[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Future flood prevention, HC 115, the Government response, HC 926, and the further Government response, HC 1032. Second Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Flooding: Cooperation across Government, HC 183, and the Government response, HC 645.]
Motion made, and Question proposed.
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £420,838,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £61,363,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £100,109,000 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.—(Graham Stuart.)
It is a great pleasure to open today’s estimates debate on the future of flood prevention. Flooding is one of those issues that is rarely considered until it actually happens. When the weather is dry, we talk about drought, and as soon as it starts to rain, we have to deal with floods. In the round, we have to deal with both. Because of that, it can be tempting for the Government sometimes to disregard flood defences and resilience measures when the weather is much drier and budgets are under pressure. I believe, and the Select Committee believes, that this would be a grave error.
Effective flood defences, both hard and soft, are a vital part of this country’s infrastructure. With the UK’s experience over the years of more severe storms as climate change continues, flooding is likely only to get worse. We have recently seen the high tide that came down the eastern side of the country. Fortunately, this did not cause massive flooding, but it might well do in the future. I was flooded back in the ’80s and particularly 1981, when we lost a lot of sheep after huge tidal floods in the west of the country. When the barriers are overcome, we must have the right infrastructure in place.
In November 2016, the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its “Future flood prevention” report. We found that flood prevention work in the UK is fragmented, can be inefficient and sometimes ineffective, and has let people down. The winter of 2015-16 broke rainfall records, and storms Desmond, Eva and Frank disrupted communities across northern parts of the UK, particularly Cumbria and York. Storm Desmond alone cost the UK more than £5 billion, but the impact is not just economic. It is very much about individual businesses, individual residents and all those hugely affected by flooding—and sometimes about the amount of time it can take to get people back into their homes or to get their businesses up and running again. Many communities live in fear that a disaster is just one downpour away.
There is no doubt that we are now encountering long periods of dry weather, followed by a huge amount of rain—200 or 300 mm in just 20 or 30 hours. Believe it or not, I do not blame the Minister or the Government for that amount of rainfall coming down so quickly, but we do need to be aware that it can happen and we need to be ready to try to mitigate some of the worst of the disaster that happens when we get these very high levels of rainfall occurring over a very short period.
I personally understand the concerns of many parts of the country that experience being under water for perhaps many months. We need to reflect only on what has happened in the past. I am sure that my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow will talk later about what happened in Somerset, when a huge amount of water fell and remained for up to three months, devastating not only property, but the land. A huge amount of debris was created, and the vegetation and much of the wildlife was lost. This was a disaster not only from a residential and farming point of view, but from a conservation point of view.
While frontline staff and rescue service workers worked tirelessly to support those affected, our system for managing flood risk can and does fail on occasions. That is why I want to talk about the importance of the recommendations that our Select Committee made in our “Future flood prevention” report. I shall touch briefly on the Government’s response and on what action DEFRA has taken to date. I shall conclude by outlining what the Committee believes the Government must do to improve the situation further.
What, then, were our recommendations? We recommended to the Government how to reduce the flood risk to 5 million people and we looked into the “one in 100 years” flood and how to deal with risk. One problem is that, if we are not careful, people living in an area with a “one in 100 years” risk which is flooded are inclined to think that they will be safe from floods for another 99 years. Of course, that is not the case. An area with a high flood risk will continue to have that risk until better defences are created or resilience measures are introduced, and it will probably always be a pretty high-risk area.
My hon. Friend is bringing back a great many memories of those terrible floods. Does he agree that communication is very important? One of the points made in the Select Committee report was that perhaps we should stop using the “one in 100 years” terminology. We should adopt a way of warning people about how serious floods that does not involve years, because the current terminology is misleading.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The evidence that the Committee took, and what we heard from people who came to talk to us, suggested that it is very helpful when communities are able to get together and warn each other about exactly what is happening. The Environment Agency and others can give the warnings, and the agency, the fire brigade and local authority staff are there to help, but the flooded communities themselves have built up a resilience that will help them in the future.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to flood wardens? Earby, in my constituency, was badly affected by flooding, and is now waiting for three different schemes to be introduced by the Environment Agency this year. Flood warnings, local flood plans, floodgates, and all the work that those volunteers do is extremely important to the response when flood waters start to rise.
My hon. Friend is right. Local authorities, the Environment Agency and the drainage boards can do a great deal, but when local people come together, they know exactly what is happening on the ground, and flood wardens can react very quickly.
In Axminster, a shopping trolley went into a culvert and became full of wood. The whole place flooded, including three or four bungalows. If someone local had been there to hoick—I am not sure whether that is a word in the English language—the trolley out of the culvert, the flood would have been stopped. Such actions also ensure that resources go further. We are learning all the time.
One of the Committee’s most important recommendations was for a more holistic approach. It sounds obvious, but we need to work with nature rather than against it. If we slow the flow of the water by using natural remedies such as planting more trees, restoring wetlands and improving soil management, we are likely to see more and better flood prevention. We must allow water to flood builds naturally sometimes if they are on a natural flood plain rather than in an urban area. That would be a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of preventing floods.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as we think about how we ought to spend our farming subsidies in the wake of Brexit, we should look to them to address the issue that he has mentioned? They could perhaps enable farmers to allow their fields to be flooded sometimes as a form of natural flood defence.
I think the hon. Lady must have X-ray sight, because the next paragraph of my notes refers to how we deal with farming and farmers. Now that we need not follow the common agricultural policy exactly, we have an opportunity to introduce a cost-effective measure to allow farmers to store water when they are able to do so. If they have to store it for a short period and it is on grassland, it will probably have very little effect on their crops and profitability, but if it has to be stored on arable land for a long period, they will require more compensation. We need to consider that in some detail, and I believe that we shall have an opportunity to do so.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Is he familiar with the practice undertaken by some local authorities of diverting floodwater from roads on to farmers’ fields without permission, thus washing away topsoil of the sort that I think he is about to touch on, and also potentially introducing pollutants into sensitive sites?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we are going to allow water to go out on to land in order to save a town or a village from flooding, the landowner first needs to know about it and, secondly, needs to be able to manage it properly, and it has to be done by agreement. Sometimes, naturally, these things are done in exceptional circumstances, but, once done, there needs to be a plan if that needs to be done again in the future. Agricultural land can be very useful for storing water, but we must remember that it is also used for growing crops and keeping stock, and therefore we have to be sure that the farmer can farm that land, as well as manage it for water. That is why we need to deal with this by agreement.
As my hon. Friend knows, we had severe flooding in the Ribble valley and throughout Lancashire in 2015. He mentions agricultural land: on Friday, along with the Woodland Trust and the Ribble Rivers Trust, I planted some trees along one of the river banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look again at the amount of trees being planted, and the usefulness of planting trees in stopping soil erosion and, indeed, holding a lot of the water that otherwise would go to the ground?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, because it is not just about planting the trees; it is also about where we plant them. If we plant them along the edges of the fields or the banks of the streams and rivers, we can hold back the water and hold back the soil. Very often, the soil and debris being washed from the field is also contributing to the flood. So this is not just about the number of trees; it is about making sure we are smart in where we plant them. The way we plant them is important, too. We visited the north of England, and when the old Forestry Commission was planting trees it turned the soil up and put it up into a furrow and planted the trees on the top of it. The only trouble is that there are then two gullies either side of it, which then allow the water to run down very quickly if the trees are planted on a slope. Therefore, over the years there are many things we can do, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point that this is about planting trees, holding that soil back and holding the water back long enough for the major flood to go through, and that was what much of the work was done on.
My hon. Friend is talking about soil, and I cannot let the moment pass without intervening to stress that soil is a very important part of our ecosystem. Does my hon. Friend agree that we lose it in floodwater at our peril, because it is the lifeblood that we use to grow our crops?
My hon. Friend will also be very aware that many fields only have so much topsoil on them, and it is the topsoil that is fertile and that we grow our crop in. Therefore, if farmers lose much of their topsoil down through into the streams and rivers, they have lost a lot of the very fertile soil in their fields. Therefore, I think most farmers, when presented with a plan that can save their topsoil and the way they manage their fields, can see a big advantage in this, but we have to work together with the farming community, rather than, as perhaps has sometimes been the case, just imposing our will upon them. If we can persuade them that there are many good reasons for managing soils in a slightly different way, we can perhaps get a lot further with that. We can sometimes use carrots, and not necessarily sticks. I am sure our Minister has many carrots to offer today, and we will be interested to hear about that when she sums up the debate.
We also need to take a closer look at development in built-up areas affected by flood risk. Naturally, we have laws that we hope will restrict most building on floodplains —sometimes it is breached, but on the whole it is not. When an area is flooded, very little of the water has actually landed on the flooded area. It usually comes from higher up. Rather than stopping building in flood-risk areas, we need to think when building developments of several hundred or 1,000 houses about capturing the run-off water from everywhere on those estates, including the roads. It could be captured in ponds or in reservoirs or tanks underneath some of the homes. Building in resilience measures to ensure that the water from a development could be held would make the situation better rather than worse. We can build developments, but we do not always give enough consideration to what is going to happen further downstream.
A lot of house building is going on in Whalley in my constituency, and one of the conditions was that tanks should be put in before the houses were built. Sadly, the houses seem to be being built and occupied before the tanks have been put in. Does my hon. Friend agree that developers need to take planning conditions seriously and abide by the rules and regulations set down by the local authorities, because of the misery that flooding can cause if they do not get these things right?
My hon. Friend makes another good point. Planning conditions can be flouted, and they are sometimes not properly enforced. Also, it is sometimes claimed that resilience measures cannot be put in place because of the economic situation, but we must ensure that houses are not built unless those measures are taken. I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister present will pass on that point to her colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, because this is a planning matter. If we are going to plan for the developments that we need, we must plan them properly. I do not think that any of us are against development, but we must have the right kind of development and hold the water back. Indeed, if we could make a feature of those measures, we might also create some leisure facilities as well. That would be a planning gain.
The recommendations in our report also include the need for a new governance model to deal with flooding. As part of our inquiry, the EFRA Committee visited the Netherlands to learn how that low-lying country manages flooding. We learned that 25% of the land there is below sea level, and that half of its 17 million population live in flood-prone areas, so they know a lot about flooding. The threat of flooding led to local government and water management being administered hand in hand from as early as the 13th century. As the threat of flooding in the UK grows, we need to borrow some ideas from the Dutch and to mirror their focus on dealing with floods locally and nationally. The fens in this country were drained by Dutch engineers, as was the part of Somerset where I still have my farm. They know exactly how to deal with water, because if they did not deal with it, they would not have a country. It is as simple as that.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that many of the things in this very useful report from the EFRA Committee were being discussed in this House a dozen years ago and have still not been implemented? An example is the recommendation about “building back better” that appears in paragraph 60 of the report. I discussed that matter with the Association of British Insurers in, from memory, 2006, but we have made almost no progress on it. Since then, the Labour Government and the coalition Government have cut spending on flood defences.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We have tried to ensure that the report is not party political. Under the last Labour Government, the spending on flooding went down in dry times and up in wet times. The same thing happened under the coalition. We can argue about the figures, but they very much follow that same pattern. The report recommends learning from what has happened and putting in the proper resilience measures.
As I said, the report discussed the Dutch system. The idea would be to set up a regional flood and coastal board and then involve local authorities and local drainage boards, where they exist, and then landowners and businesses in order to have a broad catchment basis. As such, the Government should completely overhaul flood risk management, to include a new English rivers and coastal authority that is accountable for the delivery of flood protection. The Netherlands has a flood commissioner who is answerable to the Dutch Parliament and at a local level, which provides real focus. We may not need a full management system like that of the Dutch, but we can learn many things from it, such as how to alter the system through the Environment Agency and others to make it more answerable to Parliament, local authorities, drainage boards and landowners. I am convinced that, until we get a system that works from the top down and from the bottom up, we will not make the best use of our resources, because they will always be pressed. The commissioner would be able to hold those carrying out flood prevention work to account for their performance, because we have to get the best value for money.
The report states that firefighters provide a vital “first-line service” to flooded areas. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should go further towards making that a statutory duty? That has been asked for throughout the past 12 years, as my hon. Friend Rob Marris said. Why can we not do this? Scotland has done it, Northern Ireland has done it, and I think Wales is about to do it. Surely it must happen.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I think Jim Fitzpatrick, who is behind her, will be making some good points about the fire service. The Committee took evidence from the fire services, and their work on flooding and the time they put in are not always recognised. The Environment Agency has large pumps that can move huge volumes of water over short distances, but the fire services can pump out people’s properties and deal with things on the ground. That is not recognised enough within the system, and there is work to be done on that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply to that point. By overhauling the way we manage the whole system, we can go a long way to minimising the devastating toll of flooding on local areas and local people.
Unfortunately, the Government’s response, which was published last month, was a little disappointing. It was not up to standard and addressed our key recommendations in only a cursory manner. We then asked for more information from Ministers in time for this debate, and my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to the Committee on
The report recommended some actions and, to be fair to the Government, DEFRA has made progress on some of those issues, including on catchment scale approaches and embedding natural flood management more firmly in flood management plans. Local partnerships have also made progress on co-ordinating action in some river basins. I think the Government agree with the Select Committee that not all flood areas fit neatly into local authority boundaries and that we need to introduce catchment areas to hold the water. We will need to speed up the water in some areas to get it out to sea, and in other areas we will need to slow the water down by introducing leaky dams to hold the water. Some areas will need to be dredged or desilted—whatever language we want to use—to get the water flowing more quickly.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. Does he recognise the work of the Environment Agency along the Medway river and its excellent work, as he rightly says, on bringing together stakeholders from across the area so that we have a theme of continuous progress, rather than the bittiness where one area is fixed only to flood an area further downstream?
I welcome the Environment Agency’s work on the Medway, where the water can move quite quickly. If we are not careful, the water will move too quickly and flood areas further downstream. Such work is essential.
Throughout the inquiry we saw that one size does not fit all. Some areas need the water to be slowed down, and other areas need it to be speeded up. We have to deal with it catchment area by catchment area. Of course it is fascinating that, before too long, we will probably move into more of a drought situation and will be talking about how to use our rivers to move water around so that we have enough water. For my first two years in this House, between 2010 and 2012, the Select Committee talked about nothing but drought. It was only when it started raining in 2012 and did not stop for two years that we talked about floods.
On funding for flood risk management, the Government have committed to a six-year programme with a capital budget of £2.5 billion. Although welcoming that increased funding, our report noted that it is unlikely to deliver sufficient protection in future decades. We stated that, by the end of 2017, the Government must publish their 25-year ambition for flood risk reduction and the cost of securing that reduction against different climate change scenarios. Disappointingly, the Government rejected that recommendation. The public need to know how their communities will be affected in coming years, and plans need to be put in place to ensure that they will be protected against flood risk. Flood risk comes not only from freshwater that falls in the form of rain but from coastal flooding, too.
We initially recommended that catchment scale measures be adopted on a much wider scale, and DEFRA is doing more to promote such approaches by, for example, trialling natural flood management measures—such as installing leaky dams, planting trees and improving soil management—alongside other measures. We welcome that, as well as the additional £15 million of funding in the autumn statement.
However, we need more detail on how much of the £2.5 billion capital programme for flood risk management will use natural flood management. The Minister’s commitment to include that indicator in reporting from 2018-19 is therefore welcome, but we would welcome more information on how she plans to ensure that every catchment area uses natural flood management to the maximum extent appropriate to its river basin. We saw that the Netherlands has re-meandered some rivers and is storing more water in the rivers, as well as on farmland.
I look forward to Members’ contributions to the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s summing-up.
Order. Before I call Mary Creagh to speak, I should say that twice the number of Members wish to speak in the next debate as in this one, so I suggest an informal six-minute limit for speeches by Back Benchers. We will see how we get on with that, but there really are twice as many Members who wish to speak in the next debate, so otherwise their speeches will be squeezed by an even shorter time limit.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has published a report on flooding. We found a lack of long-term strategic planning for flood risk and that the Government had not been doing enough to ensure the resilience of nationally significant infrastructure. Crucially, there has been a stop-start approach to flood defence funding and a lack of support for local councils. Our report called on the Government to take a proactive approach to funding and to make companies that operate key digital, energy and transport infrastructure report on their preparedness levels for flooding and their resilience targets. We called for more support for councils to prepare plans to deal with the risk of flooding, and for the Government to publish a 25-year plan for flooding alongside the long-awaited and much delayed 25-year plan for the environment, for which, yes, we are indeed still waiting.
Before I discuss the detail of our report, I wish to say a few words about climate change. Flooding is the greatest risk our country faces from climate change. As hon. Members have said, the risks are already significant and will increase as a result of climate change. Even if global temperature rises are kept below 2°, the UK faces a rising threat from surface water as a result of the intense rain patterns, from coastal erosion and tidal surges, and from fluvial flooding. It is important to stress that cities such as Hull face all three of those threats—some areas are much more vulnerable than others.
Sea-level rise forecasts vary from 50 cm to 100 cm by the end of the century. That will make tidal surges bigger. We saw how exposed is our North sea coast on the east of England in January’s storm surge, when the coastal town of Jaywick in Essex, which suffered so grievously in the 1950s, had to be evacuated by the Army. It is good to see a faster response time from the Government in such fast-moving, life-and-death situations, but we need to be able to scale that up if the North sea surge happens simultaneously along the whole eastern coast.
Various predictions, including the forecasts in the Government’s national flood resilience review, say that monthly winter rainfall could be 20% to 30% higher over the next 10 years, so as well as planning for the next 80 years, for our children’s lifetimes, we need to be thinking about the next 10 years. There are risks to all nations and all sectors of the economy. In its latest risk assessment, the Committee on Climate Change said:
“Current levels of adaptation are projected to be insufficient to avoid flood and coastal erosion risks”.
We are not yet doing what we need to do to match the scale of the risk.
I hope my hon. Friend shares my disappointment at the slow rate of progress. The adaptation measures in the Climate Change Act 2008 are the direct result of a private Member’s Bill I introduced around 10 years ago. As she points out, we have made almost no progress.
There has been some progress, but we need to move much further and faster as the scale and nature of the risk becomes more apparent and as the science develops. My concern is that Government policy is not changing fast enough to meet the changes in the scientific forecasts.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it was found that when the floods hit Cumbria and other areas at Christmas 2015 the Government were not using the most up-to-date modelling? Surely the most important thing is that we try, to the very best of our ability, to predict what is going to come next.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has joined me on the Environmental Audit Committee, and her expertise on this subject has been invaluable.
The Committee on Climate Change warns that increased flood risk affects property values and business revenues, and, in extreme cases, threatens the viability of some communities. A much worse scenario is set out in the climate change risk assessment: if global temperatures rise by 4° above pre-industrial levels, the number of UK households predicted to be at significant risk of flooding will double from 860,000 today to 1.9 million in 2050. Those are very stark and very concerning figures.
I know from my own constituency the misery that flooding can bring. In the 2007 floods, 1,000 homes in Wakefield were flooded. As my hon. Friend Rob Marris said, successive Government have cut funding over the years, and 2007 was one such year—it was Labour that cut the funding that year. Our flood defence programme was cut, and I lobbied very hard to get that money reinstated. We got £15 million for flood defences to protect our cities. Thanks to those defences, which were completed in 2012, Wakefield managed to escape the worst of the 2015 storms. That was really, really important.
Nationally, the Government have taken a rollercoaster approach to funding. During the previous Parliament, flood funding was initially cut by 27%. The money was then reinstated after the 2013-14 floods. Mark Worsfield’s review of flood defences, which was published by my Committee, showed that those Government cuts had resulted in a decline in the condition of critical flood defences. It showed that the proportion of key flood defence assets that met the Environment Agency’s required condition fell from 99% in 2011-12 to 94% in 2013-14. Therefore, in three years we had a pretty large decline in the condition of mission critical flood defence assets, which posed an unacceptable risk for communities—I am talking about those communities that think that they have their flood defences in place and that they can sleep easy in their beds at night when it is raining. The more flood defences that the Government build, the more they need to increase the maintenance budgets. We cannot keep spending more on capital and then cut the revenue budget.
The failure of the Foss Barrier in York shows what happens when critical flood assets fail. It was built on the cheap in the 1980s. It was not built to the correct height and it had just two mechanisms. Once one of those mechanisms failed, the water overtopped its banks and reached the electrical switch rooms. Local flood engineers were left with no choice but to raise the barrier with very little notice, which led to hundreds of homes being flooded. I know that my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell will have a great deal to say on that.
The Government are talking about spending more on flood defences. One mechanism they are using is the so-called partnership funding. My Committee looked into the sources of that funding and found that 85% of it was coming from public sector bodies. Therefore, the Government are cutting funds centrally, and then putting pressure on hard-pressed local councils, which have seen their budgets fall by 30% over the past seven years, to boost their flood defence assets. When they say, “Do you fancy stomping up for some flood defence assets for your town or city.” those councils are left with no choice but to say yes. Just 15% of the money is coming from the private sector. Of course, it is not a level playing field, because any private sector company that gives the Government money for partnership funding gets tax relief on that so-called donation.
At the start of each spending review, the Government announce how much they will spend. In 2015, they allocated £2.5 billion for flood defences, but after storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the Government announced, in Budget 2016, that the funding was not adequate and that they were going to invest an extra £700 million. Once again, we have this stop-start approach—cut when it is dry and spend when it is raining. Rory Stewart, who was then a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that the extra money would be spent according to a “political calculation”.
The coalition Government in 2010—I know that the hon. Lady was not a Minister then—cut the flood defence budget by 27%. Of course, the way in which the Minister is raising the money—the extra £700 million that was announced in the Budget in March 2016—came from a stealth tax: an increase in insurance premium tax. That raises £200 million a year and goes on every insurance policy in the country, so car drivers and people who own pets are paying for flood defences. We can argue about whether that is the most transparent way of raising money for flood infrastructure.
I will talk about the Committee’s report and the criticisms that we have made, particularly about infrastructure resilience. Storm Angus caused landslips and ballast washaways on railway lines in Devon, Cornwall, the north-east and Scotland before Christmas, bringing travel disruption—as storms always do—as we saw last week with Storm Doris. Last winter’s floods, particularly those in Leeds, which the Committee visited, showed that key energy, digital and transport infrastructures are not well protected. Let us not forget the bridge being washed away in Tadcaster. The replacement bridge has only just reopened, over a year after those floods. Roads and railways going down have a huge impact on the economics of an area.
The Government’s national flood resilience review, which was published last summer, found that 500 sites with nationally significant infrastructure are vulnerable to flooding. During the winter floods of 2015-16, nine electricity sub-stations, and 110 water pumping stations or sewage works in Yorkshire were affected by flooding. Keeping the water supply going and the sewage under control is vital. My Committee recommended that the Government mandate energy and water companies to meet a one-in-200-year flood resilience target for risk. I am afraid that the Government’s response was hugely disappointing, simply saying, “We don’t think that’s the best way of doing it”, but not saying what the best way is. I am interested to hear that. Our strategy cannot just be tumbleweed—listening for the wind and hoping that it is not coming our way.
Minimum standards for energy, transport infrastructure and digital telecommunications companies are vital. Let us not forget that the railway lines were flooded out of Leeds. The police Airwave response radios went down, so West Yorkshire police were unable to work out where to send their blue light emergency response vehicles in the middle of a civil emergency. That is simply not good enough. If that had happened not on Boxing day, but on a normal working day a couple of days later, tens of thousands of people would have been stranded in Leeds city centre with nowhere to spend the night. There would have been a much bigger civil emergency response.
The Government’s long awaited national flood resilience review was published in September. It was good to hear about some of the things that are happening, such as the mobile flood defences. However, the Committee thinks that flood defences are essentially a sticking plaster solution: they are good as far as they go, but fail one third of the times they are used, so they work only twice in every three times. The review said nothing about the risk from heavy rainfall overwhelming sewers. No one likes to talk about sewage, although some people might think that a lot of it goes on in this place, Madam Deputy Speaker, but clearly not in this debate and under your excellent chairmanship.
The Government need a comprehensive long-term strategy properly to deal with some of the granular issues around flood risk, none more important than the way in which local authorities have to deal with flood planning and prevention. Some 30% of local authorities in September 2016 simply did not have a complete plan for flood risk, and a quarter of lead local flood authorities did not have a strategy. How are the public and Members of this place meant to scrutinise whether the plans and responses are adequate if they simply do not exist?
The Environment Agency provides advice to local councils about where new housing developments should be built in order to minimise flood risk, and the Committee heard that such advice is usually followed. However, almost 10,000 homes were built in high flood-risk areas in 2013-14. The extent to which the Environment Agency’s advice on where or whether to build homes is systematically monitored, reported or followed up through the planning system is simply not known. There is nothing wrong with building new homes in flood-risk areas, as long as those areas are adequately protected—Southwark and this place are at risk of flooding, and people are obviously still building new homes in London because there is a thing called the Thames barrier—but the situation is not being systematically monitored. We would therefore like to see much more help going from DEFRA and the DCLG to enable councils to adopt local flood plans and then actually follow them up.
In the wake of the winter storms in 2015-16, the then Prime Minister appointed two Ministers as flood envoys to co-ordinate the response to flooding in two areas: the hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in Cumbria and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) in Yorkshire. A question was raised about whether those posts transferred under the new Government and the new Prime Minister. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July. She responded in September, saying she was thinking about it. Finally, on
Finally, on insurance, last winter’s devastating floods cost over £1.3 billion in insured losses and about £5 billion across the whole economy. As I said, my Committee visited Leeds, and we had particular access to insurance. We had people coming across from Calderdale, where 70% to 80% of businesses were affected by the flooding—they have been affected almost annually by fluvial flooding and surface flooding. The floods cost small and medium-sized enterprises an estimated £47 million, with indirect costs totalling £170 million.
The floods in Leeds were the worst since 1866. Leeds University, which has done some research into this issue, told my Committee that 60% of local businesses have been unable to obtain a quotation for insurance since last winter’s floods. We heard of one business whose excess had risen from £1,000 to £250,000 after the floods. We heard of another business whose buildings insurance premium rose 60%, to £10,000, and whose excess increased 40%, to £10,000, but it would get the insurance only if it stumped up £400,000 to build new flood defences. The Committee on Climate Change says that the economic viability of some areas is being threatened, and the way insurance companies are failing to rise to meet this risk and failing to stand with communities is putting whole parts of our country at risk of becoming economically unviable.
Has the hon. Lady taken a cursory glance at the other report we are discussing, which asserts that there is no market failure when it comes to providing affordable insurance for businesses at risk of flooding? If these excesses are not market failure, I wonder what is.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is market failure in these areas. Businesses are encouraged to shop around, and there are some excellent community Flood Save schemes, where people try to get together to use market power to purchase insurance collectively, and one of those schemes is now up and running in Calderdale, but it should not have to come to that. We want to see insurance companies standing alongside communities. The insurance companies lobbied long and hard to mitigate their risk from climate change, and the Government set up the Flood Re scheme —another insurance tax on contents premiums and buildings premiums, with every homeowner in the country stumping up for the access risk so that the insurers do not have to pay it and can transfer it to the Government. Insurers need to cut businesses some slack and rise to meet some of these challenges.
A few businesses in my area have been hit. One of them is relatively small, but it has been hit a couple of times by flooding, so the insurance premium is now running way into the thousands. The premises is also a mixed hereditament, which makes things more complicated, because people live where the business is. Surely, if Flood Re kicks in to help domestic premises, it should kick in for businesses as well. If there is a market failure, which I believe there is, and if it is suitable to have that sort of pooling of risk for houses, it should be the same for businesses.
It is important that we do not end up with every taxpayer subsidising the private sector. The Government need to look again at the use of different, innovative mechanisms that do not place yet another burden on the already hard-pressed householder or car driver who has seen their insurance premiums go up as a result of mitigating and pooling some of this risk.
Failing to fund flood defences adequately is playing Russian roulette with people’s homes and with people’s businesses. I have talked about my Committee’s concerns about rollercoaster funding instead of steady-state funding; vague targets; vulnerable transport, energy and digital infrastructure, where again the Government simply lack the political will to work with companies across Government to get them to have flood-resilient assets; and local councils left to just get on with it by themselves. The storms may have receded for the moment, but the clean-up in some areas of Yorkshire, and in other areas across the country, is still going on. The lessons that we draw from this debate and these two Committee reports will shape our winters and our summers for decades to come.
The financing of flood defences is of absolutely paramount importance to my constituents, as my borough has been hit by flooding on a number of occasions, most notoriously the devastating North sea flood of 1953, which breached the old Canvey Island sea wall defences and caused the loss of life of 58 residents and the evacuation of the entire remaining population. To avert a similar catastrophe, the island is now protected by a concrete wall that runs along its entire 28 km to protect the population of 40,000 from tidal surges. This wall is still judged to be good for a one-in-1,000-years event. I note that the residents of Canvey Island were not encouraged to evacuate because of a threatened tidal surge when those of Jaywick were. The wall is judged to be sound right up until the end of this century provided that there is regular monitoring and maintenance. The concern of my residents is to ensure that the money is always there to make sure that we are upgrading the maintenance.
Notwithstanding how good the sea walls are, Canvey Island and other parts of my borough, including South Benfleet and Hadleigh, still remain subject to a serious risk of surface water flooding, as occurred dramatically in the summer of 2013 and again in 2014, when homes right across the borough were flooded, including 1,000 homes on the island alone. Despite the great sea defences, this is a serious problem for an island that remains 1 metre below sea level at high tide and is entirely flat. It presents a particular problem for effective surface water drainage. There was an absolute outcry in 2014 at the second significant flooding event in less than 11 months. That led to calls for an investigation into whether this could be dismissed as a mere act of God or whether much more serious defects in the water management system were at fault, and what measures were needed to be put in place to assure residents that it would not occur again. I was extremely grateful to the then Cabinet Office Ministers and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who agreed to an investigation by the Government chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, to establish the facts and make recommendations for the various agencies locally. His report found that the coincidence of extreme rainfall, problems with the performance of the drainage system, a power cut, and pumps overheating and tripping out were all foreseeable, although unusual, and many could be avoided in future. Sir Mark made a number of recommendations, the majority of which, I am pleased to say, have already been acted on.
Since those last floods, an extraordinary amount of work has taken place right across Castle Point, with considerable amounts of money spent on improvements and mitigation measures. The Environment Agency has invested large sums in improvements to its eight sluices and 13 pumping stations. In this financial year alone, it has invested over £500,000, including £89,000 on the Benfleet and East Haven barriers, which are key to protecting South Benfleet as well as the island. Webcams have been installed to monitor pumps and ditches. Some £620,000 has been spent on refurbishing 28 floodgates, and the remaining six will be completed by the end of this year.
The county council and Anglian Water have worked hard to map the drainage network underground and to make thousands of repairs and remove blockages in the system, as well as identifying the most serious faults. Anglian Water has invested millions since 2014 and has also been highly proactive in a public awareness campaign locally to raise the critical importance of maintaining free-flowing water courses. The county council is undertaking a huge rolling programme of property-level protection, with grants of up to £5,000 for homes affected by flooding previously.
The improved partnership working of Essex County Council, Anglian Water, the Environment Agency and the Essex fire and rescue service, as recommended by the chief scientist, is exemplary and has even resulted in a national award. Although the investigation focused on the island, improvements in multi-agency co-operation have had real benefits for the entire borough and it is now an exemplar for the rest of the UK.
The partnership has concluded a comprehensive urban drainage study of the problems underground and to model any future problems, to help make sure that this does not happen to my borough again. Proposals include the creation of additional storage ditches on roadsides and open areas, green roofs, water butts, porous paving and increased pipe sizes. It will shortly submit bids for some of those projects to the South East local enterprise partnership and central Government.
Previously, DEFRA Ministers have supported our bids. I hope that the Government will continue that support, acknowledge the economic importance of those bids and stress, not only to my LEP but to others, the importance of flood alleviation schemes in ensuring that communities remain economically viable. It is absolutely essential for the continued economic regeneration of my borough that it is recognised as protected from non-tidal surface water, as well as from tidal flood risk, especially given the increased likelihood of future events.
My borough is grateful for the introduction of the Flood Re scheme, which means that residents are not priced out of insuring their homes. It is not, however, available to businesses in my area. I hope that more work can be done in that regard, because a lot of them suffer great hardship. Nor does the scheme apply to new builds. I urge the Government to do more to ensure that there is better defence of our floodplains from developers and to press planning departments to incorporate more surface water mitigation for developments. Perhaps they could even reverse developers’ current right to connect surface water to the sewerage system, as it does not incentivise them to consider sustainable drainage systems.
I am conscious that time is short, so I will end by encouraging the Minister to visit Castle Point, if she can find the time in her diary, to see the incredible work that has been done in Benfleet and on Canvey Island, and to meet local agencies to discuss what more is needed and how we can further help the borough.
My interest in the issue of flooding started in 2007, when South Yorkshire was badly flooded. Of course, those events led to the Pitt review, which recommended better and more co-ordinated planning, improved resilience and more strategic planning decisions by local authorities with regard to water and its potential impacts. However, weaknesses have materialised in the delivery of the Pitt review and, on top of that, the flooding challenges remain.
Peak river flows could be more than twice their current levels in some English regions by 2070, and some 5 million people in England alone are at risk of flooding. The national flood resilience review established, through Met Office modelling, that it is plausible that over the next 10 years we could experience rainfall that is between 20% and 30% higher than usual. It was always likely, therefore, that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, would return to this all-important topic. That decision was accelerated by the 2015-16 floods, which impacted so badly on Cumbria, Yorkshire and Somerset. The need to look again at the issue became imperative, especially in the context of the Government’s own flood resilience review.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Committee’s recommendations, namely the strategic approach that this country needs to take to flood risk management, with a special focus on the need for catchment-scale planning.
I was a member of the delegation that visited Holland, which was critical to framing the Committee’s recommendations. Our report focused heavily on that fact-finding visit, and every member was impressed by the rigorous approach taken by the Dutch to risk management. The Dutch system is clear and accountable—locally, regionally and nationally—and I am mightily disappointed that the Government were so quick to dismiss our recommendations, especially given the evidence we received that too much of what we do in England remains badly disjointed.
The Dutch model is particularly impressive in placing water at the heart of the country’s approach not just to water supply, but to strategic, spatial and economic planning. In other words, in Holland water—its management, its uses and its maintenance as an essential environmental resource—is seen as a No. 1 priority in the country, and so it should be in the UK. A start would be to have more of a catchment-scale approach to planning for flood risk management. That would involve integrating the widest possible range of both hard and soft engineering measures, including natural flood management.
Evidence presented to the Committee underlined that point. Some witnesses considered that the Environment Agency relied too much on constructing defences at the point of flood impacts on town centres, and did not give adequate consideration to preventing flood waters from building up at source and along the river path. The Government’s own advisory bodies, the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change and Natural England, told the Committee that downstream flood prevention and resilience measures must be accompanied by action upstream.
All the evidence is that the Government are not taking sufficiently seriously the need to consider larger, catchment-scale investment. For instance, their flood resilience review encourages bids for its core cities pilot, which refers principally to
“financing flood resilience in urban areas, harnessing private investment to design new defences while delivering economic development and regeneration for the local area.”
There is absolutely no mention whatsoever of the need for a catchment-scale response.
In that context, Sheffield is developing its own scheme. Although it is worthy in some respects, it nevertheless fails to provide a robust mix of hard and soft measures. For instance, it provides no evidence of how it will make its water storage proposals work, and it provides no evidence that landowners will co-operate with it. References to natural flood management measures, such as tree planting and catchment restoration at source, are perfunctory. More than anything else, there is nothing in the scheme that would cover Barnsley, Doncaster or Rotherham, so it is not a catchment-scale scheme. If we do not stop or slow the flow in Barnsley, what is the point of putting in place measures in Sheffield, because all we will do is push the water further downstream to Doncaster? The Don is the spine of the South Yorkshire water network and it would be ideal for a catchment-level response.
I will conclude by making the point that I do not blame Sheffield for the approach it has taken. It has been encouraged to take such an approach by the Government, who seem more interested in leveraging in private finance for the purpose of delivering traditional, narrowly focused flood risk management schemes and in finding other pots of money than in taking the holistic view emerging from all the evidence presented to us on the Select Committee. I call on the Government to think again, and to support our recommendation on the need for large catchment-scale schemes that would go with the grain of all the emerging evidence.
I would have liked to talk about other aspects of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, such as resilience and the role of sustainable urban drainage systems in managing flood risk, but time is very limited. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that she and the Government will think again about the need to consider proper catchment-scale responses to this issue and the need for a more integrated approach to flood management in this country.
I took part in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee flood prevention inquiry and was involved with the Environmental Audit Committee’s flooding report. I very much welcome the recent focus on what is a very serious area, as we know only too well in Taunton Deane, where we have experienced such serious flooding in recent years.
The Government have been somewhat under attack, but I must start by saying that they have committed an incredible £2.5 billion to flood relief work, and I applaud the excellent schemes under way or in place that we have heard about. Indeed, this represents a real-terms increase in capital investment, which is up from £1.7 billion during the last Parliament and from £1.5 billion between 2005 and 2010.
I want to raise some of the issues addressed in the inquiries, but I begin with Somerset. We are used to winter flooding on the Somerset levels—it is natural—but not to the degree witnessed in those severe weather conditions in 2012, December 2013 and January 2014. The whole area effectively turned into an inland sea. It is my home area and I witnessed that at first hand. An incredible 11,500 hectares of land were under 65 million cubic meters of water, largely owing to the large build-up of silt in the rivers and drainage channels, which was not effectively dealt with over the many years since the channels were engineered in the 1960s.
The knock-on effects were enormous. Utter disruption and despair was caused to people in their daily lives. The economic impact assessment estimated that the floods cost the local economy £147 million and that 50% of businesses were affected. I welcome the Government’s reaction, and we are looking ahead optimistically to never having to suffer such serious consequences again in Somerset. They committed £20 million to flood defences to protect properties—£4.2 million was focused only on the Somerset levels and moors. Every £1 spent on flood defences gives a benefit of between £4 and £9, so it is definitely money well spent.
The Government oversaw the establishment of the Somerset Rivers Authority. It was set up to work with many organisations and still exists, and will go on to run and manage the area. It is funded through a precept on council tax bills—initially, the Government committed £1.9 million to start it up. I welcome the Government’s continuing work with the SRA on its long-term funding arrangements. I urge them to find time to give the SRA a statutory basis. It is such a good model that I believe it could be copied elsewhere. It will do both dredging and the wider catchment work about which so many hon. Members have spoken. It involves a range of organisations, which I must praise, including the farming and wildlife advisory group, and the Royal Bath and West Society, which has raised money to help to advise farmers on their forward planning. It is essential that we enable the SRA to continue to operate.
Many hon. Members have referred to the wider catchment approach. I held one of my popular environment forums in Taunton Deane. We were delighted and honoured to have my hon. Friend Neil Parish to speak to a cross-party gathering, when we discussed a holistic approach to flooding, which went down exceptionally well. Minister, there is an awful lot of positive feeling about engaging that approach much more widely, with leaky dams, more tree planting and better soil management, which has been referred to. There is a raft of traditional and modern environmental techniques, working with science to slow the flow of water into the rivers and reduce flooding. It will not work everywhere, but it will help—it can be part and parcel of everything else.
With Brexit heading our way, we have a marvellous opportunity to have a new think about land management. I was heartened to read in the response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee second report on flood prevention that the Government are thinking of a catchment-based approach in DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan. That is a good direction to work in.
We need to consider how much public good is achieved from flood protection work. I urge the Minister to do some early work to calculate how we can value work so that farmers know how much it will cost them if they store water on their land for the short or long term, what it will achieve, what the forgone effect is of not growing crops but storing water, and how much we should pay them. I declare a slight interest in that I come from a farming background and family. Farmers are cautious folk. They do not want to flood their land if there is not a good reason to do so, or no good results or consequences. If we can prove that there will be good results, I am sure they would do it.
I urge the Minister to look at running a large-scale catchment project, another recommendation from the Select Committee’s inquiry, to gather evidence on a wider scale. There are many very good small-scale projects—we have heard many examples of those today—but we do not have a large-scale project that is able to demonstrate what really works, why it works and what we should do. I therefore urge the Minister to consider running such a project.
Another issue raised in the Select Committee report is whether it is possible to engage water companies more in this approach to handling flooding. After all, they deal with our water day in, day out. I note with interest that the recently published “Natural Capital Committee’s fourth state of natural capital report” recommends natural capital catchment-based approaches by encouraging Ofwat in particular to get involved. This is definitely an idea that has come into the public domain.
I want to touch on housing. We are seeing a huge and necessary increase in house building to address the housing shortage, but let us ensure that those houses are not exacerbating the flooding problems. Sustainable drainage systems and green infrastructure such as ponds can contribute to protecting communities from flooding. It is welcome that the Government recognise that and I urge other Departments to work them into their plans, too. Water has no boundaries, so we need to look at all aspects of its impact on our lives.
Finally, I may have sounded rather biased towards Somerset, but much accumulated knowledge on flooding has now been gathered, including a comprehensive real-time system devised by the Met Office for feeding in rainfall data and river levels. Will the Minister consider applying this model elsewhere?
The Government are committed to tackling flooding. I know that because of all the money they have already committed to it. However, there is so much more that we could do. Brexit offers an opportunity to look again at how we manage our land, and how we could have a whole new and effective approach to flooding to benefit us all.
Order. May I just remind hon. Members that the guidance on time limits for speeches is six minutes, not nine minutes? It just bites into the next debate.
It is a real pleasure to follow Rebecca Pow. I found what she had to say to be genuinely fascinating.
The impact of the 2015 Boxing Day floods are still being felt in Rochdale and Littleborough, after water devastated over 500 homes. For many in my constituency, the recovery is still ongoing. Local businesses were also hit very hard. Their operations were severely disrupted, with many losing stock and trade. I worry that the fear of future floods and the cost of insurance will force some of those businesses to close or relocate.
I am grateful for the assistance given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so far. In particular, the flood resilience community pathfinder has provided support for the most vulnerable throughout this stressful time. I hope that efforts to increase resilience in these communities will continue. Likewise, I commend efforts by Rochdale Council to address the problems caused by heavy rainfall in November 2016. Fortunately, far fewer people were affected than in the previous year’s floods. Nevertheless, Rochdale Council, under the direction of council leader Richard Farnell, were quick to provide emergency funds to residents and undertake a program of extensive gully clearing.
I welcome efforts to alleviate the suffering of those affected and to quickly resolve emergencies, but it is clear that real protection from flooding must be delivered. This means preventing flooding in the first place. In Rochdale, we all know the main threat to our community remains the River Roch and its tributaries. I am pleased that Rochdale Council and the regional flood and coastal committee are committed to managing and reducing flood risks caused by the river. They both want to see a successful flood alleviation project delivered as soon as possible, and have worked closely with the Environment Agency to put together a plan for the borough. They have already committed £7 million of their own money towards the project, which will protect at least 800 homes and 400 businesses. In addition, the council has already finished opening up the river in the town centre and completed a flood storage scheme in Calderbrook, yet it needs more support from central Government. Funding from Whitehall would allow us to build more badly needed storage sites.
I appreciate the Government’s commitment to investing in flood defences across the country, and I am grateful for the support given by DEFRA to projects in Rochdale so far. I have raised this issue with the Minister previously, and I am grateful for her response, but I am somewhat dismayed that rather than offering financial support, she asked me to find further partnership funding. Rochdale Council has worked extensively with the Environment Agency to maximise partnership funding, and I am sure that such efforts will continue, but I believe that such an urgent scheme as the one in Rochdale should be eligible for more central Government funding.
We also need some momentum. An early decision on committing funding for this scheme is essential. Such programmes are complicated and have a long lead-in time. For it to progress further, we need a decision from the Government on future investment. I hope that DEFRA and the Treasury will bear this in mind and ensure that Rochdale is given the priority it deserves. Last year, many in Rochdale had anticipated extra funding to tackle flooding in the town in the Chancellor’s autumn statement but were left disappointed. I hope the Minister will act now to ensure that the fears of residents and local businesses are no longer prolonged.
I start by thanking the Government for listing this estimates day debate so conveniently—it follows on from the monumental event of my second flood forum in Sandilands on Friday evening. I hope to be able to help the House with the conclusions drawn from that important event.
The reason I hold flood forums in my constituency is that it provides a chance to bring experts together so that local residents can raise issues with them and so that together we can find solutions. Flooding is a real risk in my constituency, both along the magnificent Lincolnshire coastline and further inland in the beautiful Lincolnshire wolds. Sadly, that threat was demonstrated only too keenly on Friday
As soon as the state of civil emergency was declared, more than 30 local and national organisations pulled together to ensure that residents were kept as safe as possible. I am extremely grateful to the Minister here today and the Armed Forces Minister for putting together a plan to bring more than 200 soldiers from Catterick to Louth and the surrounding area. They knocked on more than 1,000 doors in 72 hours to ensure that the most vulnerable people were offered the option of evacuation if they wanted it. I had better also mention the Burma and Quebec Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, because they have been very good on Facebook.
We also had an incredible response from our emergency services. Fire officers, police officers, the ambulance teams, as well as volunteers, including from LIVES and the Red Cross, all played a vital role in our response. Emergency rescue centres were set up in a matter of hours. I had the pleasure of visiting the one at the Meridian centre in Louth to see for myself the comfort that vulnerable residents were receiving there. I also had the privilege of visiting the gold command centre in Lincoln, led capably by Chief Superintendent Shaun West, on that Friday night to see all the teams working together as they happily reached the decision locally and nationally that the weather had turned and the risk had been averted. I place on the record my thanks to everyone involved in that huge effort. I am proud that Lincolnshire showed the rest of the country how to respond calmly and professionally to such threats when they arise. It is better to be safe than sorry in those circumstances.
Today, however, we are talking about future flood prevention. I am grateful to the Government because for the last five years to 2015, more than £50 million has been provided through grant in aid to protect more than 23,000 households from flooding along the coast. I am delighted that this scheme is continuing under the current Government with a £39 million programme of grant-in-aid capital to extend protection to a further 14,500 households.
When it comes to flood prevention on the coast, the future is an interesting one. We discussed in the flood forum on Friday night the possibility of building groynes into the coastline, which can provide in turn marinas and interesting environments for tourists to enjoy the wonders of the Lincolnshire coastline even more. Both smaller investment schemes and the full flood protection scheme are important. For example, £1 million is being spent on replacing the Saltfleet pumping station and £385,000 is being used to refurbish Theddlethorpe pumping station. All these measures play their own vital role in making sure that my constituency remains resilient to whatever threat the sea throws at us.
What of inland flooding? Not many people know that Lincolnshire has hills. Indeed, the Lincolnshire wolds have some beautiful hills. Sadly, though, with that beauty comes some rainfall, and the market towns and villages in the wold have to deal with effluvial flooding from time to time. That is why the new flood alleviation schemes in Louth and in Horncastle are overwhelmingly welcomed by the local communities. This is particularly important as developers seek to build yet more houses between the wolds and the coast. I know that my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow is concentrating on this issue, too.
I add my own to the voices of colleagues who have urged the Minister to encourage insurance businesses in considering insurance policy protections not just to look at households, but to extend those protections to businesses. This is critical to small businesses in my constituency, including pubs and restaurants that rely on the beautiful architecture of their market towns to entice people to visit them. We need this insurance to protect businesses as much as to protect homes.
I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to share the delights of my constituency and the thoughts of constituents from the second flood forum in Louth and Horncastle. I look forward to holding many more of those forums. I am going to develop a rolling programme of them over the years, so that my constituents can come to me with problems—and if we cannot sort them out, I will write to the Minister in the hope that she can do so. I express the wish that everyone in my constituency and everyone living in flood risk areas will stay safe and dry for the rest of this year.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, and I am pleased to follow Victoria Atkins. I do not want to speak to the whole report or the Government’s response. I shall focus rather on our Select Committee’s recommendation 15 on the statutory duty for the fire and rescue service. This recommendation is consistent with our other recommendations 16 to 21, which all raise concerns about governance, command and control, structures and relationships. The evidence the Committee heard led us to the conclusion we reached. Sadly, however, the Government disagree.
Under recommendation 15:
“We recommend that the Government places a statutory duty on the Fire and Rescue Service in England and Wales to provide an emergency response to flood events and commits the necessary additional funding and staff resources to support delivery of this responsibility”— a point to which I shall return later. The Government’s response states:
“Fire and Rescue Services in England already have the discretionary powers they need…A Statutory Duty would potentially reduce flexibility with a one size fits all approach, and there are clear advantages to a permissive regime”.
That sounds like civil service and ministerial double-speak or euphemism if I ever heard it.
I am grateful to Pat Strickland in the House of Commons Library for its briefing, “Should Fire and Rescue Services have a Statutory Duty to deal with flooding?” It outlines that the 2008 Pitt review into the 2007 floods said that there should be fully funded national capability for flood rescue
“underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty”.
In a written answer in December 2015, the then Minister with responsibility for policing and fire said that the good response of the fire services to flooding in that year suggested that there was “no need for review”. The Labour Government had arrived at the same conclusion in 2008, but we have seen more and more serious flood events since then, so the situation is changing.
The briefing paper details the law as it stands:
“The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 does not place a statutory duty…to respond to floods, although there is a power to do so…the Act sets out the statutory ‘core functions’ of FRA…to provide for…fire safety…fire-fighting…rescuing people and protecting people from harm in the event of road traffic accidents”— or road traffic collisions in 21st-century jargon. The law in Scotland is different. There has been a statutory duty since 2013, and the Pitt review took a similar view to the one that now exists in Scotland:
“The Review believes that clarifying and communicating the role of each of these bodies would improve the response to flooding. However, we are concerned that the systems, structures and protocols developed to support national coordination of multi-agency flood rescue assets remain ad-hoc. We believe that the Fire and Rescue Service should take on a leading role in this area, based on fully funded capability. This will be most effective if supported by a statutory duty.”
That is essentially the core of recommendations 15 to 21 and, as I say, nothing much has changed.
The Library briefing goes on to examine the history of the proposal and the debates in the House. I would like to focus on the history of the fire and rescue service’s statutory duties. Colleagues might expect that the fire service has always had a duty to attend fires, but it was partly the fire that destroyed most of this Palace of Westminster in 1834 that led to the creation of the London Fire Brigade, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. Most colleagues would also probably expect that the fire and rescue service has a duty to prevent fires, and I suspect most would consider the role of the fire service in dealing with road traffic collisions to be a statutory duty. That is not the case. On fire, the statutory duty was created only in 1938. On fire safety, it was the Fire Services Act 1947 that created it. As for road accidents and road crashes, it was the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 that created the statutory duty.
When the Government say that the fire and rescue service will deal with floods because it has, it does and it will, that was also the case for fires, fire prevention and road traffic collisions until the prevailing wisdom decided that an expectation was not enough and the Government had to do more than just expect. There not only has to be a legal requirement for a duty; it has to be resourced and paid for, and the Government need to legislate for that outcome.
The Select Committee report makes the case for changes in structures. Part of our recommendations for better preparedness, better governance and stronger resilience is to confer a duty on the fire service to boost all those elements. The Government clearly do not want to proceed in that direction at present.
Does my hon. Friend share my suspicion that the Government’s refusal to create a statutory duty for the fire and rescue service in this regard is driven principally by their desire not to commit resources to this area of endeavour?
My hon. Friend perfectly anticipates my next point. I was about to quote a statistic to demonstrate that the Government do not want to proceed in this direction—because staff reductions in fire and rescue services since 2010 have been significant, with nearly 7,000 jobs having been lost. By my estimate, that amounts to 20% of the British fire service disappearing since 2010. Those numbers are very worrying.
Furthermore, the transfer of responsibilities of the fire and rescue service to more and more police and crime commissioners, and budget pressures on both the police and the fire services suggest that there is real fear of further reductions. The fire and rescue service needs to be able to maintain the staff and equipment necessary to continue to play a prominent role in dealing with floods, preparing for them and mitigating them. To achieve that, they need recognition in law. The Select Committee believes that that needs to be done. It is an issue that is not going to go away. I suspect that at some point—perhaps not now—the Government will get the message.
Some 453 residential properties and 174 commercial properties in York were flooded following storm Eva, yet we know that in extreme flooding that could rise to as many as 7,200 properties. The city is therefore saying, “What is going to happen next?”
Just last month, York’s own flood inquiry produced a report containing about 90 ambitious recommendations, but no framework to govern their implementation. We need to look back on what has happened after each flood. Resources dry up, and then we do not seem to move much further forward. As we have just heard from my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, services should operate between floods, dealing not just with the issue of flooding itself but with issues of flood literacy, prevention and resilience. The fire and rescue authority would be well placed to address such issues. In that context, I was disappointed by the Government’s response to the excellent reports from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees.
The Bellwin scheme provides an immediate response, but it does not take account of the need for resilience measures to be taken during the dry seasons. I should like to hear from the Minister how the scheme could be used more proactively to provide incentives for such measures, and how the Government will work with Flood Re and the insurance industry to ensure that resilience is built into properties when the sun is shining, rather than waiting for the next floods to occur. I should also like to hear what plans the Minister has to review the Flood Re scheme. It has been in place for nearly a year, but we know that there are a number of problems. Some properties, such as leasehold properties and properties built after 2009, cannot gain access to the insurance,
We continue to call for a proper scheme for businesses, for which there is such a need. We believe that it is possible to create a matrix model for that purpose. What progress has the Minister made in considering the opportunities for such action? I know that the British Insurance Brokers’ Association has instituted a scheme in the interim, but businesses have still not heard about it. What is the Minister doing to promote it?
In York, emergency improvements are being made to the Foss Barrier, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mary Creagh. A total of £17 million is being spent on an upgrade which should have taken place over the last 30 years. I am grateful to the Minister’s predecessor for ensuring that we would be able to shift the water—50 tonnes a second—from the river should the barrier need to be used. However, people in our city are saying that more needs to be done. I am not talking about the £45 million that is being spent on building defences; I am talking about catchment management.
The Environment Agency has told me that we shall have to wait for 2021 and the next comprehensive spending review. The Government response boasts about £15 million being spent, but I must say to the Minister that that is a drop in the ocean—or in the flood water—when it comes to building resilience measures. We need proper investment, now, in mapping out catchment areas and working out what needs to be done for the future in relation to, for instance, the “slow the flow” measures. The Government have shown a lack of ambition in respect of the national tree-planting programme, but they need to think about how agroforestry can play a major role in catchment management.
I am interested in the work being done by the University of York on the management of soil and the moorlands. I urge the Minister to commit herself today to full funding of the second phase of the university’s research. Better land management is essential. More water needs to be absorbed upstream rather than running downstream.
I was disturbed to read in the Government’s response that all the action that is needed will appear in a 25-year environment plan. It would be great if we could see the plan, but it is already eight months late. Will the Minister tell us when it will be published—or have I misunderstood the title? Perhaps it refers to the 25 years that it will take to write the plan. We really do want to see what it has to say. I hope that next week’s Budget will contain measures to ensure that proper investment is made in proper catchment management now, rather than our having to wait until 2021. I trust that the Minister will move that forward.
I want to say something about governance. York was left with no plan for managing the floods, and was badly let down by the lack of action from the city council. There was also poor governance from the Environment Agency when it came to risk management. What governance structures is the Minister introducing to ensure that local authority plans are subject to professional oversight, and are risk-assessed to establish that they are robust and fit for purpose? We cannot expect local authorities to mark their own homework when lives could be put at risk. Planning for resilience is vital, and it should be done in the dry seasons. Authorities should not wait to test the plans until the rain and the floods.
I ask the Minister to tell us what further steps she plans to take now, to ensure that we have a flood-resilient nation.
This debate follows major inquiries into the social, economic and environmental impact of flooding in England which were undertaken by the Environmental Audit and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees. I participated in the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, and I took a close interest in the development of the Committee’s conclusions and the preparation of the final comprehensive report, which focused heavily on the future management of flood risk. That report called for the UK Government to strengthen policies to protect communities in England from increasing flood risk.
Last November, when the EFRA Committee published its report, we criticised the UK Government’s fragmented, inefficient and ineffective approaches to flood risk management. I should make clear that the report was not an academic exercise, but the product of a great deal of work and time spent visiting areas of England that had been badly affected by poor and inadequate flood prevention, and also the Netherlands, where we sought out a number of governmental organisations and inspected world-class flood prevention measures to understand how prevention was managed in a country where it is considered absolutely critical.
The evidence that we collected in the Netherlands stood in stark contrast to the evidence collected in England. When visiting communities in England that had been badly affected by storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, we observed a great deal of activity directed towards the purchase of large displacement pumps and the implementation of risk management systems that could only sensibly be described as reactive. There was nothing new, novel, innovative or insightful in any of the activity that I observed in England, and I was left with the impression that communities shared my disappointment and lingering concerns. In England, a predominant view that emerged was that flooding represented a failure to deliver an adequate emergency response at a time of crisis.
In the Netherlands, the situation could not have been more different. Our detailed conversations with the Delta commissioner, the special envoy for international water affairs, and many other internationally renowned experts were insightful, and highlighted many new, novel and innovative methods of proactively managing and controlling the flow of water to eradicate the risk of flooding. The people of the Netherlands would view a flood as a failure of water management governance arrangements.
The contrast is perhaps best explained by the fact that the Netherlands views flood prevention as a social issue that requires a determined and co-ordinated strategic political approach to guarantee effective water management and the protection of life and property. The approach implemented by the UK Government’s Environment Agency suggests that flooding is considered to be a largely unpredictable but occasionally inevitable consequence of extraordinary weather conditions that require an effective emergency response.
The EFRA Committee did not focus on the purchase of more or larger displacement pumps, but proposed a new and innovative governance model to recognise flooding as a social problem. Like the Netherlands, we advocated a strategic focus on co-ordinated, efficient action to deliver flood prevention. We recommended that the UK Government should establish a new national floods commissioner for England, to be accountable for the delivery of strategic, long-term flood risk reduction outcomes agreed with the Government. The commissioner would deliver the strategy through new regional flood and coastal boards to co-ordinate the regional delivery of national plans, in partnership with local stakeholders. The boards would take on current lead local flood authority and regional flood and coastal committee roles, and a new English rivers and coastal authority would assume the Environment Agency’s current role in focusing on the efficient delivery of national flood risk management plans. That governance model would streamline organisational responsibilities, co-ordinate resources and pool expertise to allow each body to deliver their unique role, with funding firmly linked to outcomes, including financial outcomes.
Our recommendations were intended to deliver the following: first, the adoption of catchment measures on a much wider scale, including sustainable drainage systems; secondly, simplified flood risk communications; and, thirdly, improved organisational and resource resilience in all its forms, including spatial planning, building regulations, insurance and emergency response. In addition to shifting the UK Government from a reactive approach directed at flood management towards a more informed and insightful proactive approach focused on flood prevention, the Committee’s recommendations were designed to make better use of financial resources and to recognise the negative impact of fluctuating funding.
The UK Government’s pattern of spending is as unpredictable as the pattern of flooding. Indeed, funding arguably fluctuates reactively in correlation with unpredictable flood events, with budgets topped up above planned levels. The 2016 Budget, for example, committed an additional £700 million in response to the winter 2014-15 floods. The Environmental Audit Committee criticised this for “political calculation”.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s initial report was followed by a very disappointing response from the UK Government. Indeed, the UK Government’s response is summed up in one sentence:
“We do not agree that there is a need for substantial change to the existing national and local governance provisions for flood risk management.”
“Although we do not agree there is a need for substantial structural change, we are always looking for ways to improve and adapt the way we work to meet current and future needs.”
How bizarre—the UK Government want improvement, but just not the improvement recommended by two Select Committees.
By ignoring the considered and detailed reports of two Select Committees, the UK Government are missing opportunities to act on a wide range of recommendations that would improve and adapt the way the Government work to meet current and future demands. The failure to improve and adapt existing reactive models of operation is not only wasting money, it is leaving households, communities and businesses across England at risk of disaster. The Government’s response continues to fall far short of the recommendations.
This debate takes place as part of the supply estimates process, a means through which the UK Government technically seek Parliament’s authority for spending plans. These are known as “estimates days”. In practice, these debates are three days of general debate when the one thing that is not discussed is the actual estimates, and generally there is no vote. In fact, this House has largely abandoned all opportunities for direct control of public expenditure by means of debate and vote on the estimates presented to the House.
This is particularly important to Scottish MPs, because the former Leader of the House repeatedly claimed that the estimates process provides an avenue for Scottish MPs to scrutinise the financial implications of Bills from which the English votes for English laws procedure excludes us. I conclude by noting that the arcane estimates process fails to function as an effective method of scrutinising UK Government expenditure, and that is to the detriment of everyone.
To follow on from the words of my hon. Friend Dr Monaghan, I have not seen this produced today, but I have in my hand the estimates book. The estimates for DEFRA, which we are supposed to be debating today, are contained within it. I must admit to feeling somewhat confused by today’s proceedings. As if Fridays in this place were not strange enough, today has been a real eye-opener. I have not heard any discussion surrounding the figures estimated for DEFRA, and I have heard no critical analysis of departmental spend within those figures. As my hon. Friend acknowledged to me and made clear, this is the stage at which we as Scottish MPs are supposed critically to analyse the estimates to deal with the consequences of policy and UK legislation, but there appears to be little, if no, discussion. However, I want to discuss a few points from the estimates within the books today, which I assume will be in order.
Order. I am afraid that, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not in order. I ask him to discuss the subject for debate stated on the Order Paper, which has been chosen by the Liaison Committee. This issue arose when the estimates were debated last year. I will be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman moves on to the subject that is on the Order Paper.
I was not here the last time the estimates were discussed. Am I not allowed to discuss the figures within the estimates; is that what the Chair is telling me?
Today we are specifically discussing flood prevention, not what is in the book to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are discussing flood prevention, which was chosen by the Liaison Committee. The point the hon. Gentleman makes was raised last year, and I am sure we can find other avenues to discuss it further, but right now the topic for debate is just flood prevention.
“Supplementary Estimate: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Subject for debate: Future flood prevention)”
However, the text of the motion states:
“That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £420,838,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946”,
which is the document that my hon. Friend Richard Arkless was speaking to. Is the ruling of the Chair that, in fact, the contents of HC 946 as they relate to DEFRA are not for debate in this estimates debate?
Yes, if the hon. Gentleman looks again at the Order Paper, he will see that the notes below—which are in very small print—state:
“This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to future flood prevention (Resolution of
The Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the above Motion will be deferred until 7.00 pm on Tuesday
That is the critical element in this regard.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In common with many Members, I represent a constituency that is susceptible to flooding and has flooded, quite dramatically, twice over the last three years. I have been interested in many of the points made by hon. Members; it has been a well-informed debate, with lots of excellent, pertinent points made.
The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh, who is no longer in her place, talked about the stop-start nature of the process of flood management across the rest of the UK and about a lack of strategic planning, which has become apparent in this debate today. She talked about businesses being affected by flooding, and there are some specific issues that I questioned the Minister about before and to which she gave some helpful answers, which I will touch on later in my speech.
I was pleased to hear Rebecca Harris support my calls and express some concern about the availability of affordable insurance to small businesses; I will mention that later. We know that Rebecca Pow has a passion for trees and everything horticultural, and she talked a lot about land management and the contribution that land management techniques can make to reduce the risk of flooding.
One of the major debates in my constituency has been the extent to which land management techniques can significantly mitigate the risk of flooding. When towns in my constituency have flooded, we have found it very difficult to find an expert who could say that felling the trees, tidying the riverbanks or dredging a river would have made a significant difference to the risk of flooding. It appears that the one thing that contributes most to the risk of flooding, which is not really in the public’s mind, is the huge amount of rainfall. There is some way to go in the debate about, and public consciousness of, the things that contribute to the risk of flooding and the things that can mitigate it.
I was interested, as always, to hear the comments of Victoria Atkins. She rightly talked about bringing people together, and all MPs with constituencies susceptible to flooding will have been impressed by how stakeholders and members of the public came together. It was humbling to see that in action. But I must say that she broke the House of Commons record for plugging her constituency and praising her Front Bench, all within a six-minute speech—that girl will go far.
My hon. Friend Dr Monaghan made an excellent speech and gave the House an excellent summary of the report. He focused on the contrast between the Committee’s experiences in Holland, which adopts a principle of proactivity and strategic management and regards flooding as a social issue, and the strategy in the UK, which seems unpredictable and tends to concentrate on managing consequences in emergencies. That tactic needs to change.
The Select Committee’s report is one of the relevant documents listed on the Order Paper—to which this debate is restricted—and there is a section on page 23 on business insurance. In many of the towns in my constituency, there are perhaps 30 to 40 small businesses on either side of the high street, which might on occasions be flooded. When those businesses try to get affordable insurance, they can often get a policy with manageable premiums but the excess is completely unmanageable. It is often £15,000 or more. If that main street were to flood again, none of those businesses would be able to pay the excess.
I am concerned to see the assessment on page 23 of the report, which states:
“Defra does not consider there to be a market failure in provision of appropriate business insurance for those located in flood risk areas.”
The report talks only about the cost and availability of policies; it does not discuss the excesses. Were manageable excesses among the criteria that the Department considered when it made the judgment that there had not been a market failure? I was surprised to read the figures from the Federation of Small Businesses and other organisations that thought that only a small percentage of businesses had these problems. That is not my understanding of what is happening in my constituency. This is a very difficult issue that has the potential to put swathes of our high streets out of business. I accept the argument that participants in the Flood Re scheme should not be made to pay for businesses, but some other kind of scheme needs to be made available. There is a clear market failure here and it needs to be dealt with.
The approach in Scotland is not perfect, but it seems to be more advanced than in the rest of the UK. We have a statutory basis for our flood management plan. We passed the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act in 2009, which compelled all 32 authorities across Scotland to come up with flood management plans. They have all done so: 42 flood defences are in the pipeline and 80% of the money has been committed by the Scottish Government. Four of those schemes are in my constituency, and I look forward to the conclusion of the process in 2022, when all those flood defences will be built and we will be looking at the next round of strategic planning in Scotland.
This has been a really interesting debate. It was admirably opened by Neil Parish, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, who gave the House some really interesting information from his Committee’s report. He was followed by my hon. Friend Mary Creagh, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, who talked about the huge impact that climate change is having on our communities. My hon. Friend Angela Smith spoke knowledgeably about the importance of catchment planning and about the Dutch model. My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick used his experience of working with the fire and rescue services to show why a statutory duty is needed to deal with flooding. My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell shared her considerable experience on this issue and stressed the importance of funding the research being carried out at universities such as York.
Making communities truly flood resilient is one of our greatest challenges. Flooding varies greatly. The flooding in Somerset was not the same as the floods on the east coast, which in turn were very different from the flooding in Cumbria. The House will be aware of the devastating effect that Storm Desmond had on my community last winter, as well as the previous significant flooding that we suffered. Flooding is not just about water. In Cumbria, it roars down the fells, carrying everything in its path. Drains back up and overflow, and huge amounts of rocks, gravel and trees race along in the water. Floods are incredibly destructive. We have had roads and bridges completely destroyed.
So what should we do? As has been discussed today, we need to look at the whole river catchment. We need to invest in sustainable drainage systems. And I believe that we need to stop talking about flood prevention. We cannot prevent flooding, but we can manage it and make our communities properly resilient. People are nervous and frightened, and it is time we took seriously the effect of flooding on mental health. Every time it rains heavily—in Cumbria that is not exactly rare—people are scared that the flooding will happen again. The University of Cumbria is carrying out a survey into mental wellbeing. This is an important piece of work on understanding better the effect of flooding and repeated flooding on our communities.
We also need to look at how we improve emergency planning right across the country. Flooded communities always pull together in an extraordinary way in a crisis, but they feel that there has been insufficient progress due to a lack of leadership, both locally and nationally. We have local flood action groups with a wealth of knowledge and experience, but they feel that they are being kept out of the loop when it comes to decision making and information sharing. That is deeply frustrating for smaller communities, who feel that they are not important because of their small populations. Why should areas such as Barepot and Hall Park View in my constituency be left out because they have only a few homes?
There have been calls in the Committee’s report for a national flood authority, and perhaps that is what is needed, but, if so, local communities must have a clear route into it. Can the Minister assure me that local flood action groups and communities, including local farmers, will be properly consulted and listened to when we develop the truly holistic approach to flood management that we need? After the floods in Cumbria, the Environment Agency told me that the flood defences that were installed after the 2009 floods did what they had been designed to do. Indeed they did, but they were insufficient for the scale of the floods in 2015. This was also the case in other areas, such as York. They made a big difference in some areas and to some families, but that was little comfort to the many people made homeless at Christmas time.
The Government have promised more funding for defences, but the costs for Cumbria alone are estimated to be £500 million, and the solutions we need are about much more than building higher and higher walls. The water has to go somewhere, and if we are not careful we will build flood defences that protect one area but damage another.
We also have to look at planning. There has simply been too much building on flood plains over the years. The Government say that this is no longer a problem as the law was changed in 2009 to prevent building on flood plains, but I have visited two separate areas where houses that had never flooded before were flooded after a new housing development had been built close by. We have to consider the potential impact of all proposed developments on other properties. Maybe the solution is a revised flood impact planning regulation.
Gravel also causes huge damage to infrastructure, farmland and river banks. Parishes and landowners used to keep watercourses clear of silt and debris. This regular management has stopped, however, and local farmers and residents tell me that that has raised the height of the rivers and that bridges have huge deposits of gravel around them. Bridges can be extreme pinch points and end up acting as dams as they become clogged with debris, which backs up the water again. There are also huge deposits of gravel on the farmland next to the rivers. One farmer I know had a bill for £35,000 to clean up his land after the 2009 floods, and he was faced with exactly the same bill in 2015. How will the Minister ensure that proper river management takes place? Is she prepared to look at an incentive scheme to pay farmers to allow the storage of flood water on farmland to reduce flood risk?
Household insurance has been mentioned a lot in the debate. Often it is offered either with huge excesses or not at all. Flood Re is welcome, but is in its infancy and does not work for everyone. I welcomed the new British Insurance Brokers Association schemes to cover businesses. They are something I had been pressing for in Parliament and with Ministers, but they too are in their infancy and need to be closely monitored. Business flood claims tend to be for loss of trade, which can be significant, and the consequences for small businesses, which might not be able to get insurance again after previous flooding, can be catastrophic. We need to get to grips with this, or bankruptcies will increase and businesses will close.
After the 2015 flooding, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that money was no object. The Government must honour that, and provide the resources needed to tackle flooding and the resilience that communities are so desperate for. Since the floods, we have been promised additional capital expenditure but unfortunately little in the way of spades in the ground. We do not have time to waste. Flooding is not going away. We need a comprehensive plan in place for every community at risk of flooding, covering the entire floodplain and the drainage basin. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; decision makers must talk to the people on the ground. Local communities have so much experience—farmers often have land knowledge that dates back generations—and it would be criminal not to use the expertise that is at our disposal. If the Government do not act immediately, we face the severe risk of communities, such as those in my constituency, becoming ghost towns.
Finally, will the Minister assure me that the necessary funds and resources will be made available, and quickly, to every community at risk? Will she also consider supporting the many excellent recommendations in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report?
I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on opening the debate and thank the many hon. Members who have contributed, often using direct constituency experience or a broader view from their role on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I welcome the elevation of Sue Hayman to her new position as shadow Secretary of State; it is a pleasure to debate such matters with her. It was also a pleasure to be in her constituency during the recent recess when I visited the toy shop on the high street of one of her principal towns.
Flood and coastal risk management is a high priority for this Government. Compelling evidence suggests that climate change may lead to increases in heavy rainfall and increased risks from fluvial and surface water flooding by the mid-century. Both present significant risks, so we are putting in place robust, long-term national strategies to protect the nation. I am very aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community. In the worst cases, flooding can lead to loss of life, and even moderate flooding can cause significant damage to property and disruption to transport, communications infrastructure, businesses, schools and hospitals. I have certainly supported my constituents in Suffolk following flooding in recent years, and I am fully committed to reducing the impacts of flooding and coastal erosion. To that end, I thank Councillor Andy Smith, who is responsible for coastal management in my area and is chair of the coastal special interest group around the country through the Local Government Association. Together with the Environment Agency and councils, that sort of experience is leading to good local decisions.
House building in areas such as mine will add to the flooding problem. Will the Minister press the Environment Agency to ensure not only that it demands that enough provision is made for new houses, but that some retrofitting is done? Previous new developments have led to far too much surface water.
I recently met my right hon. Friend to discuss that matter. I also met several other people who have not spoken in today’s debate to discuss the challenges of flooding in their areas, including Rosie Cooper, who now wants to intervene.
Will the Minister look at the major builders, such as Redrow? They connect new homes into the system knowing that they should include one-way valves and so on, but they do not. That causes the system to flood, leading to water bill payers paying the cost. Developers should be paying the bill, not putting new homes at risk.
The hon. Lady speaks with passion on this matter because it has affected properties in her constituency. I stress to her and to my right hon. Friend John Redwood that the Environment Agency does work with local councils. The guidance for new developments in the national planning policy framework is clear. Not only has the Environment Agency’s advice been accepted in 98% of applications, but there is a clear duty to consider the risk to existing housing stock. I am aware of the specific situation to which Rosie Cooper refers, and I have passed it on to the Department for Communities and Local Government so that it can consider how to make things clear both in planning permission and in planning enforcement.
Councils are expected to do that for developments of 10 homes or more, and I hope that the hon. Lady will see progress in her local area. She referred to the situation in Sheffield earlier, and I can assure her that that was not what I heard when I met businesses and people to talk about the potential future scheme in Sheffield. However, one outcome of the national flood resilience review is that we want Sheffield to be a pioneer in how we bring in private investment.
I will not give way because I need to make progress and to discuss other important matters to which other hon. Members referred.
Returning to funding and the estimates, this Government continue to play a key role in improving the protection of those at risk of flood. The historic £2.5 billion over six years to better protect more than 300,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion is an important increase. A key change is that, instead of the annual budget and the hand-to-mouth existence whereby the Environment Agency was not sure whether a project would be finished, a long-term approach to spending allows the Environment Agency to do the appropriate planning and get on with work instead of guessing how long something will take. We have also increased maintenance spending in real terms over this Parliament to over £1 billion.
Mary Creagh referred to partnership funding. I want to point out that it used to be that a scheme would either get all the funding or nothing. There was no way for a wider range of schemes to be covered. I recognise what she said about the extent of other public sector sources of money, but it matters that LEPs can and have made bids in order to increase economic development and are able to partner that funding. I listened carefully to what Simon Danczuk said and I will follow up on the issue he raised.
I welcome the support for the use of natural flood risk management and the catchment-based approach that we are developing to prevent floods or to mitigate them where they do occur. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton welcomed the fact that we are introducing a new reporting measure on natural flood management in future spending years from 2018-19. We have allocated a further £15m specifically for natural flood management schemes. I have not yet seen the candidates for those schemes, but the Environment Agency is working them up and I am aware of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recommendation of one catchment scale to test out the principles. That approach is already being used in some flood prevention schemes, but it is right to have appropriate criteria for measuring.
On planning for future resilience, the hon. Member for Wakefield referred to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report and the House should be aware that we are now better prepared to deal with such issues. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that I am unable to change the weather—I am certainly not divine in that regard—but we are working hard to ensure that the lessons of previous floods feed into the national flood resilience review. I have chaired weekly meetings, which have only just finished, to get progress updates on what is happening with the different infrastructure providers. We have also re-established the inter-ministerial group on flooding, which meets quarterly for a broader response to flood prevention.
We have allowed the Environment Agency to invest in mobile flood defences. It now has 25 miles of temporary defences and half a million sandbags located across seven key areas, and it can deploy them flexibly around the country. The Army has also been made available. Troops were deployed in Lincolnshire and Norfolk at the request of the local resilience forums, but Suffolk and Essex decided that they did not need the help of the armed forces in the recent coastal surge. Overall, the country will be better protected and services for our communities will be more resilient to flooding. Over the next year, we intend to focus on surface water, which is a significant source of flooding, particularly in cities and urban areas. Again, that will involve collaboration between the Environment Agency, lead local flood authorities, the water sector, and other stakeholders with an interest in managing the risk.
On working together, we all recognise that flooding affects many aspects of our lives. We carefully considered the report’s recommendations on structures, but we do not agree that there is a need for substantial change—that does not mean to say that there are no ways to make it work even better. The local flood risk management action plan, which the Government published on
We should recognise that the current system means that, since 2005—stretching back into the last Labour Government—more than 500,000 properties are better defended today. I want to get it across that, right now, structural change would get in the way of delivering the flood prevention, resilience and other measures that will be undertaken over the next few years. Again, I am not convinced that just changing the name of who does what will improve the way that different bodies work together.
On the fire services, to which Jim Fitzpatrick referred, I can reaffirm that the Government have no plans for a statutory duty to deal with flooding. Fire services already respond to flooding as part of their general duties under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and in response to the risks set out in their integrated risk management plans. I pay tribute to those fire authorities that moved around the country following the recent coastal surge. It was well done, and in particular I saw the firefighters from Hampshire who came up to help Suffolk and Norfolk. That shows that the system is working well.
I recognise that the Government do not intend to move on this matter this instant, but does the Minister accept the statistic I quoted that the number of firefighters in the UK has reduced by 7,000 in the past seven years alone? There is no statutory duty, so responding to flooding is not a role that the fire service legally has to carry out. Will she keep that under close review and talk to her colleagues in the Home Office about making sure that numbers do not fall any or much further? Otherwise the fire services will not have the wherewithal to do the job that we all expect them to do.
I am cognisant of the fact that, certainly in my own area, there are fewer firefighters than there were some years ago. I do not have a single full-time firefighter in my constituency of 300 square miles, and this is an opportunity to pay tribute to the retained firefighters who help their communities. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there have been conversations with the DCLG and, now, the Home Office.
I have covered the point that we expect sustainable drainage in new developments. On governance, I flag up the role of the regional flood and coastal board, and a lot of that work is covered by the regional flood and coastal committees, which comprise a number of different stakeholders.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of insurance. The Flood Re scheme has been a good success, but I recognise what Members said about businesses, which is why we have worked hard to get the British Insurance Brokers Association to bring a product to market. I encourage all hon. Members to make businesses aware of that fact. If people feel that, having been offered a quotation for a specialist policy, they are still struggling, I would like to be made aware of it. I want to look at that in detail, but I am not able to promise today that we will have another Flood Re for businesses because the basis of Flood Re is that it is time-limited. It is a principle of general taxation that we share resources across the country and, to some extent, that is what has been extended with the Flood Re scheme, through which every insurance policy carries a premium to help with flooding.
I recently visited Mytholmroyd in the Calder valley, and some businesses there are moving. Admittedly they are moving about 200 yards, but they are moving and appropriate defences are being established.
The Minister asked for examples. Topcliffe Mill in my constituency is a development of 12 apartments that currently has an insurance premium of more than £30,000 because of flooding. Although I can understand that commercial schemes are seen to be a market opportunity for commercial insurance companies, in many cases they are not. Topcliffe Mill is a case in point. I would be delighted if she looked at that particular case.
The point about leasehold properties is that they tend to be owned by the freehold or management company, which is why they come under the commercial area. If my hon. Friend wants to write to me with more details, I will look into it.
Of course I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris—I have met many other Members. It is good of Victoria Atkins to point out the role of emergency services in her area. I hope that I have answered some of the queries raised by Rachael Maskell about businesses. I might not have answered them to her satisfaction, but I point out that Flood Re did not apply to businesses after 2009 because that was when all the rules came in to discourage building on floodplains, and we should not reward them with flood insurance as a consequence of doing that.
In answer to Richard Arkless, we have a statutory basis for the flood management plan in this country, too.
I will not.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Procedure Committee is undertaking an inquiry into the estimates procedure.
Finally, the hon. Member for Workington will be aware that the Cumbria flood action plan was supported by many local communities. I have met, for example, the Keswick flood action group three times since becoming the responsible Minister, and I have to admit that, at times, I have encouraged a little less conversation and a little more action from the Environment Agency. It is important that we get on with some of these schemes, recognising that we are not going to please everybody with every single design. All I know is that people will be better protected than they were this time last year, and that that will continue right across the country.
I commend the estimates in the name of DEFRA to be supported in the votes tomorrow night.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has asked the Environment Agency to talk less and do more, which would be great. In fairness, I pay tribute to the work of the agency and its staff during the floods. Our report states that we need action from top to bottom.
I also thank Mary Creagh for the contribution of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I thank the members of the Environmental Audit Committee, the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and all other Members who have spoken today. It is important that we get flood protection right, because when it rains homes and businesses flood. We have to ensure that every £1 spent centrally and locally is spent well. Local drainage boards, local authorities and local landowners can do a great deal more to alleviate floods, and farmers can do more to hold water.
I look forward to all of us working together in this House to deliver better flood protection.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (