Flooding: Oxford West and Abingdon

Part of International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 16th May 2019.

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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.