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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax 5:13 pm, 26th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow such a passionate speech from Mr Paterson.

It will probably not surprise Members to learn that I shall be focusing my comments on part 5 of the Bill, largely because extreme weather is starting to pose an almost existential crisis to us in parts of Calderdale. The water levels that we saw in 2015, and again earlier this month, presented an immediate threat to life, and a more long-term challenge to the viability of communities alongside the river and the canal.

An ongoing challenge for us in flood-affected communities throughout the north, in particular, is that the legislation and regulation that underpin the role of water companies are heavily weighted towards mitigating drought risk. The climate change adaptation work reflected in both the 25-year environment plan and the Bill, while recognising flood risk, does not provide the same level of seriousness in legislation relating to the risks of both flooding and drought, and I should like to see a rebalancing of those challenges.

In July last year I presented a ten-minute rule Bill, the Reservoirs (Flood Risk) Bill, which—in a nutshell—sought to give the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk. The Bill followed years of conversations between the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and Calderdale Council about the role of the six Yorkshire Water reservoirs in the upper catchment in the Calder Valley. In the winter of 2017-18, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency started a trial to manage the Hebden Water reservoirs down to 90% of their usual top storage level, with the aim of assessing the potential of utilising the reservoirs as a more long-term flood risk management option. Maintaining the reservoirs at 90% instead of the usual percentage created an extra 10% capacity to hold more water in the upper catchment during periods of heavy rainfall. Although the reservoirs were placed under nothing like the pressure during the trial period that they experienced during Boxing day 2015’s Storm Eva or more recently Storms Ciara and Dennis, the report was able to conclude:

“The lower reservoir levels did provide a significant impact on peak flows in Hebden Water for largest events observed during this period”.

The report was clear that the scheme had a positive impact on flood mitigation, and that a managed and collaborative approach would be complementary to ongoing flood protection work in the area. This approach is not just happening in Calderdale; similar conversations are happening right across the country, including at Thirlmere reservoir in Cumbria, at reservoirs in the upper Don Valley and at Watergrove reservoir in Rochdale.

The Environment Bill recognises that climate change and extreme weather will place additional pressures on water availability, and although it legislates for a requirement on water companies to work regionally to publish joint proposals to mitigate drought risk, it does not seem to place the same expectations on water companies to mitigate flood risk. Drought risk and flood risk seem to be perpetually at odds with each other throughout legislation, although both are expected to occur with increased frequency. So while I very much welcome a more regional approach, I would like to see a rebalancing of both those risks, alongside the investment in infrastructure that would give whole regions the flexibility to move water with ease and to manage the risk, making us more resilient to too much water as well as not enough.

In relation to the role of reservoirs, I will be looking to table amendments to part 5 of the Bill that would set out the transfer of powers to the Environment Agency and the framework in which such arrangements between the EA and water companies, in consultation with local authorities and communities, would work together to put localised plans in place for managing down pre-designated reservoir levels during periods of heightened risk.

As we know, this is just one piece of the enormous jigsaw that needs to come together if we are to bring the ongoing risks that we face in Calderdale under control. Given the vast scale of the moorland in the upper catchment, natural flood management schemes will be instrumental if we are to hold and slow water before it reaches homes and businesses down the valley. Last summer, I visited Dove Stone nature reserve in High Peak with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, where a comprehensive peatland restoration project is under way. We were planting sphagnum moss, which not only helps to manage flood risk by locking in water but promotes biodiversity, prevents wildfires and stores carbon.

Slow the Flow in Calderdale promotes natural flood management, and with a group of volunteers with an impressive collective skillset, it has been working with the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Calderdale Council since 2016 to use the natural environment to build leaky dams, stuff gullies and promote sustainable drainage and natural attenuation schemes. This work disrupts the flow of water as it makes its way down the valley, forcing it to spread out and slow down, and holds as much water up in the crags for as long as possible.

The really impressive thing about Slow the Flow is its determination to measure its outcomes, its desire to take an evidence-based approach to what it does and to crunch the numbers to demonstrate the real value of its work. Its work on attenuation ponds, which are designed to hold water in the event of heavy rainfall, suggests that if the 43 attenuation ponds identified as possible sites by Calderdale Council were delivered at a cost of £600,000 for 29,000 metres cubed of water storage—bear with me—this would equate to £21 per cubic metre of storage, compared with the £1,270 per cubic metre cost of the storage delivered by the hard flood defences in Mytholmroyd. The truth is that we need both, but we can see how cost-effective natural flood management is. It is 61 times more cost-effective per cubic metre of water storage.

I therefore very much welcome the local nature recovery strategy in the Bill, building on the notion of natural capital and acknowledging the very real, tangible benefits for people and communities if we can store and slow water in the upper catchment. However, I would like to see the Bill include hard and ambitious targets for recovering moorland and peatlands in particular, and not only for flood alleviation purposes; nature-based solutions will play a critical role in mitigating climate change. Peatland currently covers 12% of the UK’s total land and contains more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. However, it is currently in poor condition. If we look after and manage our peatlands, we can continue to lock in that carbon and absorb more, but if degradation continues we risk not only missing that opportunity but releasing the carbon already stored.

I will briefly turn to the issue of Cobra meetings, because I have been at the deep end of flood crises in Calderdale twice during my time in office. While we cannot legislate for Cobra meetings as part of this process, I have just seen the Secretary of State’s comments to the “Ministers Reflect” series last year. When asked whether Cobra meetings make a difference, he replied:

“Yes, they do, because Cobra is designed to try give everybody a kind of proverbial kick up the backside and get things moving.”

Can I ask for that approach once again in relation to the damage that we have sustained in Calderdale?