Flooding: Somerset — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 10th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:03 pm, 10th February 2014

With the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a response to an Urgent Question made in the House of Commons by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

“Mr Speaker, as is evident from the dark skies outside, we continue to face extraordinary and sustained wet weather. COBRA has met every day since my Oral Statement on Thursday with all departments working closely together, including my colleagues at Defra. We have made clear again that every resource is available to the local communities affected. We will keep providing whatever immediate practical support and assistance is needed, whether that is extra pumps and sandbags, military support on the ground or emergency funds from the severe weather assistance fund for local councils.

The Somerset moors and levels have been one of the areas hardest hit by the weather, with 65 million cubic metres of flood-water on the land. The rivers Tone and Parrett have been particularly affected by continued rainfall leading to heightened river levels. In total, people in 150 properties across the Somerset Levels, where there is a threat of severe flooding, have been advised to leave their homes. A rest centre has been established at Bridgwater. Military personnel have been tasked to work alongside local authorities, and are currently filling sandbags for deployment. Pumping continues, but it is challenging to keep pace with the inflow from the latest rainfall and levels are increasing in some areas. It is likely to take weeks to remove the sheer volume of flood-water once there is a significant break in the weather.

Across the Thames Valley and Surrey, the River Thames is rising, and bursting its banks in certain locations. A sandbag programme is in place at key points of vulnerability. A multiagency “gold command” has been set up in Croydon to co-ordinate the response locally, and a major incident has been declared. There is a high risk that the Thames, the Severn and the Wye will flood in the middle of the week. Local responders are actively engaged in planning and preparation.

As I told the House on Thursday, I commend the hard work of the emergency services, local authorities, the Armed Forces and the on-the-ground staff of the Environment Agency. As I said, there will be lessons to be learnt, including Environment Agency policies on issues such as dredging and how it spends its budget of £1.2 billion a year.

I note that the issue of international development funding has been touched upon over the weekend. Just as it was a false choice to cast town versus country, so it is wrong to pit helping the victims of flooding at home against those suffering abroad. We can and should help both; helping the plight of those facing the awfulness of flooded homes in Britain as well as taking action to help malnourished children dying from dirty water abroad. But I also believe taxpayers’ money should be well spent, and that applies to quangos just as much as it does to the international aid budget. By spending money wisely, we can better meet our moral obligations first to Britain and then to the world. But the first and primary obligation of Her Majesty’s Government is defence of this realm: urban and rural, city and county, and that is what we are doing”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 5:07 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for repeating the response to the UQ asked in another place. In doing so he made reference to the Somerset Levels. It will be a considerable relief to those living and farming on the Somerset Levels that the Army has been made available to assist with efforts to protect homes, farms and other businesses. Combined with efforts of the fire and rescue service, police, Environment Agency staff, local government workers and many volunteers, it is clear that there is finally a concerted effort being made in responding to the floods. However, does the Minister understand the anger and frustration that it took so long for this level of response to be organised by the Government, considering the fact that many people have been dealing with rising water levels since before Christmas? In particular, given that unemployment in the south-west is rising and employment is falling, can the Minister provide an update on the work going into restoring the vital rail connectivity to Devon and Cornwall? Have Ministers formally asked Network Rail to present options for long-term solutions to the vulnerability of this line, including rerouting?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

First, I say to the noble Lord that I absolutely understand the frustration and the feelings of those who have been directly affected by these frankly awful weather events. We are doing whatever we can to make sure that properties of people are protected from flooding. Our efforts have meant that 1.2 million properties which would have been flooded since December have not been flooded.

The noble Lord asks specifically about Network Rail. I can tell him that Network Rail is developing strategies for securing the long-term resilience of the railways. Over the next five years, the operator has asked the Office of Rail Regulation for nearly half a billion pounds to invest in resilience improvement projects. In terms of the present, Network Rail engineers are on-site at a number of locations in the south-west, doing all they can to make repairs where the weather conditions permit.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative 5:09 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, while applauding the work that is being done to try to help people in the stricken areas, particularly the Somerset Levels, can we look for a moment at the longer term? My noble friend told us last Thursday that,

“the Secretary of State has asked for a clear action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset Levels and moors to resolve the problem for the next 20 years”.—[ Official Report , 6/2/14; col. 264.]

Can I draw my noble friend’s attention to a recently published article by Dr Colin Clark, who is an extremely well known hydrologist, in charge of the Charldon Hill research centre in Somerset? The article is entitled, “Floods on the Somerset Levels: a Sad Tale of Ignorance and Neglect”—over the past 20 years. While having to deal with the crisis now is obviously absolutely crucial, I hope that the action plan will take account of the extremely important points made in Dr Clark’s article, where he identifies in some considerable detail—

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

He says in considerable detail what actually should be done.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my noble friend for that. It is one of the helpful pieces of advice that is coming in. One issue that has been raised from a lot of quarters is that of dredging, which is only one part of flood maintenance work. Evidence shows that other maintenance activities, such as maintaining pumps, sluice gates and raised embankments, can sometimes provide better value for money in terms of protecting communities from flooding. The effectiveness of dredging in managing flood risk will therefore continue to be assessed on a location-by-location basis in full discussion with local communities and landowners. But I take my noble friend’s advice.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, in one respect, the Minister’s Statement is a bit disappointing, because the very long term is what we also need to consider. Does he not agree that the Government need to recognise increasingly that we have to mitigate against climate change, which is increasingly threatening us? There is a serious risk—and it is not only in Somerset; there is a much wider problem that we might be embarking on, as most scientists would agree.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I certainly do not disagree with that myself, my Lords. The noble Lord makes a really important point. Not only should we adapt to it, which is the substance of what we are talking about today, but we need to mitigate it as well.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench

My Lords, I have a very similar question. The speed at which water is now running from hillsides and from urban areas—tarmac and concrete—is part of the problem, coupled with the extreme weather events that we are now seeing. Catchment management is critical to try to reduce and mitigate the risk. I hope that the department is taking that very seriously.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We spoke about that in the debate on the Statement last week, at which stage I said how seriously the Government take that strategy.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s Statement. As we all know, attention has rightly focused on the Somerset Levels and the terrible plight that people are enduring there, but when I left Worcester this morning the city was gridlocked as a result of the closure of the main bridge across the river and the situation remains acute. I do not want to apportion blame; I want to pay tribute to those who are working very hard and to the understanding and graciousness of the inhabitants of Worcester. However, it is true that the implications of this will be enormous, economically and from a human point of view. Can the Minister confirm that a coherent policy will be forthcoming for all the affected areas, not just those most terribly affected?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right—I can confirm that. We have finite resources and must apportion them in a proper way, in accordance with priorities, and the priorities must be human life and property. While I am at the Dispatch Box, can I say that, although I have not given them credit, I know that the churches in Somerset in particular are playing a major part in helping people affected by this dreadful tragedy?

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply to the Question that we had in another place. Does he agree with me that the last thing that all those who are suffering want to hear is people arguing among themselves? As well as helping them now, we must look to the future and make sure that, whatever we put in place, we have enough money to maintain it when it is there.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree, my Lords. It is very important that we focus on the job in hand. The Prime Minister has asked the Minister for Government Policy to undertake an exercise to see what lessons can be learnt from our response to this extreme bad run of bad weather.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch UKIP

My Lords, to what extent has the Environment Agency’s action or inaction, particularly in the Somerset Levels, been influenced or dictated by Brussels? For instance, was the dredging of any water courses prevented by the EU and, if so, why?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, in a time of a great tragedy for people down on the Somerset moors, it is a shame to seek to place recriminations. We should be getting on with the job in hand.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

Is my noble friend aware that there have been one or two most unfortunate reports of theft of fuel from some of the abandoned properties? Can he assure me that every possible effort is being made by the police and anyone else who is helping, including the Army, to make sure that these properties are secure? Will he ensure that proper recognition is given to what seems to be an enormously welcome—particularly to the farmers—voluntary movement of substantial supplies from other farms around the region, and give every encouragement to that?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am aware of that, we have spoken about it today and I am hugely grateful for the support coming in from around the West Country in particular, as well as from further afield, in terms of supplies for farms and so on. It is extremely generous of people. On his point about theft, I strongly sympathise with people who are forced to leave their homes. Of course they will secure them as they leave, just as they would when going to work. Regrettably, there are those who seek to capitalise on people’s misfortunes, and I can assure my noble friend that the police are patrolling and monitoring in the area.

Photo of Baroness Billingham Baroness Billingham Labour

My Lords, this flooding is a catastrophe for those who are living through and having to get through the present situation. However, we are using sticking plasters and not really dealing with the major, underlying problem. Is it not time that the Government, in order to enable the Environment Agency to do the work that we need it to do, reinstated the £100 million cut from its budget?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, noble Lords will be aware, because I have said it enough times from this Dispatch Box, that we are spending a huge sum of money on flood defences. We will continue to do so and, indeed, have made a commitment for six years into the future. I have not heard the Environment Agency say that a shortage of funds is the problem in this case.