Flooding: Oxford West and Abingdon

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 5:01 pm, 16th May 2019

I am grateful to the House for allowing me to raise an extraordinarily important issue to my constituents: flooding in Oxford West and Abingdon. I am deeply grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet me, following recent correspondence. We had been in touch via our offices, and then the opportunity for this debate arose. As she is aware, such opportunities are rare, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk in public. I am very grateful for her offer to meet more privately.

In 2007, several hundred households in Abingdon, and several local businesses, were flooded by the River Ock. Thousands of local residents were affected. I need not tell the Minister, who will have heard from other Members from across the country, just how traumatic the experience of being flooded is. We hear stories of people asking, similarly to how they would in the case of a fire, “What is the last thing I need to bring with me? What is important? How do I make sure we are safe? What will I come back to?” Some families were cast out of their homes for nearly a year, which caused enormous stress not just to them, but to their children and the wider community. At the time, there were vows by the community and in local petitions to do everything possible to help and to give the community the certainty it needed.

It is sometimes forgotten that there is always an economic cost to flooding. When the area floods, I have sat for hours on roads in Oxford, waiting to get through traffic and thinking about what else I could be doing at that time. The cost to the country is in the billions.

To turn to the Abingdon case, the Environment Agency, working with the Vale of White Horse District Council, Oxfordshire County Council and the Thames regional flood and coastal committee, announced plans for an Abingdon flood alleviation scheme. After much patience and campaigning, residents were so relieved. Abingdon is in desperate need of such a scheme—this was not the first time it had flooded—especially for the River Ock, which was the main source of the disastrous flooding in 2007 that, as I described, residents will never forget. Imagine their disappointment when it was revealed that the scheme was to be abandoned.

The Environment Agency initially estimated that the scheme would cost £5 million, but when it realised more recently that the true cost was closer to double that, it decided that the value for money case had not been made, and the scheme was scrapped. Twelve years on from the 2007 flood, residents have not forgotten it. Their shock and frustration were palpable, especially given that the announcement to scrap the scheme was made in a seemingly innocuous Environment Agency newsletter in January. There was no public announcement, and, while I had received that same newsletter by email, it did not forcefully highlight or reflect the way in which this would have affected the community.

Of course I did what any Back-Bench MP would do: I called a public meeting. Let me say at this point how grateful I am to the Environment Agency and to the representatives of the local councils who came to explain why this had happened. Questions were whirling. How could the costs have been so badly underestimated? Why would the Government not help, knowing what had happened in Abingdon, which I understand to have been a more than “once in 100 years” occurrence? People came to the meeting in droves—in fact, it was standing room only—and they were cynical, because they had been promised a scheme 12 years earlier.

One of the things that I found most striking about that meeting, apart from the cynicism—we talk about a loss of trust in Parliament, but it is not just about Brexit; decisions like this contribute to that loss of trust as well—was the fact that the community were desperate to do anything to secure what they wanted, and also felt that there was an inequity. The Abingdon scheme had been scrapped but, as the Minister will know very well, a massive scheme—the Oxford flood alleviation scheme—is under way. I represent both areas, so I am not implying any sort of competition. However, one of the residents did ask why £150 million—up from the initial estimate of £100 million—was available for the Oxford flood alleviation scheme but there was nothing for a much smaller scheme in Abingdon, saying “Why are they so much better than us?” That broke my heart, because I do not see my communities in that way.

The Environment Agency’s representatives said that they had secured funding contributions from others, including the local enterprise partnership, for the Oxford scheme. Why is it so difficult for a much smaller scheme to gain that type of funding? Is there something in the funding mechanisms that would enable communities to benefit from the schemes that they need? As I said earlier, the Minister and I have corresponded about this, and she said that the remainder of the funding for the Abingdon scheme should be raised locally by scheme partners and others. However, the EA representatives said at the meeting that they had a part to play. May I ask the Minister—this is a genuine question—what part the EA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs play in trying to secure local funding?

Furthermore—I think that this is important with regard to communication with the local communities—if, as we now find, the decision to scrap the scheme was made in November 2018, why did it take until January for any kind of announcement to be made? I have spoken to a number of local councillors who were equally blindsided by the decision. When it comes to flooding, as with almost anything else, communities do not always want the moon on a stick; they just want to be involved. They want to be part of a decision and to understand why it was made. A public meeting after the fact should not have been necessary for people to obtain the information that they needed.

I ask the Minister this: how can we better engage communities in such decisions? There was no consultation; it looked as if the decision was being made behind closed doors. What is fascinating to me—and lovely—is the fact that, at the meeting, one of the residents raised the option of crowdfunding £6 million for a flood alleviation scheme for the community. That just goes to show the extraordinary good will that exists in areas like Abingdon to try to solve such extremely traumatic issues. However, I think it unlikely that a community—especially one that, while very old, is small—would be able to raise £6 million. So what more can the Government do? What representations is DEFRA making during this period of, hopefully, upcoming spending reviews for schemes that might seem small but, boy, to the communities affected they are not?

I have met Environment Agency representatives many times and, Madam Deputy Speaker, you would be proud because these projects are led by a group of extraordinary women. They are engineers and project managers. They tell me it is a lack of central Government funding that is stopping them delivering these schemes; it is not lack of nous or anything else. Indeed, the natural flood management project manager has been doing great work to find local, natural processes to reduce flood risk, but the money for that will apparently run out in a year’s time. Such smaller schemes mitigate flood risk at a local level.

I am sure the Minister will point out that some schemes have happened in Abingdon. The point I want to make is that that has not assuaged the fears of the whole community. Had she seen what happened there in 2007, she would know that it was akin to what happened in other parts of the country—it was absolutely devastating.

If we cannot afford that process, let alone the full alleviation scheme, I am concerned that the disasters of previous years are destined to repeat themselves. That is to do with the geography of the Thames valley, which is the largest unprotected floodplain in the whole of the United Kingdom—I was shocked to discover that. Everywhere else has something, but the Thames valley, which includes all of us here, does not. This discussion is therefore urgent. It is not simply a case of, “I want to do what’s best for my community,” although of course I do as an MP, because there is a bigger issue: what will we do in the face of climate change for the Thames valley, which is itself completely unprotected?

Added to that, the number of homes in Oxfordshire that the Government want to build has doubled, and there are scheduled to be 1 million new homes across the Thames valley between now and 2050 according to the National Infrastructure Commission. The Environment Agency has been clear: that cannot be done without finally finding some sort of solution to protect the Thames valley.

What conversations is DEFRA having with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on its big plans for infrastructure and for roads? We have the Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway. All this is happening in an unprotected area. In private conversations, the Environment Agency has said categorically that there is no way that it can allow—it is a statutory consultee for all planning applications—all those homes to be built without the situation being sorted out. I am sure that that will come as no surprise to the Minister

I now want to move on to the Oxford flood alleviation scheme which, as I said, will cost £150 million. While the scheme is clearly in a better state than the Abingdon, one it faces delays. A small number of smallholders are challenging the process, as is absolutely their right. I want a little clarification from the Minister about how that will affect the timeline and what the process will be from now on.

While Abingdon faced its own floods because of the Ock, we also have the Cherwell, the Thames and other issues in Oxford itself, which is of course a much larger conurbation. I have already spoken about the economic costs of this scheme not being concluded. My understanding now is that it will not be finished until at least 2024, which is a significant delay.

There are also specific local issues. I understand that the construction at Redbridge would result in enormous amounts of traffic. I also want to mention South Hinksey, which I often do not talk about. It is a small village just off the A34, which is going to be the main route for construction traffic for the Oxford flood alleviation scheme. This was all proceeding without the parish council’s knowledge, so how will we ensure that tiny communities that are badly affected by such issues are taken into account?

I want to talk briefly about climate change. The head of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, gave a stark warning on flooding when the agency published its 50-year flood risk plan earlier this month. The UK needs to tackle our climate emergency head on; otherwise, our communities will face devastating consequences. I find myself puzzled, however. Surely more needs to be done to mitigate the environmental impact of the construction phase of these works. Constituents have raised their concern that the works on the Oxford flood alleviation scheme themselves are not green. This is not just about pollution; it is also about new planting, particularly of ash trees. Can the Minister assure us that the carbon footprint of the mitigation is also being factored into the equation?

The story of flood mitigation in Oxford West and Abingdon continues. We are all aware that we will never be able to fully protect against flooding, but there is much that we can do to mitigate risk. I firmly believe that part of the answer lies in actively involving residents and helping cash-strapped, resource-stretched local councils to find the funding and solutions that they need. These flood alleviation schemes will be vital, and they are long overdue, but they need help. Today I call on Government to please provide the funding necessary to get the Abingdon flood alleviation scheme off the ground and to ensure that the Oxford flood alleviation scheme is arrived at as swiftly and responsibly as possible. In the longer term, we need action to protect the whole Thames valley and to tackle climate change nationally and internationally. I appreciate that those will be no small feats, but I hope that they lie at the heart of the Minister’s Department and in her heart, too. I very much look forward to hearing what she has to say.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:16 pm, 16th May 2019

I congratulate Layla Moran on securing this important debate, in which she has put forward the case for her constituents with great passion. Flood and coastal risk management is a high priority for the Government and, as the MP for Suffolk Coastal, I know very well the impacts that flooding can have on lives and livelihoods. I am aware of the challenges faced by the town of Abingdon and the recent flooding that it has experienced, notably in 2007 when more than 400 homes were flooded by the River Ock, and when water levels exceeded those of the 1947 flood, which was previously the most significant such event in Abingdon.

The Environment Agency has been working in partnership with the Vale of White Horse District Council, Oxfordshire County Council and the Thames regional flood and coastal committee to try to find ways to reduce flooding in Abingdon. The hon. Lady rightly said that a flood wall was built in 2017 in order to better protect some properties at St Helen’s Mill from the River Ock. A further 106 properties can also benefit from the deployment of temporary barriers, and that plan is ready to be deployed, as and when.

The Environment Agency had identified a potential flood risk management scheme in Abingdon, but, as the hon. Lady pointed out, the cost estimate suddenly doubled. It is my understanding that the initial costings came from a desk-based study and that further detailed design and modelling were needed to develop the case further. The original cost of about £5.2 million was the starting point, but the agency then undertook additional modelling and ground investigations, which allowed it to produce the more detailed outline designs for the flood storage area. The cost increasing to £10 million is due not to one specific issue, but rather to a number of activities. For example, the reservoir needs to be compliant with the Reservoirs Act 1975 due to its size, resulting in the need for additional safety measures such as safe access routes for operational staff and maintenance vehicles. After appraisal, the cost has been estimated at about £10 million, as I have said.

Significant effort has been put into appraising this option and understanding the complexities of managing flood risk in the area. The Environment Agency considered whether it would be possible to create a larger flood storage area, but this would have had detrimental impacts on properties upstream. It also reviewed other areas for flood storage opportunities. However, the proposed site is deemed to be the only technically feasible location. This is where we come to the crux of the problem. Unfortunately, it was found that this proposal had a negative cost-benefit ratio and so was not eligible for any support at all from the £2.6 billion of central Government funding that has been made available over six years. The decision was also due in part to the presence of culverted watercourses in the town, which restrict the standard of protection that can be achieved. I regret that, as a result, the option will not be progressed with Government funding, although I am sure the Environment Agency would share its work and its design if a locally funded scheme wanted to proceed.

The Environment Agency also considered a number of local options for the Swift Ditch and River Stert, both of which also contribute to flood risk in Abingdon. At an early stage, however, it established that none of the options would deliver sufficient benefit or reduction in flood risk to deliver value for money. Again, the decision was taken not to progress further.

The hon. Lady spoke about communications. Residents and stakeholders were informed at the end of December through the newsletter she mentioned following the steering group decision. I understand that groups were invited to attend a meeting with the Environment Agency to discuss the matter—for example, the project team met with the Ock Valley Flood Group.

The Environment Agency’s current routine of river maintenance, combined with the impact of existing structures upstream from Abingdon, provides a one in 25 standard of protection in any given year. Despite the project not progressing at this time, the land area for flood storage is protected in the current Vale of White Horse local plan up to 2031. The project might be reconsidered in the light of future changes, but I do not want to get the hon. Lady’s hopes up. Significant changes in terms of reductions in costs or reassessment of benefits would be required to shift the benefit-cost ratio from negative to positive.

From the late 1990s, central Government took on being the main source of funding for flood defences. The Government would fund an entire project or not at all. The funding formula takes a number of factors into account, but the main focus is protecting homes. We changed that in the years of the coalition Government by creating the partnership funding policy. That was introduced by my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, with a little help from me. We invited my right hon. Friend to Suffolk and took him on a journey—basically, we trapped him in a van, and on the way down we explained all the challenges we faced in making use of opportunities to take the work forward, and that led to the establishment of the partnership funding policy. It changed the dynamic so that projects with a positive benefit-cost ratio could benefit from Government funding, but set out clearly to local councils and communities what levels of partnership funding they would need to find for the project to progress.

Partnership funding can be secured from a range of sources, including local beneficiaries, partners and growth funds. Early indications suggest that up to 25% more schemes will go ahead in the coming years than if project costs were fully met by the Government. To give another example, in a Budget a few years ago we announced that companies could get tax relief if they invested in flood defences through approved projects.

The Government set aside £2.6 billion of investment between 2015 and 2021, to better protect the country from flooding. That in itself was significant, because for the first time there was a long-term budget. Instead of a hand-to-mouth existence, with the budget being announced yearly, better planning was possible, as was more sustainable development of projects. That record investment has attracted more than £700 million of additional partnership investment, funding over 1,000 flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 homes by 2021 and is projected to save the economy more than £30 billion in avoided damages. Between 2015 and 2020 we will also spend over £1 billion on the maintenance of flood defence assets.

There is a lot of demand on the floods budget and it is not possible to deliver every proposal that would reduce flood risk. It is my duty as the responsible Minister to take a national perspective on flood risk management, guided by the funding formula. We have been able to release some further funding, particularly for projects in deprived communities, to unlock those projects, and £40 million was allocated to various communities last year.

The future spending review is a matter for negotiation with the Treasury, as will be consideration of a new funding formula that may take into account slightly different factors. At the moment, it is focused on homes, but we are considering extending it to take account of the number of properties and other elements, such as sparsity. Oxford is, of course, well known for its floodplains. Christ Church meadow is probably one of the most famous, but there are many others around the city in particular. Elsewhere on the River Thames some communities and councils are considering raising a levy to bring in protection, but by and large since 2009 the planning guidance to local government has been clear that there should not be building on floodplains. There is the potential for people to do it, but only by designing properties differently—for example, some schemes have the garage on the ground and then the main residence on stilts. We will see what happens with the future spending review, but I will be pressing that case.

The Oxford flood alleviation scheme, which the hon. Lady mentioned, will cost about £150 million and will be one of the biggest flood schemes in the country. It is expected to reduce significantly the flood risk to homes, businesses, services and major transport routes, and while mainly funded by flood defence grant in aid, the project has secured £66.5 million in partnership funding, including from the local enterprise partnership and the county council. The scheme is designed to reduce the risk from floods of a size not seen in Oxford since 1947. Eight months ago, Vale of White Horse District Council commissioned an additional review of the downstream impact modelling, and it confirmed that the scheme would not increase flood risk to properties further downstream.

The hon. Lady mentioned that the Oxford scheme in its current form will present a severe level of disruption to residents during its four-year construction period. I am surprised that she does not seem to accept that such a large project, which will bring many benefits to the city, will bring some disruption. The EA is in discussion with Highways England and the highways authority about the traffic impact on the A34. I understand it is also working closely with South Hinksey Parish Council and the community to listen to and address the concerns raised in their planning application objection. It has arranged a community meeting with the parish council in the summer and has already reassured the community that the temporary footpaths will be of the same standard as those currently in place—in other words, suitable for all users, including cyclists and wheelchair users.

On the suggested environmental impacts, I believe that the project is showing our commitment to improving the natural environment with development. Our tree-planting proposals will result in more woodland within the scheme area. In the long term, this means the area will benefit from an environmental gain of more than 2,000 additional trees. We have designed the scheme to be as natural as possible in appearance and to blend into the surrounding fields. It will work with the natural floodplain and fit in with the existing environment. It will create more than 20 hectares of new wetland habitat, and the second stage part of the channel will be seeded and grazed by cattle to create floodplain grazing marsh. We recognise the importance of Hinksey meadow, a valuable natural habitat that includes many rare species, and we intend to minimise the impact on the existing meadow and create a new meadow of about 18 hectares. Creating larger areas of floodplain meadow will enhance the long-term resilience of those plant communities.

On the compulsory purchase order, the normal procedure is being followed. Following objections, in line with the planning process, a public inquiry will be held. I cannot give the hon. Lady the dates she seeks, because we need to take it through the normal process, but I do not anticipate that the CPO inquiry will unduly delay the scheme. The EA has been working closely with landowners in the scheme area for several years. We are waiting to confirm a date for the inquiry, but I will write to the hon. Lady once we know it. The EA will continue to negotiate with affected landowners, leaseholders, tenants and occupiers as necessary. However, if some objections from affected parties remain unresolved, the public inquiry will go ahead, and an independently appointed inspector will consider the available evidence.

The hon. Lady referred to climate change, and resilience is one of the key features that we are trying to build into the thinking in the EA’s strategy. It matters that we anticipate the future, but we should not worry communities unduly. For example, some people have expressed concerns that communities will just be moved away from the coast. We need to work carefully, and I am sure that hon. Lady will welcome the consultation, which is under way, and the call for the evidence that the Government will issue before the summer recess, which will help to inform the national policy statement that will be published before the end of the year.

In closing, I recognise that this is not the answer the hon. Lady was hoping for and understand that she will want to keep campaigning. If she would still like a meeting, I would be happy to arrange one. Abingdon is a lovely town—it is larger than my Suffolk constituency’s biggest town—and I know that she will continue to put residents’ interests first, but we must be realistic with the communities we represent, recognising that protecting people’s homes is an ongoing challenge, even with the £2.6 billion that we are spending on the programme over this six-year period.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.