be to write to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, so that we can put that in the mix and work with the Environment Agency on it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and add my thanks to the many agencies and staff in Northern Ireland, particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which led the battle against the elements over the past few days and weeks. I congratulate him on ensuring that there was a good state of preparedness on this occasion, as people were warned when floods were imminent, in stark contrast to what had gone before. I hope that that vigilance will be maintained for the future. I ask that he continues to share information with the devolved regions so that that awareness is maintained. Will he condemn those people who took it upon themselves to steal sandbags from parts of the river bank in east Belfast, putting more houses at risk, and then sell them to vulnerable pensioners, which was utterly disgraceful? Will he also keep an especially watchful eye on Rathlin island, which remains cut off from sea transport? If that situation continues over the next few days, will he ensure that my constituents there will continue to receive attention, and hopefully a drop of supplies?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am as shocked as anyone else in the House by the revelation that people were stealing sandbags at such a difficult time. We all saw on our television screens the extraordinary conditions in Belfast. There is probably no bigger an admirer of the PSNI in this House than me, so I happily endorse his comments. As far as Rathlin island is concerned, I received a communication on new year’s day from Kate Hoey, who wished me a happy new year from her cottage there. I am sure that we will hear from her if she gets stuck. Seriously, if people on Rathlin are having problems with transport, Members should take that up with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who can then take it up with colleagues in the Department for Transport.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I join the Secretary of State in praising the emergency services that helped and protected communities in the face of flood and storm damage. In Wales those were mostly coastal towns that depend on tourism for their living. He has already said that it is a devolved matter, but will he work with his ministerial counterparts to ensure that there is a Barnett consequential for the Bellwin formula so that local authorities can reinstate the infrastructure and the towns can be ready to welcome tourists later in the year?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important Welsh point that we heard earlier. Obviously the Welsh Government were represented in the meetings of Cobra, and I talked with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales only this morning. I think that the appropriate route would be to write to him, because clearly consequentials have been cited in relation to the large Welsh coastline.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

I remind the Secretary of State that when there has been flooding in my constituency it has been an awful experience, but it can also be months, and sometimes years, before homes are habitable again. It is a miserable process. Does he agree that the Environment Agency has come out very well from the recent troubles with flooding and inclement weather. Should he not now do something to restore morale in the Environment Agency, which he is well known to dislike, because its staff are very unhappy about the way they have been treated by his Government over the past three years?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful for some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I honestly have to disagree. I have been to see people from the Environment Agency on the ground. Last week I was in Addington, where they were manning the control centre. Only this morning, I was near Maidenhead looking at the Jubilee river, in absolute pouring rain. Those guys have been working all over Christmas and their morale was absolutely tremendous. They are, quite rightly, really proud of what they have done. They have worked their guts out under very difficult conditions, and they have delivered. We estimate that approximately 1 million households are protected through the work of the Environment Agency and all those working in local councils. I am always struck by the real spirit among people in the Environment Agency and their determination to deliver, whatever the conditions. That also goes back to what happened at the beginning of January, when they were working overnight filling breaches on the east coast. I have the deepest respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has been in this House for a long time, and I do not like disagreeing with him, but on this occasion I honestly think he is wrong, and I am pleased to tell him so. I really do think that morale among people in the Environment Agency is tremendous—and of course they are buoyed up by the prospect of our very significant long-term programme for flood defences.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury

Twelve months ago I visited the Environment Agency to thank people for their work over last Christmas, and I visited many of the flooded homes, particularly those of farmers on the Somerset levels, who were mentioned by my hon. Friends

Mr Heath and for Wells (Tessa Munt). We were able to do much to support them. However, we are left with the importance of remembering that the first two years of this Government were spent dealing with drought and the last two years have been spent dealing with really severe floods. It is right that we are encouraging investment in resilience in the water sector, and it has to be right that we continue to prioritise flood spending. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is worth reminding the House that the previous Government’s so-called Darling plan would have made 50% cuts in capital spending across the Government, which would of course have had an impact on precisely the things that Opposition Members are complaining about today?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I would like, on the record, to thank him, and my predecessor, for the tremendous work that they put in during their time working on these long-term programmes. What is fascinating about this statement is that it has flushed out the fact that the Labour party will not match our very ambitious long-term programme for flood defences.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

A constituent of mine has seen his flood risk premiums double to almost £2,500 in 12 months. Does the Secretary of State honestly believe that his Department is doing enough, quickly enough, for people like Mr Clayton?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The statement of principles, which was the ad hoc arrangement left by the previous Government, was always going to end on 30 June last year, and I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues had done very little to prepare the ground for a replacement. After very detailed negotiation with the ABI, we have come to an agreement on a new programme. The relevant measure is going through the House as we speak, and he will have an opportunity to comment on it in the debate on the Water Bill later this afternoon.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Lowestoft in my constituency was badly affected by the North sea storm surge at the beginning of last month. In the past three and a half years the Government have made significant commitments to flood defences in terms of increasing funding and promoting innovative ways of carrying out works. As a result of the recent and ongoing floods, a considerable amount of additional work has been created in relation to preparing damaged defences, working up new schemes that had previously been regarded as long-term projects, and improving risk management procedures. In the light of what has happened in the past four to five weeks, will the Secretary of State be reviewing the funding arrangements for the Environment Agency and local authorities to ensure that they have the necessary resources to carry out this additional work and that local communities can get back on their feet as quickly as possible?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to repeat what I said earlier—that this Government will be spending more on flood defences in the course of these four years than any preceding Government, and we have set up a very ambitious £2.3 billion programme going right through to 2021. I very much hope that his constituents, councils and other entities put in bids to participate in these funds.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

People in Brampton in Chesterfield who were flooded in 2007 will have every sympathy with what people who have been flooded in recent weeks are going through, but they are still waiting for the River Rother flood alleviation scheme that the Government boasted about in 2010. In that context, the spending figures are very important. The Secretary of State made some claims that would give the impression that flood spending was going up. Can he confirm that the funding for flood defences in 2010-11 was £646 million, but in 2015-16, in real terms, it will be £100 million less? That is a very significant cut, not an increase, is it not?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but he is wrong. We are going to spend £2.3 billion over the course of this Parliament. The scheme he mentions may be a good candidate for partnership funding, which has helped get a whole number of schemes that were stuck beforehand over the barrier because they depended entirely on Environment Agency funding.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and congratulate him on his energetic performance over the Christmas period, when I saw him here and on our television screens informing the public. Does he agree that he saw a lot of surface water on his travels, and will he assure me and the House that he will have conversations with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that local authorities are playing their part in clearing culverts to ensure that standing water on roads does not contribute to the worsening floods?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. DCLG Ministers obviously played a key part in our Cobra meetings, and liaison with relevant local councils was discussed almost on a daily basis. That is a key local government responsibility that has been pursued with vigour by Ministers at the centre.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Wales)

Lack of communication is one of the major complaints made be people whose public transport arrangements have been disrupted by adverse weather. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the Transport Secretary is doing to demand improvements from public sector and public transport providers, particularly those running stations and airports, so that people are not left for hours without any information whatsoever or have to surge from one platform to another because of conflicting messages? It is simply not good enough for people to be left waiting for hours and hours without any understanding of what is happening.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady is absolutely right and I entirely agree with her. There is nothing more frustrating for all the entities involved if telephone calls are not received and information is not passed on. That applies to transport organisations, airports, power companies and, obviously, local councils. That is definitely one of the things we will be looking at. People were really exasperated. The power system went out at Gatwick: there were no screens and no public address system, and people were, quite rightly, absolutely furious. That is a clear area that we want to look at. We will make absolutely sure that all the organisations delivering to the public on the ground have a means—and a back-up, which is really important—of receiving calls and getting information out. The hon. Lady is absolutely right.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the hundreds of people who turned out in my constituency and across Cornwall not only to look out for their neighbours, but to support the whole range of organisations that are doing their level best to prevent damage from flooding? Will he also, as part of his review, listen to today’s advice from Falmouth coastguards for people to better understand the risks involved in water sports such as surfing in the sorts of recent weather conditions, not just to themselves, but to the emergency services that have to go out and save them should an accident occur?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about the amazing community-level activity by members of the public who helped their neighbours, families and friends. I also entirely endorse her comments on the need to somehow get the message across that those who do take part in splendidly energetic sports such as surfing also take account of the real dangers that can occur when the weather goes beyond the point at which it is not a safe activity.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I also extend my sympathies to families and friends who have lost loved ones.

Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friend Maria Eagle and others, figures from the 2010 spending review show clearly that central Government spending on flood defences has reduced in real terms—in some cases by up to 20%—compared with, as shown in official documents, the increase of 75% in flood defence spending between 1997 and 2010. The Government have tried to shift the responsibility for investment and financial risk to individuals and communities. In the light of the devastation to individuals, families and communities as a result of the most recent flood, and given that, according to the Prime Minister, politics is about decision making, does the Secretary of State regret any decisions he has made during this time?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for expressing her sympathies, quite rightly, about those who have lost their lives, because that has been really shocking. All I can do is repeat what I said earlier—that in the course of this spending round, this Government will spend more than any other Governments have spent on flood defences. We have an ambitious programme to spend £2.3 billion on capital alone up to 2021 meaning that 165,000 properties will be protected up to 2015, which is 20,000 more than we originally planned, and that a further 300,000 properties will be protected up to 2021.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

Although my right hon. Friend has made it clear that he does not feel it is appropriate to deal with questions about Flood Re until later in the day, his statement made so many references to insurance that it is important for the Secretary of State and the Government to reflect on areas in which Flood Re does not offer insurance protection, such as properties in two council tax bands in Wales and, for instance, the small guest houses on the front of the marina in Aberystwyth that have been affected by appalling waves today.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I am perfectly happy to talk about Flood Re; I just thought that as there will be a debate later, and time is short now, it might be the more appropriate to ask questions about it then.

My hon. Friend raises the issue of guest houses. We have made it clear that council tax payment is the criterion on which to decide whether one is in or out of Flood Re. I am not totally up to speed on the exact details of the guest houses he mentioned, but he may find that many of them pay council tax.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

In November last year, October this year and again over the Christmas period—[Interruption.] That is the local radio station, BBC Radio Northampton, asking me about this very issue. For the third time in the past 12 months, Gainsborough road in Corby has been severely flooded, and residents were trapped in their homes for a week over Christmas. I have been passed around between the Environment Agency, Anglian Water and the county council, but nobody seems to want to take responsibility. Will the Secretary of State step in to help me stop this pass the parcel and get somebody to address this problem?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I wish him well with his local radio, and I suggest that he writes to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson on this particular issue. [Interruption.]

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

May I say to my right hon. Friend that there has been more flood prevention work in the Cotswolds in the past two years than there was in the whole of the 13 years of the previous Government? Nevertheless, some of my constituents in Cirencester and the area have suffered sewage and water flooding for the second Christmas in succession. They really appreciated the work of the emergency services, particularly the Environment Agency. Will he ensure that the front-line services the Environment Agency so generously provided over this period will be maintained and, in particular, that flood maps are rapidly updated, so that they can get up-to-date insurance?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, which reflect the very good work of the Environment Agency. I want to quote its chief executive, Dr Paul Leinster, whom I have been speaking to daily—I hope that this will reassure my hon. Friend—who has said: “The planned reductions in posts will not affect the Environment Agency’s ability to respond to flooding incidents and the Environment Agency will minimise the impact on other frontline services through the changes.”

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will do everything he can to make sure that local authorities, highway authorities, the Environment Agency and providers of sewage and water services co-operate and collaborate, rather than pass the buck from one to the other?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have seen variability with the resilience forums. At the one I went to in Kent, it was quite clear from listening in on conversations that some agencies were really sharp, on the ball and participating, but that others were not quite as reactive. That is one area that we need to look at in the review, first, as I said earlier, to check whether information is getting through to some of these entities and, secondly, whether the entities are actually taking action. That is the area on which we need to concentrate.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

Some 20,000 homes are exposed to flood risk in Worthing and district. I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me in thanking David Robinson, the Environment Agency operations director for South Downs and Solent, and the colleagues of Kieran Stigant, the chief executive of West Sussex county council, for their preparatory work last year, which helped to reduce the risk over the Christmas and new year period. Will he join me in thanking the local media and those who came out with chainsaws to clear the roads, who helped to reduce the impact of the horrendous conditions, which included tides that were up to a metre higher than expected?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking and congratulating the senior members of the Environment Agency and all the staff who have worked so hard in his area. I am also happy to congratulate and thank all those on the ground who came out with chainsaws to work in such a public-spirited manner, as has been touched on by other Members.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

My constituency has also flooded, which has led to one tragedy and widespread disruption and anxiety. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the Environment Agency and the emergency services for their tireless work over the Christmas period. However, despite their ever-increasing water bills, my constituents are again facing foul water flooding from sewers that simply cannot cope with flooding. What is he doing to put pressure on water companies to be more prepared for flood events and to ensure that we prevent these very distressing incidents from recurring?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Very few water shortages have been reported, but we have had incidents of sewage flooding, which she has touched on. Apart from all the other problems of flooding, that is horrendous. We will certainly look at that issue and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, will talk to the water companies about it.

Photo of Eric Ollerenshaw Eric Ollerenshaw Conservative, Lancaster and Fleetwood

In thanking the Secretary of State for the £67 million that he agreed to in the autumn for the renewal of the

flood defences around Fleetwood at Rossall, may I ask him whether there is any chance of his persuading the Treasury to increase the valuation that it places on agricultural land so that we can justify greater investment that goes beyond 30 years in the sea defences around Glasson and Thurnham in my constituency?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have the conundrum that we must protect agricultural land that is of a lower value than land on which property is built and land in the cities. Of course, the risk that lives will be lost is also lower than in cities. The Environment Agency faces that conundrum. There is a matrix to evaluate each project. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, and I are more than happy to talk to him about the details of the case that he mentions.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

Romsey has been very badly affected over the past fortnight by high levels in the River Test, massive surface water run-off and, most particularly, effluent from a Victorian drainage system that simply cannot cope. My huge thanks go to Romsey’s retained firefighters who worked to pump out houses. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will work closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at areas where housing development is planned on greenfield sites, but where there is already a problem with drainage systems that cannot cope?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is completely crazy to have new housing projects that do not have adequate drainage for the conditions. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, is listening carefully. As we go through the review, she might like to write to him with her recommendations.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Apart from in Maidstone in my county of Kent, were military forces deployed in the United Kingdom over Christmas and the new year to deal with flooding?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

To the best of my knowledge, the only case was a couple of days ago, when 90 soldiers helped to fill sandbags at very short notice in Maidstone.

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Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I, too, welcome the comments that my right hon. Friend has made about better passenger information, following the incident in which people were stranded at Gatwick over Christmas and the new year. Will he join me in thanking West Sussex fire and rescue service for rescuing a number of elderly residents in Ifield Green? Will he also join me in recognising that, were it not for the significant capital investment in the Environment Agency’s scheme at Tilgate lake, which was realised over the past few years, the flooding in my constituency could have been a lot worse?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend, and I am glad he endorses our views on getting information across to the public in various forums, particularly at his nearby airport. I am delighted to hear that the flood scheme worked effectively, and his constituents will be among those in the 1 million properties that were protected during this difficult period.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Conservative, Nuneaton

Many of my constituents in St Nicolas and Weddington wards are concerned about the spectre of new housing development on greenfield land, when there is already a significant flood risk to existing property. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that priority will be given to ensuring that new housing developments do not cause more flood blight?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the matter. It is absurd, given the knowledge that we now have, to build houses or anything else on a flood plain. It is good that the Environment Agency objects to planning applications that it thinks are unwise. In the first half of last year there were 26,060 such objections to planning applications, and 99.6% of those objections were endorsed. Our new planning guidance is clear that development should be located away from flood risk whenever possible, and as my hon. Friend suggests, the Environment Agency is active in vetting planning applications.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

I certainly congratulate the agencies and the Secretary of State for all that has been done in the past few weeks, but given that a theme today has been that agencies must work together, will he consider asking for a review of how that might be encouraged? I have various examples from my constituency of agencies needing to work together more, such as on drainage in Woodchester, sewerage in Slimbridge and the Severn estuary flood review. That all shows the need to encourage agency co-operation.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should get this in perspective by saying that there was good co-operation across the country, with enormous work put in by the Environment Agency, councils and those in the fire brigade and transport organisations. However, we can do better. He is right that there were a number of cases on the ground in which a few organisations could have been better informed, reacted quicker and done more. That is what we want to examine. We need to get the system sorted out so that it is much more homogeneous and uniform, but let us get it in perspective—I think there only a few cases in which things went really badly wrong.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Across the country, water and power engineers, local authority and emergency service workers, volunteers and others have done their level best. They are ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

As the Secretary of State said in his statement, the performance of some utilities and local authorities left room for improvement. Where those few councils and utilities have performed badly, almost by definition it will have been because of bad decisions made, usually, by highly paid chief executives. Will the Secretary of State host a meeting, together with other Government Departments, and invite the 10 worst-performing and the 10 best-performing utilities and local authorities, so that one group might mentor the other?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and that is an interesting idea. We will progress the review by examining the cases in which we think things have gone well, and as I touched on in answer to the previous question, I think that there were only a few cases that showed a need to see how we can co-ordinate better. The co-ordination is the key point.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Over Christmas, it was clear that households and businesses in Snape, Eyke and Southwold were still suffering from the floods earlier in December. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the role of internal drainage boards will continue to be enhanced, and will he consider with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and others a sensitive scheme of felling trees in sensitive areas to prevent trees from bringing down power lines?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

IDBs certainly have a great role to play, and I am a strong supporter of them. It is all part of our long-term proposal to push responsibility for low-risk waterways down to as local a level as possible. That is how we can help to free up a lot of those waterways, which have been blocked because work on them was stopped under the previous Government. I am happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s other question with her directly.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

May I refer my right hon. Friend back to the floods of 5 and 6 December, and thank him for his visit to my constituency in the immediate aftermath? Subsequent meetings with the Environment Agency have suggested that it will prepare both a short and long-term strategy, and my residents—particularly in Barrow Haven, which has been flooded twice in the past six years—are anxious for those plans to be implemented speedily. Can my right hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that he will do all he can to ensure that the Environment Agency carries out that work?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. It was an extraordinary event—I think people told me that it was the worst weather they had had in 500 years, which shows what the Environment Agency has had to cope with recently. I would not want to jump the agency’s list of priorities, so perhaps my hon. Friend would be happy to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, who will take up the matter, and the particular details of the project he mentions, directly with the Environment Agency.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

It is a pleasure to be the end-stop to this statement. I have been a critic of the Environment Agency in the past, but will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating it on its staff and on the way it is working in partnership with East Riding of Yorkshire council to deliver a much more joined-up approach, as mentioned by colleagues across the House? Can he assure residents in Kilnsea which was flooded—businesses were also flooded there—that remote, rural spots such as that will see their flood defences prioritised for investment, and that they will see that bank renewed, which desperately needs to be done?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and admire his patience in waiting until last. I nearly visited his constituency and saw the advantages of the Hull barrier, which is used as a reservoir at low tide to drain water from his constituency. If he has a particular project in mind, as with the preceding question I think the appropriate route is to write directly to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who will take it up with the Environment Agency.