Flooding Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for International Development, The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State 3:29 pm, 25th February 2020

I thank the noble Baronesses for their questions and statements. I join them in acknowledging the heroic efforts of our emergency response teams and volunteers. That has been an extraordinary endeavour and, in many respects, a success story in terms of the sheer number of people who have stepped up. I of course agree that recent events are yet another wake-up call in relation to climate change. We are seeing records broken, not just in this country but around the world. I sometimes wonder how many wake-up calls we need before we globally agree and accept the responsibility that falls on this generation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to the Government’s target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. I would love us to achieve net zero sooner; I do not think anyone would disagree. But we must be realistic when we set policy and even the Committee on Climate Change has been clear that there is no path to net zero that does not involve a major commitment on tree planting. However, trees do not tend to be able to absorb significant amounts of carbon until they are about 15 years old. If nature-based solutions are to form part of our endeavour to meet net zero, there is no way we can meet that target by 2030. When we legislated, we were the only serious industrialised country to make such a commitment in law and I am proud of that. We are in many respects world leaders in tackling climate change at home and contributing against it abroad.

The question of building on flood plains has been raised numerous times in the debate and will no doubt continue to be raised. It is a legitimate point: we should not build in areas where homes are at risk of floods if there are alternatives. As was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield in her answer to an earlier question, I am standing at a Dispatch Box on a flood plain right now—London is largely constructed on a flood plain. It is not possible or realistic simply to have a blanket ban. Equally, we should absolutely ensure that homes are not built in areas that put residents at risk and, where there are no alternatives, that such homes are built to be resilient—with raised floor levels and so on.

We have been asked about the review of the insurance scheme, Flood Re. It is correct that it does not currently extend to businesses. However, there is a review, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, knows, and part of that will look at what answers will need to be provided by government in relation to businesses. I should say that a number of specific mechanisms have been available to local authorities to help businesses following the 2015 floods, such as business rate relief and a broader package, none of which would leave a local authority out of pocket. It is not enough, and there is no taking away from the fact that the lives of people, as well as homes and businesses, affected by floods are turned upside down. There is nothing that any Government can do to make that not the case. However, the Government are reviewing the issue and Flood Re may well be extended beyond its current scope, depending on the evidence that is returned.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised but one final issue relates to working with nature as a means of trying to prevent an increase in this problem in the years to come. That is very much part of our strategy and there is no doubt that if we want to prevent the ever-increasing ferocity of floods, we will need somehow to increase the absorbability of land and slow the flow of water across its surface. We know that planting trees massively increases that absorbability and that, when we restore peat lands, the same effect is true. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned beavers. I am a huge fan of the beaver experiment that is unfolding across this country. There is no doubt that where beavers form colonies their activities, not least building dams, enable that particular catchment to hold much more water than it otherwise would. There is some quite strong evidence that where beavers form a colony it reduces the impact of flooding.

As a Government, we are doing a number of things that will ensure that we increasingly put the emphasis on nature-based solutions, not least the new land use subsidy system that we will introduce to replace the common agricultural policy. Instead of paying landowners more or less simply for owning farmable land, we will ensure that those payments are entirely conditional upon the provision of some kind of public good, whether that is flood prevention, biodiversity support or access for people in cities. Equally, we have committed to establish a nature for climate fund worth £640 million. Much of that will be spent to ensure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment to plant trees on 30,000 hectares per year, but it also includes money for restoring our valuable peat lands across the country, among other things.

There is an enormous amount of work to do but, from the commitments that this Government have already made, which I hope we will continue to build on over the coming months in this hugely important year—the super year for nature—it is clear that the Government have taken these issues extraordinarily seriously and are responding to the challenge as they should.