Summer Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:24 pm on 20th July 2017.

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Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 2:24 pm, 20th July 2017

I congratulate Matt Rodda on his maiden speech, in which he paid tribute to his predecessor—his predecessor was well known to Conservative Members—and to many other predecessors. I am sure we will be hearing much from the hon. Gentleman, perhaps particularly on the key aspects of Reading’s regeneration. Those of us who travel regularly through Reading appreciate the work that has been done on Reading station. Anything he can do to keep the station working smoothly will be much appreciated.

Ten years ago to this very day, 12 continuous hours of heavy rainfall downloaded 78 mm of rain in Gloucestershire during what our local paper, the Citizen, rightly called

“the worst natural disaster in the county’s living memory.”

It followed the wettest June and July since records began in 1766. It is worth recapping what happened, what has happened since and the wider lessons that we should have learned—I hope we have learned them.

I will start by recalling what happened on that day, which is as clear in my memory now as it was on the day itself. Some 10,000 motorists were stuck between junctions 10 and 12 of the M5. I remember afterwards meeting a deaf constituent who had been trapped in his car on the M5, and who did not hear the police when they came to ask everyone to move their vehicles. As so often in a crisis, a combination of accident, the situation at the time and a particular individual’s health resulted in a sort of comic-tragic misunderstanding, of which there were many during this extraordinary period of natural disaster.

Some 500 people were stranded at Gloucester rail station. Severn Trent’s Mythe water treatment centre lost power, and 350,000 people were without running water for 18 days. The Castle Mead electricity substation was overwhelmed, cutting power to almost 50,000 of my constituents. Some 4,000 houses, 500 businesses and 20 schools were flooded, and three people died.

There was a precedent. Curiously, 400 years earlier, in 1607, there was a great flood in Gloucestershire in which huge and mighty hills of water some 25-feet high swept up the Bristol channel, spread over 200 square miles of land and killed 2,000 people. The great Gloucestershire flood 400 years later, in July 2007, was different and resulted in much less loss of life, but its impact on all of us was huge, and it almost led to a national crisis. I make no apology for saying that what was important then—and is important now in Kensington—was to start with absolute objectivity in looking at what happened, rather than trying to use disaster as a party political opportunity.

The critical moment in Gloucester was when Severn Trent’s water was knocked out. The Army came in to deliver water and bowsers, and a number of us got involved in organising volunteers to distribute the water in the supermarket and other carparks. I organised a group of about 25 volunteers, and it all went fairly well. The council then asked me to organise taking water to elderly people at home, which was all set up and ready to start when somebody from the city council asked whether we all had Criminal Records Bureau checks. I said that I had no idea but that I would sign a bit of paper personally guaranteeing that no one in the volunteer group was either a granny basher or a paedophile. That was not good enough, and our volunteers had to stand down. I wondered then, and I still wonder now, at what point exactly in a civil disaster situation comes the moment when organisations drop the normal bureaucratic checks because something has to be done fast and we have to cut corners and accept some risk in order to save lives. Leadership at all levels in natural or other disasters is critical, as we have been reminded since the ghastly inferno at Grenfell Tower.

Meanwhile, down at the tri-service centre at Waterwells in Quedgeley, the then Chief Constable, Tim Brain, as Gold Commander, had powers to organise national and local bodies in one building. For the first time in a long time, the Army got seriously involved, particularly in sandbagging the electrical substation at Walham and delivering capabilities across the area. These Gold Command structures are crucial, but they work only if residents trust the lead individual and organisation. If that does not happen, the Government have to step in and bring in other individuals and organisations, as we have seen in Kensington.

After the floods, the Pitt review was undertaken to analyse the issue, learn the lessons and make recommendations on how to mitigate floods of the future. The Government of the day were slow to implement those, but much progress has since been made, with brooks and streams cleared; willows cut back; riparian responsibilities better known; Flood Re established to handle insurance issues; and Victorian sewers and drains replaced, notably in the city centre, in the wards of Westgate and Kingsholm, at a cost of some £13 million, absorbed by Severn Trent. Those are huge improvements and there has been no flooding in Worcester Street or Kingsholm Road since, despite two years of considerable new floods, although not on the same scale.

The major Government and county council-financed additional infrastructure is the new diversion lake close to Elmbridge Court, which is on the road towards the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, where surplus water coming down the Horsbere brook is automatically transferred. That has already successfully prevented flooding in Longlevens and Elmbridge twice since 2007, as well as adding a superb walk and birdwatching site to our city’s leisure facilities. Lastly, the Environment Agency has improved its mapping, modelling and communications no end, thanks to better technology. Anyone living near the Severn can now get regular email and text alerts, and I encourage all my constituents to do so; they just need to go on to the EA’s website and sign up.

There are things still to be resolved, such as the height of the wall protecting homes by the river at Pool Meadow, on the northern side of Gloucester—that has still to be sorted. We also know that, if extraordinary events happen again, such as the 1607 surge or mini-tsunami, Gloucester and Tewkesbury would once again be in the eye of the storm. Therefore, we must ensure that watercourses are kept clear, man-made defences are maintained, crisis planning is kept up to date, structures are reviewed, substations are protected and contingency plans are in place. We also need to be cautious about giving planning permission for homes on floodplains and to consider the remotest contingency, as who could have anticipated the events of 1607 or 2007? We may not have to wait 400 years for the next natural disaster.

It is worth highlighting the role of local media in providing brilliant information during crises of this kind, and I know that today all regional media will be running huge articles and reports on what happened 10 years ago. They will highlight the value of resilience; the power of communities; and the importance of everyone pulling together in a crisis. That is relevant to us all here, as parties, as constituencies and as a country. The Brexit negotiations are different from the Gloucestershire floods or the Grenfell Tower inferno, but for them and for all other crises we still need resilience, leadership and shared purpose, in order to get through the crisis. The word “crisis” translates as “danger opportunity” in Chinese. We have to deal with the danger and realise the opportunity to be much better prepared for the next challenge that life throws at us all. Today, across Gloucestershire, we will remember what happened, reflect on the lessons and pray that other communities do not face such natural disasters as the one we faced 10 years ago.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I join others in wishing colleagues time with their families and constituents during the recess, and in thanking all staff in Parliament for all their hard work and kindness, not least in looking after our security here.