My hon. Friend and neighbour makes some persuasive points. I shall shortly speak about some local flood defences.
The Brookmead estate and surrounding roads, which I visited with the present mayor, were struggling to recover—as my hon. Friend and neighbour pointed out, some parts are still struggling to recover—from flooding by what to some may sound like a very small amount of water. In many parts it was just over a foot, and sometimes only a foot and a half, of water, but the damage done, even by so little water, can be overwhelming.
That Christmas will not be forgotten by me and, I know, by many residents, some of whom are still struggling to get insurance deals sorted out. Having been elected their MP, I am proud to be here representing them, but I am also conscious that flooding is one of the most pressing issues for me to solve.
The underlying causes of the massive Christmas 2013 flood have not changed significantly in the past three years, unfortunately. We all know that these instances may be getting more frequent. That catchment area flooded severely in 1947, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1974, 1979 and 2000, before the 2013 flood, and these are just the major events. Localised flooding on tributaries can occur much more often.
Let me take Tonbridge as an example. The new 320-metre flood wall at Avebury Avenue shows a local solution that works. Following restoration of the ground height, 80 homes in the Barden Road area, which were flooded in 2013, are now less at risk from the river. However, the scheme works only because the new walls work in conjunction with existing defences at Leigh and in Tonbridge town centre. Each individual solution must be part of a larger strategy for flood mitigation along the wider catchment.
I recognise that communities in the River Medway catchment are not the only ones in the country that flood. Indeed, we in Kent have great sympathy with the people of Somerset, Yorkshire and Cumbria, who have had their own dreadful floods in recent years, and Government funds to help those communities are welcomed by us, too. Both the larger schemes and the smaller projects, such as the £4 million investment in riverside footpaths in Cumbria, show a Government seeking to address the causes of flooding events. However, every time there is investment elsewhere, Kent residents rightly consider its effectiveness and ask whether such defences could help in our county, too.
Finding solutions to flooding on the River Medway is important for not just Kent but our country, because so much more depends on it than simply the protection of homes. Yes, our catchment area has 3,000 properties at risk of flooding, half of which are in Tonbridge and Hildenborough, with 500 more in East Peckham, but it is about more than that. Kent is also an economic powerhouse, and many businesses that rely on the ability to operate even in severe weather will be protected should we get the appropriate level of protection.
That is why I support the creation of a Medway flood action plan, which would bring together local authorities, businesses and residents, as happened in Cumbria and Calderdale. Indeed, the Cumbria model, which was well championed by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, is rightly recognised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a central feature of its 25-year environment plan. I hope that success can be mirrored under the banner of a Medway flood partnership. I look forward to its work starting in the new year—it would certainly have my support, and I hope it would have that of the floods Minister, too. Having a flood partnership panel on the horizon would be very popular, as it offers the possibility of a collective solution—one that is cost-effective and that does not cause unnecessary problems elsewhere.
That would support the work already done by the Environment Agency to protect each community and would reinforce the thorough work it has done to demonstrate where the greatest gains can be made. Those inquiries all point in the same direction. It will come as no surprise to the Minister, who is very aware of this issue, that the most viable scheme involves the enlargement of the Leigh flood storage area, the Hildenborough flood alleviation scheme and the East Peckham flood alleviation scheme. That is where resources for capital projects should be directed, with the Government also being clear that property-level resilience should be explored, where feasible, to deal with the 350 properties that may fall outside the effectiveness of those schemes. Where community defence projects are shown by agencies not to be viable, the Government should commit to property-level resilience. The fact that collective defence does not work does not mean that people should be left out. I am told by the Environment Agency that that applies to communities bordering my own.
For my community, however, tomorrow will be the defining moment, as we very much hope to hear from the Chancellor’s autumn statement the outcome of local growth fund allocations. I am sure the floods Minister will agree that the bid for the Leigh flood storage area is impressive and compelling, and it would be deeply disappointing to everyone involved were the £4.5 million requested not provided.
This bid is crucial to our community. It has the third largest amount of “other funding” of all the south-east local enterprise partnership region bids. It includes contributions from local businesses in East Peckham, from Kent County Council, from Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, and contributions in kind from Southern Water and Tonbridge School. This is a true community project and, with the Environment Agency's commitment of £15.5 million of flood defence grant in aid, a viable one too. The Environment Agency’s contribution is not symbolic. It understands better than anyone that the project would increase capacity at Leigh by 30% while constructing much needed local embankments at Hildenborough and East Peckham. As I mentioned earlier, those projects work in conjunction with each other to improve the wider catchment area. That was why the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised Government funding on his visit to the area in the aftermath of the Christmas 2013 floods.
However, there is a wider issue at stake along the River Medway and all its tributaries that goes beyond individual bids through the local growth fund and localised schemes in particular villages—the strategic importance of the Rivers Medway, Eden, Beult, Teise and Bourne to Kent and to the wider south-east region. The Government have been very clear in highlighting the growth that they want to deliver in our part of the country over the coming years, and that depends on investment and people—and, in turn, on viability. This project alone would enable an additional 2,100 homes to be built in sensible locations in an area of predominantly green belt in the south-east of England. It would also deliver over 13 hectares of employment land by 2031, roughly equating to 2,900 associated jobs. The Government targets are rightly ambitious, and to succeed we need to address the creaking infrastructure of the towns and villages nearby. The long-term economic plan, about which we all once heard so much, would focus on these communities to ensure that we have every possible option open to us locally to plan for the future.
Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council is currently consulting on that future through its local plan, and has shown that without significant investment in local flood defences it will be unable to deliver the growth required by Government. The consequences of a funding shortfall would be severe. Investors would be deterred from coming to the area, new buyers would be priced out of the market due to a lack of supply to keep up with Government demand—or rather popular demand—and current residents would remain at severe risk of flooding. For the cost of a rather modest house in Chelsea, thousands would be left at risk.
Further upstream in Sevenoaks district, the demand for more services in Edenbridge is increasing, yet without additional defences on the River Eden, land will not be available to make these important developments. The doctors’ surgery needs more space, as do many in the town of Tonbridge, but their search is severely limited by flood risk in the town. Localised projects that tie in with the collective aim of the catchment could help to solve a variety of problems that our towns and villages face.
I feel it only right to end by referencing the importance of finding solutions to flooding on the River Medway and its tributaries for each individual community involved. A trip upstream from its mouth near the Isle of Grain through Aylesford, Maidstone, East Peckham and Tonbridge will show to all just what a beautiful county Kent is. It will also demonstrate the reliance that each of the communities places on the river, and how economic and cultural links have been forged by the connections it provides. Each of its tributaries, from the Beult and Teise to the east, to the Bourne to the north and the Eden to the west, have seen communities built around them. They no longer feed the tanner’s yard and the cricket ball factories, but they are still at the heart of our life. It is crucial that this Government make their contribution to ensuring that Kent has the ability to grow and to deliver its plans in the region. That is important not only for the Government but, most of all, for the people of Kent. The work has been done and the options are now present for each town and village. Some will require larger capital schemes, while others will require property level resilience to deliver the appropriate outcome. Each has its place.
Christmas 2013 is still in my mind, and I know just how much of an impact it has had on many others who lived through that night and the past three years. We all know that it could happen again at any time. I hope that the Government will do their bit so that next time we flood—sadly, I fear it will be next time, rather than never—the impact is limited and the people who have made their lives and businesses in west Kent are able to do so in the security of the appropriate flood defences.