[Relevant Documents: Third Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Managing Flood Risk, HC 330, and the Government response, HC 706.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £313,194,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1006,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £77,312,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £145,464,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Clare Perry.)
I welcome this opportunity to open this estimates day debate on managing flood risk. To put today in context, this is the day of the memorial service in honour of Nelson Mandela; it is a week after the visit by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to address both Houses of Parliament; and it is a day on which the future of the Crimea and the rest of Ukraine remains very uncertain. In its own way, though, what we meet to discuss today is equally international and portentous in its nature, as we have seen some of the most damaging storms, most likely emanating, we are told, from the Atlantic on the jet steam and causing immense damage in 2013-14.
I am delighted to welcome the Minister to his place. We were most fortunate to enjoy his company on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and indeed that of the shadow Minister, when we adopted this report in July 2013. How prescient that report appears with hindsight. We have had record rainfall over the past two years, which has led to the most extensive flooding, cost the economy millions of pounds, and caused disruption and distress to householders and communities across the UK.
Additional capital funding for flood defences is welcome, since we are told that every £1 spent on flood defences to protect communities spurs growth and delivers economic benefits worth £8. However, we concluded that spending on flood defences has simply not kept pace with increasing risks from more frequent severe weather. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must ensure that investment increases by some £20 million year on year. We need that money over the next 25 years to protect homes and businesses better. Maintenance of these defences and the effective dredging of watercourses must be a priority.
I should like initially to set out our overview before I take interventions.
The Committee welcomes proposals for a new Flood Re insurance scheme, to ensure that everyone to get affordable insurance. We are told that the scheme will be funded by a small levy of about £10.50 a year on all household insurance customers. The Committee insisted, during the passage of the Water Bill, that safeguards be introduced to keep the costs down. It would be interesting if the Minister confirmed whether the Prime Minister has asked for the band H and certain other exclusions to be brought into the review of Flood Re, as was reported over the weekend.
The Government is an insurer of last resort. We were told in evidence that, if there were a one-in-250-year event, such as the one that we have just seen, in the first two or three years of Flood Re coming into effect, the Government would take over as insurer of last resort. We were also told that, for the first two or three years of the Flood Re scheme, there simply would not be enough money in the pot to fund such claims against it. The House needs to understand the implications of that eventuality.
Delay by the Government and the insurance industry in agreeing the provision of affordable flood insurance has caused householders unnecessary uncertainty. The opaque cross-subsidy in the current statement of principles must be translated into a more transparent scheme with clear and robust governance arrangements. This debate provides a useful opportunity for the Minister to update the House on progress towards state aid approval in Brussels, because the last we heard that had not been embarked upon, which seems to be leaving it late in the day. It raises other exclusions in addition to band H, such as why the cut-off year of 2009 was chosen, and why small businesses such as farms remain excluded.
With spending on the maintenance of defences and water courses apparently at its lowest for many years, short-sighted reductions in revenue funding appear to threaten and undermine the benefits of capital investment in flood defences, but I firmly believe, as the Committee does, that we should not rely completely on Government sources, but should look at partnership approaches such as the Pickering “Slowing the flow” scheme in my constituency as well as measures by insurance companies.
That is exactly the point that I wanted to make. We cannot necessarily expect the Environment Agency to fund the totality of flood defences. In Banbury, recently completed flood defences cost £17 million: £9 million came from the Environment Agency, but £8 million came from others, including the district council, Network Rail, Thames Water and local landowners. Many people have a role to play in contributing to making sure that flood defences work, not just the Environment Agency.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I do not wish to detain the House too long, but I shall come on to look at that. The Government and the Minister have an opportunity to elaborate on this, but the House must be persuaded of the contribution that private bodies can make. The Select Committee has not been persuaded of that. Personally, I think that there are huge opportunities for water companies, but we need to amend the 2014 pricing review to allow that, so it would be useful to have an update. In addition, I should like to know whether the Minister believes that insurance companies will step up to the plate regarding infrastructure spending.
Although I understand entirely the argument about multiple sources of funding for many flood defences, some major defences—most obviously, in my case, and in the case of my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Humber defences—are strategic and, by definition, have to be carried out by a major strategic authority. Under those circumstances, the 1:8 rule and the requirement for other funding do not work. Does my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh accept that strategic intervention should take place on a different scale?
My right hon. Friend brings me to the core of my opening remarks.
We could argue the whole afternoon about how much each side has paid in capital funding over the past two strategic reviews. That argument over capital expenditure is worth having, to the extent that that expenditure has increased, but the Committee on Climate Change—I am sure that the shadow Minister, Barry Gardiner will rehearse this—concluded that we have to spend some £20 million a year extra. The kernel of the argument is how we define revenue and how we define maintenance expenditure. We do not completely understand where the money is being spent.
If I could make a little progress first, I will then take interventions.
There are a number of maintenance activities which the Environment Agency groups into four main areas. The first is operations: inspecting assets, providing utilities, and operating flood barriers and pumping stations. Some of those have passed from internal drainage boards to the Environment Agency, and have not been maintained since 2004-05. It is important to put that on the record.
The second maintenance activity is conveyance. The Committee was shocked to learn that only £30 million is spent each year in the whole of England and Wales on controlling aquatic weed, dredging, clearing screens and removing obstructions from rivers. We will never know whether regular maintenance and dredging on the Somerset levels by the IDBs or the Environment Agency would have prevented the traumatic flooding we have seen since last autumn and right through the winter.
The third activity is maintaining flood defences and structures, including carrying out inspections and minor repairs, managing grass, trees and bushes and controlling the populations of burrowing animals on flood embankments. My argument is that under the previous Government much of the regular maintenance work was simply not done by the Environment Agency because its political masters, the Government, said not to do it because of birds nesting. I argue that IDBs work with nature and dredge only at the right times of year.
The fourth activity is mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, control and automation—MEICA—meaning carrying out minor repairs to, and replacement of, pumps and tidal barriers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many places, including Wokingham, experienced flooding because essential maintenance work on ditches, culverts, drains and small rivers, which are relatively low-budget items, had not been undertaken by the Environment Agency? In the previous year the Environment Agency spent £1.2 billion overall and massively increased its staff, but it did not have a penny to protect the people of Wokingham from the floods that have now hit them. Is it not a question of how we spend the Environment Agency’s budget?
First, is the hon. Lady or her Committee satisfied with the responses of the various agencies in dealing with flooding? Secondly, is she happy with the level of staff employed by the Environment Agency?
I think there is a coherent view across the House this afternoon that when IDBs, district councils and the flood levy from the regional flood committee contribute to the Environment Agency, it is not always clear what work is done. That is something we are here to debate this afternoon.
The hon. Lady said that we will never know what the result of dredging in Somerset would have been. I suspect that we would still have had flooding, but it would have started later, could have been removed quicker and would have been far less extensive. Does she agree that the initial ask we are making of the Environment Agency and the Government—the 8 km of dredging, which is the most crucial dredge—now needs to be under way? The maintenance dredging every year by local authorities and IDBs should not be confined to that area, but should look at other potential problem areas, such as the Great Bow bridge in Langport, and connecting Monks Leaze Clyse through to the River Sowy and the King’s Sedgemoor drain.
I do not have my hon. Friend’s depth of knowledge, so I shall simply refer to Lord Smith’s evidence to our Committee. Page 16 states:
“Lord Smith stated that asset management spend would equate to £169 million in 2012-13, reducing to £146 million in 2013-14 and £136 million in 2014-15. He noted that there were some ‘pinch points’ in specific places such as on the Parrett and Tone rivers. He further noted that no additional revenue or operating funding was being provided to match the new £120 million capital funding announced in the Autumn Statement.”
I refer to the Committee’s conclusion, which my hon. Friend will be aware of, that there should have been some regular maintenance of the Parrett and the Tone well in advance of the floods last autumn.
I cannot speak to the situation in Somerset, but I hope that the hon. Lady would not advocate dredging in every situation. In the early 1990s and early 2000s, the local authority in my constituency sped up water flows higher up the valley, which led to a significant problem further down the valley. Surely we need a whole-valley answer.
The hon. Gentleman will have listened carefully to the four headings that I set out—the different types of maintenance, of which dredging is a small part.
I turn to the flood defence maintenance funding for the coming financial years. It is with some sorrow that I see the reduction in the headline figures for flood defence maintenance, from £172 million in the financial year 2010-11 to £147 million for 2013-14. I hope that in discussing the supplementary budget, the debate will achieve one thing: an increase in maintenance from revenue funding and a more general grasp of the importance of maintenance in all its forms to preventing flooding in future. The Environment Agency’s £147 million maintenance funding for 2013-14 is allocated as follows, in accordance with the four maintenance categories that I rehearsed earlier. I repeat that there is only £30 million this year for clearing water courses, normally referred to as dredging, which Chris Bryant mentioned. For operation there is £44 million, for structures there is £52 million and for mechanical electrical instrumentation control and automation there is £21 million.
The role of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in climate change is narrow; it is about adaptation and seeking to increase resilience. However, it would help to allow the conveyance of water, to slow the flow with land management schemes upstream—dredging, desilting and other means—and to stop fast-growing willow coppice from blocking watercourses in order to allow the water to flow away in Somerset, Yorkshire and other areas across the country, to prevent flooding.
My Committee and I absolutely accept that there is no one-stop option that will prevent all forms of flooding; maintenance, as well as land management upstream schemes, has to be considered.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that there is incoherence at the heart of the Government’s policy on climate change and flooding? The Prime Minister said that money was no object when it came to the relief effort to clear up after floods, but less than two weeks later he was handing huge new subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; when those fossil fuels are burned, extreme weather events, including flooding, are made more likely. Does she agree with the commentator who said today that that is like promising to rebuild Dresden while ordering more bombers to flatten it again?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say that I believe that there is an incoherence in policy. We import woodchip at huge expense from the United States and other parts of the country to co-fire coal at Drax power station in Selby; I should be encouraging farmers in north Yorkshire and all around the country to grow fast-growing willow coppice trees to co-fire that power station. There are inconsistencies and incoherence in our renewals policy and we should visit those as part of our flood prevention scheme.
We have seen just about every type of flooding possible since autumn last year—coastal flooding, tidal surges, river flooding and overtopping, surface water flooding and, most recently, groundwater flooding. We know that all this has been the worst flooding incident in this country in 250 years, since 1766. This debate is the opportunity for the Department to share how the Government seek to adapt to more extreme weather events and how we are becoming more resilient and building more appropriately. Given what was asked at Communities and Local Government questions earlier, I am not sure that the House is entirely convinced that we are yet building in the most appropriate places—that is, not in areas that have something to do with flooding in their name or that act as functional floodplains.
In 2007, 55,000 houses were flooded in this country. My understanding is that this winter about 7,000 houses were flooded. That is a personal tragedy for every single one of those 7,000, but I am not sure how my hon. Friend can claim that last winter’s flooding was the worst for 250 years. We had the worst rainfall for 250 years, but in the context of 2007, the flooding was nowhere near that scale.
It was the worst weather event that we have had. My hon. Friend’s intervention raises the very interesting question of why the Bellwin formula was not raised for the roads, bridges and houses that were damaged in 2012-13. He is right about the number of houses flooded. I think that more houses were flooded in the whole of the Yorkshire region in 2012-13 than were flooded in total this year. I supported the bid by North Yorkshire county council to increase the Bellwin limit and I will come on to that in a moment.
My hon. Friend also raises the very interesting question—this supports my argument—of where the funding will come from. I absolutely agree that most of the flood defences held and that many more houses would have flooded than was the case. The House should celebrate that, but where will the money come from to repair those flood defences that held this time but that will have been damaged by the sustained bashing from the storm?
My hon. Friend will be aware that in Norfolk the vicious tidal surge of 5 and
I will come on to the role that farmers can play. Ever since I was the MEP for the whole of the Essex coast for five years, I have not been a big fan of managed retreat and have never been persuaded that it is a good thing.
We should recognise the money that the Government have very generously provided. I believe it is £2 million for tourism and £10 million for farms, but it would seem that we need an extra £20 million year-on-year increase in flood management capital funding over the next 25 years to keep pace with the increasing flood threat. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response as to the Government’s view on why that might not happen.
Another great development would be more flexibility to transfer money between capital maintenance expenditure and activities. I also urge my hon. Friend the Minister to grab this opportunity to review either the Treasury Green Book or the Environment Agency’s point-scoring system. We heard evidence that the cost-benefit ratio for household protection schemes is 5:1, but that for all other assets it is 18:1. This is, therefore, a good opportunity to address that. During Prime Minister’s questions some two or three weeks ago, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that all flood funding was up for review. Did he mean a review of the scoring system, which is long overdue? Although it was visited in a modest way in 2010, I believe it should be reviewed from top to bottom.
We concluded that the current model for allocating flood defence funding to protecting property is biased towards urban rather than rural areas. In fact, our report argues that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has failed to protect rural areas and that there is a risk to food security as more land becomes at risk of flooding.
I attended the National Farmers Union farming conference last week. The NFU states that 58% of the most productive land—that is, grade 1, farmed English land—is within a floodplain. Our report states that 14% of agricultural land in England and Wales is at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. A drop in our food self-sufficiency raises a long-term question over ongoing food security.
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady is making a point about the difference between rural and urban areas. There is a further complication when it comes to Somerset, in that people assume that it is a traditional floodplain, but it is not: it is reclaimed, inland sea. It is the great mere of Somerset. Therefore, all of the equations that would work elsewhere do not work when every single drop of water has to be pumped up and over to a river that is higher than the surrounding land.
My hon. Friend makes his local case very powerfully, and I commend him for doing so.
How points are scored needs to be revisited. It is important to give a higher value for the benefits of agricultural land and of the protection of land to secure future food production. The big question is about ensuring that reduced regulation on farmers and landowners can allow them to remove vegetation from river banks. Now that we have had six months of the seven pilot schemes for the vegetation removal process, I would go so far as to urge the Minister to end the pilots and to roll out the process across the country, so allowing farmers to remove vegetation from their river banks.
I want to say a word about the role of internal drainage boards.
Order. Just before the hon. Lady moves on to the subject of drainage boards, may I gently say—I am listening to her speech with close attention, as I invariably do—that I am cautiously optimistic that she is approaching her concluding remarks? I say that not because of any lack of attention or interest on my part, but because several other Members wish to contribute to the debate, and I know that she will be as eager as I am to hear their contributions.
Indeed. That is the purpose of the debate, Mr Speaker.
I am vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. The Select Committee concluded that drainage boards are best placed to remove the vegetation and to carry out the maintenance that has been mentioned. Indeed, we are grateful that the Government have looked favourably on this opportunity to allow IDBs to use their local knowledge and resources, and to undertake more of the investment. We believe that there is a lost opportunity in relation to funding from private bodies that DEFRA—
I will stick to the Speaker’s strictures about reaching my conclusion sooner rather than later.
There is an opportunity to lever in more than 15% of contributions from other sources. Will the Minister tell us how the Government intend to do that? Do they intend to use common agricultural policy funds to encourage farmers to undertake flood prevention measures by rewarding them through EU agri-environment schemes or by paying proper compensation for flood storage, flood alleviation and other such schemes? Innovative funding should stretch to allowing water companies to invest through the price review, as I have said. I am a big fan of SUDS, and I believe that sustainable drains should be introduced by the autumn at the absolute latest. Most of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations have been adopted, but not, I note, those on ending the automatic right to connect and about sustainable drains.
I want to place on the record our commendation of the volunteers, flood wardens, police, fire, ambulance and Environment Agency staff and all those who responded to the floods.
There is scope for the Bellwin formula to be overhauled and reviewed radically. I have mentioned how the Yorkshire and the Humber region, particularly North Yorkshire, has not benefited from the formula. We recommend that the Bellwin scheme be amended to enable local authorities to secure central Government assistance to repair and reinstate roads and other infrastructure damaged by flooding. We also recommend a review of local authorities having to incur costs of at least 0.2% of its annual revenue budget to qualify for Bellwin funding to make it fairer by measuring the impact on the local community. I add that there should be a review of the cap on spending, which I understand hampers the ability of district and county councils to raise any further contributions towards a local levy.
Finally, we were told by the Association of British Insurers that this was a one-in-250-years event. It said that the cost to date has been £426 million, of which £14 million has already been spent. We welcome Flood
Re, but there are too many unknowns. We need to know more about the cross-subsidy, what the final figure will be and—I repeat—from which budget the funds will come and what progress has been made on state aid should the Government act as an insurer of last resort for a similar one-in-250-years weather event. It is obviously extremely important that the military played a role in the recovery stage during the recent floods. However, the Government are silent over which budget is covering that military activity. It would be extremely helpful for the House to know that.
Last month in Brighton and Hove, local emergency services, utilities, the city council and other stakeholders worked together with admirable determination to help the residents who were at significant risk of groundwater and surface water flooding.
It has become clear that the overall pot of money for which local authorities have to bid for flood protection projects is far from adequate. It would help if the process for applying for funds was simplified. I would like to know whether Ministers are considering improvements in that area. This winter’s events have also shown that we need long-term policies and investment to address all types of flooding, including not only coastal and river flooding, but groundwater and surface water flooding.
Despite the limited increase in investment in flood defences, funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will still be about £1.4 billion behind what the Environment Agency says it will need between 2015 and 2021 just to stop the flood risk getting even worse. It is clear that, as well as reversing the cuts to the Environment Agency budget and investing properly in flood defences, we must factor in climate change projections on the future cost of extreme weather. As the current approach ignores that, the Committee on Climate Change warned recently that the spending plans would result in about 250,000 more households becoming exposed to a significant risk of flooding by 2035.
Many hon. Members have raised the cost-benefit ratio rule. Currently, projects have to deliver an 8:1 return on investment. Why is that the case, when HS2 must deliver only a 2:1 return? Decent investment would reduce the average rate of return, but it would also reduce the overall amount of flood damage. Will the Government review that rule to help local authorities invest in the flood protection that they know is required?
At the very least, we need a commitment that spending on flood protection will be increased in line with the expert recommendations of the Environment Agency and the Committee on Climate Change. In considering how to fund that, a good place to start would be to redirect just some of the billions of pounds of subsidies and tax breaks that go the fossil fuel industry.
Last week, I received a report from the Sussex Wildlife Trust that sets out an evidence-based approach to flood protection that was produced by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, which is made up of independent and professional people who are experts in their field. The report reinforces a key lesson that we need to learn from the recent floods: not only that our spending on flood protection is shockingly inadequate and that we must not have Ministers who deny the link between the burning of fossil fuels, man-made climate change, extreme weather and enormous threats to our society—threats that the Government are exacerbating through their inequitable and unscientific climate targets and their obsession with helping big energy companies to extract every last drop of oil and gas that is out there—but, crucially, that there must be a fundamental shift towards seeking to work with nature, rather than against it. Not only would such an approach benefit wildlife and nature, but it is the best way to reduce our vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather events and to increase our resilience.
On that point, is the hon. Lady a supporter of the Environment Agency’s policy in the Somerset levels over recent years of not dredging on the grounds that it might damage habitats?
Dredging is often pulled out of the hat as if it were a silver bullet. Dredging can have a positive effect if it is done in certain places at certain times. In other places, it does not have a positive effect. In the Somerset levels, it could have been done a little earlier, but it certainly would not have massively reduced what we are seeing now. We need a much more holistic response, which is what Sussex Wildlife Trust is talking about.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the defences around the Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire fens are comprehensive and holistic in that they involve not only tidal barrages, but pumping stations, relief channels and dredging? That combined approach protects a vast amount of Britain’s farmland.
I am very pleased to hear that, but the comprehensive approach that I am talking about must involve a much wider evaluation of how we use land. For example, we must consider what use farm subsidies are being put to and whether they are inadvertently encouraging unhelpful ways of using land. I am referring to something rather larger than the holistic approach the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
First, we know that allowing development on floodplains puts more people at risk. Secondly, we know that compacted soil and damaged uplands channel water downstream faster. Thirdly, we know that climate change is making extreme rainfall events more frequent and intense. I will outline briefly the solutions we need in each of those areas—solutions that work with nature, rather than against it.
The Government’s ongoing attacks on the planning system are a real problem. Sensible, long-term development control in the public interest is being sacrificed at the altar of mindless, short-term GDP growth at any cost. Development on floodplains and in areas of high flood risk, not just now but for the lifetime of a housing development, needs a stronger, more accountable planning system. We must ditch the current approach that casts sensible planning rules and regulations as a barrier to growth and planners, according to the Prime Minister, as enemies of enterprise.
Crucially, we know that not all decisions about development on floodplains are taken by local planning authorities. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can use his power to call in or recover a planning application. So why is it so difficult to obtain basic information about this from his Department? A written question that I tabled back on
It is simply not good enough for the Secretary of State to point the finger at local councils, nor is it good enough for him to say that 99% of proposed new residential units that the Environment Agency objected to on floodplain grounds were decided in line with Environment Agency advice when the decisions are known. What about all the others? Why will the Government not give us the full picture? The fact that my question remains unanswered a whole month later raises suspicions about whether the Secretary of State has been overruling local authorities or Environment Agency advice and allowing development to proceed in areas at risk of flooding. I hope that that is not the case, but we need to see the statistics and we need to see them now.
A month ago, I also tabled a written question on the impact of recent and future flooding on small businesses.
On building on floodplains, the view from Brighton might be quite different from that in my part of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire where such building is almost unavoidable because the land is drained marshland surrounded by rivers that drain 20% of the UK’s water. We have a desperate need of affordable housing to help local people who want to live locally. The matter is not as simple as just stopping all building on floodplains, which would price more of my constituents out of the housing market.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His point is reasonable, but in areas that he describes—they are not typical but they certainly exist and he has intimate knowledge of them—the architecture could be different with houses on stilts and resilience in the building process. That is not happening right now, which is why we are seeing so much flooding causing so much misery for so many people throughout the country.
I want to make a little more progress.
Turning to land management of uplands particularly, we need a radical rethink to take proper account of climate change and to reduce the threat to people’s homes and livelihoods, and to food security. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently confirmed that the rules farmers must meet to obtain public subsidies do not cover flood risk. In some cases, the conditions on farm payments may be making the situation worse through over-grazing and removal of vegetation. We must look seriously at whether that is good use of public money, and introduce changes to ensure that such payments are conditional on flood prevention.
The Government must stop their irresponsible use of public money by ensuring that flood prevention is a non-negotiable condition of all farm subsidies. Farmers and land managers know what the slow water solutions are.
I have given way a lot, and I fear that Mr Speaker will tell me to wind up.
We need better soil management as well as better water management, not least because that reduces the silting up of river beds further downstream. Approaches that help more water to remain in the uplands, where there may be peat bogs, rather than going downstream into people’s living rooms, can seriously improve water quality and have the potential to cut water bills for households.
Finally, on climate change, I regret that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is not here because his comments during the debate last week were complacent at best and reckless at worst. If he were here, he could clear up the basic matter of what he thinks is man-made and what is natural when it comes to the increased risk of extreme weather. In the same breath as he mentioned the Met Office, he said that there “might” be either short-term or long-term trends. On what basis does he query the long-term trend, let alone its seriousness? The Met Office states:
“There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”
If the Secretary of State has the evidence, let us see it. The only supposed authority he offered in support of his views is Lord Lawson—not a scientist of any sort but a staunch defender of the fossil fuel industry and head of a campaign group that lobbies against the Government’s climate change policies.
When talking about what he knows about climate science, why does the Secretary of State choose not to quote a climate scientist? When he has read Hansard later, perhaps he will confirm whether he has read the recent joint report by the leading UK and US scientific institutions—the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences—which finds that man-made climate change is more certain than ever and will post severe threats to society and infrastructure. Will he agree to meet Sir Paul Nurse and the authors of the report to ensure that his approach to defending the realm takes account of the realities and the risks of climate change?
I accept that the Secretary of State said last week that
“the risk is there to our nation”.—[Hansard, 26 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 335.]
Let us therefore keep to the theory of risk rather than uncertainty, which, as we all know, is a well-known tactic of obfuscation and delaying action used by those with vested interests, from the tobacco to the fossil fuel lobbies. If we talk about this in terms of risk rather than uncertainty, it is like thinking about what is more important, risk or certainty, when we decide whether to get on a plane, vaccinate our children, or insure our homes and valuable belongings, or even whether to cross a busy road. Does a rational and responsible parent say, “I’m not 100% sure that my child will definitely get a really serious disease, so I’m not going to vaccinate them”?
If one has just bought a new house, is the sensible approach to say, “I’m not 100% certain that my house will burn down, so I’m not going to bother with home insurance”? No. Unless we have a science and risk-based approach to protecting UK homes and businesses from future flood risk and extreme weather, the Secretary of State will be failing in his aim to ensure that our citizens are safe.
I also object to the Secretary of State’s view that the climate debate is polarised, as he claimed, between sceptics and zealots. Organisations such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, insurance industry bodies, the World Economic Forum and PwC have clearly paid a lot more attention to the science than he has. These organisations, which are not in any way environmentalist, are all warning that if we continue with business as usual and fail to make radical cuts to emissions, we are on course to seeing 4°, if not 6°, of climate change within our children’s lifetimes.
I think the hon. Lady takes issue with the Secretary of State on the wrong point. There is a danger of hectoring. Given such overwhelming scientific evidence, it should be a straightforward matter to bring people on board in seeing that there is a risk that needs to be managed, but the debate has somehow become partisan and divided. Perhaps she, and all of us, could think about how we get our language right so that we create an inclusive approach, and then we can argue about the best response, not divide on the basis of belief.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I suggest that the Secretary of State is one of the first people who ought to be trying to generate that inclusive approach to climate change. Instead, he has been doing exactly the opposite in referring to people as zealots and saying that those who promote a risk-based approach to climate change are completely off the agenda. I entirely agree that we could look at our language, but let us take the fight to where it starts, which is with the Secretary of State’s response to the flooding debate last week.
I can tell, Mr Speaker, that you would like me to conclude very shortly, so I shall be brief. I find it extraordinary that although this debate is about something we can agree on—we all want to reduce the impacts of flooding on the communities we represent—many of us are not prepared to look at the likely causes of extreme weather events of the kind that we have been seeing in recent weeks. If I sound frustrated, that is where my level of frustration is coming from. As the Secretary of State spoke only of adapting to climate change rather than turning off the fossil fuel tap to prevent more climate change from reaching dangerous levels in the first place, perhaps he would like to explain to the House what 6° of climate change might look like, or even what 4° of climate change would mean for the UK, and exactly how he would adapt to those changes. So far we have seen only 0.8° of climate change, but perhaps some people in Somerset, let alone communities elsewhere in the world, might argue that the situation is already dangerous.
If this Government want credibility as regards protecting the UK from the increased risk of flooding and other climate risks, we need radical action to cut emissions in line with both science and equity. That means leaving about 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground, not handing out tax breaks to companies to find and exploit yet more reserves of oil and gas that we cannot afford to burn. It means not just accepting but strengthening the fourth carbon budget in line with the science, to secure the economic and employment benefits of leading the transition to a zero-carbon economy. It means leadership to ensure that action on climate change is not just an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but a top priority for all the Government.
The flooding has led to many words being spoken in the House about resilience, and the importance of taking the right long-term decision for our future and that of our children, but action, not just words on climate change, is the litmus test of whether or not they are meaningful.
Order. I have not imposed a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but it might benefit the House to know that there are still 12 right hon. and hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. If Members think in terms of speaking for 10 minutes each, or preferably a little less, it should be possible readily to accommodate all who wish to contribute. The Chair will call the Front- Bench speakers to wind up the debate at approximately 6.30 pm.
I am delighted to catch your eye in this important debate, Mr Speaker, and I will certainly adhere to your strictures. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, and I congratulate her on chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and on her clear knowledge about this subject in her speech.
I want to cover succinctly aspects of the performance of the Environment Agency’s and the statutory water undertaker in my constituency, Thames Water. I will then consider some of the problems with the planning system, in particular building on a floodplain and the unknown and uncertain liabilities that has caused, and the difficulties with drainage and with insuring some of those houses under the new Government Flood Re system.
In common with a number of my hon. Friends, a number of houses in my constituency—often the same houses in the same streets—have been flooding for a number of years. This is not just water flooding; it is also sewage flooding. Water flooding is bad enough, but if a house is flooded from a sewer, it is twice as bad because it takes even longer to clear up. I want to examine critically the performance of Thames Water’s underinvestment in the sewerage system in my constituency. Areas of my constituency that are affected cover Moreton-in-Marsh, Fairford, Lechlade, Cirencester, Siddington and South Cerney, to name but a few.
I hold regular half-yearly public flooding meetings in my constituency. They are recorded, with action points, and bring together all the agencies—Thames Water, the Environment Agency, the county district council and relevant town and parish councils. In that way, I can hold officials to account.
My hon. Friend talks about bringing together the community around flood issues, but one point about resilience, particularly in my constituency, has been the work of the Halesowen flood committee led by Claude Mosseri and his wife Ruth. They have brought together the relevant agencies to do vital work around the Illey brook area of Halesowen. Resilience is very much about local communities taking local action to bring the agencies together.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Before I held the public meetings I found that each agency was shuffling responsibility off to one of the other agencies. It is essential that all agencies and all tools in the box are unleashed to try to solve these flooding problems.
The meetings have produced results in parts of my constituency, but there is still a lot to be done. In particular, problems with sewage flooding arise because the sewerage systems are very old. The moment we have any sort of flooding the water table rises, water gets into the sewerage system, and the pumps are incapable of removing the sewage from people’s houses, leading to very difficult issues. I will be encouraging Ofwat to take a greater interest in this subject—indeed, I will invite it to my public meetings—to see whether we can encourage Thames Water to carry out what it says it will, and invest more in our sewers.
I agree with my hon. Friend that whether or not climate change is taking place and is caused by human activity, there is no doubt that we are getting an increased number of events with increased rain intensity, and we must therefore have better defences against flooding. There is no reason in the 21st-century why we cannot have sewerage systems that cope with such events. In particular, as I shall come on to say, we need sewerage systems that will cope with new development, which often adds to existing problems.
There is a perception that the residents of the Cotswolds, who live 100 miles away from London but who are still in the Thames Water area, are getting a very poor deal. It is outrageous that all Thames Water customers will be charged an additional £70 to £80 a year for at least 10 years to pay for the huge Thames tideway tunnel, when we in the Cotswolds cannot get the increased investment we need to deal with sewage flooding. The regulator Ofwat has to look at that. The time for talking in the Cotswolds is over. It has had more than enough time to carry out all its design work. We need more sewerage investment.
Equally, we need the Environment Agency to take the lead in planning how to deal with catchment areas. An exchange took place with Caroline Lucas. The answer is not just dredging, but considering the whole catchment area using all the keys in our locker to deal with the problem. That is what I am asking the EA to do in my constituency.
For at least three years, it has been talking about coming up with an upper River Churn catchment area plan, but I have still yet to see that plan. Not only do we need to see adequate investment from the EA to deal with river flooding problems, we need to encourage Thames Water to invest adequately to tackle sewerage problems.
On new developments, we have, unfortunately, seen a rash of developers in my constituency. I accept that we all need new houses because the population is rising, but we need—I say this most emphatically to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench—new houses in the right areas. If we build houses on floodplains we cannot complain when we get subsequent problems. In South Cerney, for example, a recently passed new development is right next door to an estate that has had sewerage flooding problems. How daft is that? Fairford and Lechlade have each seen new developments passed for developments to be built on the floodplain. That is also daft.
We need to examine the system we have at the moment. The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee for large investment, but it has to take into account only one-in-100-year events when considering whether a development on a floodplain is viable. That is completely unrealistic and should rapidly be brought down to a design phase of one-in-25-year events. The statutory water undertaker, Thames Water, is not even a statutory consultee; it is consulted by the local planning authority often only as a matter of principle. Even then, all it has to do is to say that the sewerage system is capable of being connected to the new development, not whether the new development will make existing sewage flooding worse or whether the sewer needs upgrading. This is a legal grey area. Thames Water has been taken to court several times for trying to exceed its powers. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, for goodness’ sake let us look at this and try to get the legal framework correct.
An even more important aspect of the planning system is drainage: sustainable drainage systems. We are building up for ourselves a huge and unknown liability from the lack of proper design of drainage systems. Currently, the local planning authority monitors the drainage system for a new development. Developers, with plenty of funds behind them, employ clever drainage engineers who take their percolation tests in the summer when everything is nice and dry—when, of course, the drainage works properly—instead of being made to take them in the winter when the water table is high. They then ask the developer for a section 106 payment. Often, that payment is inadequate. Under the Water Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton knows, SUDS will have to be licensed by the county council. Until that happens, we have a huge and unknown liability from SUDS, which are often completely inadequate and designed for one-in-100-year events. I say again that they should be designed for one-in-25-year events. We should not be building willy-nilly on the floodplain without thinking seriously about what we are doing.
A lot of my constituents have difficulty getting insurance. The new Government Flood Re system will not cover houses built after 2009, so, in relation to all recent applications where houses have been built on the floodplain, we are creating a problem for ourselves. They will undoubtedly flood at some stage, yet the owners of those houses will not be able to get flood insurance.
I welcome the Government’s efforts to ensure that everyone who buys a house on a floodplain is aware of having done so, but it is one thing for people to be aware of it during the sunny summer months when they buy their houses, and a completely different thing for them to be aware of it in the winter, when the rain falls in bucketfuls.
Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, mine has been pretty much under water. Does he agree that if we go ahead with many of the proposed flood alleviation schemes—the bigger schemes that are intended for the future, such as the extension of the Jubilee river all the way down to the Thames—far more land will come back into use, and we shall need better planning control to ensure that the flood meadows are not removed from the current system?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we concrete over vast areas, particularly on the floodplains, they will no longer be able to absorb water, which is what they were designed to do in the first place. In many instances, they were designed specifically as flood meadows. Worse still, in the event of heavy rainfall they will empty the water into the catchment very quickly. That is what has caused flooding downstream.
I suggest to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that we should consider the catchment areas as a whole, and decide how best what to deal with what are to remain floodplains. In my constituency there is a scheme enabling water above Cirencester to be impounded so that it can be gently released when the rainfall has subsided. We should be doing much more of that sort of thing, because it is much cheaper than building expensive houses and then having to provide flood defences retrospectively.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, while I commend what the Government have done, we need to look carefully at investment, particularly investment by the water undertakers. It is not a question of public funding; it is simply a question of equity between the profits that are given to shareholders and the profits that are reinvested in sewerage systems. I repeat that it is outrageous that Thames Water is being allowed to charge my constituents between £70 and £80 a year for the Thames tideway tunnel when they are not benefiting from the investment in sewerage flooding systems that they justly deserve.
Let us, for goodness’ sake, look at the planning system. Let us not keep building on the floodplains, because doing so is creating a great many uncertain liabilities for the future.
Three months ago, the storm surge hit the east coast and caused considerable damage in a number of coastal communities including Lowestoft, in my constituency. Before Christmas I secured an Adjournment debate in which I highlighted the items of immediate concern. Today it is appropriate to review the situation, and to highlight what went well and the instances in which we can and must do better.
In Lowestoft, a small geographical area was hit very hard. The community rallied round and the area is gradually returning to normal, but many people will not be back in their homes for a number of weeks, and for some life will never be the same. The repairs to the sea defences have still not been completed, and it is a race against time to get the beaches open for the important tourism season. We need to learn lessons from the night of
There are three instances in which I believe that we should be doing things differently. First, we need a new framework for the management of flood risk from rivers. The Government’s management of flood risk must be simplified and streamlined. There is too much duplication of effort and inefficient use of resources, with funding shared between five levels of government. We need better co-ordination and simplification. All work related to flooding should ideally take place in one Department. Locally, a whole-river approach to flood management should be adopted, from source to the sea. Each catchment and each river is different, and each should be managed by local people, who invariably know best.
Since the scrapping of the National Rivers Authority in 1994, a more fragmented approach has been adopted, and we now need greater certainty and local flexibility. It is also important not to become fixated on specific ways of managing flood risk: it must be recognised that different solutions will be appropriate in different settings and on different rivers. I make this comment with specific regard to the issue of dredging. In some places it will solve a problem by creating additional capacity for holding water, while in others it may exacerbate a problem. In managing a river, it is important to use all the tools in the box, whether dredging, desilting, repairing of banks, the managing of vegetation downstream, slowing the flow, storing water or improving infiltration upstream.
There is a need for better and more regular ongoing maintenance with investment in pumps and drainage infrastructure. More licences should be granted to farmers to undertake regular minor work such as clearing blockages, desilting and vegetation maintenance, and I draw attention to my farming interests as detailed in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Homeowners and businesses should also be armed with the tools and the information needed to defend their properties. There is a need to build resilience into the defence of individual properties. The £5,000 repair and renew grant for affected homes and businesses can play a very important role in achieving this, whether through the fitting of flood boards, covers to air bricks and the insulation of valves to prevent the backflow of sewage.
I held a public meeting last week on flooding issues in my constituency and those who are flooded welcomed this £5,000 repair and renew grant, but some who have not experienced internal flooding were concerned that they may do so in future. Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Government should consider introducing a scheme whereby they provide part-funding for those who want to make their homes resilient or have some kind of tax credit for that purpose?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. The £5,000 grant is a good way for individuals to make their properties more resilient. In Bevan street east in Lowestoft the property with flood boards was the one that had very minimal flood damage. We should be building on this scheme where the flooding happened this time and also look at other areas that are vulnerable.
It is also important that local communities that have been affected in the floods are fully informed and advised as to what they should do. It is important to plan and rehearse flood plans so as to eliminate the need for frantic and ultimately useless activity once a flood has occurred.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about what householders can do to protect their own property. The Pitt report after the 2007 floods recommended that in flood risk areas insurance notices should include information on flood risk and the simple steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects. Does he agree that that would be a very good thing?
I agree entirely. One thing the Government need to be doing is making sure advice is provided through the local authorities on this £5,000. Support and advice must be given to local communities, in particular in streets where this problem is occurring, to enable them to put in place sound and practical arrangements as soon as possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important that the £5,000 is made available in the most sensible manner possible, so that those who have been repeatedly flooded over a number of years are eligible, rather than just those who have had a one-off event, however severe, which is unlikely to repeated for a long time to come?
The £5,000 grant has clearly hit the right note across the country, and it is no doubt right that the Government should review very carefully where it is provided.
In my constituency, the preparatory and warning work leading up to the storm surge generally went well. There is scope for improvement in handling the mop-up afterwards, however, and I know the councils are looking at doing that. It is also important to support those who are facing change and uncertainty, even if that is in the long term. Long-term expensive works are required to defend the communities of Corton and Kessingland in my constituency. It is necessary to work with those communities to involve them in finding a permanent solution, even if it is going to be very expensive and some way hence, so that they have confidence that in the long term such solutions will be in place, rather than leaving them feeling marooned and isolated, as they perhaps do at the moment.
Secondly, I am concerned that the existing mechanism for accessing new flood defence schemes is deficient, in that it does not give sufficient weight to economic considerations. It is important that when the Government are determining whether to provide financial support for flood defence schemes, proper account is taken of the economic benefits of the proposals. The benefit-to-cost rules that are currently applied do not do that. In the
2008 Pitt review the recognition of the need to protect the economy is too limited, and there are similar concerns about the flood and coastal erosion risk management plan introduced in 2011.
In my constituency, the future economic viability and vitality of Lowestoft is highly dependent on investment being made by energy companies in the port area, the very area where much of the flooding occurred on
Finally, there is a need for a new approach to coastal erosion and protection, and for a longer-term plan and increased investment in sea defences. Many of the sea defences in Suffolk and Norfolk were put in place by the Eden and Macmillan Governments after the 1953 floods and are now in need of urgent repair, upgrading or replacement. Given the events of 2007 and 2013, it seems these sorts of problems are likely to become more frequent in the coming years. Sea levels on the Suffolk coast have been rising since records began in Victorian times, and since 1953 they have been rising by 2.4 mm per annum. When the impact of climate change is added, it is clear that there is a need for urgent action. In Lowestoft, Halcrow and BAM Nuttall have made the assessment that whereas the previous estimate was that a 1953-type flood would occur every 1,000 years, it could now take place every 20 years.
The UK’s approach to coastal defences over the past 20 years should be contrasted with that of the Dutch. After the 1953 floods, they designed their sea defences to withstand a one-in-4,000-year flood, whereas ours were designed to withstand only a one-in-1,000-year flood. The Dutch have pursued a different approach: the provision of their coastal defences is fully integrated with the provision of other infrastructure, be it airports, harbours, roads, houses or factories. In the UK, coastal flood defences have tended to be an add-on and have all too frequently been cut in times of austerity. The Dutch do not rely solely on hard defences, and a system of dams, dunes and dykes has been put in place which enables them to withstand a one-in-10,000-year storm. By contrast, neither the Pitt review nor the flood and coastal erosion management plan properly addresses coastal erosion and flooding. The latter does not fully reflect the differences between inland flooding, which is temporary, and coastal flooding and erosion, which can be terminal for affected properties and assets.
The storm surges that occurred along the east coast in 1953 and 2013 were the result of a combination of events: very low atmospheric pressure over the North sea, which caused the sea level to rise dramatically; high astronomic tides; gale force winds; and rainfall. On both recent occasions, we escaped by the skin of our teeth, although I concede that what happened in 1953 was horrific; in 2007, the wind dropped in the nick of time, and in 2013 the wind was blowing in a northerly direction and there was no heavy rainfall. I fear that it will not be third time lucky, and it is important both that new defences are put in place as soon as practically possible and that we adopt a different approach to the managing of flood risk.
May I apologise to the House for my lateness? Unfortunately, I got stuck on a train from Newcastle for reasons I do not need to detain the House with. I will take as little time as I can so as not to abuse the position that I have been given in this debate.
I thank the Minister and the whole team for all their work—I am talking about the Prime Minister all the way down through the various ministries. I also want to thank Opposition Members too. The Leader of the Opposition visited my constituency. He was extremely magnanimous with his time and he did not, dare I say it, make a spectacle of himself. Unlike many Members, I welcome ministerial visits and Ministers seeing what is happening in the area. This Minister has been to the region more than most to chair a number of meetings.
We are putting together a report that will be given to the Prime Minister and the House later in the week. As the Minister knows, we must change the whole way that we deal with this problem. Members have expressed the hope that we never experience the same thing again, but as sure as night follows day, we will and we must be aware of that. It is as certain as death and taxes. It may not be the Somerset levels that are affected, but it will be somewhere. There must be fundamental change that crosses the political divide and that is agreed on by both sides of the House.
The one hurdle that we all have to overcome is the Treasury. It will try to stop us spending the money that is required to put in defences and the works that are needed to ensure that the flooding does not happen in the future. Members from across the House must make it clear to the Chancellor that we have to be given the money that we need. We are the sixth largest economy in the world, yet here we are, unable to raise money to defend our own people from the most basic problem faced by man—certainly in my constituency—since prehistoric times, which is water. We manage it well. When my hon. Friend Richard Benyon was Minister he put in place a lot of changes to try to make the system work. Although I occasionally berated him in the local press, I respect him for his hard work. [Interruption.] I tried to do that without a smile and failed dismally. It is crucial that we take responsibility for the problem and say that each area will have to be defended properly.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to the Chamber? I have a question that is vexing the House and other colleagues in Somerset. If we look at the whole management system of the Somerset levels, to what extent could the damage have been prevented if we had had both upstream flood management storage as well as regular maintenance and drainage downstream?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. She is most astute. One of the problems is that we do not have the capacity to pump into the river below a certain level. I am talking about the area on the border between my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Heath. What happened was that the river backed up. We could not get the water around. We have two points into the sea; one is through the River Parrett and the other is through the King’s Sedgemoor drain.
Both are not able to take what we need to pump into them. Nearly 60 square miles of land are underwater, which really focuses our minds on the problems faced by our constituents. Although we have not lost many properties, it has devastated the tourist industry and many other things in the local area. My hon. Friend Neil Parish knows from his long experience of farming nearby how dangerous these areas can be.
The Minister has made it quite clear that local input is needed. The internal drainage boards and the local Environment Agency—I am not suggesting asking Lord Smith for one second, nor would I—have enormous input to make, but that must be done in conjunction with local people. That is why the meetings that we have been holding in Sedgemoor or Somerton and Frome have been so important; we have been able to use that local input. I was rather worried when the EA sent John Varley, whom I have met a few times. I find him the most impossible man, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury would disagree with me. It is obvious that a lot of people have others’ best interests at heart.
We must do three things. First, we must look at the Bridgwater barrage. That will cost an enormous amount of money, but it is vital. Secondly, we must look at the pump system.
My hon. Friend talks about the barrage across the River Parrett, which is absolutely essential. The £200 million cost of raising the railway across Sedgemoor starts to make the barrage look extremely cost-effective. The railway would not be flooded if that barrage were there to stop the sea going up the Parrett.
I have worked closely with the hon. Gentleman in this exercise. He will agree that the elements that we need from the Government are, first, the initial dredging; secondly, the commitment to build a sluice, or barrage, across the Parrett; thirdly, a funding mechanism for local IDBs or local authorities to fund the maintenance; and fourthly, the long-term management of the whole river catchment area—something that we knew back in the 1980s and ’90s, when we were working on it, but it was forgotten.
My hon. Friend knows better than I do—he is a Somerset man; I am a usurper from Scotland—that this is an absolute tale of disgrace and woe. It is appalling, and not just one Government are involved; it goes back through many Governments, and it has been an absolute disaster. But he is right: we must sort out the pumps, the rhynes—ditches—the bunds and the dams. We must do this now. Unless this happens quickly, we will be back here, probably next year, with the Opposition asking, “What on earth did you get wrong?” It happened last year; it happened in 2000; it will happen again.
The most difficult thing that we must face is that, basically, everyone thought that Somerset was shut. We had half-term; tourism died completely. That affected the west country because everyone thought that the railway was shut and no one could get through. Therefore, we ended up costing the economy millions.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech, after a brisk rush from the train. Things are the same in my constituency; local businesses have been shut down. Some of the longer-term flood defences—the long-term plan to make our country more secure—would actually save the economy money. Perhaps not in the first five or 10 years, but over a 20-year time frame, if the Treasury put the money into schemes such as the lower Thames alleviation scheme, the money would be returned in savings from flood insurance, from businesses not closing and from savings across the economy overall.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. His area has a slightly different type of flooding. We are almost unique. We have massive amounts of land to play with. We can put in the bunds, the pumps and all the rest. Unfortunately, there are buildings right up to the Thames, so there must be a different solution, on which I am sure that my hon. Friend is already making pretty good representations to the Minister, and he will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend’s fundamental point is right: flooding has cost this country millions in the past few months. We cannot ignore that. The Treasury must say what is the cost to the sixth largest economy in the world of what we have lost. If we can write off the whole of half-term, what will things be like at Easter? We will not have the water cleared by Easter, and the railway will not be open by then. We will still face fundamental problems in Somerset. That will knock on to Devon and certainly Cornwall. Where will we be?
We must sort this out. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor must take the brakes off. Allow us to put in our reports—on Thursday in our case, and I am sure soon after in the case of the Thames and many other rivers. The Vale of York needs to be looked after. If we do not get it right, we will be sitting here again discussing the same thing, and that is not acceptable.
I start by referring hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and by apologising to the House for legging it earlier. I had to host a long-standing event on the Terrace for land-based colleges, and I thought I should stick to that diary entry.
I remind the House that 55,000 properties were flooded in this country in 2007, and 2,500 of them were in my constituency. That was a devastating experience. One house being flooded is devastating for the individual householder, and none of us must ever underestimate the impact that this problem has on individual households. This year, approximately 7,000 properties have been flooded across the country, including 140 in my constituency. It is worth reminding ourselves that 1.3 million homes did not flood because of good-quality defences that have been built under this Government and previous
Governments. Many more properties have been protected as a result of the combined efforts of various agencies and not least local volunteers, who have been unbelievably effective in my constituency and in many other constituencies. The emergency services worked to protect properties during the floods by putting up flood defences, pumping out drainage systems and being on hand. I also commend local authorities, the Environment Agency and many others.
Drainage boards are unsung heroes on flooding. They do extraordinary work, and they are successful because they use local knowledge and have real expertise. They understand how to manage water. I pay tribute to my local authority, West Berkshire council, and particularly Carolyn Richardson, its emergency manager. At an early stage, following the Pitt review and the 2007 floods, she took on responsibility for the local authority’s emergency response systems, feeding through into silver and gold commands, which come into effect for events such as those that have occurred in the past few weeks.
The response by local communities where flooding has taken place, or where there is a threat of flooding, has been quite extraordinary. Friends and neighbours are to be commended for their actions, and in those circumstances we see Britain at its best and communities at their best. Local people have done what they can to help people in their hour of need. There is an ongoing emergency. In the Lambourn and Pang valleys, we have historically high levels of groundwater, and houses that had not been flooded have now been flooded. A number of people are absolutely exhausted as a result of their constant efforts to keep flood water and sewage out of their properties. We are not yet in the recovery stage.
I am glad that we seem to have moved on, both in the House and in the media, from a rather sterile, binary argument about the need to dredge or not to dredge: the virtues of dredging were opposed by those who said that it was wrong. We seem to have moved on and adopted more sensible thinking. The worst time to make or change policy is in the teeth of a crisis, particularly as we sometimes feel the need to play the game of satisfying the 24-hour news agenda. Parts of the press that I have come across in recent weeks and years—they know who they are—have asked me some of the most stupid questions I have ever heard. I am glad that this ended up on the cutting room floor, but I was asked by one reporter: “Should the Government apologise for the floods?” A Radio Bristol reporter, who I think had just done a course on aggressive interviewing, once asked me, “It’s been raining for days down here—what are you doing about it?” That kind of an agenda and ludicrous editorial pushing, which says to reporters, “This story needs legs: go out there and find someone to blame”, does not show our media at their best. We seem to have moved on, and recently there have been some interesting pieces of work that have begun to show the complexity of the problem we are dealing with.
Will my hon. Friend answer two questions on the framework within which this is judged? First, do we need to give more power and resource to local determination? Secondly, do we need to look at the overall framework? Holland has statutory standards that have to be observed, and that trigger the funding, taxation and resource to ensure that, even when flooding is not in the public eye, it continues to be worked on?
I think Pitt was right when he said that the whole system had been too centralised and needed to be decentralised. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee disagrees. She wrote a very rude comment about the way we enacted the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and did precisely what Pitt recommended. She said, “No, it was all terribly bad and a waste of money” and that she strongly believed it should all be centralised—I may be paraphrasing, and if she was here she would probably leap to her feet to say that what she had said was not so simplistic. Where local lead flood authorities are good, we are seeing the best sort of devolution of power and responsibility, and we need to see more of that. Where they are not living up to that, we should find ways of making it happen. We discovered through Exercise Watermark, for example, that some are not playing their part, and that some agencies are not fitting into that locally. Water companies were partly to blame at that time, but I do not know whether that is still the case.
I share West Berkshire council with my hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend Mr Redwood. I, too, would like to put on the record my thanks to Carolyn Richardson and others who have done such a great job over the past few weeks. Local residents in Purley in my constituency have decided to form a flood action group as a way of getting local people together to liaise with the Environment Agency and others. Is that something he would recommend other communities look at, working together to find a local solution?
I applaud the residents of Purley, because I have seen that approach work not only in my constituency but right across the country. The National Flood Forum has a cut-and-paste organisation for local communities to pick up and run with. It is a superb organisation with real knowledge and expertise. I know that the Department and the Environment Agency will also assist local communities in setting up a flood forum. The difficulty is that communities that have never been flooded will be flooded. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger that there will be new flooding, as we all know, and it is in those communities that we want lead local flood authorities to start getting voluntary action going, with flood wardens, parish councils getting involved and local communities setting up those sorts of organisations.
I am guilty of not responding to the second point my hon. Friend Mr Stuart made, on whether we should introduce a statutory activity. I blow hot and cold about Pitt’s recommendation to create a duty on fire and rescue services to prepare and be equipped to deal with flooding. In my constituency over the past few weeks, we have seen Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, Cheshire fire and rescue service, East Yorkshire fire and rescue service and many others, all coming through the centrally controlled asset management register, which brings precisely these sorts of assets to our constituencies when we need them, and they are still there today doing wonderful work. Something is happening, and perhaps more can be done.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he did as Minister. Is it a matter of regret to him that we still do not have sustainable drainage systems in place? Does he accept that one of Pitt’s core recommendations was to end the automatic right to connect and make IDBs, water companies and others statutory consultees on future planning applications?
Just to help the hon. Gentleman, there is a voluntary time limit of about 10 minutes.
I will be as quick as I can, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton makes an important point. It is a matter of regret that we have not yet brought forward the sustainable drainage provisions, which were the subject of much discussion. I can assure her that I wish we had brought them forward sooner. When they are brought forward, they will make life much better. On the automatic right to connect, I am also on record as agreeing with her on many points.
My most important point today is that we should not look at England’s flood problems through the prism of one area’s hydrology—particularly that of the Somerset levels, which have a complex hydrology. Looking at the Somerset levels as one cohesive hydrological problem is a mistake: parts of them did not flood, or did not flood so badly this time, possibly because of actions that had been taken.
The most important thing we can do is listen to the experts. A very good report was published last week by the Chartered Institution for Water and Environmental Management. We do not use CIWEM enough; its 10,000 real experts are at the beck and call of the Government, the Opposition, companies and local authorities. They have produced a really important report. I brought it with me, but someone has nicked it. [Laughter.] That is what people get if they leave their papers in the House. The report is really good and I suggest that hon. Members read it if they have not already. It shows some of our difficulties in managing flood risk and the problems of dredging indiscriminately.
We all have experts in our constituencies. One of mine is Dick Greenaway, who was the surveyor for the Thames Conservancy but has now retired. He has fascinating knowledge of the history of flooding. After the 1947 floods, an enormous amount of dredging took place in the River Thames. A lot of the experts of the time said that it would not work and it was being done for political rather than proper hydrological reasons. The dredging was picking up bronze-age remains close to the surface of the river bed, showing that it had not changed for a long time. Dredging can cause more problems. Since we stopped dredging the Thames to any large degree, the base of the river has dropped because of the action of the river and the change in climate. We ignore people such as Dick Greenaway at our peril.
In conclusion, we should now turn our attention to land use. We have an enormous amount of work to do in joining up land use issues, common agricultural policy reform, the drainage activities of some landowners and land managers and our management of rivers in respect of the water framework directive or flood problems at a certain point or further downstream. Some of what
I have seen around the country has been very damaging in terms of flood problems lower down. We have to address that.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Richard Benyon. I agree with his advice to listen to experts; we have just had the privilege of listening to his expertise from his undersung time as Minister with responsibility for these issues.
I speak as one whose home has flooded; what I bring to the debate is the ability to speak as someone who has had that misfortune. I am slightly confused about the number of people who have been flooded in this round of utterly dreadful weather. The number of people flooded in Kent and Surrey around the Christmas period appears to be 7,500. Now we are being told that the number is about 7,000 for the whole country, although many hundreds of homes in various constituencies have been flooded since then. Will the Minister give us the numbers and say on what basis a comparison is being made between the 55,000 who were flooded in 2007 and the number who have been flooded this time?
The central point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury was that a great number of people owe the security of their homes to the measures that have been taken since 2007, and he was correct. Given how awful the weather has been, we should reflect that things could have been a great deal worse. In common with what Members have seen, my experience of having been flooded has been that friends and neighbours have been absolutely terrific in rallying round. I am grateful to my immediate neighbours for the help that they afforded me and my family on Christmas eve and subsequently.
I also want to commend—I declare an interest, of course, as a flood victim—the exemplary behaviour of the insurance industry in my case and all the others I have seen. It appears to have stepped up to the plate and done what it was supposed to do. [Interruption.] Karl Turner says from a sedentary position that it has not. Obviously, I would want to see that evidence and look forward to him making it clear. All I can do is reflect on my own experience and other reported cases. It is very easy to bash the insurance industry, but according to the evidence available to me it seems to be doing everything it should in the current circumstances.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury on the Flood Re legislation. I note that the Select Committee’s report states that there should be a requirement to detail exactly how the scheme will work, but I assure my hon. Friend that it has been an absolute lifeline for people in my position that the value of our principal asset has not been utterly destroyed. Many thousands of people are immensely grateful for the work he has done in bringing that scheme to the starting gate.
I also want to place on record my thanks to the Government for the measures they have taken during the course of this crisis. The £5,000 grant to make my house, along with all the other houses that have been flooded, more resilient is immensely sensible. I want to take some measures, but they are plainly not insured so the insurance company will not be able to address them.
The grant is, therefore, of immense help. I am certain that my reaction will be mirrored by everyone else who has been flooded. It is a really sensible, helpful proposal by the Government. From what I have seen of how people can apply for the scheme, it is being managed appropriately. Council tax relief for people who are no longer able to occupy their homes is also entirely reasonable.
I want to make two central points, one of which picks up on those made by Caroline Lucas. She spoke of the need for us as a country to invest sensibly in flood protection and I agree entirely with her. The Pitt review was right and the scale of our investment in flood defence needs, to be frank, a step change. It has been said that an increase of £20 million a year is needed over the course of 25 years to get to the right level. Given how fast the climate seems to be changing, however, I do not think that is enough. We need to get to the level of expenditure envisaged by the Pitt review rather quicker than the 25 years he recommended when he wrote the report. That seems to be self-evident.
As a number of hon. Members have suggested, this is a sensible investment measure because it will result in huge savings. We ought to look at the expected 8:1 return currently being examined by the Environment Agency with regard to investment schemes and the cost-benefit analysis. That does not seem right to me.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion on some matters on which we have co-operated, but I am afraid that I buy the noble Lord Lawson’s general approach. There is a limited amount that the United Kingdom can do on its own to address global climate change. We have to try to carry the other nations of the world with us in order to do what we can to try to improve the climate, but I agree with his general proposition that limiting our ability to grow our economy and to have the wealth to create the protection schemes would be the wrong approach. If we hobble our economy by trying to reduce climate change through occasionally economically illiterate energy schemes, we will simply not be able to afford flood defences or have the money to defend ourselves against the consequences. It is also highly unlikely—we would be extremely lucky if this happened—that we would be able to carry the Indians, the Chinese and the rest of the world with us towards the standards we will deliver in Europe.
It is precisely the people who seem to think that investing in the green economy is somehow a distraction from getting out of our economic difficulties who are economically illiterate. If we put resources into the green economy—insulating every home and properly investing in renewable energies—it will be good for the economy. The green economy is the one bit of the economy that is doing pretty well, so it is a false dichotomy.
It is not, if Governments of all hues are tempted to decide which particular subsidy they give to which particular scheme, regardless of their environment merits in continuing to reduce greenhouse gases. That is what we have seen: when we are in positions of Executive authority, we are all tempted to have our pet schemes to deliver. We should always look to reduce the totality of our contribution to carbon change, consistent with what can be delivered around the rest of the world, so that the whole world acts together. We should not unfairly handicap ourselves, but try to carry the rest of the world with us, and allow the market to make a sensible decision about how we address humanity’s contribution to climate change.
In his extremely good speech, my hon. Friend Peter Aldous elucidated all the very sensible measures that ought to be taken by any community facing flood risk. I can only commend his speech to other hon. Members and to all those interested in this field.
From my experience, I know that the only way my home can be protected is if the schemes happening around Gatwick airport, the area from which the water comes down the River Mole to me, are decent floodwater storage schemes. They need to be properly designed by the Environment Agency to ensure that the water is stored and not simply poured off the second runway—God help us if we get it—and sent downstream to flood communities living below Gatwick.
I know that the Environment Agency has taken a kicking from many quarters, but I must say that from what I have seen it appears to be the best reservoir—that is the right term—of expertise for our country. We should support and use it, and I commend the work of the officials I have met. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury nodding: if he is nodding, I am pretty satisfied that that judgment is right.
Having declared my interest, I conclude by thanking the Government for the way in which they have managed the crisis over the past two or three months. The proposals that they have put in place, which are inevitably for the short and medium-term, are what I would expect the Cobra co-ordinating mechanism to do in the circumstances. However, there is a long-term issue to address: the scale of our country’s investment in flood defence is not adequate, as was identified between 2007 and 2009, and I suggest that we need to address it faster than we currently propose to do.
Looking at the empty Opposition Benches, I wonder whether that UKIP councillor had a point—even if the point was wrong—about God moving in mysterious ways, and whether flooding does not affect Labour constituencies.
Like those of many hon. Friends, towns and villages in my constituency were flooded before Christmas and are still flooded. Just last Friday, I was in the village of Sixpenny Handley, high up on Cranborne Chase, where the flooding—a combination of record groundwater levels and excessive surface water—is just not going away. Residents are still pumping out their homes and the streets are awash with water that will not go away. There has been a very serious case of raw sewage overflowing from a local sewage plant, which was swamped by storm water that should have been kept separate.
That is just what has happened in Sixpenny Handley. I could tell the House stories about the market towns of Sturminster Newton and Blandford Forum; the Stour valley villages of Durweston, Stourpaine, Hamoon, Iwerne Minster, Fontmell Magna and Sturminster Marshall; and other places such as Winterborne Stickland, Milborne St Andrew, Tarrant Hinton and Tarrant Gunville, to list only the worst affected places in my constituency. I apologise to constituents who are listening to this debate or who read it in Hansard if I have missed them out.
On Christmas day, I had to make a 5-mile detour to get to lunch with friends in the hamlet of Hamoon, because the River Stour had broken its banks and there was a foot and a half of water over the bridge. Even then, I had to drive through a main street that was awash with deep water to get to lunch. Hamoon is still cut off from the east. Milborne St Andrew remains a village divided by water, and the village shop is surrounded by a lake that should be Milton road.
I pay tribute not in the first instance to the public authorities and the water companies, which have often been slow to respond, but to the hundreds of volunteers who have rallied around to help their neighbours, in particular the volunteer flood wardens, the parish councillors and all the ordinary people who have done more than just complain about the misery that they have suffered for more than two months.
The storm system that struck the Dorset coast just over a fortnight ago rightly hit the national news because of its sheer ferocity, the extreme rainfall and the damage that it caused. Dorset county council is still receiving in the region of 1,000 public inquiries a week about the flooding, and it has identified more than 7,000 road defects and hundreds of affected properties.
What has not been so visible or of such intense media interest is the suffering of rural residents, such as the many people in my North Dorset constituency who have experienced prolonged flooding not just this year, but every year for the past three or four years. It is that increasingly frustrated minority whom I would like to speak up for today, as we debate the future management of flood risk. They are a minority who, as a result of the focus on more densely populated areas downstream, will continue to lose out unless we rebalance our policy focus.
The third report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, “Managing Flood Risk”, which was published last July, underscores the fact that,
“The current model for allocating flood defence funding is biased towards protecting property, which means that funding is largely allocated to urban areas.”
Affected members of the local farming community will no doubt concur with the Committee’s view that,
“Defra’s failure to protect rural areas poses a long term risk to the security of UK food production”.
Once again, the rural penalty rears its head.
There is little doubt that, whatever the root cause, the Environment Agency has significantly reduced its maintenance activity. Affected residents, local councillors and flood wardens in the worst hit areas of my constituency are unequivocal in saying that the Environment Agency is no longer clearing rivers and streams and, in some cases, is actively preventing farmers and local landowners from doing so on environmental grounds. To quote one senior councillor, the Environment Agency has
“failed on all their own priorities—people displaced, property ruined, water voles (presumably) drowned”.
I am aware that dredging is not a suitable course of action in every instance. However, in my view, there should not be institutional resistance to such action if, in specific cases, it can lessen the damaging impact of the kind of excessive and prolonged floodwaters that some communities in North Dorset have been experiencing year on year.
Regrettably, villagers who have experienced repeat flooding say that they have been “patted on the head” and told that “nothing can be done”. Frustrated local flood wardens tell of battling against multiple agencies that pass the buck among themselves or veto works that contradict their particular beliefs, and that act only when homes are seriously flooded and not before.
It has taken one flood warden in my constituency nearly seven years to persuade the Environment Agency and the local highways teams that repeat flooding in his village could be better managed if they would just take a look down the drains. When several visits from me and the local media finally convinced them to do that, it quickly became apparent that lack of maintenance had rendered the village drainage system totally defunct. Suddenly, three heavy-duty pumps, which had previously been unavailable, appeared to clear the water, and a commitment to improve the system was secured from Dorset county council, the local highways authority. By that time, the village’s main access road had been under water for some seven weeks. The local GP surgery had been forced to close temporarily, and the only village shop estimated that it had lost a devastating £20,000 in turnover.
I share my constituents’ views and experiences here today not to lay blame, but to make three simple points. First, those responsible for flood management do not always listen to the people who know their area the best. As a result, faster and perhaps more cost-effective mitigating action is not always considered. Secondly, conservation should not be prioritised over people’s homes and livelihoods. Thirdly, when multiple agencies are responsible for flood management, they must work effectively together for the good of local communities and with local communities, not behind closed doors.
When communities are, understandably, losing faith, good communication and transparency are vital. The weather this winter has certainly been extraordinary, but a modern civilised society should be prepared. I hope that the Government will learn from the misery my constituents have suffered this winter, and react quickly and favourably to Dorset’s imminent Bellwin scheme claim.
This is an important and topical debate, and I congratulate many of those who have gone before me on their valuable contributions. It has been an excellent debate and many lessons can be learned. I pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger who, with waders to the fore, charged through the floods of the Somerset levels, leading the opposition as though he were fighting off the Spaniards. His example highlighted the difficulties felt by many people affected by flooding. He was their voice for some time and we must take note of that.
The news agenda will now move on from the recent flooding misery in Somerset, parts of the Thames valley and our coastal regions, but for those who were directly affected, the impact will take months if not years to come to a conclusion. Our instinctive reaction is rightly to sympathise with those whose lives have been disrupted, but the frequency of flooding events in different parts of the country and the impact on the lives of individual communities leads me to the conclusion that we need a far more radical approach to both our planning and our response. We must learn the lessons and we must listen to local people.
I cite my town as an example. In 1998, Northampton was inundated with major flooding over the Easter period when a stationary band of rain caused extensive flooding in the midlands from Worcestershire to the Wash. The water levels affecting the area, including Northampton, were recorded by the Met Office as higher than the 1947 floods, which were designated the benchmark for inland flooding in this country. Of more than 4,000 properties affected by the flooding, nearly 2,500 were in Northampton. Two people died, thousands had to leave their homes, electricity supplies were lost, and cars, boats and caravan parks were damaged. Falling as it did on a holiday weekend, the disruption was exacerbated. It has been estimated that the cost of that flooding incident was as high as £350 million, and 70% of those flooded did not have insurance for their homes.
The impact of the flooding was devastating. As a local council, we were determined not only to learn the lessons but to do what was necessary to minimise the risk of future flooding. An independent review described the lessons in terms of floodplain management, forecasting, and investment in flood defences and warning systems and—this is a vital point—their maintenance. Thanks to sizeable pressure exerted by the Northampton flood alleviation group, among others, flood defences were upgraded to a one-in-200-years standard of protection. A £7 million package of works included reinforcement and construction of flood walls and earth embankments, and channel improvements included dredging and widening.
There is important evidence to suggest that in the absence of that approach we would have been affected almost as badly in November 2012, when water levels in the River Nene threatened a further incident. Indeed, the Environment Agency acknowledged the effect of our response, with a spokesman observing that
“flood defence improvements built after 1998 have helped protect several communities from flooding...all of our plans and flood defences have worked, protecting many hundreds of homes.”
That happened because of local pressure. I implore the Minister to understand that lesson, to listen to the people who have being talking to him today, and to put his trust in people in local communities. All too often, the Environment Agency has taken an overall national view without listening to the local voice. I beg the Minister not to do likewise. I know that he has experienced these things himself, so I am hopeful that he will take notice of the need for such an approach.
In 1998 there were no warnings, and allegations were made that flood defences were operated so as to sacrifice some towns for the protection of others. The then Minister acknowledged in this House that
“there were instances of unsatisfactory planning, inadequate warnings for the public, incomplete defences and poor co-ordination with emergency services.”—[Hansard, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1080.]
How often have we heard that in today’s debate? In those respects, nothing of any great consequence has happened since 1998. I am not saying that flood defences have not improved—they have—but little has happened in those respects, and that is because we have not listened to people in the localities.
We know that there are 300,000 more homes on floodplains today than 30 years ago. We have built 300,000 homes on floodplains in the past 30 years, and then we wonder what causes the sorts of impacts we have seen recently. We should not wonder. We should take a firmer grip of planning and of architectural design, because many of the houses that were flooded could have avoided that catastrophe had we taken that approach.
I urge the Minister to take note: we cannot expect to eliminate the risk of flooding, but our response in Northampton has proved effective in preventing some sizeable potential flood incidents since 1998. That has happened because we had a local group fighting constantly to ensure that flood protection was high on our agenda. Once the sympathy and immediate response to the flooding in Somerset and the parts of the Thames valley and the coastal regions most recently affected calms down, those residents will, rightly, be asking the self-same questions. The answer will be judged on the quality of the responses, and it will be judged to be satisfactory only if the views of people in the locality are taken into account.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which, as my hon. Friend Mr Binley said, has been distinguished by many fine speeches covering a wide range of policies relevant to the subject in hand. One of the largest, all-encompassing issues—climate change—has been touched on, and in my exchange with Caroline Lucas I spoke about getting the language right, which is important. I declare an interest as chair of GLOBE International, and refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week in Washington, GLOBE International held a climate legislation summit in the US Senate. The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences gave a presentation, which coincided with the launch of their new booklet setting out the state of the science—truly chilling information.
I am not a scientist and have always remained sceptical when dealing with climate change and trying to come up with the most rational—I hope—response, and my hon. Friend Mr Blunt said that this is about acting in the most rational and sensible way with our information and limited finances. Unlike some who would cast Lord Lawson into outer darkness for daring to question any of the orthodoxies, I do not think that is the right way to go. We need an inclusive debate in which we assess the science, taking it with an appropriate pinch of salt as we in this place learn to do with all expert opinion. However, the mounting, growing, consistency of information makes it hard not to accept that the emissions we create in our industrialised societies are contributing—and, more importantly, will contribute —to greater warming of the planet.
We are trying to work out what that means and its implications, but scientists would say that they do not understand it all. Perhaps even more complicated than understanding which areas will be colder, wetter or warmer as a result, is working out the best response to that threat, and that is the fundamental context for this debate on managing flood risk. All scientists—certainly those I have seen—seem to agree that greater energy is coming to the earth, which will lead to greater levels of precipitation. In some areas there will be intensified drought, and in others intensified rainfall. In that context we must think not only about our response to the current environment—whether or not that is immediately driven by climate change—but about he long term.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger. One challenge with flooding is that when it is a hot topic, it is a hot topic. Leaders of the day make lots of promises, but there then tends to be a fading away; a salami slicing of budgets. That is why I asked my hon. Friend Richard Benyon—quite rightly a highly regarded former Minister—what framework we might need to put in place to deal with that.
Holland has statutory standards. I may get some of my facts wrong, which will doubtless be pointed out, but my understanding is that the Dutch have tried to look at the evidence, drawn a line, and worked out the areas they cannot afford to defend because they are indefensible or so costly that it is unreasonable. Behind that line they have statutory standards and flood boards with much wider tax bases, who are elected—admittedly sometimes with derisory turnouts—to put in place and, as various hon. Friends have said, to maintain the defences, so that that standard is delivered. The Dutch would say that that is far from perfect, but it provides a framework in which people can have some confidence that even if there are no floods for a few years, things will not fall into a state of neglect.
Does my hon. Friend know that in Northampton we had serious floods in 1947, as I have said, and flood defences were put in place that were later driven through by new development? One reason we were affected so badly in 1998 was those new developments.
That needs no further comment apart from the natural applause that normally comes spontaneously from around the Chamber when my hon. Friend speaks on this or other topics.
Order. Mr Parish, you have got away with it once. I am not going to let it go twice.
I would like to say a few words on how my constituency has been affected. It was devastated in the 2007 floods. The impact on homes and businesses was far greater than it has been in the current floods, but, as others have said, flooding is devastating for every home and business. About 1,100 homes and businesses were flooded by the tidal surge in December that affected people around the Humber estuary. Whatever the cause, flooding has a tremendously strong effect.
I would like to praise the work of internal drainage boards in my area. The south Holderness internal drainage board undertook work to dredge Hedon Haven. Dredging needs to be done in the appropriate way and in the appropriate place—I can imagine dredging having a detrimental effect in the valleys mentioned by Chris Bryant. The incredibly flat area of Holderness is effectively a man-made ecosystem. It is hard to see improved dredging, which would allow very slow-moving water to get out, leading to anything other than an improvement. It will not stop one-in-200-year flooding events having a negative effect, but it will make them last slightly less long with a less wide impact. Dredging also appeals to local people, who like to feel that those bits of the system that drain water away are kept in a state of usefulness.
One point I would like to make to the Minister is that when the Keyingham internal drainage board in my constituency was looking to carry out dredging at Stone Creek and Hedon Haven, the new Marine Management Organisation decided to charge it for a licence. We spent years pulling all the pools and the political will together to get the sign off to allow us to dredge and let the water out, but what happened? This glorified new quango came along and sent in a suggested bill for thousands of pounds to grant a licence, even though the Environment Agency, when it had done similar work elsewhere, had not charged anything. The MMO decided that it had to do so much more work it ended up charging £10,000 for that one bit of dredging. Will the Minister please ensure that quangos do not inflict charges that stop local people doing what is necessary to make sure that things are more sensibly managed?
After 2007, there was a good response from people who had, up until that point, not performed as well as they should; whether that was Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency or the council. In our area, people did not know who owned the pumps, let alone whether they were responsible for keeping them going, but since 2007 they have worked together. In front of Willow Grove in Beverley, Yorkshire Water has done a great deal of work, and the local council then came in and worked closely with local residents. In 2007, a very beautiful row of houses was famously pictured all flooded. The picture went out around the world. A flood wall has now been erected in front of those homes, trees have been planted and the Westwood area has been restored. Local ownership really can work and we need to ensure we keep it that way.
We need to ensure that we have as broad an understanding as possible of catchments and their impact. That is why all the agencies involved—Karl Turner who is in his place, Members of the European Parliament, Hull city council, East Riding council—supported setting up the River Hull Advisory Board, which I chair. The Environment Agency and others have supported finding the funding to try to have better modelling of the River Hull catchment, so that we can ensure the effective protection of agricultural land—which deserves consideration—rural areas and the urban areas in Hull. The truth is that we are all in it together and we need to ensure that we have a coherent and cohesive approach that works. I pay tribute to all the agencies that have worked together on the River Hull Advisory Board. We really are taking forward a better understanding and a better policy for the future.
My hon. Friend is entirely right about the need for catchment plans, but is there not a fear that, such as with the River Aire catchment plan in my constituency, funding will be factored towards the urban areas because of the formula? There is a perception that the River Aire plan is all about protecting Leeds and not protecting those of us a bit further down the river.
That is a good point. As my hon. Friend might imagine, one of my purposes as chairman of the body I mentioned is to ensure that, rather than policy being skewed in favour of the rural and against the urban, we do not bind ourselves within policy frameworks to such an extent that we cannot make recommendations to the Government. I do not wish to prejudge the position, but I hope to be able to make common-sense recommendations that will enable the representatives of the city of Hull and the East Riding to speak with one voice, and suggest changes to the framework that will facilitate the adoption of an approach that is as reasonable and joined-up as possible. I recognise that finances are limited, but we need to ensure that no one, in the city or in the countryside, is unfairly deprived of the support that should rightfully be theirs.
Finally, let me congratulate the Government, from the Prime Minister down. I think they have shown that they are committed to dealing with this issue. I mentioned the framework because I want that commitment to continue long after the issue—along with the water—has, we hope, drained away. The Government have introduced a series of measures that have already been mentioned, providing not only grants but funds to help businesses that have been flooded, such as those in the constituencies of the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull East and for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).
One thing we must do is cut through the bureaucracy. Perhaps the Minister can help with that. For instance, a small business person in my constituency who owns a pub in Hull contacted the city council when it was flooded. He said “I was delighted to hear on the news that the Government can help me to get through this. I am paying my staff at the moment, because I do not want to lose them and I must look after them, but my pub is taking no money.” He was told “We have not got any forms yet.” “So I cannot apply for help?” “No. We have not got any forms yet.” That kind of nonsense must end. We must ensure that whichever council or other authority is involved can move quickly, because there is nothing more frustrating than hearing people make promises on television, and then finding that the door is barred by some foolish bit of bureaucracy.
The issue of managing flood risk has inevitably come to the fore in my constituency. Since
I want to touch on some specific issues, including development, which other Members have already mentioned. We should think about development not just on the floodplains, but in the catchment areas. We should think about the impact of building yet more houses on land that has previously acted as a natural sponge. We should think about the run-off caused by more tarmac and more roof tiles.
In my constituency, during the run-up to Christmas and into the new year, significant problems were caused by surface water run-off and combined drainage systems that simply could not cope with the amount of rainfall. Since then, however, the problems have been caused not by foul drainage but by the beautiful River Test, which has burst its banks in several places, and by its carriers and tributaries. That has had an impact in many parts of my constituency, not just in Romsey.
I agree with other Members who have said that we need a coherent strategy. We cannot view Romsey in isolation from the villages further north along the river valley, because any work that is done further north will have an impact on Romsey. In the villages, I have heard many calls for dredging, for a widening of the streams and water courses, and for better weed clearance. However, that could have the effect of sending water down to Romsey and the River Test even faster. We know that the Test has a maximum capacity of about 50 tonnes of water per second, but according to some figures it has run at 55 tonnes per second over the past few weeks. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what will happen next: the river will flood. We need a coherent strategy that will establish ways of slowing the river down as it passes down the beautiful Test valley.
I am not an engineer and I do not pretend to have the solutions, but I think that we can work something out. Just over a week ago, I was told by the Army that it was necessary to find bits of land that could be flooded safely without affecting people’s homes and without necessarily affecting sites of special scientific interest, in a manner designed by the Environment Agency. The water needs to be slowed somewhat, so that when it arrives at Romsey—where all of it has to pass under one bridge at Mainstone—there is not a deluge but a controlled flow.
It is vital for us to use the knowledge we have gained over the past month or so. The help from the military has been invaluable, but I also pay tribute to the Environment Agency, many of whose staff have been working 24/7, literally around the clock, putting in more than 80 hours per week just to ensure that homes are kept safe and people are not flooded out. We have learnt a great deal. Aerial photographs taken in my constituency show exactly where the Test has flooded. A massive amount of work has also been done on a little-known river, the Fishlake stream. I do not think that anyone knew quite how fragile the bank of that stream was until the Friday at the beginning of February when it started to overtop the bank and erode the outside of it. Suddenly, it became a crisis point. I do not believe that the Environment Agency identified it as such back in 2007, but we have learnt this time. We have had thousands of man hours of assistance—engineers have tried to establish the best way of preserving and protecting the bank for the future—and we have had critical lessons to learn.
I should pay tribute to a host of organisations in addition to the Environment Agency, particularly the emergency services, but also the Houghton fishing club, a wonderful riparian owner in the north of the constituency. Its members were out digging relief channels and making sure that houses in Stockbridge were protected during the critical first weekend of the flooding. There has been flooding in Stockbridge, but it has been limited to three houses. Stockbridge is a beautiful village on the banks of the Test, and many carriers run under the high street. It is phenomenal that only three houses were flooded; the situation could have been much worse had it not been for the immediate response of the fishing club, which, as an organisation that has existed for many years, knows the river better than almost any other. It was able to identify what could safely be done to create relief for the properties on the banks of some of the carriers that were in the most peril, without endangering further houses.
I also pay tribute to all those who have been involved in the multi-agency approach, and to the independent companies that have made fantastic offers of help with the flood effort. I am thinking particularly of NGS, a company in Southampton that is best known for supplying grit and salt for roads in icy weather. It donated sand for sandbags at a critical time, just as Romsey had established that an additional 40,000 sandbags were needed. I gather that about 80,000 sandbags have now been laid down in the affected part of the borough, thanks to a phenomenal effort. Travelling around the constituency over the weekend, I saw areas where the provision of sandbags was still essential.
On the banks of the Test, the groundwater-fed river is causing a considerable problem. Water levels are still rising, and groundwater springs are still popping up in places where they have never appeared in the past. The village of King’s Somborne, for example, has a wonderful stream passing through it, but that stream is overflowing into many houses across roads, and has made it incredibly difficult for people to get out just in order to buy essentials. Many businesses such as village pubs and shops, which are critical to village life, are unable to trade, having found themselves under several inches or even feet of water.
I echo the call made by my hon. Friend Mr Stuart. Businesses need to know how to apply for funds: they need the forms. I know that Test Valley borough council has done great work in putting information on its website, but when the applications are made, it will be imperative for funds to arrive, and to arrive quickly.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that, as well as the businesses that she has mentioned—which, of course, need all the help we can give them—there are businesses that have been cut off and very badly affected by flooding, although they may not have had floodwater inside their premises? I welcome the £10 million that the Government have already set aside to help those businesses, but does my hon. Friend agree that even more may be needed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is an industrial estate in Budds lane in my constituency. Budds lane was horrendously flooded. The emergency services had to shut the Greatbridge road because of the depth of water, yet some businesses in the industrial estate were dry. There was no access to them, however, so there was no passing trade, and they could not get their staff into work, but the business itself was not affected by floodwater.
I want to conclude with a plea. Almost inevitably, it comes from the lead flood authority, Hampshire flood authority, and it refers specifically to the flood defence grant in aid. The deadline for the submission to Government is incredibly tight. It was moved from
I see the Minister nodding, and I hope he will heed that well, because there is a significant concern in the county council that that might not be the case and that the
I have in my inbox numerous e-mails from constituents who have been suffering flooding since
I would welcome any answers the Minister is able to give on that front and I appreciate having had this opportunity to speak once more about the flooding in Hampshire, which, sadly, has not attracted the same coverage as the flooding in Somerset or the Thames valley.
Like all Members in this debate, I would like to set out some observations and lessons I believe can be drawn from the winter flooding, but before I do that I would like to add my thanks to the local Environment Agency team, particularly Andrew Pearce, who heads it, and Ian Nunn, whom I have met and corresponded with over recent weeks. Regardless of Members’ views on how well the agency strategically dealt with some of the issues it faced, there is no doubt that it is full of a lot of extremely hard-working people who have worked long hours and given up their weekends and holidays over the winter to try to help the communities they serve, and they deserve to be congratulated and thanked for that work.
Of the constituencies with the highest flood risks in the country, mine ranks in the top 10, and that is principally because of the risk of coastal flooding to the Romney marshes, a stretch of land that is not unlike the Somerset levels in that it has many areas which are at or below sea level, and it needs to be defended and maintained all the time from the risk of flooding both from rainwater falling on to the marsh directly and from the coast.
We have been protected this winter from major coastal flooding by the coastal storms because of the large investment by the EA in the coastal defences, particularly the sea wall at Dymchurch, and I was pleased to hear that in the new spending round the EA will be investing in the beach defences at Littlestone. I was also pleased to see how quickly it responded after the winter storms to replace the shingle defences along the Hythe bay coast.
Many Members have talked about the importance of local partnerships in dealing with flood risk. I would like to highlight the work of the Defend Our Coast organisation that both myself and my hon. Friend Amber Rudd have worked with over the last four years. It helped to co-ordinate the response from the local authorities, the local community and the EA so as to understand where the risks were, and I know my hon. Friend Richard Benyon met Defend Our Coast when he was a Minister and can vouch for what a fine organisation it is. However, the risk this year has not come from flooding from the sea. Instead it has come from the potential of flooding on the marsh and in the Elham valley from the river Nailbourne.
There are some simple lessons that can be drawn from the experience of this winter, particularly on Romney marsh. There is no mystery to keeping the Romney marsh from flooding. It has been designed to manage large amounts of water. To keep the water moving, there need to be pumps when the water gets too high and ditches need to be clear to push the water out, ultimately into the sea, through the main drainage canals.
There are a few very important areas of work that have to be done well and consistently in order to make that happen. First, the drainage ditches must be kept clear, especially of the build-up of reeds. That needs to be done methodically and all the time. It does not require the ditches to be dredged. The regular cutting of reeds serves to remove silt and keeps the waterways moving.
This work is done by two bodies: the Romney marsh internal drainage board and the EA, with the agency taking responsibility for the larger watercourses. I would pose the question, however, as to whether we should have one body that deals with all this work in a co-ordinated fashion, and whether it would be better for the local internal drainage board to take over the responsibility for all the cutting on the marsh, thereby recouping some of the money it pays to the EA to do that work for it. Sometimes the drainage board will cut smaller ditches that run up to the larger ones and then stop because that then becomes the responsibility of a different agency. It seems to me that it would be more efficient to have one body that is responsible for this work.
The other important area is pumping. All Members have talked about the need to pump water. When there is a build up of water on flat land, we need to get it off and get it moving. The EA has done a fantastic job in getting pumps installed to keep water moving on Romney marsh. It has installed 15 pumps during the course of the winter flooding. On one occasion I had a meeting with the agency and the internal drainage board on a Friday afternoon to see what more we could do to get more pumps in place to relieve the pressure on residents in Lydd, and most pumps were in place on the Monday. They were therefore very responsive.
One reason why we needed the additional pumps, however, was that some of the older pumps in place on the marsh had stopped working. Maintenance is important. There will need to be substantial capital investment at some point in the near future in some of the older pumps. This will be an investment that will save money because the need to bring on relief pumps at short notice often costs more than maintaining the ones we have. We will have to consider where the extra capital investment will come from for the pumping equipment on the marsh. Having efficient pumps working well and the ditches kept clear is a cost-effective and efficient way of ensuring the water gets off and away as quickly as it needs to.
Co-ordination between different services is another issue. People have spoken about the need for co-ordination between the EA, the emergency services and local councils, and I would also include organisations such as UK Power Networks. We have had incidents where, because of storms, there has been a power outage, and therefore power that was being supplied to one of the pumps has gone down, yet when the EA sought to take that up with UK Power Networks, as the responsible body, it might as well have been calling a call centre. There did not seem to be a fast-track response mechanism whereby the EA could speak immediately to someone at UK Power Networks who could tackle the problem. That led to too long a period of time before action could be taken to get the pumps working again or before going to the extra expense of relief pumps being brought in because some of the main pumps had failed. How we build resilience into the network by having better co-ordination between UK Power Networks and the EA is a very important question.
There must also be greater clarity about the roles of the local authorities and the EA, and sometimes also the Highways Agency when there is flooding on roads or water running off roads because the drains and ditches have not been maintained properly. It must be clear who is responsible. Constituents of mine in East Brabourne were affected. They dealt with the situation directly themselves by paying for the relief measures that needed to be put in place. The question of who is responsible for this work needs to be addressed, however. Who should be doing this work on a regular basis? When there is a crisis, do residents know who are the first people to go to? I do not think it is clear, and sometimes this basic maintenance work falls down because of a breakdown in communication between different local agencies. That is relatively easy to fix.
There is no doubt that we have had a huge amount of rain. One resident I met in East Brabourne, Oliver Trowell, has lived in his house for more than 80 years and he had never seen flooding like it—I hope he does not see it again. Residents in the Elham valley, where I live, say that the level of water in the River Nailbourne is such that it may be decades before we see the same level again, but we are having to deal with it. We need to build in elements of stronger local resilience, ensure that the maintenance work is done and consider how the capital investment in some of the basic pumping equipment can be put in place over the next few years to ensure that when the next big winter flood comes we have all the local defences we need in place, the resilience built in and good co-ordination between the emergency services. That is the best way to make sure that the money the Environment Agency is investing in tackling flooding is having the best possible impact and providing the maximum possible benefit to local communities. That is the best way to plan for the future risk of flooding, which we know will inevitably come.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Damian Collins, with whose comments about the need for co-ordination and communication I completely agree. I, too, represent a beautiful coastal constituency—south Devon has taken a terrible battering but it is still beautiful and it is still open for business, and I hope that Members will come to visit us.
I wish to address three points, including the underlying causes and the need to build resilience in our coastal defences—I wish today to concentrate on coastal flooding. First, however, I ask the Minister to listen to the desperate plight of fishermen in my constituency, 21 of whom have written to me in the past fortnight. The situation for them, particularly the crab fishermen, is desperate. A crabbing pot costs £60 to replace and a shrimping pot costs £40—that is before the extra costs of materials such as rope are added on. Most of the 21 fishermen who have written to me—there are many more fishermen in this position—have lost about 100 pots, but some have lost 300 pots. They are looking at having to pay between £6,000 and £18,000. We also need to take into account the desperate conditions they have faced over the past few months. Some have been able to get out on only two or three occasions, and even then they have been having to try to retrieve gear.
That desperate situation is faced by many fishermen, and I would love to read out each and every one of their letters. However, what I shall do instead is ask the Minister to meet me—I have written to the Department—to see whether we could consider having the same scheme for them as has been put in place for farmers. I welcome the farming recovery fund that the Department has set up jointly with an EU funding mechanism, because several funding mechanisms are now in place for farmers: support with business rates, and the many capital replacement grants for those who have been flooded. However, they apply only to people who have been flooded and fishermen, who of course work in a flooded environment all the time, are dealing with a different issue—the damage from the storms—although one very much related to the issue we are debating. Farmers can access a fund of between £500 and £5,000. Will the Minister reassure fishermen that a similar fund will be set up for them? That would be enormously reassuring. As the lead Minister for co-ordinating on this matter, will he talk to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and his colleagues in the Department for
Communities and Local Government about rolling out some of the grants that have been made available to farmers and make similar schemes available to fishermen? Many of the fishermen who have written to me face bankruptcy and will lose their businesses for ever, so there is an urgent need for action in the next month, not in three months’ time. I hope the Minister will address that in his response.
As the Minister will know, the other pressing issue for coastal constituencies in the south-west is the resilience of the rail line at Dawlish. As I have said, we are open for business; I would not want anyone to think that because the rail line is cut off, people cannot visit Devon and Cornwall—of course they can. However, the situation is having a huge impact on the region’s economy. I hope that he will address a concern that is mentioned in my constituency. Nobody wants Devon and Cornwall to be cut off every time there is heavy rainfall, and we welcome many of the measures that are being put in place to improve resilience north of Exeter, but resilience measures that bypass the line and take things via Okehampton would have catastrophic results for south Devon. That would not be building resilience; it would be building disaster. We are seeking a super-resilient line at Dawlish; perhaps there could be an alternative route to use in dire emergencies but not a replacement for that route. I hope the Minister will address that issue in his summing up.
I wish to discuss another issue facing some coastal communities in my constituencies by drawing on a couple of examples that illustrate a wider point affecting many constituencies around the country. I have spoken several times about the community of Beesands in my constituency, which I visited recently. The council spent £50,000 trying just a few weeks ago to put back the sea defences that had been washed away there, but they were washed away again with the first easterly and high tide. We do not want to put back what has just been washed away, because that is just throwing good money after bad. Beesands needs an improved sea defence. I praise the work of individuals such as Chris Brook who have gone to enormous trouble to source the rock armour from a quarry in Cornwall. It is all ready to go, the designs are in place to increase the height of the rock armour defences, but unfortunately we have hit a barrier—the need for planning permission. There is confusion because some parts of legislation appear to give councils the ability in an emergency situation to go ahead and put in place these sea defences, but elsewhere there seems to be a measure saying that planning permission is required for sea defences over 200 cubic metres. We cannot afford to delay, because the implications for Beesands of another high tide and a south-easterly are grave indeed. There is no point putting back exactly what has just been washed away, so I hope that the Minister, in his role of co-ordinating things, will try to sweep away some of these bureaucratic barriers, because everyone knows what needs to be put in place and we just need to get it going.
I also hope that the Minister will work with councils, because we would like military support for the lift-in. Anyone who has visited Beesands will know that access to it is incredibly narrow, down a very steep hill, and we may need at least 450 lorry loads. Military assistance, as was put in place for the original delivery of the rock armour, would expedite this delivery and allow us to get the sea defences in place at this critical time. I hope that he will examine this wider point of urgency and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, the need for agencies to work together to try to sweep away some of the barriers and just get the work done—that is vital.
I will not say that Beesands is fortunate, because it is in a difficult position, but in some ways the neighbouring community in North Hallsands is in a much worse situation. Even though it is only a short distance down the coast, the shoreline management plan designates it for no active intervention, which has left the local community feeling as if they have been abandoned and people are just walking away. The road access to this community has been cut off and they are currently having to take a detour around a private car park. The trouble for this community is that Devon county council will say, “We only own the road surface.” The council has sort of walked away, and so the villagers are left with rock armour scattered all over the place, there is no access for the local fishing community and the place feels as if it has been abandoned. Will the Minister examine the impact that shoreline management plans have, because I understand that there are some powers to have flexibility in this area and there is no way this tiny local community could afford to rebuild its sea defences on its own?
This is such a sensitive issue because the community at North Hallsands needs only to look a very short distance down the cliff to see what happened to the original community of Hallsands. Anyone who knows south Devon will know that in 1897 an extraction licence was granted to Sir John Jackson, 650,000 tonnes of shingle were then removed from off the coast of the village, the shingle beach dropped dramatically and the village was swept away, with only a few ruined dwellings left behind—a population of 159 lost their homes completely. There is great local sensitivity about this issue within the community of North Hallsands, some of whom are descendants of those original habitants of Hallsands. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at trying to get them access along their road, or even some help so that they can have assistance in overcoming the complications, and at reviewing the shoreline management plan, which has left them feeling abandoned.
Another issue is that of the Slapton line. The shoreline management plan there is one of managed retreat, which will have terrible consequences for the economy of my constituency. It is an essential communication route between its two halves. To negotiate the alternative route down back lanes requires someone to be exceptionally good at reversing very long distances at speed. It is simply completely inadequate. I call on the Minister to review the shoreline management plan for the whole area to give us some real hope for the future.
Finally, the village of Hallsands stands as a testament to what happens if we ignore man-made impact on climate change. I hope that the Minister will consider climate change in itself—I know he feels strongly about it—because we ignore that at our peril. It is not just that the jet stream has settled over southern England but the fact that it is 30% stronger. If we ignore the problem of emissions, this sort of flooding will not be an exceptional weather event but the new normal.
What a serious and well-informed debate this is, and what a serious and well-informed speech Dr Wollaston has just made. This has been an excellent debate and I pay tribute to many Members for their contributions, including Caroline Lucas.
I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Totnes about fishermen and the fishing communities. She made a very important point. We often think about farming communities and businesses, but overlook what is happening in the fishing communities. That point was also made in the good debate that we had in Westminster Hall on Wednesday morning, but it was good that the hon. Lady made it again here again today.
Richard Benyon made some excellent points about land management and, as is his wont, spoke powerfully about dredging. I also pay tribute to Mr Stuart who spoke powerfully about climate change and the recent report, the launch of which he had attended.
It is a rare occasion indeed when one can know with certainty in advance of a debate in this Chamber that there will be absolute unity among all three parties and that the Minister and the shadow Minister will agree with the Chair of the Select Committee and each other about matters under discussion. Today we have what may in other circumstances be called a prenuptial agreement. Before the Minister—and indeed his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice—and I were appointed to our current roles, we sat under the watchful eye of Miss McIntosh who introduced this debate most excellently as Chair of the Select Committee. It is the report of that Select Committee that we all discussed, agreed and signed up to.
The question is whether Ministers have effectively translated the views and recommendations of the Select Committee, which we know they believed and accepted before they submitted to the yolk of ministerial office, into effective departmental policy. Have they followed through on what they actually think and have they done what they said was needed? Well, they have not. Here is what the Ministers both know and believe, as set out in the Select Committee report:
“Funding has not kept pace in recent years with an increased risk of flooding from more frequent severe weather events, and the relatively modest additional sums to be provided up to 2020 will not be sufficient to plug the funding gap.”
They signed up to that in the light of the disastrous decision to cut the flood defence budget in 2010. The Labour Government had left a budget of £670 million. After the election, the coalition partners agreed to reduce that current 2010-11 budget to just £573 million.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, because he speaks from personal experience. None the less, the Prime Minister is saying now that money is no object. Many people who have been affected by the floods may feel that it would have been better to say that that money should have been spent not on clearing up the mess but on preventing the flooding from being so devastating in the first place by ensuring that the defences were in place.
The point is that it is pretty remarkable that the Government, faced with the financial circumstances of 2010, managed to sustain capital expenditure on flood defences. Having experienced the pressures inside Government, and seen what was being demanded of other Departments, I think that that was a fairly remarkable achievement.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the figures belie that. In 2011-12, there was a budget of £573 million; in 2012-13, £576 million; and in 2013-14, £577 million. The budget for 2014-15 is £615 million. Over the four-year spending period, the Government have allocated just £2.34 billion to flood defences, compared with £2.37 billion over the previous spending period. Those figures are not the ones that the Prime Minister used two weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions, but they are the ones set out clearly by the independent Committee on Climate Change in its policy note on
“In the context of the wider need to pay down the deficit, we believe this is an excellent outcome and demonstrates the priority this Government attaches to managing flood risk.”
Well, yes, it certainly does.
Is the hon. Gentleman not falling into the trap that I referred to earlier? Successive Governments have been too focused on physical structures that may well fail and need to be repaired. We need to have a better balance between capital expenditure and the revenue maintenance expenditure and to look to sources of funding other than local or national Government.
The hon. Lady will recall my own contributions to the report. I was very keen that we put far more reliance on green infrastructure, and I will come on to that a little later. She will know that the Committee’s report was absolutely clear about the importance of partnership funding. Of course she will recognise—I think she did remark on it in the House a few days ago—that the £148 million that the Government had originally included in their spending figures when Ministers mis-spoke on this issue has not in fact been produced. It was actually £67 million of partnership funding that has been produced, not the £148 million that they counted for the period.
I am under pressure of time, so I will proceed.
Let us be clear: the Government need to do two things. They need to construct more flood defences that will bring more homes and properties into a lower risk of flooding, but they also need to maintain those new and existing flood defences in proper condition so that they continue to provide protection. Unhelpfully, the Government chose to categorise all major maintenance or repair work to existing flood defences as capital spend. Uniquely in the debate so far, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton alluded to that point.
I want to make two points in that connection. First, it is not sensible to increase the new build flood defences without a corresponding increase in the budget for major repairs. In the interests of transparency, the Government need to disaggregate the element of their capital spend budget that is for new defences and the part that is for the major repair and maintenance of assets. Secondly, as the Government have used the capital spend as a proxy for spending on flood defences, they might confuse people who think that they are building more defences when, in fact, because of climate change and storm damage, they are simply spending more on major repairs to existing defences. In other words, there may be no increase in the number of defences or, indeed, the number of properties and homes defended, just an ever-increasing capital repair bill to maintain them. Caroline Lucas made that point earlier.
It is therefore important that we examine the fine detail of the EA’s budget in this respect. In a policy note of
I am quite happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman on the generalities when I come to make my main remarks, but the specific number of schemes that he is referring to, which has been mentioned in, for example, articles in The Guardian newspaper, relate to medium-term projects that were in no way shovel-ready. They are schemes that are in the pipeline and that are being assessed. They are projects that will come forward for delivery when they are assessed as being at the stage when that can happen. That is not the same as saying that they are shovel-ready.
I am sorry; the Minister is wrong on that point. The 290 projects that I referred to are those that were shovel-ready and scheduled within that four-year period; the 996 projects are the ones that were not. Significantly, 13 of those schemes were in the north-east Thames valley, where more than 350 homes have been flooded, and 67 of them were in the south-west, where 100 homes have been flooded.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made the further point at Prime Minister’s questions that the EA is planning to make 550 flood defence posts redundant. I specifically questioned the Minister in the Westminster Hall debate last week on whether those redundancies will go ahead. He was pressed for time in his summing up and was unable to explain how he considered that the EA could give people the sort of assistance that we have seen over the past two months and to which many hon. Members have paid tribute this afternoon, and I join them in doing so. How will the EA do that with 550 fewer staff? Today, I ask him to tell the House what roles the people in those posts currently perform. Are some of them the people who actually manage the flows of water in the waterways, by monitoring and operating the sluice gates, the weirs, the locks and the pumps? Do they include the people who survey and assess the condition of flood defences. Do they include the people who prepare the maintenance schedules for those defences? Do they include any of the people who have been helped with the clear-up operations? What is of enormous concern is that those skills and expertise might be lost with these redundancies, with the corresponding loss of service and safety to the public in the future.
Now the Government have set out their forward projects for capital, by saying that they will spend £370 million a year in 2015-16 and every year through to 2021. The Minister needs to be open with the House today about what percentage of that money in each year will be used for new build flood defences and what will be used for major capital repairs and maintenance. The Committee on Climate Change has been astute in analysing the figure of 165,000 properties that the Secretary of State told our Select Committee were “better protected” in the current spending period when he gave evidence to us last year. It warns that flood risk will actually reduce only for a proportion of the 165,000 properties. Many capital schemes are simply replacing or refurbishing existing defences on a like-for-like basis and to the same crest height. With climate change, many of those homes will be less well protected than when the defences were originally built. The defence may have been repaired, but the risk that it will be overtopped as a result of climate change has increased. Far too many homes and properties are still at risk because the defences that we have are less effective than they once were because of the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather.
“Investment in flood defences is now £500 million below what is needed and this risks £3 billion in avoidable flood damage”.
The point that he makes is as simple as it is clear:
“we need to make long term decisions now that can save money in the future”.
He has promised that our zero-based review of public spending must not only eliminate waste and inefficiencies but
“prioritise preventative spending that can save money in the long-term.”
That is the sort of commitment that people get when they have a Chancellor who understands the science of climate change, rather than one whose guru is the chief climate change denier in the other place.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said on Wednesday last week, the assessment of how much to invest in flood defence depends significantly on an assessment of the risks posed by man-made climate change. If we are properly to protect the British people against the threat of flooding, we cannot have doubt and confusion within the Government on climate change. But doubt and confusion are what we have from the two Secretaries of State in charge of protecting our homes, infrastructure and industry. The Environment Secretary’s unscientific opinions on climate change and his refusal to be briefed by his chief scientist on the subject are a matter of public record, as is his decision to downgrade flood defence as a priority. The link is clear.
The confusion reached a new height last Wednesday when the Communities Secretary, given the opportunity to show some scientific understanding and rigour, chose instead to cite Lord Lawson. The noble Lord’s dangerous, unscientific opinions on climate science are well known and have no place in the Government, let alone in the answers from a Secretary of State with responsibility for flooding. The fact that the Prime Minister has refused to distance himself from those comments shows that the Government cannot be trusted to get this right. The Met Office has been very clear that such extreme weather events as we have seen are only likely to become more severe and more frequent.
Is the Environment Secretary still refusing to entertain a briefing from his chief scientist on climate science? Will the Minister at least put his own opinion on the record? Does he accept the climate change risk analysis prepared by his officials, which estimates that 1 million properties may be at serious risk of flooding by 2020? Up from the current figure of 370,000, that 1 million estimate includes 800,000 homes. If so, will he tell us whether his Department’s flood insurance proposal—Flood Re—takes account of those additional properties? The Committee on Climate Change adaptation sub-committee has warned that it does not.
The Minister will know that Lord Krebs, as chair of the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, wrote to the Secretary of State in January and made it clear that the committee was available to the Department to ensure that sound science was the basis for all the Government’s long-term funding decisions on flood defences. Will the Secretary of State accept that offer?
I wish to identify one of the most fundamental recommendations made by the Select Committee in its excellent report. The Committee stated:
“We regret that the current regulatory framework does not permit innovative investment in natural flood defences by water companies and expect Ofwat’s next Price Review to rectify this.”
All too often, we reach for concrete and steel solutions to the problem of flooding instead of looking at soft, green infrastructural approaches. There are notable exceptions, and Wessex Water, for example, operates a catchment management system that pays landowners to manage the uplands in a benign way that retains water and purifies it, instead of allowing contaminated water in need of treatment to run swiftly down the catchment. Land management plays a vital role. The retention of flood water upstream through woodland and ground cover in the uplands is every bit as important as dredging in the lower levels of the catchment. Landowners always seek to dredge the river as it passes through their land. That is the quickest way to try to ensure that their own land is not flooded and the problem is passed downstream. This approach was contained in the Pitt review under recommendation 27. When will this most important element of flood risk management, adverted to in the Select Committee report, be implemented?
I am delighted to close the debate, which has provided a good contribution to the ongoing discussions on flood and water management. As we have heard, we had a debate in Westminster Hall last week on the impact of extreme weather on the south-west, and there was a debate on an Opposition motion on the same day. Today, we have had an opportunity to look at the contribution of the Select Committee in its report and the Government response to that report last year.
As has been pointed out, I was a member of the Select Committee before becoming a Minister. I know at first hand the knowledge and effort that goes into producing such reports, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, who chairs the Select Committee and, indeed, all members of the Committee past and present, for the way in which they marshal the evidence and hold everyone in the Executive to account. I thank all Members who have participated in the debate for their contributions. As I said, this is a timely debate, and a number of points have been made that did not emerge in previous discussions.
Since the beginning of December, the UK has experienced a prolonged period of bad weather. In England and Wales, it was the wettest January since 1766, and for southern England, this is one of the most exceptional periods—if not the most exceptional period—for winter rainfall for at least 248 years. I reiterate how grateful we are for the response by the emergency services, the Environment Agency, Flood Forecasting Centre staff and the many local authorities that responded to the floods, together with individual volunteers, neighbours and community organisations that have made such a difference in the areas affected.
It is important to remember that, for those who have been flooded, the after-effects last long after the news cameras have moved on. In response to this extraordinary situation, the Government have pledged to help affected businesses, farmers and homeowners. To recap announcements that have been made, we have pledged a £5,000 repair and renew grant for all affected homeowners and businesses to ensure that flood resilience is built into any repair work.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. On compensation, I know that money is finite, but will the Government look at this in the broadest terms, and in the round? For example, a company in my constituency called Wood Flooring Engineered has incurred losses of up to £1 million, and pubs have lost a lot of passing trade because of road closures due to flooding. I do not think that anyone expects to recoup every pound, but
I hope that the Government will look not just at those directly affected by flooding but at those indirectly affected as well.
I can indeed clarify, as others have at the Dispatch Box, that the business support scheme, which is aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises in areas affected by the floods, will look at businesses that have been affected by the extreme weather, not just those that have been inundated directly. There is a fund for farmers who have suffered waterlogged fields to help restore those fields to farmable land as quickly as possible, along with £30 million for local authorities for road maintenance, which should help affected areas to recover.
We have to remember that, outside current events, flooding is disruptive to people’s lives in the long term, and planning and defending against flooding remains a long-term priority for DEFRA and for the Government as a whole. We are spending £2.4 billion over the four-year period between 2010 and 2014, compared with £2.2 billion in the previous four-year period. That means that we have investment plans to improve protection to at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade. Looking forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment to improve defences: £370 million in 2015-16, and the same in real terms each year, rising to over £400 million in 2020-21.
My hon. Friend is addressing the very point that Barry Gardiner and I made, which goes to the heart of the argument. There have been delays from the Department, particularly in implementing sustainable drainage systems—that is not necessarily its fault—and the review of partnership funding has not yet reported. Will the Department look favourably at allowing more transfer from capital expenditure to revenue and maintenance expenditure, as the hon. Member for Brent North suggested? In the long term, there are opportunities for water companies and others such as insurance companies to contribute to both funding streams.
The figures that I am setting out into the future are for capital spending, and we expect revenue amounts to be settled as budgets are introduced for each year. However, the points that the Chair of the Select Committee makes about seeking contributions from all those involved in water management are entirely valid. In her speech she spoke about water company investment in water management that goes beyond the “hardware” side of things and looks more at the softer side of managing water through land management solutions. Ofwat is considering what it does with totex—total expenditure. It is looking at expenditure across the piece, rather than just at capital—the sort of things that appear on balance sheets that, in the past, would have been the focus. I accept that many people want to change that, so the fact that Ofwat has allowed water companies to do more of that will be beneficial.
Mr Bradshaw, who is not in the Chamber today, but who took part in the Westminster Hall debate, pointed out the involvement of South West Water, along with my Department, landowners and managers, in an initiative looking at how water can be retained on Exmoor, which has made a difference to the moor’s catchments. That is a good example of the sort of work that can take place. The Chair of the Select Committee often speaks about what is happening in her constituency with the “Slowing the Flow” project, which is working on land management solutions. She is absolutely right that we need to emphasise the economic importance of investment in flood defences and, indeed, in water management. If we can prevent flooding and take that blight away from land that could be developed successfully, that would make a big contribution. If we can avoid the impacts that hon. Members have discussed, we can make a huge difference to local economies.
Will my hon. Friend address the points that I made in my speech about building on the floodplain and, where it is not his ministerial responsibility, undertake to have a discussion with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to address the uncertain but doubtless growing liabilities in Flood Re and SUDS, so that we do not build up a bigger and bigger problem for ourselves in future?
My hon. Friend made that point earlier, and a number of other Members referred to the planning process. The good news is that the advice that the Environment Agency gives is taken into account in the vast majority of circumstances. However, there may be examples where we could look at that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has discussed the response and recovery aspects of these flooding events at the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions, will have heard that cry, and the national planning policy framework, which the Government have set out, makes it clear that we should not build on floodplains. There are locations, such as those, as we have heard, in the Humber area and so on, where that means no development at all, and the guidance makes it clear that we should see more resistance and resilience built into existing properties. Caroline Lucas made that point in response to an intervention.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being most generous. With regard to increasing an area’s resilience, how would the Government view any proposals to widen the levy area that supports internal drainage boards so as to increase the resource in local hands for improving resilience?
Local authorities would no doubt take a view on that. We would need to look at what taxes and levies are being raised from an area in total, because we know that some of them are hard-pressed and we do not want to increase burdens. If that could be done within what is raised by local authorities, using the relationships they have with internal drainage boards, individual proposals could be considered. There are places in the country where the possibility of setting up new internal drainage boards is being examined. If we can overcome the barriers, I think that would be very helpful.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton also talked about protecting rural land, which was mentioned in her Committee’s report. Some 95% of arable land in England is either outside areas at risk of flooding or benefits from at least a one-in-75-year standard of flood defence. In fact, the partnership approach that the Government have taken means that some schemes that would not otherwise have been funded are now coming forward, because local funding means that the grant in aid now makes a sufficient difference to take a project forward. With regard to the areas that have been protected, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, my predecessor as Minister, was right to give the figure of 1.3 million properties. Great areas of agricultural land have also been protected by many of those defences, so it is not a case of setting one benefit against another; obviously we seek schemes that will do both.
On the Bellwin scheme, which the Select Committee’s report also mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and his colleagues in DCLG have now opened up the process of re-evaluating the Bellwin scheme, both in the short term, to meet the needs that communities are facing as we speak, and to look at how the scheme will operate in future. Hopefully the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and members of her Committee will welcome that.
We are also conducting river maintenance pilots, another area that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton focused on. In Somerset, which I have visited on a number of occasions recently, there are pilots on the Brue and the Axe, a little further away from the Parrett and the Tone, where some of the most extreme impacts of the recent flooding have been felt. Those pilots will run for a year. We need to allow them to run their course to ensure that we learn the lessons properly, because there are different circumstances in different catchments, as hon. Members from across the House have said. We must use the evidence to ensure that we use the right tools in the right places.
On sustainable drainage, we are bringing forward the regulations to implement those systems. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, progress on that is slower than we might have liked, but we should be tabling those regulations next month and see them implemented over the course of this year.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion set out powerfully her views on climate change. I hope that she will welcome the discussions that DCLG is having with local authorities, because she mentioned the need to take into account local knowledge, what local authorities are facing on the grounds and what they are having to do. There are also approaches to land management that give us the opportunity to employ a range of strategies for managing water higher up catchments, looking at dredging where it is appropriate, particularly in catchments where rivers flow slowly and there is a reliance on pumping to clear water from the land.
Peter Aldous followed up on the Adjournment debate he secured after the coastal surge in early December. I look forward to hearing more from him about particular schemes, although he will know that I will not personally be sitting in judgment on those and that they will have to make their case alongside other areas of the country. However, hopefully the fact that we are investing the money and bringing forward the partnership money to take forward those schemes will give him confidence that we are taking such schemes very seriously indeed. We are investing in coastal defences as well, so it is not just about defences along rivers. Coastal defences are crucial, so we are continuing to invest in them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury set out once again his track record on these matters. It has been a privilege to take over from him, given all his work not only on flood management, but on implementing Flood Re, which we think will make a huge difference to those who need access to affordable flood insurance and give them confidence for the future. He referred to community action and the great strength and resilience of local communities where people have helped each other, and he is absolutely right. When I visited Somerset last week I met the Flooding on the Levels Action Group, which has taken a great deal of energetic initiative not only to support communities there, but to serve as a focal point for those from outside Somerset who wanted to help, whether through financial assistance or in kind. There are many lessons to learn about really harnessing that kind of voluntary activity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury stayed away from the blame game. He was quite right to point out that we could all be blamed for the weather—of course, he can sit back and relax, because it is now my fault when it rains, not his. He mentioned flood forums, which are very important. In my local area, the Cornwall flood forum is making a significant contribution to resilience and readiness in the community. It discusses not only what has happened, but what might happen and how communities can be ready for it. The National Flood Forum brings together that expertise and provides tools on its website about the property-level protection we have heard about today. The Government, through grant in aid, provide those who might struggle to afford some of those products in their home with the opportunity to have support in bringing them in, which I think is welcome. For those who have the resources to install such products in their properties, the National Flood Forum provides guidance and advice, so they should visit its website to see what is available.
Mr Blunt talked about the impact of flooding and the need for the insurance industry to get on with the job. The Government stayed in contact with the industry throughout the Christmas and new year period and into January and February to ensure that we fed back what we were hearing from people on the ground. I have certainly been impressed by how the industry has ensured that their loss adjusters are out there. If hon. Members want to raise any local concerns with me, I will of course pass them on to the Association of British Insurers. He welcomed the help for those who have been flooded. As I have mentioned, we have offered a package of measures to help those affected. Like many other Members, the hon. Gentleman put on the record his support for those in the Environment Agency, who have worked incredibly hard during this period. It has been relentless for those who have been under threat, but it has also been relentless for the Environment Agency. It has moved staff around the country to meet those needs and performed heroically in many areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate also asked for figures on the number of properties that have been flooded. I can confirm that since the coastal surge on the east coast in early December, 6,890 properties have been flooded in England. Those properties have had standing water inside the building. Many others have experienced flooding in their gardens, on their streets or in local businesses, and many communities, such as those in Somerset, have been completely cut off. The effects will have reached many more properties, but the number that have actually been flooded is about 7,000. The Government have prioritised flood defence repair. That is why we have set aside £130 million to ensure that the capital we are investing goes to new schemes, not to repairing those that have been battered by the extreme weather events.
Mr Walter mentioned volunteers and the huge contribution they made in his constituency. He talked about the importance of using local knowledge, which I think is right for learning lessons on how to handle flooding and the ongoing management of watercourses and flood risk. Mr Binley made a similar point about local knowledge and experience and talked about campaigning to get those resources to his local area.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about the pressures on us all, given the changing climate, and the need to take account of the evidence in what we do. He gave the specific example of licensing costs and the Marine Management Organisation. It is important that we have agencies that work on the basis that if there is a cost, it is covered as a fee to them, so I am happy to look at those circumstances if he thinks they represent a barrier.
Caroline Nokes talked about the range of solutions that might be appropriate in different areas, the importance of what local groups have done and the serious and ongoing impact on local communities. Damian Collins thanked Environment Agency staff, and I thank him for that; many hon. Members are acquiring a depth of knowledge about the hydrology of their constituencies.
Dr Wollaston made specific points about coastal management plans, and I will be happy to discuss those with her. Obviously, there will be an element of local involvement in those solutions; local authorities, for example, will play a role in protecting the road infrastructure that she mentioned. The hon. Lady was right about the fishing industry. She has been advocating intervention. I went with the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend Andrew George to Porthleven, in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I met fishermen there and have met fishermen in Padstow; they came from around north Cornwall to discuss the issues with me.
We are listening closely as a Government to the fishing industry, particularly those involved in crab and lobster fishing and shrimping, which the hon. Lady mentioned, to see what might be done to help. I will not make an announcement about that now, but I know that my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend George Eustice, is considering the matter closely. I hope that we will be able to offer support and advice to the fishing industry very soon.
Like other hon. Members, the hon. Member for Totnes raised planning issues, although those are primarily for the Department for Communities and Local Government. No doubt note will have been taken about what has been said; we can feed the points back to colleagues.
Partnership funding was raised, in relation to the Government’s approach to make sure we deliver more schemes than would otherwise be possible. We are on course to bring in £148 million of additional funding compared with £13 million under the previous spending review. The Opposition have rightly pointed out that that has not entirely happened, but the spending review period is not yet over; it would have been slightly alarming if it had all happened by this point. We are on course, and I welcome the contribution from the private sector and local government to delivering the schemes.
Recent events will have brought into sharp focus the initial emergency responses to flooding in the UK and the need to learn lessons when things have not worked as well as they might or when we can build on successful responses. We can focus on short-term recovery, but we also need to ensure that long-term defences remain a priority for the Government. I look forward to working with Members across the House to learn the lessons from the past and ensure that we protect more homes and businesses more securely in future.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (