(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement on the Government’s recent response to the flooding in Somerset, and to clarify his comments this weekend accusing the Environment Agency of giving poor advice.
As evident from the dark skies outside, we continue to face extraordinary and sustained wet weather. Cobra has met every day since my oral statement on Thursday, with all Departments working closely together, including my comrades from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have made it clear again that every resource is available to local communities affected. We will keep providing whatever immediate practical support and assistance is needed, whether extra pumps and sandbags, military support on the ground, or emergency funds from the severe weather assistance fund for local councils.
The Somerset moors and levels have been some of the areas hardest hit by the weather, with 65 million cubic metres of floodwater on the land. The Rivers Tone and Parrett have been particularly affected by the continuous rainfall, leading to heightened river levels. In total, people in 150 properties across the Somerset levels, where there is a threat of severe flooding, have been advised to leave their homes. A rest centre has been established in Bridgwater. Military personnel have been tasked to work alongside local authorities, and are currently filling sandbags for deployment. Pumping continues, but it is a challenge to keep at the correct pace with the inflow from the latest rainfall, and levels are increasing in some areas. It is likely to take weeks to remove the sheer volume of floodwater, once there is a significant break in the weather.
Across the Thames valley and Surrey, the River Thames is rising and bursting its banks at certain locations. A sandbag programme is in place at key points of vulnerability. A multi-agency gold command has been set up in Croydon to co-ordinate the response locally, and a major incident has been declared. There is a high risk that the Thames, the Severn and the Wye will flood in the middle of next week. Local residents are actively engaged in planning and preparation.
As I told the House on Thursday, I commend the hard work of the emergency services, local authorities, the armed services and the staff of the Environment Agency on the ground. As I have said, there are lessons to be learned, including about its policy on dredging and how its £1.2 billion budget is spent.
I note that the issue of international development funding was touched on over the weekend. Let me say this: just as it is a false choice to cast town versus country, it is also wrong to pit helping the victims of flooding at home against helping those suffering abroad. We can and should do both—to help the plight of those facing the awfulness of flooded homes in Britain, just as we take action to help malnourished children dying from dirty water abroad. But I believe that taxpayers’ money should be well spent, and this applies just as much to quangos as it does to the international aid budget. By spending money wisely, we can better meet our moral obligations, first to Britain and then to the world, but the first and primary obligation of Her Majesty’s Government is the defence of the realm—urban and rural, city and county—and that is exactly what we are doing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his update.
I have no doubt that those who are being affected by the severe flooding in Somerset and now in the Thames valley welcome the assistance that they are now receiving. It is a considerable relief to those who are living and farming on the Somerset levels that the Army has been made available to assist in the efforts to protect homes, farms and other businesses. That news, combined with the efforts of the fire and rescue services, the police, Environment Agency staff and the many volunteers, shows that there is finally a concerted effort to respond to the floods.
Does the Secretary of State understand people’s anger and frustration that it took so long for the Government to organise that level of response, considering that many of them have been dealing with rising water levels since before Christmas? Will he ensure that it does not take so long to help those in the Thames valley who face flooding today? Why did the Prime Minister remain so disengaged from what was clearly a worsening crisis for so long, in sharp contrast to his predecessor in 2007? What lessons have been learned to ensure that we never again see flooded communities left abandoned for weeks? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the same level of assistance will be made available to those in Berkshire and Surrey, where severe flood warnings are in place?
Will the Secretary of State provide an update on the work to restore vital rail connectivity to Devon and Cornwall? Have Ministers formally asked Network Rail to present options for a long-term solution to the vulnerability of the line, including the option of re-routing?
On the Environment Agency, does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that
“This is a time for everyone to get on with the jobs that they have… This is not the time to change personnel, this is the time to get on and do everything we can to help people. I back the Environment Agency. I back the work they are doing.”?
If so, why did the Secretary of State go to such lengths yesterday to give the opposite impression as he toured the TV studios? Does he believe that
“the Environment Agency has been remarkably good in giving good, accurate information”?
Those are the words that he used on “The World at One” last Wednesday. Will he explain what changed his mind about the quality of the advice from the Environment Agency in the following 48 hours, other than the fact that he spotted a convenient scapegoat to distract attention from the Government’s failure?
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Prime Minister has been unable to deny that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been forced to write a letter objecting to the attack on one of his Department’s agencies by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? Does he accept, in hindsight, that it was wrong to launch such a direct attack on the staff of the Environment Agency, and will he take this opportunity to apologise? Does he really believe that the cut of £97 million or 17% in real terms to the annual funding of the Environment Agency, which was required by Ministers, did not impact on the agency’s ability to prevent the flooding that we have seen?
In the House last Thursday, I asked the Secretary of State about the Pitt review, which was commissioned by the last Government after the 2007 floods. He was unable to answer my questions and instead commented that,
“The hon. Lady asked why we have not updated the Pitt review. She will recall that we set up the Flood Forecasting Centre… Perhaps she should spend a little less time in the television studios and more time with Google.”—[Hansard, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 447.]
Of course, a quick search using Google would have informed the right hon. Gentleman that the Flood Forecasting Centre was set up by the previous Government and opened by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn in 2009. I hope that he is better informed today.
Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government stopped producing progress reports on the implementation of the 92 recommendations of the Pitt review in January 2012, despite 46 of them being labelled “on-going”? Is it still the case that none of the recommendations under
“Knowing where and when it will flood” have been implemented in full? What has happened to the six recommendations on reducing the risk of flooding, the 10 on being rescued and cared for during an emergency and the seven on maintaining power supplies that had not been implemented in full? How many of those have still not been completed by Ministers? Will he explain why the Government axed the Cabinet Committee on improving the country’s ability to deal with flooding and the national resilience forum, both of which were recommended in the Pitt review and established by the last Government? Finally, will the Secretary of State reconsider his refusal to agree to our request that regular progress reports on the implementation of the Pitt review be restarted? Will he commit to presenting the first update to the House by the end of this month?
The hon. Lady seems to be obsessed by process. We are much more concerned with making a concerted effort to deal with the problem of flooding.
On readiness, we understand that as the week progresses, there will be increased flooding along the Thames valley. The substantial gravel layers in the valley will make it more difficult to put barriers up. Nevertheless, we have continued to ensure that demountables are available and the enormous help from the military will continue. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] Forgive me, but I thought that I was answering about flooding, not some peculiar problem with regard to procedure.
Today I was in Croydon looking at a water station that ensures there is clean water for 47,000 properties. I looked at the magnificent work of the Environment Agency and of local gold command, which is putting together a team for action to ensure that properties are not flooded and that clean water is available.
On the Environment Agency, it is entirely wrong for the hon. Lady to suggest for one moment that I have issued even the slightest criticism of its marvellous work force. My admiration for the work of the Environment Agency exceeds no one, and I believe it is time for us all to start to work together, not to make silly party political points. I am confident that with the help of the Environment Agency, the armed forces and the good work of local councils, that is exactly what we will do.
I believe that we need a period of calm in the House because those who have been flooded, and those who are on the verge of being flooded, look to us to give some leadership. May we look at what is required to be done now in terms of clean water and sanitation to avoid a public health issue for those who have been unable to use their own facilities for a period of time? I welcome what the Prime Minister told the House last week, which was that everything that has happened under that Government, this Government, or any Government, will be looked at anew. We need leadership; the Environment Agency will do whatever its political masters ask it to do, and I think it has done that to the best of its ability. In future we can look at what lessons can be learned from this episode, but we are in the middle of an emergency and must allow the emergency services, including the Environment Agency, to do their work.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Her knowledge of matters relating to the environment, and particularly flooding because of the peculiar circumstances of her own constituency, is considerable. She is absolutely right, and it is a matter of some priority to ensure that those strategic sites, pumping stations, gas stations and those relating to electricity, are protected and can withstand the rigours of this terrible weather.
I cannot remember a more complacent or inadequate response from a Cabinet Minister to a serious matter in this House. Last year, after last winter’s floods and the travel disruption in the south-west, the Government announced £31 million of new money for improved rail resilience in the south-west. That money has still not materialised. Why should anybody believe any of the new promises the Secretary of State is making when he has failed to deliver on any of them in the past?
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seems to resort to petty insults across the Chamber. There are people right now risking their lives and working on the railways to get them running and get a proper price worked out, and frankly, to play this rather pathetic game of who is to blame—[Interruption.] There will be a time when we will look closely into the causes of the floods and the reaction of the Government, but right now we should get on with the job.
On behalf of the people of Somerset may I say a big thank you to all those who have been working in the here and now, dealing with our emergency? I particularly welcome some of the biggest pumps that I have ever seen arriving on the levels over the weekend. There will come a time when we have to look at the emergency response, and also at long-term policies and the advice that we in Somerset have given to successive Governments and agencies over 20 years. Will the Secretary of State look at the funding stream available to local authorities, not just to deal with emergencies but to enable us to maintain these delicate structures far into the future?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. It is perhaps good to make the point that my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger cannot be with us today—he is down there dealing with flooding matters. I am sure he would have made similar points.
I felt it was about time somebody apologised to the people of Somerset and I was happy to do so. The Prime Minister has endorsed that apology. It is true that the advice was solidly given, and that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last autumn started some preliminary dredging on the two rivers. That was due to start up again, and it will do so, but in a more enhanced role. That decision was taken by the wisdom of the Secretary of State.
Today we have had a summary of the short-term, overdue measures that the Government are taking, but what about the long-term implications? What about climate change? Will Cobra, when it meets, look not only at adaptation, but at mitigation? Will the right hon. Gentleman speak to the Chancellor and ensure that we implement the fourth carbon budget review?
Of course, we take climate change into consideration in all the modelling we do with regard to flooding, but the hon. Lady will accept that the weather patterns we have had have been truly remarkable—nothing like them have been seen since the latter part of the 18th century. I will ensure that her remarks on flooding are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
As the two main A roads from my constituency into Reading have been closed by floods, and as many homes, businesses and gardens have been inundated, sometimes with foul as well as surface water, will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in future, the £1,200 million budget and the near £100 million cash that the Environment Agency started the year with will be available for schemes that I and others recommend which could stop that water in future? Is it not about time that we had the promise of some action from the Environment Agency?
We need to deal with the short-term effects of the floods given what is likely to happen over the next few weeks, but my right hon. Friend makes a reasonable point—it is not just the size of the Environment Agency budget, but what it does with it and what priorities it has. I am sure that, as the water recedes, there will be a lot of discussion between the Government and the Environment Agency.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that, instead of engaging in this arrogant bluster, he answers the questions put to him by my hon. Friend Maria Eagle from the Opposition Front Bench, and by colleagues who, along with their constituents, have experienced the terrible impacts of the flooding? He ought to apologise instead of continuously passing the buck and saying that it is everybody else’s responsibility but not the Government’s.
For me, sorry is not the hardest word. I have been criticised for saying sorry to the people of Somerset, and the Prime Minister has said sorry to them. The problem with Labour Members, who talk of hubris and arrogance, is that they are never prepared to admit that they have done anything wrong and go around defending bad practice. The Government are prepared to say that we got it wrong, along with the Environment Agency, with regard to dredging. Had it not been for the campaigning efforts of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that dredging would not have started.
We have had some flooding in Old Amersham and Chalfont St Peter. I praise the fire service and the local authorities, and the Environment Agency and its subcontractors, which have been pumping and saving buildings from flooding by the River Misbourne. Will the Secretary of State look very carefully at the Government’s spending priorities? I believe that the Government should protect our existing transport infrastructure, our towns and our countryside before spending money on new shiny projects that have a disgraceful cost-benefit ratio compared with the 1:8 cost- benefit ratio imposed on the Environment Agency?
The House has grown to appreciate my right hon. Friend’s doughty defence of her constituents and her dislike of high-speed rail. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis has just come back from Marlowe, where he examined the state of preparedness, and he reports the fantastic work of local firefighters, working alongside Environment Agency staff and the local police. No doubt my right hon. Friend will be calling him very soon to offer them some moral support.
I met Fire Brigade Union representatives, representing firefighters in the south-west, last week, and they report that firefighters are working extremely hard for long hours. I pay tribute to them. But they asked me to make the point that they are being hampered by job cuts—2,000 firefighters over the last 18 months. In addition, although there has been an improvement in equipment, the Government still have not decided to establish a statutory duty on fire authorities to deal with flooding, which would protect investment in equipment in the future.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also like to thank the thousands of retained firefighters for working hard on behalf of their local communities. I, too, had the opportunity to speak to firefighters this morning in Croydon. I was remarkably impressed by their dedication, hard work, cheerfulness and adaptability in ensuring that an important water pumping station remains open. We will ensure that firefighters have the best possible equipment to deal with this issue, and we have a strategic reserve of high-volume pumps that are being used extensively throughout the Thames valley and the Somerset levels.
I would like to use this time to talk about Somerset and the decision that I took there, but I feel I must talk about my constituents, many of whom have had an utterly miserable week and have tough times ahead. Rivers such as the River Kennet, which I have known for all my 53 years, have never been dredged and never should be dredged, because it would mean that the water would flow very fast through my constituency and end up in Reading and beyond. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we give false hope to certain communities if the question comes down to the binary decision—to dredge or not to dredge? Getting it right has to be right for that catchment.
My hon. Friend was a very distinguished environment Minister and he is 100% correct. What works in the Somerset levels might not be appropriate elsewhere. I represent an Essex constituency where several fields are regularly flooded, offering enormous protection to communities along the coast. His point about the Kennet is correct. It is the same problem when pumping out—the need to ensure that the flow is not so fast that it just creates additional flooding.
I do not think that my hon. Friend made a bad decision: I think that I would have made the same decision on the information that was available. He should not ascribe any blame to himself.
I am glad that the Secretary of State is in a mood for apologies, because he might like to apologise to the Environment Agency, instead of engaging in a blame game that helps nobody. Sustainable urban drainage systems can play a key role in managing surface water flooding, and the Government’s statement that they will implement schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 for new housing developments is long overdue. Does he agree that people in existing housing should benefit from the cost-effective flood protection provided by sustainable urban drainage schemes, and will he agree to a comprehensive retrofit programme so that they can do so?
The hon. Lady’s question is based on a false premise. I have not criticised the Environment Agency, whose staff are doing an excellent job. Merely expressing doubts about one aspect of the agency’s approach in the Somerset levels hardly qualifies as a criticism. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dan Rogerson informs me that the very regulations that she seeks will be laid in April, and I hope that she will volunteer to serve on the relevant Delegated Legislation Committee.
Cornwall faces a repair bill in the tens of millions of pounds, and it will take months to put right the damage that the storms have caused. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that when claims are made under the Bellwin scheme, they will be expedited as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the battering that the coast of Cornwall has received. The decision I announced last week on the changes to the Bellwin formula—the first time in 30 years that we have changed the threshold—was made specifically to help Cornwall. I look forward to working with him and the county council to ensure it is compensated for the enormous effort it has put in.
For every £1 spent on flood defence, there is an £8 return. In the last year of the Labour Government, capital flood defence spending was £371 million. The following year, it was cut by this Government by £87 million, then £115 million, £94 million, £53 million and £35 million. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise to the people of Rhyl, St Asaph, Somerset levels, Dawlish and the Thames valley for the £400 million of costly capital cuts that have totally backfired and will cost this country billions?
The hon. Lady—[Laughter.] I would never mistake the hon. Gentleman for a lady. I am so sorry.
We need to look at the straightforward arithmetic. In their last five years the Labour Government spent £2.7 billion. We will be spending £3.1 billion—a lot more money. They had added to it in 2007, so theirs is a boosted figure that is well below ours.
The misery of the current floods is confined to one region of the country, but the fear of flooding extends to all regions of the country, particularly those that have suffered floods before. My right hon. Friend is right to commend and make the most of the emergency services and the help being given by them. It is, however, undoubtedly true that the best way to deal with flooding is prevention, not cure. For example, it will cost £200 million to £300 million to reinstall the Humber defences. That sounds like a lot of money until the day after a storm surge or major flood, so will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Treasury that, unlike the previous Government, it should not go in for being penny wise and pound foolish?
I am very familiar with the area to which my right hon. Friend refers, which has a sizeable proportion of holdings below sea level. I know the nature of the river and the historic floods that have taken place around Beverley and across to the constituency of my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh towards York. People have suffered from flooding there in the past and he is right that there is a fear of floods. For years afterwards, people who have been flooded worry every time it rains. It is almost like being burgled: it is not just cleaning up the mess, but the psychological damage. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that residents are kept dry and that we do all we can to alleviate flooding. As my right hon. Friend rightly points out, we were playing, very heavily, catch-up.
That is contained within the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, with the local resilience forum. With enormous respect to the hon. Gentleman, I saw in Croydon what I have seen at all major incidents: a number of services working together very well. The local resilience forum, as I saw today in Croydon, is an exemplar of the way to do things. Making this a statutory duty would not help anything and would not make a single community safer.
As my right hon. Friend wisely reflected, it is the exceptional weather that is responsible for flooding. Does he agree that, in the end, the forces of unstoppable nature humble us all, as we have faced the wettest January since 1767? As he rightly says, the time for review will come later, but does he agree that one lesson, as outlined wisely by my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, is that land management needs to be looked at again in the different areas where floods have taken place?
As always, my right hon. Friend is correct. We cannot have conventional orthodoxy, and neither should we replace one inflexible orthodoxy with another. We have only to stand close to these rivers, some of which were previously gentle and meandering, or to see that monstrous gap in Brunel’s railway to see the sheer strength of nature. Conventional orthodoxy has to be re-examined, and instead we need bespoke solutions for each area of the country.
When he got the job, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs removed from his Department’s list of priorities an intention
“to prepare for and manage risk from flood and other environmental emergencies”.
Does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government agree that this was a terrible error of judgment on the part of his colleague?
My right hon. Friend replaced an enormous, overbearing bureaucratic system with an emphasis on some key issues, one of which was flood defences. As a consequence, we are spending more on this than the Labour party did in its last five years in office, and no matter how much the Opposition huff and puff, they cannot get away from that basic fact.
Will the Secretary of State reconsider his comments about overseas aid? When natural disasters take place in other parts of the world, the Government are quick to provide financial assistance to people who suffer, yet it appears that the provision of financial assistance to people in this country has been much slower. At a time when money is tight, the overseas aid budget is the only one not under financial pressure. If people need help and aid, should the aid budget not be there to support them? The Government should not treat people abroad more favourably than people at home.
The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we will spend and do whatever it takes to ensure that our communities feel safe from flooding. I recognise that my hon. Friend has a distinguished record on this matter, but I do not agree with him—I hope he will forgive me—on this occasion. I think it is possible to deal with overseas problems. I do not think that this great island nation achieved anything by looking inwards.
Last year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in response to a question from me about whether the Thames barrier could be overwhelmed in 100 years or 10 years, said:
“We have begun preliminary investigations of the prospects of long-term flooding.”—[Hansard, 16 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 781.]
Have those preliminary investigations come to any conclusions, and what will be done about it, given the threat to the Thames barrier from climate change and other issues?
We have deployed the Thames barrier several times in recent weeks, and it has proved remarkably effective at protecting London and some of the islands in the upper Thames. We are confident that it will continue to play a massively important part in the defence of London well beyond the foreseeable future.
The hearts of those of us whose homes, communities and constituencies have not been flooded go out to those of our neighbours whose homes or constituencies have been. In the interests of community solidarity, could the Government not take the lead in setting up a charitable fund to which we and our constituents can contribute to support those who are under-insured, uninsured or in some other difficulty? That way we could show some solidarity and deal with these personal, human tragedies, rather than using this occasion, as some are, to score points?
That is exactly the kind of attitude that makes the Chamber a worthwhile place, rising above petty politics. A number of charities are offering help. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, met a number of co-ordinating groups, but I accept the criticism—perhaps I should apologise again—that we have not done enough to signpost them. We will ensure that there are good signposts to these excellent voluntary organisations to help people in distress.
May I invite the Secretary of State, if he has not already done so, to view Friday’s edition of “Newsnight”, which showed the powerful impact of the flooding in Somerset on individuals? When will he give us a report on the impact of climate change on these events? That is an important determinant of present policy, and we must assess the impact of present policy on the future.
Sadly, I missed Friday’s “Newsnight”, but I will do my best to pick it up on iPlayer. With regard to climate change, the best advice I have received is that the flooding probably has something to do with climate change. That is not necessarily the case—some of it may be the result of changing patterns—but the effects that we have to deal with are the same. I have no doubt that as part of the process of looking at how we can improve the response of the Government and the Environment Agency, we will consider that and give the hon. Gentleman, who asks a very sensible question, that kind of outlook.
The Prime Minister has shown decisive leadership in dealing with the here and now. Will my right hon. Friend do the same by calling on BT and other phone companies to ensure that they provide a priority service to reconnect vulnerable elderly people who live alone and whose lives depend on their having a working phone?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I will make those representations. Looking at the local resilience forum, I have noticed that people have a good idea where those who are vulnerable live, and I saw examples of people working together to make sure that someone who has not been about for a few days is checked up on, but that in no way diminishes my hon. Friend’s point, and I will pass on her remarks to BT and other telephone providers.
Support for individuals and families is vital when they are at risk of flooding or they have been flooded. In Hull in 2007 the National Flood Forum charity did excellent work, providing practical assistance both before and after families found themselves flooded out. Is there any additional money for the National Flood Forum to provide such assistance on the huge scale that it faces now?
We are working closely with the forum. As the hon. Lady suggests, it is doing a terrific job. I do not know about levels of funding, but clearly, if it is taking on additional work for us, we do not want it to be out of pocket.
Local plans are fed in through the local resilience forum to our teams. One thing that has been clear in dealing with all these emergencies is that there have been pretty well worked out plans. We have found it a lot easier when we are dealing with the worries about the Thames valley that a well established pattern is in place. For example, a number of authorities have what they call flood ambassadors, who will liaise individually with individual houses and offer them support. But I will look specifically at my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Much of the land on which this Parliament is seated is reclaimed land. Indeed, King Canute was the first king to build anything here at all, so would it not be a fine tribute to parliamentary tradition if we were all to unite around building full resilience for the future, rather than permanently bickering every two or three years about what happened last week?
I knew it would happen at some stage in my parliamentary career, but it came a little sooner than I thought: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The Environment Agency staff, some brand new flood defences and, indeed, those on loan from Bristol city council were a welcome presence in Bradford-on-Avon this weekend. We would like to record our thanks to them. Will the Minister show the same resolve as we have seen in learning the lessons from the floods at Christmas time in taking preventive measures in all the locations that have been affected by floods this week, not just those on the levels?
Of course, and I am very happy that the beautiful town of Bradford-on-Avon has received those additional flood prevention measures. The number of demountables that we have been able to get out has been something of a record, and I have seen them in operation and how effective they are. Of course it is right that we must learn from the past, not be frightened to apologise and ensure that communities are protected from flood water, even though these have been exceptional events.
Why on this problem, as with all others, do the Government first blame the last Government, then the European Union and then the civil service? Will the Secretary of State tell us on what precise date the Government will take responsibility for their own conduct and cuts? When will he answer the claim by the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority that last week they fiddled the figures?
It is certainly not those on the Government Benches who are seeking to make political capital from this or engage in some kind of blame game. I am not entirely sure what we got out of this afternoon, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are a lot of people working extremely hard right now to keep him and his constituents warm and dry.
I know that my hon. Friend has had some particular problems. I looked carefully at the figures for building where there was an acute risk of flooding, and I am delighted to tell him that the number of buildings in high-risk areas is at an all-time low. I am also pleased to say that where there have been objections from, say, the Environment Agency, they have been adhered to on 99.3% of occasions.
As the former chair of Flood Risk Management Wales, charged with adapting Wales to climate change in respect of flood risk management and flood systems, may I ask the Secretary of State why he has failed to apply for EU solidarity funding, which gave this country £162 million in 2007 and has given another 23 countries £3.5 billion since 2002? Is it because he is against European money because he is prejudiced or is it because he thinks there is a greater priority for investment than flood risk management for devastated communities? They are upset in Somerset—very upset.
I answered this the last time I appeared in the House. The reason is that there is a threshold of €3.7 billion to get over, and even should we get over the excitement of getting over the threshold to get the EU money, the way the system works means we would have to pay most of it back.
My constituency has experienced some river flooding, but it has not been as severe as that in other areas. However, there are particular problems with surface water flooding in the local villages, including the very unpleasant effects of foul water and overflowing sewerage systems. A substantial amount of new housing is proposed in those areas, at a level that local authorities consider to be unsustainable. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in setting housing numbers, local authorities will be able to take into account the adequacy of the infrastructure to support new housing, so that the current problems do not become worse in the future?
My right hon. Friend has conducted a long campaign in this regard, and he has made a number of very reasonable points. I think that such decisions must be made on the basis of scientific fact. The rising level of groundwater will continue to cause problems in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, my constituency and, indeed, most constituencies until well into June, even if from now on things start to shine.
The Environment Agency says that last year it allocated £400,000 for dredging in the Somerset levels, which is the maximum level that Treasury rules permit, but that other Government agencies and partner bodies such as local authorities were not able to “match contribute” towards the £4 million total cost of the scheme. Given the Secretary of State’s leadership role in local government, may I ask when he was made aware of its inability to contribute? May I also ask what representations he made to the Chancellor with the aim of bringing about a change in the Treasury rules?
That is why I apologised to the people of Somerset, and that is why the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson, insisted on starting the dredging last autumn in order to demonstrate its efficacy. Sadly, however, the turbulent weather arrived before that excellent study could be completed, but we now know that we shall start to dredge, and we shall start to dredge in earnest.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last Government stripped the “hold the line” flood defence systems criteria from 10 to five in 2009? Will he please look into that, in order to prevent more flooding in coastal areas such as my constituency?
I did note that, but I did not want this to be a partisan exchange, which is not the attitude of the Labour party—I did not want to criticise the Labour party. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has just reminded me that we will look at bespoke patterns of support that will enable us to ameliorate the effects of flooding, and to ensure that people feel safe in their own homes.
Thank you for the sigh of confidence that you gave before calling me, Mr Speaker.
Everyone in the House would agree that we need a united Government response to this crisis. How does the Secretary of State respond to suggestions that there is a damaging Cabinet rift between him and the Environment Secretary?
I think that you spoke for the whole House with that sigh, Mr Speaker. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Environment Secretary and I are two peas in a pod. We are two brothers from a different mother. We speak on a regular basis. I am the mere custodian of his wishes, and I look forward fervently to the day when he stands at this Dispatch Box and responds to the hon. Gentleman.
Devon contains a longer road network than any other local authority area in the country, and anyone travelling there will see the devastation that the flood waters are causing. Will the Secretary of State recognise that later this week, and give extra assistance to Devon?
We are offering extra assistance, and we will continue to do so. I think that we must accept, because of the nature of the weather, that we will see exceptional turbulence and disruption to transport in the region. Obviously we need to repair the rail system and make it safe, but we also need to provide alternative ways of getting about, which is why we have laid on extra coaches and the like. Once it stops raining, Devon will be a terrific place to visit, and a terrific place in which to set up a business.
Obviously the immediate priority has got to be to help the people in Somerset and elsewhere who are living in an absolutely desperate situation at the moment, but in the longer term—and following on from the very interesting answer the Secretary of State gave to Nicholas Soames—how will the Government use the common agricultural policy direct payments budget and the Environment Agency’s maintenance budget to ensure long-term flood protection and to look at things like land management issues?
I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the consultation finishes, but we are in the middle of the process of doing exactly that. If the hon. Lady wants to make a contribution she could write to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and that will be taken into consideration in the review and consultation.
As I keep reminding the House, when the rivers Aire, Ouse and Trent and the Dutch river and the Humber estuary flooded hundreds of my constituents’ homes in December, due to international events we may not have got the media attention, but at least we avoided becoming a political football. At that time we were very well supported by some very dedicated Environment Agency staff. That said, however, local farmers and the drainage boards are desperate for a change in the way in which we manage river catchments in this country so that we can have more localised solutions. May I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that happens after this flooding is finished?
I know from my discussions with the Environment Secretary that he has very strong views about this matter, because often local people know and understand individual culverts and watercourses better than other authorities, albeit that that authority might be benign, efficient and full of very good people. The point my hon. Friend highlights must be taken into consideration in the long-term review.
Communities in my constituency, particularly along the Penarth coastline, have also been affected by these unprecedented events in recent weeks, albeit not, thankfully, to the extent we have seen elsewhere in Wales or, indeed, in the south-west and the Thames valley. Can the Secretary of State please assure the House that he has, and will continue to have, close co-operation with Welsh Ministers, Welsh local authorities and Natural Resources Wales given that climate change, wind, waves and rain respect no boundaries?
Absolutely. Of course, our great nations are joined together and what happens on the river Severn has a very big impact. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance unequivocally.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that in addition to high rainfall, the people of Pagham in my constituency also face problems from the sea, where the growth of the Pagham harbour spit has led to massive erosion of the shingle beach fronting hundreds of properties. Will he ask one of the Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to Pagham to see the very real danger this is presenting and to help us secure the funding and the permissions we need to cut a channel through the spit before it leads to the loss of people’s homes?
My hon. Friend is talking about a very beautiful part of the world. I am sure DEFRA Ministers will come and visit, but I was rather hoping in the not too distant future to come and visit myself, because he raises an important matter. The amount of shingle and the like that has gone is truly breathtaking.
The Secretary of State is right to focus on the areas he has discussed, but may I inform him that when I left my constituency this morning three of the four roads into the town of Tewkesbury were cut off, and with further heavy rainfall expected this week we expect that, sadly, a number of houses may be flooded, so will he bear us in mind as well as all the other areas he understandably has to concentrate on?
I certainly will. As I said to my hon. Friend the last time I spoke at the Dispatch Box, I remember very vividly a visit to his constituency in the summer floods of 2007, I think, and the devastating effect on local businesses and a local public house. He more than anybody understands the effect repeated flooding has on communities and the psychological damage it does. Indeed, the fate of Tewkesbury and neighbouring communities bears heavily on the mind of the Government.
The European Union Commissioner responsible for these matters has made it clear that regional disaster funding is available, with no minimum limit. The Government can define the size of the affected region, and the funding can be made available provided that serious and lasting damage has occurred, that there have been repercussions for economic stability and living conditions in the region and that 50% of people living there are affected. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Somerset clearly qualifies for such funding, and will he ask his colleagues at DEFRA to apply for it without delay?
Order. We wish to see the Secretary of State’s face, looking at us all fully rather than just at those on his own Benches. He has a habit of gyrating around; let us see the man’s face.
I apologise. I have always felt that those on my own Benches scrubbed up rather well, and it is uplifting to the spirit to look at them.
As I have said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has agreed to meet Tessa Munt to discuss that matter, and I am sure that those deliberations will be worth while.
I understand that the Secretary of State will be in touch with my right hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry shortly. The Secretary of State will be aware that a bankrupt country would find it much more difficult to defend itself, and it is to this Government’s credit that they managed marginally to increase flood defence funding on coming into office. However, the long-term investment strategy put out by the Environment Agency in 2009 made it clear that we were going to have to almost double our investment in flood defences. Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues make that point forcefully to the Treasury?
The Treasury is taking an enormous interest in the promises that Ministers are making from the Dispatch Box. Even when representatives of the Treasury are not physically in the room, their presence is always felt.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that local Environment Agency workers have the ability to team up with farmers, particularly to work on catchment area solutions such as tree planting? Will he also ensure that the agency takes some of the reported £2.4 million that it has spent on public relations services and puts it into the Rossendale valley to prevent flooding on the River Irwell, the River Darwen and the River Ogden?
Many hon. Members have made that point about local solutions. We are looking for an integrated approach from local drainage boards, local authorities and the Environment Agency to deal with these problems. It is often the people on the ground who understand the problems better.
The flooding on the Somerset levels during the past six weeks has destroyed homes, farmland and wildlife habitat, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to look into dredging. For 20 years, successive Governments have not done so, and have not dealt with the problem.
My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate of dredging, and that was the principal reason why I felt it was appropriate to apologise to the people of Somerset for us ignoring their views. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, however, there is no single solution that fits everywhere. Dredging there would be a sensible thing to do, for example, but dredging on the River Kennet would not be sensible. We are therefore looking for bespoke solutions in particular areas.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his robust management of this crisis, and on focusing on what matters—namely, helping those people who are knee-deep in water. Given that the River Parrett has not been dredged since 2005, does he not find the response from those on the Opposition Benches a bit hypocritical?
I am never surprised by those on the Labour Benches. It is true that I take a robust view on this and sometimes may have erred on the wrong side of robust, but I believe that the things I say in public should be those that I believe in private. I certainly believe that someone whose house is flooded, someone who is worried about their future employment or someone who is worried about their communities wants to know whether the Government are going to get on and deal with the job, or are they going to bicker on pointless procedural points?
A great number of my constituents in place such as Kings Worthy, Twyford and Winchester have had a truly miserable weekend. I met people with very young children and very elderly people who have been in tears this weekend, and it brings home the real human cost of this, not the petty politics that we are sometimes seeing today. The Secretary of State will understand the sheer helplessness that many of my constituents feel right now. What advice does he have for those who are rightly concerned about the public health threats that will arise if flood waters around their homes persist for a long period?
We are, of course, not only constantly monitoring the rise of the flood waters, but analysing what is within them, with a view to public health. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being out and about with his constituents, as I am sure everybody here will be. One thing that has become very clear through this is that people in public office, be it Members of Parliament or councillors, have taken a considerable lead, not just in pressing for resources or offering help, but in rolling their sleeves up and getting involved—they should be commended.
First, I wish to thank all the people in my constituency in the agencies and services who have done so much on prevention and risk-management. In order effectively to sharpen the focus on flood defence perhaps there should be a strategic review, so does the Secretary of State agree that it needs to be reinforced and informed by strong local input?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that strong local input is immensely important. Although authorities from nearby cities or from London can have a grand strategic view, local people know how the rivers and culverts flow, and are in a position to offer good advice.
The Environment Agency is spending £18 million on waterlogging some of the best farmland in the country in my constituency to create a habitat for birds, in a scheme due to start in a couple of months. Will my right hon. Friend examine the resource allocation within the Environment Agency, because it is not just dredging, but wider river maintenance that matters in areas such as the Cambridgeshire fens?
I am somewhat conflicted on this, as when I am not here I am somewhat of a twitcher and I was very much looking forward to the particular habitat my hon. Friend was talking about. He makes a reasonable point: we now need to look at priorities. We need to consider things not only in terms of where people live, but in terms of ensuring that we are able to produce sustainably the products from agriculture that this nation so desperately needs, and so reduce our imports and dependency on elsewhere. He makes a very good point.
The residents of Fleetwood are extremely grateful to the Government for the £60 million-plus they agreed in the summer to provide much-needed new sea defences. But the residents of Thurnham, just along the coast, are being told by the Environment Agency that it will not maintain their sea defences beyond 30 years because of Treasury rules about the valuation of farming land. As part of the Secretary of State’s long-term plan on flooding, can he get the Treasury to re-examine these rules?
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dan Rogerson is going to be very busy, because he would like to speak to my hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw on precisely this issue. I would not be flippant and say that 30 years is a long time and things can change, but this set of storms has been a big wake-up call, not just for government and the Environment Agency, but for the nation as a whole, and we need to make some valuable judgments about where it is appropriate to have defences.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in thanking the volunteers from Halesworth who proactively filled sandbags and put them out along the thoroughfare and outside houses on Friday night. More importantly, although a tragedy is happening in the Thames valley and the south-west, there is a silver lining, as we once again have an opportunity to reflect on the strategy on making space for water and the principles on which the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 was founded. Will he assure me that a review will involve a consideration of the flood, water and habitat directives, and that there will be a recognition that some of the things we have to do are, frankly, bonkers, while common-sense stuff is being left aside?
I assure my hon. Friend that we will consider all matters relating to flooding and the storms, whether that is the habitat directive or questions of global warming, but I hope she will forgive us that, right now, we need to get on with the process of making communities feel safe.
We had a wake-up call in 2000, when the then Prime Minister made promises to MPs in No. 10 Downing street. That happened again in 2007 and it is happening now, so the one question remaining for the House is how we put in place a long-term framework that will mean that, when the political spotlight moves on, flooding does not drop down the list of priorities, as has been the case under successive Governments.
My hon. Friend makes a firm point, but these storms have been so dramatic, widespread and all-encompassing that the coalition Government’s resolve is that we are determined not to flunk the decisions and make the mistakes of the past.
The River Mease in my constituency has regularly flooded near Elford, Haunton and Harlaston, partly because the Environment Agency, with other agencies, has refused to allow farmers to clear and manage their watercourses. May I echo others by asking my right hon. Friend to encourage the practitioners of conventional orthodoxy to pay close attention to the concerns and advice of farmers, who are as expert at managing their fields and watercourses as anyone in the EA?
We have looked to farmers and those in similar professions to help us out during this whole process and their local knowledge has often made the difference. As I have said from the Dispatch Box, my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary believes in that principle passionately, and I believe that good management is operated, if only by acting as an agency for the agency.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Environment Agency were subject to a duty to take account of economic growth such as that proposed in the Deregulation Bill, it would have a welcome opportunity to redefine, refocus and improve its long-term policies and direction?
I am sure that many in the Environment Agency, which is made up of excellent people, will have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend and may well be taking those wise words into account.