My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and draw the attention of the House to my register of interests, which include being a councillor in Kirklees, which is in West Yorkshire, where there has been significant flooding.
On behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches, I wish to record my admiration and gratitude for the amazing dedication and sheer hard work of the staff from local councils, the Environment Agency, the emergency services and, of course, the many volunteers.
When the flooding is no longer news and when the water has receded, local people will still be picking up the pieces of what is left of their lives. A resident in my town whose home was flooded is living in a local hotel, where she will be for months. A profitable manufacturing business in the next-door town is to close permanently, with inevitable job losses, because it can no longer afford recovery costs. It is simply not worth its while. My understanding is that due to escalating costs, businesses are not eligible for the Flood Re insurance scheme. Are the Government content to see businesses close by not extending this scheme? If not, will the Minister commit to providing the House with a definitive and—I trust—positive answer to this problem?
The flooding experience has been intensive and devastating. We have heard what steps the Government are planning, but anyone living in a flood-prone place will probably not feel reassured if other places are being protected while they are not. The Government must make flood-water retention a key element of their approach, which currently appears to be more about physical barriers. Does the Minister agree that it is simply not possible to build ourselves out of this regular flooding crisis?
There are alternative approaches which, to coin a phrase, go with the flow. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, who is not in her place, has recounted the success of the Slowing the Flow at Pickering scheme. The peat moors of the Pennine uplands will act like a massive sponge where landowners allow that to happen, and the University of Exeter has reported that beavers on the River Otter have successfully contributed to flood alleviation. Beavers everywhere: what fun that would be. What is so thoroughly disappointing is the Government’s commitment to building defences when natural approaches may well be more effective and enable natural improvements to our environment. Will the Government’s flood alleviation policies include many of these ideas?
I have referred previously to the issue of the number of organisations responsible for different parts of the drainage system. Every part is under considerable stress, which inevitably contributes to flooding. Local authorities are under extreme financial pressure. As part of the flood prevention approach, will the Minister consider government funding for flood-prone councils, so that highway drainage systems can be properly cleared and, if necessary, upgraded?
Finally, there is the thorny issue of development on land at risk of flooding, which the head of the Environment Agency has spoken about today. It is not as simple as that, of course. Local authorities avoid allocating land that is set aside for flood plains, but developers are not required to take responsibility for building on land that will cause flooding elsewhere, and are not required to construct homes that include flood prevention as an essential element. Will the Minister ask his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to instruct all local authorities to review land allocation to ensure that no such land is in an area with a high risk of flooding? Further, will he request that the necessary regulation are introduced to include responsibility for buildings to be part of the Hackitt recommendations, which the Government have accepted in full? The Environment Bill provides the opportunity to set out a long-term approach. Meanwhile, thousands of people, communities and businesses need the assurance that the Government will provide a significantly more generous financial offer than currently exists, and that the Government have recognised the fact that, once the media headlines have long gone, their needs will not disappear with them.