Flood Defences (Leeds)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 27th January 2016.

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Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:32 pm, 27th January 2016

I pay tribute to Rachel Reeves for her powerful speech in which she made a very strong case for the unique status of Leeds and its importance as a city—and, indeed, as the hub of a whole city region. That is the nub of the discussion that we are having today. We must strike the right balance between the unique needs of Leeds and being fair across the country to many other communities. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that Leeds is unique in many ways and requires unique treatment. I will try to come back to that point, hopefully with some good news, at the end of my speech.

Let me develop a few points to put the whole matter in context. Clearly, the challenge that we face in dealing with a floods budget—it does not really matter how much money a Government have—is being fair across the country and trying to find a way of looking different communities in the face and explaining why we are investing in one place rather than another. There are 250,000 houses in the Humber which are below the mean sea level. If the water were to over-top the defences there, there would be a national emergency. In 1953-54, 400 people were killed there. An investment of £80 million in the Humber would protect 50,000 homes.

The challenge that Leeds faces—we can go back in time to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s involvement with this between 2008 and 2011—involves that funding formula, and getting the right balance between the hon. Lady’s good points about Leeds’s enormous importance as one of our great cities, and the number of houses protected and the level of protection offered to them. I defend the Environment Agency because I think that it works transparently and straightforwardly, and it has always clearly explained how its decisions are made. However, I agree that it is time to look again at Leeds for reasons that I shall come on to later.

I also pay huge tribute to the people of Leeds for their response to this extraordinary event. As the hon. Lady pointed out, flooding of this sort has not occurred on the Kirkstall Road since 1866, so it was very unusual. The 24-hour, 48-hour and monthly rainfall records were broken. In addition to the 1866 flooding, there was flooding on the Kirkstall Road in 1946, but with the exception of those two cases, we have not seen an event of anything like this sort, which was why the historical decision was taken to invest south of the train station. It is absolutely right that £10 million of the £44 million investment has come from Leeds City Council, but that was not the only source of funding. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has put £23 million into flood defences in Leeds. All the protection that covers Asda and the Royal Armouries, and the work on the movable weir and the canal, was done not on the basis of the traditional formula, but through our growth fund, because we recognise the unique importance of Leeds and its real importance to the broader economy.

We should pay tribute to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his work to make that innovative scheme possible.

From the first installations of weirs in 1699 right the way through to 1816, as the canal network developed, the large concern was how to keep water in the centre of Leeds for navigation and to power the wool industry. Those weirs therefore existed to keep water back. There are still navigation needs in Leeds, which means that there has to be a way in which those weirs can remain when the water is low, but we now have a kevlar solution that allows us to demount them and to let the weirs down so that the water can come out. Furthermore, the important Knostrop scheme will benefit constituents further upstream. By taking away the distinction between the canal and the river, we are essentially creating a catchment lagoon downstream that will benefit people a long way beyond the upper walls.

Let us move on from the past because we need to think about the future. The hon. Lady said that she had a good meeting with the Secretary of State. I do not think that I am sharing any secrets when I say that the Secretary of State is genuinely moved by Leeds. I believe that her parents live there and she is committed to the city. She cares about proving that something can be done in Leeds, so I hope that the hon. Lady sensed that during their meeting.

A cross-party case needs to be made, because we will need to have difficult conversations with other communities throughout the country to explain why we are acting in such a way, but we will build a case together exactly along the lines of what the hon. Lady set out. We need to point out that Leeds is the UK’s second, third or fourth largest city, depending on where we put the boundaries. It certainly has the second largest legal centre in the United Kingdom after London. It is one of our leading financial centres, with an economy worth £54 billion. It is an extraordinary transport hub. It has, after London, the second or third busiest commuter train station in the United Kingdom with 140,000 people a day passing through it. If we get this right, there is enormous potential in Leeds for not only existing businesses, but development land. With its many brownfield sites, Leeds has more potential than almost anywhere else that one can think of for the development of new businesses. The headquarters of businesses such as Asda and Direct Line are in Leeds city centre.

Over the next six years, we will invest £2.3 billion in flood defences, and the £44 million for Leeds, or at least our contribution to that, forms part of that investment. To make this new argument, which I am fully behind, we need to focus on a different kind of economic case—not the traditional formula, but a case about how a northern powerhouse requires a great northern city. If we get this right, there could be huge economic benefits, as well as in terms of amenities, because bringing people forward to see the river and canal could involve benefits similar to those experienced by cities such as Newcastle.

We are keen to work with Leeds City Council, and the Environment Agency had another meeting with it yesterday. May I break with protocol, Madam Deputy Speaker, and ask whether the shadow Minister intends to speak, or whether I can take a couple of minutes to develop my argument?