Winter Floods

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 11:38 am on 6th February 2014.

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Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 11:38 am, 6th February 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on the action taken in the light of the recent floods and extreme weather. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is unable to update the House today, but I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery to his usual robust health.

One of the defining characteristics of Britain is the weather, but in recent months it has been particularly savage. Part of the country has been subject to flooding by the sea, rivers, surface water and ground water. In December, we saw the highest surge on the east coast for 60 years and this January has been the wettest since George III was on the throne. We will continue to face severe weather well into next week.

I want to put on the record my utmost sympathy for those affected. I know from my constituency the effects of flooding, and once the floodwaters go down there is the smell, the sludge and the enormous time it takes to dry a building out. Flooding has devastating effects on communities. I know it has been especially difficult for those families that have been flooded for many weeks and for those that have been flooded on more than one occasion in recent months. I think we have all been struck by the stark images of the stranded residents on the Somerset levels and their brave resolve to continue their daily lives, be it by boat or tractor.

I also want to pay tribute to the hard work of councils, the Environment Agency’s staff on the ground and our emergency services, who have supported communities 24 hours a day, literally going through hell and high water. Britain’s flood defences have protected more than 1.2 million properties since 5 December and the Thames barrier has protected £200 billion-worth of property. None the less, it is evident that those defences are taking a pounding. There is damage to transport infrastructure and sea defences, including the railway line at Dawlish, as well as to power networks.

More than 5,000 properties have been flooded, including 40 in Somerset. There are two severe flood warnings in the west country, 61 flood warnings and 223 flood alerts in place. Cobra has met regularly since 29 January and has responded to every local request for assistance. The Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of Cobra later today.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, I can now report to the House the Government’s plans for further funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management. In the short term, I can announce that the Government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance, £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year. That will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained.

Emergency work on repairs started during December’s coastal surge. However, the full picture of the damage caused to flood defences has not yet emerged and the weather conditions have proved savage. The Government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

In addition, I am putting before the House today details of how my Department is enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme, which helps local authorities in England to meet the exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties. The changes I am announcing today include paying Bellwin grant at 100% above the threshold instead of the normal default 85%; allowing upper-tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim on a comparable basis to stand-alone fire authorities; reducing Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities; and extending the eligible period until the end of March 2014.

No council has yet made a formal claim under the Bellwin scheme, so no council has lost out as a result of these new announcements. Indeed, far more councils will be eligible to claim. The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their roles as first responders. However, it is clear that the Bellwin scheme needs further reform, an opportunity that was sadly missed under the last Administration. We will be undertaking a full review of the Bellwin scheme in due course, while ensuring that councils continue to have the right incentives to stop flooding happening in the first place. I can also tell the House that immediately after this statement, Ministers will be holding a teleconference with council leaders from across the west country to discuss further flood recovery measures.

Of course, flood prevention is as important as flood recovery. The additional funding that we have outlined today will allow the Government programme of capital investment to continue, fulfilling our commitment to improve defences throughout England. We have already put in place investment plans to improve the protection of at least 465,000 houses by the end of the decade. In addition, we are today announcing 42 new flood defence schemes for 2014-15. Together with other projects beginning construction in 2014-15, this will protect more than 42,000 households. This includes schemes in Salford, which will improve protection for more than 2,000 homes and businesses; Clacton, where more than 3,000 homes are currently at risk; and Willerby in the east riding of Yorkshire, where more than 8,000 properties will be better protected. There are also smaller, but no less important, schemes in Lincoln, Stockton and Todmorden.

We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, and with respect, I have to say that I do not agree with the comments of the noble Lord Smith, who implied that there was a choice between town and country.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences: £370 million in 2015-16 and then the same in real terms each year, rising to over £400 million by the end of this decade. By the autumn statement, we will have published a six-year programme of work running right up to 2021, including a new long-term investment strategy on flood defences. We will provide an assessment of the future need for flood and coastal defences, taking account of the latest risk maps and economic analysis.

We should certainly look at how councils plan and mitigate flood risk, yet I note that the level of development on flood-risk areas is now at its lowest rate since modern records began, and 99% of planning applications for new homes in flood-risk areas are in line with expert advice. But, as the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to be learned, from the way in which we help local authorities to the role of quangos and the need for their local accountability, the influence of man-made policies on dredging, the effect of tree planting on our landscape and rivers, and the resilience of our nation as a whole throughout the 21st century.

The measures that the coalition Government have announced today provide a clear commitment to reduce the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The additional funding means that, over this Parliament, this Government will be investing more than £3.1 billion, compared with £2.7 billion in the previous five years under the last Labour Government. This is more than ever before, in both cash and real terms, and we will spend it well and wisely. We cannot control the weather, but we can and will provide the security that hard-working families deserve to allow them to get on with their daily lives. I commend this statement to the House.