It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Beth Winter, who spoke so eloquently about some of the issues that we all face. My heart goes out to the communities across the country who have been affected by the nightmare of flooding. I am sure the whole House agrees with that sentiment and I support my colleagues in their endeavours in this regard.
I am conscious of time, so I will address just three issues. The first is the scale of the challenge that we all face; I am therefore speaking in favour of the motion. The second is the need for better flood protection in my constituency, which includes Reading itself, Caversham and Woodley, and the third, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, is the need for leadership.
I think it is worth considering both the vast scale of the storms that we face this winter and the broader long-term trend towards warmer, wetter winters. The fact that that is coupled with drier summers does not reduce the flood risk in the winter; indeed, it increases it, and we need to consider that very seriously. Following such a major series of incidents as we have faced during this autumn and winter, the normal response in the House, and from any sensible Government, would be to request an independent inquiry. I believe that an inquiry is important, and I urge the Government to reconsider and withdraw their amendment.
Let me now move swiftly on to the issues in my own area. Reading sits on the River Thames. It is also the point at which the Kennet, which is a major tributary of the Thames, joins the river. It was striking to go down and observe the scale of the flow, and to see a mighty river like the Thames in flood. It is truly terrifying to see the force of the water coming past. Dr Spencer spoke well when expressing concerns about his area. In our part of the Thames valley, we are lucky to be in a river catchment that sits on soft rock which absorbs water, unlike colleagues in other parts of the country, including the north of England and Wales, where, so tragically, water floods down very rapidly. We are also lucky to benefit from the “sponge” effect of the chalk in the Cotswolds and the Chilterns. In the long run, however, we face serious prospects of increased flood risk.
In 1947, there were substantial floods in Reading and several hundred houses were affected; these are older properties, built in Victorian times on an existing floodplain on either side of the river. Indeed, some parts of the suburb of Caversham are actually below river level. If the Thames were to flood catastrophically in our area, we would see water spread up to half a mile from the river. I can tell those who have ever visited Reading on a train that, in such an event, they would be travelling on tracks that were lapped by a mighty flood from the Thames. Clearly, there needs to be serious and substantial action to protect the town and the surrounding area from this type of flood and action on the tributaries, as I mentioned earlier. I would like Ministers and officials to put more effort into exploring the possibility of changing land use upstream, given that we have such a large catchment.