It is a great delight for me to have this opportunity, more than one year on, to reflect on what happened in the Ribble valley during the floods, to reflect on what progress has been made in terms of resilience, protection and prevention, and, indeed, to thank some of the people who, beyond the call of duty, came to help those who were in distress.
I remember that on Boxing day in 2015, I was at my sister’s house in Pontarddulais. Very early in the morning, I received a text message from a friend of mine, Robert Hayward, who has since been elevated to the House of Lords. He asked, “What’s happening in your constituency?” I sent him a text saying, “What do you mean?” He replied, “Floods.” There had been a flood in the Ribble valley just over a week earlier, so I thought that perhaps some footage was being shown of what had happened then. I did not think too much of it, but I went and switched on the television.
Sky News was being broadcast live from Whalley, one of my villages. The reporter was several feet underwater. I watched live footage of one of my constituents, an elderly lady, being carried from a small cottage—manhandled out of her property—to be taken to a safe place further up the road that the floods had not quite reached. My eyes were wide open, and I was aghast to see the condition of the main street through Whalley, but I had not realised that the flooding was much more extensive than that.
I called to my sister, “I’m going.” It was Boxing day, and I was due to stay for about four days, so she said, “What do you mean, you’re going?” I said, “I’m going to the Ribble valley.” She asked why, and I said, “Well, have a look at the TV and I think you’ll understand why.” She asked, “What can you do?” That was a great question, to be honest, but it was about being there. That was the answer: I had to be there. There was no other place where I could be on that day.
I got into the car and drove for four-and-a-bit hours towards the Ribble valley. Coming off the M6, I would normally turn right, immediately towards Whalley, but I could not do that because the main road to the right off the motorway junction was flooded. I had to turn around and then use my local knowledge to work out another route through Preston, which was quite extensive.
First I dropped into Longridge, where there was an emergency centre in one of the village halls. I spoke to four people there. Nobody had reported there, because it is several miles away from Whalley, and I think it was just too far away. People were making their own arrangements, with some going to the Clitheroe golf club. The local school had said that it was available to take anybody, and of course neighbours were coming to the assistance of those in distress.
When I drove into Ribchester, an area that gets flooded from time to time, I went to have a look at the River Ribble from not far from my local church, St Wilfrid’s. That is an extensive area. I have to say that my mouth dropped open, as I had never, ever seen that river so high. If it had risen just another few inches, it would have broken its banks into the main street in Ribchester. When I talked to one of the local residents, he said, “I was waiting for it to go one step further before I started moving my furniture and possessions from the bottom to the top floor.”
I then went on to the Ribchester Arms pub. As it was Boxing day, it was ready to take in all the bookings it had for that day, but of course it could not open at all because it was completely flooded. The landlord and landlady were on the top floor. The firemen were already there, pumping water away from one electrical substation to make sure that it was still operational, so there were still lights on at the top of the pub. That pub was closed for several weeks. One thinks of the on-costs to that pub of keeping on the labour and so forth, never mind the colossal cost of the waste of all the food, the equipment that was damaged and the loss of trade during that period.
The hon. Gentleman’s heartfelt and passionate speech reminds me of what happened in my constituency a year ago. On the subject of businesses being affected by floods, many businesses in Newton Stewart in my constituency now face excesses of more than £15,000 and cannot get cost-effective insurance. Will he join me in trying to persuade the Association of British Insurers to extend the Flood Re scheme to small businesses? At present that scheme covers only individuals, so it is of no solace to small businesses that stand on the edge of a precipice.
I am more than happy to do that. In fact, I have made representations to Mark Hoban, who is in charge of the Flood Re scheme. I believe that we should extend that scheme to businesses. I have no doubt at all that the premiums for a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises that are prone to flooding or that have made claims will go through the roof. If we think it is a good idea to spread the risk for domestic premises, as we have done through the Flood Re scheme, which is very good indeed, I cannot see any good reason not to extend that to businesses as well. I will talk a bit later about one of my businesses, which has been hit in more ways than one. I am delighted to see you now in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know that your constituency also experienced bad flooding. Indeed, the flooding affected a number of areas, including that of my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy, who is also in the Chamber.
I must praise the brilliant emergency services for all the work that they did. In the late hours of Christmas night and early hours of Boxing day, members of the Army were knocking on doors. They already knew what was going to happen, so they were alerting people so that they could either get out and secure their premises, or get their possessions upstairs if they could. They were working during the time when other people were celebrating with their families, so I have absolute praise for them for everything they did, as well as for the early flood warning system, which clearly was working.
I then went down into Whalley, which had been featured on the television for most of that day. A lot of the water had subsided by that time—it was several hours on—but my goodness me, the damage that had been done during those hours was absolutely phenomenal. It was not just the main road that was affected, but several streets back on both sides. I chatted to Norman Atty, the landlord of the Dog Inn, who was able to tell me all the things that had happened that day. I then went from Whalley through Grindleton towards another village way on the other side of the constituency, but I had to turn my car around when I got there because I could not distinguish the road from the river. The water was so high that I thought that if I went any further, I would have been adding to the problems, because my car would be stuck—it is not a 4x4. I therefore reversed back and went home.
I got up the next morning and went back into Whalley, where the salvage operation had begun. My goodness me! It was heart-warming beyond belief to see the volunteers who had given up their Christmas to help their neighbours. I also heard a story about a group of four men who were travelling up to Scotland for Hogmanay—they were going pretty early by the sound of it—and heard what had happened in Whalley. They drove off the M6 and turned up in the village. They picked a house at random and helped the people there to clear their possessions out on to the street and into skips. They then got back into their car and continued their holiday. What fantastic people!
Other people had had the good sense to get money and drive into the Ribble valley and hand it out to families. Some people would have been without money, and they would have lost all their food. Perhaps they lived alone, or perhaps they had spent all their money at Christmas and had no access to money. Those people giving out money provided a lifeline. They did not need to do it, but they did. People came from all over the area to help. For example, charities in Blackburn gave assistance. It was a colossal operation to help people to get all their food and possessions out of their kitchens and living rooms. I also pay tribute to the skip operators who managed to get skips in on a regular basis, and to the police, who managed to set up a one-way system through the village. I have been talking about all the great things that people did to help, but now and again we had “flood tourists”, who decided to come in just to have a look. They thought it was rather clever to drive through the water, which resulted in water splashing into businesses that had already suffered greatly. Those people were really thoughtless and careless.
I remember talking to one chap, Andrew Ronnan, who has done tremendous work as a volunteer. He told me, “I don’t know what I was expecting to do on the day after Boxing day, but it wasn’t manhandling a piano into a skip.” That was what he ended up doing. The volunteers were absolutely superb. They were led by Gillian Darbyshire, the president of the Whalley and District Lions club, and she was joined by some of her friends, including Kellie Hughes, who runs the hairdresser’s shop. Her shop was badly hit—it is still being repaired—but her resilience has been absolutely superb. Anyway, she did not cut hair for a few days. She went straight across to the village hall, which was requisitioned, where people turned up to give electrical goods, blankets and food. Hot coffee and food were served there. It was quite amazing. Electricians gave up their time to come in and test all the electrical goods to make sure that no faulty items were handed out. Other volunteers included Mags Twist and Katie Blezard—I am afraid that I am going to forget some of the people—and even the Dog Inn was giving out coffee and sandwiches to the volunteers who were coming in to help.
Another electrician was going around people’s houses and helping. Of course, people from the electricity board also came in to switch people off and ensure that everything was safe before getting them switched back on. One of the volunteers had training in mental health issues, which was useful because some people were tipped over the edge by the flood. One can understand why when they were seeing their houses being destroyed on Boxing day. This person was able to talk a man out of his bedroom and get him downstairs so that he could finally get assistance. We need to pay some attention in that area when we think about what actions to take after future floods. I also pay tribute to Marshal Scott, the chief executive of Ribble Valley Borough Council, who was on the scene from Boxing day night onwards. The council moved many officers from the county offices in Clitheroe into Whalley and operated from the village hall. Marshal Scott was there every day, giving assistance to people who badly needed it.
Part of the problem was that some businesses and homes had been hit just a week before, when a culvert became blocked and water rushed down. Funnily enough, Andrew Ronnan had already called some locals together to see what they could do, because they realised that there would be real problems if the river burst its banks. Well, we had real problems, but they brought the community together.
One area that was badly damaged included the houses off Calder Vale. The road there is unadopted, so it was already rough, but that road now has a proper surface thanks to Gillian Darbyshire and the Whalley and District Lions club, which helped to raise more than £100,000, which was matched with donations from the Freemasons and others. In fact, it is now one of the best roads in the Ribble valley—it is absolutely superb. I could not believe it when I went down there the other day. I thought, “Wow. Look at that. That’s what happens when a community works together,” so I pay tribute to Gillian for leading the volunteers.
One chap called Allan Elliott, whom I went to see just the other day, has his house at the back of Calder Vale. One third of his garden was washed away, his car was a complete write-off and, of course, the house was badly damaged. One would have hoped that the Environment Agency would have looked at the damage and given a bit more assistance than it did, but he has had to spend thousands of pounds of his own money to shore up the garden to ensure that it will be resilient against any further rises in river flow.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing a debate on a topic that is important in our area of Lancashire. Following the December floods, Lancashire County Council’s delay in applying for funding for future flood defences until at least April meant that it missed out on Budget funding in 2016. Does he agree that that was a little short-sighted?
I hope that many lessons will be learned. Any funding that is made available ought to be claimed—I remember the big argument about claiming European flood money, but we all pay into that, so we are only getting our own money back—but it took ages before we did that, which was a huge mistake. We should have known about it from the very beginning. I was told about how complicated it was to claim the money, so that must be sorted out. When one is paying into an insurance fund, claiming our own money back should not involve so much officer time and the filling in of so many pages. Many lessons need to be learned by the council, and by government more generally, to avoid adding to a tragedy through action or inaction.
I also want to praise the refuse collectors. One would not expect to see them the day after Boxing day. There are few sadder pictures in my mind than seeing refuse people backing up into a street on the day after Boxing day and loading Christmas trees into the back of their vehicle because people were clearing their whole houses. It was a very sad picture, never mind that those people were already under stress. There was one lady whose husband was dying, and in addition to all her problems she was having to clear out her house. Some people are still not back in their home a year on. Big questions have to be asked about the resilience of some properties. The Minister has produced her own report on the flooding, and I hope a lot will be learned from it.
I also praise councillors Terry Hill, Joyce Holgate, Albert Atkinson, Ged Mirfin and others. Councillors came from all over the area. Even if their areas were not flooded, they came to give assistance. I also praise Sir James Bevan and the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss, who turned up the day after Boxing day—I could not believe it, but there they were, walking through the village in wellington boots. I was able to show them some of the damage, and Sir James looked into the River Calder and could see the damage for himself. A lot of the damage is still there. One would have thought that one of the farmhouses over at the other end would not have been touched, but it was way underwater.
Some insurance companies were prompt, and others were not—their answerphones were switched on and saying, “We are on holiday. Please get in touch on 28 or
Andrew Ronnan created the Whalley and Billington flood action group by drawing on the expertise that can be found in any large village and its surrounding areas, including civil engineers and people with knowledge of flood prevention. The group has regular meetings in order to liaise with the lead flood authority—Lancashire County Council—Ribble Valley Borough Council and the Environment Agency on the long-term plan. We have to do that, because these once-in-a-lifetime events are now happening quite regularly. Action must be taken against anything preventable that can lead to the misery I saw that day. Some of that action relates to the river, and other action relates to the housing that is being built, particularly in Whalley, on a rather large scale.
It might be useful if I talk about that housing. One section, Lawson Rise, is being developed in part by Redrow. There should be drainage ponds in the scheme to allow for water attenuation. Well, Redrow has been merrily building the houses, but the ponds simply have not happened. Redrow itself said that the ponds needed to happen, and they have not happened. I understand that there may be problems with the design and with where the ponds should go, but the reality is that Redrow is now in breach of the conditions set by the local authority. The people at Redrow still think it is okay to build the houses, sell them and get people moving in. Well, it is not. They have a responsibility to the people who are going to live on that estate and to the people who may be affected by the building of those houses and other houses that will be built on the same plot. It is their responsibility to ensure that all of the area is properly drained and that the water that runs off is retained. How dare they not take the action that they should at this moment in time? How dare they think it is okay to carry on building those houses without putting in the proper attenuation?
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important and powerful speech. He has mentioned a building company. I want him to know that all over the country, many colleagues on both side of the House have the same experience with building companies. They bang on until the cows come home about their corporate social responsibility, being good neighbours and all that, but with many of them—not all, by any means—it is complete and utter tosh. They need to honour their obligations and be seen to do so.
I can only agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, one of Redrow’s reports talks about the company being a shining-light member of the considerate construction scheme. Steve Morgan, the chairman, talks about Redrow being in great shape and says that he is looking forward to
“another year of significant progress”.
I have a good idea: some of that significant progress can go into the attenuation ponds and the other things that need to be happening.
Another plot of land, which one could see from the road, famously had a sign saying that it was a
“development site with permission for 39 dwellings”,
but that sign could be just seen above the water. The sign was famous and did the rounds on social media. The sign was there before a single house was built. It is not a good idea, and we really should not put any houses on an area susceptible to that sort of flooding, but what sort of attenuation would that site need to make sure that that water did not flood the houses and was not then pushed to flood other houses?
I say to Redrow, in respect of the particular site I mention, that notice has been served by Ribble Valley Borough Council that Redrow is in breach of the conditions that were agreed to. So when are the people at Redrow going to do it—when will they provide the attenuation that they said they would? Everybody is waiting. They have a social and moral responsibility to do it. I know, as my right hon. Friend will know, that these companies have some great experts working for them and they know some tricks. They know that there are certain things they can do to delay taking the action they need to take. They have very expensive lawyers, who are doubtless listening to every word I am saying, but I say: get on with it! We do not want to see any delay or deferment. They know what they need to do and they need to do it now. That applies not just to Redrow, but to every other developer who is building houses and has conditions put upon them. They should not see that as burdensome; they should see it as playing their part in a community, so that they are not making other people’s lives a misery one or two miles down the road. They have a responsibility, and they should do it.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and moving speech, touching on a number of good points. In 2007, Witney had some serious flooding, which affected a great deal of the town. I spoke briefly in the House yesterday about some of the flood attenuation schemes in Milton-under-Wychwood, which I know the Minister came to visit. My hon. Friend refers to making people’s lives a misery, and does he agree that that is exactly what we are talking about here? This is not just a matter of damage to property, which in due course, when the insurance companies pay up, can be rectified. When I speak to my constituents who have been affected by flooding, I see that the fear and worry of that happening again lives on 10 years and more after the event. “Misery” is just the right word for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I think these situations are akin to mental torture; once someone has gone through this sort of flooding misery, all of a sudden they have one eye on the computer to see whether there is a flood warning coming up—they have had a few of those since
The Environment Agency is talking about spending £2.3 billion over the next six years on a lot of the major works that need to be done, but who knows whether that money will be sufficient? We are talking about spending £3.5 billion on this place, so I suppose that puts it into a bit of context. We need to ensure that the right sort of money is put in place to help to alleviate the problem.
Companies such as Network Rail are doing a great deal of work in Whalley. It is working on the aqueduct because of the water that flowed from it. It is spending a lot of money in an area that was badly flooded—I saw it for myself the other day—so I pay tribute to it for that work. Companies such as AXA Insurance are spending a lot of money on resilience measures, because they have worked out that it is in their interests. It means that when people sadly do get flooded, the costs will be much smaller.
People can take a lot of sensible measures if they have the wherewithal to do so. I remember going into one house in Ribchester that had been flooded a bit before. I walked on the lady’s sodden carpet, and she said, “Last time this happened, Nigel, I asked the insurance company whether we could have flagging instead of carpet, but they said, ‘Oh no, like for like, madam’.” The insurers would not move, but they moved this time. They have now got the message. Hopefully it will never flood again, but if it does, the flagging means that at least something can be done about it more easily.
I know that other Members want to contribute, so I shall go quickly through the things that ought to be done for future resilience. The Environment Agency is looking at proposals for Whalley, and particularly at what action can be taken regarding the Calder. I am told that the study will take about six months, and that the agency will then put in a bid to the Government, perhaps towards autumn 2017. I hope it can bring forward that report as quickly as possible, because of the mental torture that my hon. Friend Robert Courts mentioned. As long as people cannot see anything substantial being done, they think it can happen again, and of course it can, so I hope that the Environment Agency will look into that and other matters to see what can be done. It will be working closely with the local flood action group—Andrew Ronnan and his friends—along with the lead flood authority and local authorities.
As well as the problems associated with the River Calder, there are problems with surface water after heavy rain. A week before
The drains are also a problem. Kellie from the hairdressers was out cleaning the drains herself, post-
As for planning, local authorities ought to be able to say quite simply that there should be no housing on a flood plain. That should be sufficient. When companies go to appeal, as they do, and use their expensive lawyers to dance rings around local authorities that are rather strapped for cash, it should be sufficient for the local authorities to say, “No, it is a flood plain”. Even with attenuation, if houses are built on a flood plain, huge amounts of water may still be retained by the fields, as in the example I referred to. Builders must take responsibility for complying with conditions that are imposed on them.
I pay tribute to the Woodland Trust, which is planting trees all over the place. We do not pay enough regard to the usefulness of trees, particularly in preventing soil erosion, which can easily happen. The trust has planted thousands of trees in our area, and we must do more of that.
Insurance resilience measures must come in as well. The early payment of insurance money is important to people so that they can get on with the job. We must also look at this matter of having to get three quotes. Some insurance companies insist on it, but they are lucky to get one quote. Our area was blighted by flooding on Boxing day; it is not hard to imagine how difficult it was to get even one quote. Some companies are just not interested in providing a quote, so different measures must be put in place to cover reasonable costs, so that people can just get on with the job.
One person came to see me last week, one year on from the flooding. He had put in a £110,000 claim—it was part business, part hereditament. He had used a broker, which had insured with one company. The company then part-insured with another company, which went bust. The man received £35,000 of his claim. He was going to get another £20,000 before the other company went bust. He does not know when he will get paid, even under the financial compensation rules, which, when they kick in, pay out 90%. I have to say: 90% of what? Things must be made easier. When a person goes to an insurance company, the responsibility must lie there. They should not have to chase around the houses, worried witless that they will not get the proper compensation that they need. They will already lose some of it, simply because of this offsetting of the bet, as I call it—or the offsetting of the risk. The person paying the premium, which in this case is just under £5,000 a year, should not have to suffer.
The emergency services learned a lot that day, as they had to institute a one-way system. Such best practice needs to be spread around the country, because what has happened in the Ribble valley will, sadly, happen in other areas in the future. Spreading best practice can be done. Whalley and Billington Flood Action Group has done its own resilience programme, telling people of the simple things that they can do, including providing phone numbers that they can use, when flooding happens. Those sorts of things are absolutely superb, and I do hope that local authorities can learn from one another about the actions that they need to take, including providing advice to people now. We are in the winter now, and, sadly, some villages may well get flooded between now and summer.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. As I have explained, we had floods in our area. The local hospital ran on emergency generators, but, apparently, from what I can gather, a state of emergency can be declared only if the Environment Agency has two separate sources verifying the state of emergency. In this instance, the Army had to come in to help in the end. Does he think that it should be only one separate source that contacts the Environment Agency so that measures can be enacted and things do not get so bad that the Army has to be called in to rescue patients who need electricity for dialysis and other life-saving treatments?
Of course common sense should kick in. Once common sense kicks in, people understand that there is an emergency or a crisis. Why add to the problems by imposing unnecessary bureaucracy and rules? I do hope that lessons can be learned from that as well.
Proper planning in flood areas is essential. For instance, there were a lot of sandbags under lock and key in local authority depots. People could not get access to them until, eventually, calls went through to the county council saying, “Open the depot”. Eventually the sandbags were released. It should not be beyond the wit of planning to ensure that when these sandbags are there—irrespective of the fact that they might have been set aside for somewhere else at another time—they are released immediately to the local community so that further damage can be prevented.
Whalley is what is known as a notspot: I had to go into Benedicts delicatessen to latch on to wi-fi and access certain emails. I had to use the pub phone at The Dog Inn because my phone simply would not work. A lot more attention needs to be put into telecommunications in areas of high susceptibility to flooding; it might cost a bit more, but that needs to be done so that people can use their mobile telephony in an emergency, particularly if flooding has wiped out some of the landlines. Let us be fair: a lot of people do not have landlines anymore.
Earlier, I mentioned the drainage on the main road that prevented me from getting to the area that I needed to get to. If an area floods certain roads from time to time, the floods authorities need to put in extra drainage so that people can get where they need to.
I will never forget
Twelve months on, and the Minister is listening carefully to what I have had to say. I hope she will give us good news today about the action that the Environment Agency and all the other agencies working together can take to ensure that the misery and torture that so many have suffered in the past because of flooding will be a thing of the past.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I am doing so for two main reasons. First, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Evans. He was my first ever MP; I remember his election back in the early ’90s. Secondly, I was in Ribble Valley on Boxing day 2015 at my parents’ house, which is about four miles from Whalley. I grew up just outside Ribchester, which I have seen flood in the past. We woke up on Boxing day and we were all supposed to go off to a pantomime. I looked across the hill and asked, “What’s that?” A new river had grown up. I grew up in Lancashire and I know what wet weather is, but I had never seen anything like it.
My hon. Friend said he thought about what he could do. I pay tribute to him: what he did was really remarkable. My friends and family in Ribble Valley were really touched, particularly my auntie Pauline who was with my hon. Friend at The Dog Inn on new year’s eve in the square. My hon. Friend has been a fantastic constituency MP and parliamentarian for more years than we know because he looks very youthful. He has done great things, and I thank him for securing this debate.
The River Ribble, the historic border between north and south, flows from Yorkshire into God’s own county of Lancashire, and the flood plain is in my constituency of South Ribble. I share that great river with my hon. Friend. My constituency, like my hon. Friend’s and yours, Mr Deputy Speaker, had bad flooding on Boxing day 2015 when Storm Eva struck. The constituencies of my hon. Friend David Morris and Rachael Maskell were also affected, although Storm Desmond may also have been involved in those places. Various other parts of the country were affected.
I pay tribute to the local groups. We had flooding in Leyland, but work was done by my constituent, Celia Whittaker, and the Leyland flood action group. In Eccleston, Gillian Jamieson and other members of the parish council did sterling work to rebuild the parish hall back in November. Hon. Members may remember the views of the Chinook flying over Croston, which has three rivers, to assist with the breach in the River Douglas. I believe that Chinook was actually flown by one of your constituents, Mr Deputy Speaker—a member of the Chorley air cadets, of which you are president.
There are also flooding issues in the areas of west Lancashire in my constituency. I know that the Minister is aware of the situation with the flood pumps in Alt Crossens. The villages of Rufford, Croston, Banks and Hesketh Bank are all affected. Trying to stay on topic, there is concern in South Ribble about the progress of the Preston and South Ribble flood scheme. As the Ribble leaves urban areas, the last bridge, although we hope to have another, is at Penwortham in my constituency, with Preston on the other side. Flood defences were built up in the early 1980s but they are not ideal when there is a high tide and rain such as that which we saw on Boxing day 2015. I have walked the area many times, including in the summer with representatives from the Environment Agency. I know that there is funding, but we are hoping that it will be matched by the Department. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about the progress there.
I pay tribute to Croston flood action group; to the parish council, whose members actually man their own pump; and to Kath Almond and Anne Peet, who came down to No. 10 when there was a reception for flood heroes in spring last year. Businesses in Croston have been very resilient. In fact, I went to Croston on Boxing day 2016. It was a beautiful, sunny day with blue skies and I wanted to see how people were. Jon Lilley, the publican of The Wheatsheaf, said that things were difficult but that the village really drew together. I think the people have weathered it well, but I met another constituent who has been badly affected by damage to his property and to the mental health of his family. As all hon. Members who have faced such a situation in their constituency know, flooding does not just affect possessions. There is a sense of people watching out for every flood warning and thinking, “Is it really going to happen again?”
Flooding is a complicated issue because rivers and waterways are complicated. We need to be creative in how we deal with water upstream, because what happens in Whalley and Walton-le-Dale affects what happens down in Penwortham. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley for the great work he has done on the matter and for being such a wonderful champion for Ribble Valley. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Evans on securing this debate on flooding in the Ribble valley. He spoke passionately on behalf of his constituents, and painted a vivid picture of the events of Boxing day 2105 and beyond. He rightly paid tribute to the many individuals who came forward to help their neighbours and communities, particularly citing Gillian Darbyshire from the local Lions, as well as a number of other business people and local councillors—and, indeed, strangers. I am very aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community. I have supported my own constituents in Suffolk following flooding in recent years. Only at the weekend, when we had our own severe flood warnings, I was able to visit local communities who have also formed flood action groups like those that have been mentioned. It is important to pay tribute to those people who have taken charge of actions in their local community to help their friends in need.
As a bit of personal disclosure, I will always particularly welcome the contributions that strangers make. In 1998, when I was heading home to Liverpool, rather than Lancashire—although historically, of course, Liverpool was in Lancashire—I encountered my own flooding trouble. I had to climb out of my car, which was busy filling with water in the middle of nowhere, and knocked on the door of a house. I will always be grateful to the McDermotts of Honeybourne, who took me in for two days, after which I was able to make my way home. I am very conscious of the fact that flood risk can be very frightening for people, and the warm, loving presence of friends, and strangers, is something that never goes out of one’s mind.
The Government continue to play a key role in improving protection for those at flood risk. We are spending over £2.5 billion on 1,500 new flood defence schemes better to protect 300,000 homes by 2021. Over this Parliament, we have also been increasing maintenance spending, in real terms, to more than £1 billion.
As my hon. Friend said, there is a history of flooding in the Ribble valley, principally from the Rivers Ribble and Calder and the tributaries that run into them. He spoke extensively about the communities affected in his constituency, including Whalley, and Ribchester. Clitheroe, Bolton-by-Bowland, Slaidburn, Samlesbury, Higher Walton, and Walton-le-Dale have also been affected. It is fair to say that December 2015 was the wettest month on record, and the highest flows on record were observed in the Rivers Ribble and Calder during that month. Flood warnings were issued by the Environment Agency at Whalley and Ribchester, and temporary flood defences were deployed. As my hon. Friend will be aware, 432 properties in the Ribble valley were flooded, and about 2,600 right across Lancashire. I am aware that the communities he describes of Whalley, Ribchester, Higher Walton and Walton-le-Dale were among the worst affected, and Billington flooded from the River Calder for the first time. Thankfully, as he will also be aware, Low Moor, Slaidburn and Bolton-by-Bowland did not flood. Local communities expressed their gratitude for the flood defence works previously undertaken by the Environment Agency, protecting them from experiencing any flooding at that time.
Since that flooding incident, the Environment Agency has given one-to-one help and advice to over 100 residents in the Ribble valley. As part of the works to repair bank erosion at Whalley bridge, the Environment Agency contributed a significant sum to reduce flood risk by removing gravel from the river channel. Prior to 2010, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Environment Agency completed flood risk management schemes at Low Moor, Slaidburn and Bolton-by-Bowland, spending a total of £1.5 million in those areas. Between 2010 and 2015, the Environment Agency invested more than £200,000 in making properties in Whalley and Ribchester more flood resilient. That included working closely with the local council to offer grants to homeowners for property level flood resilience measures, including flood doors and airbrick cover. The properties that were unfortunately flooded were eligible for £5,000 recovery grants. Some of the homes that flooded had not been previously eligible for grants as they had no recent history of flooding.
I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. Will she ask the Environment Agency to look again at the arches by Allan Elliott’s house, where a lot of silt is building up? The Environment Agency will be well familiar with that. The silt should have been removed so that free-flowing water could more easily pass through, but that has not been done; I do not know why. This is causing grave concern to people in the area, because if it is not done and the river rises, there could be severe problems.
I do not know the details of that, but my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the Environment Agency manager responsible for his area is in the Box today and will have taken careful note of what he has just said. My hon. Friend might be aware that a future scheme to protect Whalley from river flooding is in the development stage. It would cost approximately £1.4 million, and considerable work is being done with the Whalley and Billington flood action group and the local community to optimise the design of the scheme and to develop partnership options prior to a bid for funding. I think that that is the project to which he referred.
A review is ongoing of flood risk right across the River Calder, which will provide additional information to refine options for addressing that flooding. We expect to undertake a review of flood risk in Ribchester this year. A scheme to protect Clitheroe from flooding from Mearley brook will cost approximately £4.8 million, and work is taking place to develop partnership funding options prior to submitting a bid for funding. Lancashire County Council is developing a £2 million scheme to address surface water flooding in Whalley and Billington.
Overall, I am pleased that local partners are already working together to contribute to those schemes, alongside considerable Government investment, and work is continuing to bridge the current funding gap. I remind the House that under a Conservative-led Government, my predecessor, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, changed the funding policy to give every scheme that had a positive benefit-cost ratio a chance to secure some grant funding, rather than the old system of all or nothing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has referred to planning, and he should be aware that the national planning policy framework is specific about issues relating to planning in flood areas. The Environment Agency’s advice has been accepted in more than 98% of applications. I have looked carefully at the ones that were rejected by local councils, and that information is publicly available.
My hon. Friend referred to Redrow and his concern that the housing development in Whalley is failing to comply with planning conditions designed to reduce flood risk. As he has indicated, I expect the local authority to deal robustly with any developer that does not adhere to planning conditions. I know that my hon. Friend wrote to the Environment Agency about the matter. The Environment Agency does not have the necessary powers, but if there is more that my hon. Friends at the Department for Communities and Local Government can do, we will do it. I will just say on the record that this is the second time today that Redrow has been raised with me as a developer not particularly fulfilling its conditions—in the other case, it is fulfilling a condition that simply does not work—so I will certainly be following up on that matter with my hon. Friends responsible for planning.
In terms of drainage, the Environment Agency leads on flood risk associated with culverted sections of main rivers in England. Where there are culverts, the EA will inspect them regularly, and operations staff will clear structures upstream of such culverts prior to flood conditions. Lancashire County Council, as both the highways authority and the lead local flood authority in Lancashire, leads on flood risk associated with highway drains and culverted ordinary watercourses.
In the village of Whalley, Lancashire County Council has been investigating the condition of the culvert that carries an ordinary watercourse—Wiswell brook— underneath King Street, to which my hon. Friend referred, in the centre of the village. The culvert has surcharged in the past and led to flooding, most recently on
My hon. Friend Seema Kennedy spoke eloquently on behalf of her constituents. I thought it might be worth sharing where we are on the Preston and South Ribble flood alleviation scheme, to which she referred. At the moment, the costing for that is about £32 million. The scheme would better protect more than 3,000 homes and 600 other properties in the area from fluvial and tidal risk. It would also decrease flood risk at Walton-le-Dale, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley. Further work is ongoing to assess whether the scheme could be extended to benefit Higher Walton.
As it stands, the scheme qualifies for about £17 million of Government grant-in-aid, and it requires £15 million of additional partnership funding on top of the contributions that the Environment Agency is working hard to secure. Many local businesses in this catchment area would benefit from the scheme. If my hon. Friends are in a position to assist with obtaining further partnership funding, it would go a long way to securing the viability of the scheme. I understand that the local enterprise partnership has been heavily involved in trying to secure funding for projects in Burnley and Lancaster. I encourage my hon. Friends to work with the LEP to consider potential moves for the scheme.
It is worth setting out for the House what we are doing more broadly to improve resilience and to ensure that we are better prepared this winter for whatever arises. No Government can promise that no one will ever be flooded again, but we can learn and act, and that is what we did with the national flood resilience review. The review was undertaken to assess how the country could be better protected from future flooding and extreme weather events. I can report that considerable progress has been made to help to prepare for future flood events. We have invested £12.5 million in mobile flood defences, which means that the Environment Agency now has 25 miles of new temporary defences, located across seven key areas and available to be deployed flexibly around the country, compared with just 5 miles available last year. There are 500,000 sandbags, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced, 1,200 troops were on stand-by if councils needed their help. In all three cases, they were deployed at the weekend.
With regard to the Ribble valley, the Environment Agency has undertaken a robust assessment of the locations that are suitable for using temporary barriers. It assessed the practical implications, such as road closures, and the flood-risk benefit, as well as ensuring that they do not make the flooding worse elsewhere. There are plans in place to use temporary barriers at Ribchester and Billington. Unfortunately, these barriers are unsuitable for Whalley, despite being used in 2015, a fact of which the local flood action group is aware.
Infrastructure providers have been reviewing the resilience of their key assets for communities of 25,000 people and above. They have been identifying where they can also protect these assets with temporary defences this winter, while longer-term solutions are implemented. I have been leading a series of weekly ministerial phone calls to ensure that we are in a good place. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred in particular to mobile phones. They have been a key part of ensuring that we are more resilient.
This means that the country has been better protected this winter—of course, the winter is not over yet—and services to our communities will be more resilient to flood events. The next stage of the review will focus on surface water flooding, which is a significant source of flooding, particularly in our cities and urban areas. The next stage will involve collaboration between the Environment Agency, lead local flood authorities, the water sector and other stakeholders with a key interest in managing this risk.
We have worked with the private sector to develop a new property flood resilience action plan, and I thank Peter Bonfield for leading that work. It illustrates some straightforward measures that homeowners and business owners can take to improve the resilience of their properties to flooding, as well as to enable them to get back in far more quickly if, unfortunately, they are flooded. These can be simple measures, such as in-built covers, or more substantial works, such as installing pumps, having solid floors or rewiring so that plug sockets are higher up the wall.
On insurance, my hon. Friend made a series of points about the presence of companies, quotes, the availability of assessors, the challenge of the risk being passed on and the problem of not being able to get to the end of the process. I will raise these issues with the ABI and share some of this with my hon. Friends in the DCLG, who are primarily responsible for the recovery from flooding.
On Flood Re, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of access to affordable flood assurance. For those at high risk, whether households or businesses and their surrounding communities, I recognise that the matter is very important. Flood Re is already under way, providing relief for the thousands of households at high flood risk so that they can now access affordable flood insurance. I recognise that that will bring very real practical and emotional comfort to many. Fifty insurance companies, which is over 90% of the market, now offer access to Flood Re, and 53,000 households have benefited during its first six months. It is important to stress that this project is time-limited—it will last for 25 years—and is, in effect, funded by all other households paying towards it. That principle of taxation ensures we can support our communities.
On businesses, just last month the British Insurance Brokers Association launched a product designed to help small and medium-sized enterprises at high flood risk to access affordable insurance. By using very granular postcode data and recognising the benefit of property level resilience measures, it should prove a welcome solution for many businesses. Richard Arkless, who is no longer in his place, also raised that issue.
I want to give this product a chance to work, but I would welcome evidence about whether it is working. As I have pointed out in relation to Flood Re, there is the significant principle of taxation that means we can help each other. If we moved to the stage of asking businesses to start adding to their insurance premiums to help businesses in other parts of the country, that would be an unprecedented form of mutual business support. It would take a lot of evidence for me to say that that is the next necessary step, but I am open to the evidence and I want to hear from people. Should it prove that there is a need for additional action, I remain open to exploring what could be done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to European Union funding. I draw his attention to a written statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Andrew Percy made on Monday
I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend David Morris were able to provide more detail with regard to the issue he raised, so that I can look into it. He should be aware of the £9.7 million allocated to the Morecambe wave reflection wall, which is due to be completed by 2019 and will protect more than 8,000 properties. My right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames referred to the building issues and I agree that we need to follow up on them. Again, I will involve my hon. Friends from the Department for Communities and Local Government in that matter.
This has been a very useful debate to consider the particular situation in this very special part of Lancashire. I was born in the county of Lancashire and it will always be in my heart. I hope I have been able to show my hon. Friends that plans are under way to try to address the flooding issues. We have already seen the benefit of additional investment, including the use of the mobile barriers. I hope the House will join me in thanking the Environment Agency, our emergency services, council officials and the many volunteers involved in responding to the east coast tidal surge this weekend just gone. I am sure we are all relieved that the worst-case scenario did not happen, and are grateful for the work put in by so many people to ensure the potential impact was minimised.
The Environment Agency will continue to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley to reduce flood risk in the area, and to work collaboratively to help to deliver projects locally. I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House that I will listen to all the comments made today. The Government will continue to try to ensure that we are all as best protected from flooding as possible.
Question put and agreed to.