Storm Babet

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 25 October 2023.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Angela Constance on the response to storm Babet. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Parliament on the exceptional weather that Scotland experienced last week as a consequence of storm Babet. I begin by expressing condolences to the families and friends of the people who lost their lives due to the extreme conditions that were caused by the storm. I also express my sympathy for those whose homes and businesses have been damaged by the extensive flooding. I thank and pay tribute to local and national authorities, volunteers, the emergency services and members of the public for all their hard work and efforts in the extremely challenging conditions.

I highlight the impressive community response to offer support to all the people affected by the floods. Angus Council received hundreds of offers of alternative accommodation for those who were forced to evacuate their homes. That is testament to the strong community networks in Scotland that are there to support people.

On Thursday 19 October, the Met Office took the serious step of issuing a red weather warning of threat to life. The Met Office issues such warnings when dangerous weather is expected with substantial disruption and the possibility of widespread damage to property and infrastructure. Red weather warnings are extremely rare and extremely serious.

The Met Office’s national climate information centre has calculated that, provisionally, 19 October 2023 was the wettest day for the county of Angus in a series from 1891, and 7 October 2023 was the sixth wettest day in that series, so there have been exceptional rainfall amounts across the Angus area.

Serious impacts were felt across Scotland but were felt most keenly along the North Esk and the South Esk, including in Brechin, where, unfortunately, the flood protection scheme overtopped and was subsequently breached. Nonetheless, the flood protection scheme delayed the impact and provided valuable time to prepare for evacuation. Nearly 350 properties in Brechin were evacuated on Thursday afternoon. Angus Council and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are assessing the extent of the damage to the Brechin flood protection scheme.

The flooding has also had an impact on communities in parts of Aberdeenshire, Tayside and Dundee. The process of assessing the full amount of damage that has been caused by storm Babet will take time. The road to recovery will be long, but the Scottish Government will support our partners to ensure that communities can recover as quickly as possible.

The Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance agreed the activation of the Bellwin scheme on Tuesday 24 October. The Bellwin scheme exists to give special financial assistance to councils that face an undue financial burden as a result of large-scale emergencies. To date, three local authorities have notified the Scottish Government of a potential claim relating to storm Babet. The Scottish Government stands ready to support local authorities to carry out the immediate work that is required.

We recognise that communities and home owners will seek to make vital repairs to secure their homes. Crisis grants are available through the Scottish welfare fund to families and people in Scotland who are on low incomes and have been hit by a crisis such as a flood, and people can apply for a grant through their local authority.

The Scottish Government has funded the Scottish Flood Forum since 2009 to work with communities to build flood resilience and support people who have been affected by flooding. The forum, which offers free advice and information on issues such as recovering from flooding, is working with communities that have been affected by storm Babet.

We face a climate crisis and, although no single storm event can be solely attributed to climate change, events such as storm Babet are becoming more frequent, intense and destructive due to the changing climate. Storm Babet reinforces the need to think strategically about Scotland’s future and what we need to do to adapt to our changing climate.

The Scottish Government supports local authorities to deliver actions that protect our communities and businesses. We have committed an additional £150 million during the course of this parliamentary session on top of the £42 million that is provided annually to councils to increase flood resilience through the general capital grant.

Flood protection schemes are one important tool to help our communities to become more flood resilient. This year, three new flood protection schemes have been completed in Caol and Lochyside, Arbroath and Stonehaven. That infrastructure is a crucial part of our flood resilience approach, but it is not the only tool that is available to us. We are taking action across agriculture, transport, forestry and the water industry and planning sectors, and we are integrating flood resilience measures into policies to deliver multiple benefits.

The agri-environment climate scheme promotes land management practices that protect and enhance Scotland’s natural heritage, manage flood risk and adapt to climate change. To date, £285 million has been committed to more than 3,000 businesses.

Transport Scotland is spending more than £2 million a year on drainage improvement schemes and on a watercourse realignment scheme to enhance the flood resilience of Scotland’s road network.

Forestry Scotland estimates that the capacity of woodlands to store water and slow down run-off to downstream communities is worth almost £100 million a year to the Scottish economy. Its new woodland for riparian benefits forestry grant scheme opened in July 2023, offering grant support for woodland creation near rivers. Around 175,000 hectares of land has been identified for woodland planting, all with the potential to slow the flow of flooding, among numerous other benefits.

To future proof our developments against climate change, the fourth national planning framework—NPF4—aims to strengthen flood resilience by making it much harder to build in areas that are at risk of flooding, by supporting the protection and management of our important natural assets in a sustainable and regenerative way and by promoting the use of natural flood management and blue-green infrastructure.

However, despite all the good work to date by the Scottish Government and responsible authorities, our changing climate means that flooding impacts are still on the increase, and we recognise that our current approach to delivering flood management actions is not keeping pace with that. Indeed, events at the weekend are a reminder that climate change is not a far-off distant threat; it is a crisis that is here and now. We know that our climate will continue to change for many years to come, so the decisions that we make today have to stand the test of time. In January, we will start consulting on a new national adaptation plan. We have a lot to gain by ensuring that Scotland is well positioned to continue thriving in the face of a changing global climate. The plan will set out the tools that are available to ensure that lives and livelihoods are adapting well to the impacts of climate change.

Fundamental to our approach to climate adaptation is responding to the increasing impacts of flooding, which is Scotland’s biggest climate adaptation challenge and one that is set to become more difficult in the years to come. Meeting that challenge will require a team Scotland approach involving a broad range of delivery partners to ensure that our places and communities can continue to thrive in the face of the climate emergency.

Our new national flood resilience strategy will form an integral part of shaping a climate-resilient Scotland. The strategy will look ahead to 2045 and beyond and capture the big issues that must be addressed if we are to transition towards a sustainable level of flood resilience in our changing climate.

The impacts in Brechin—despite it having flood protection built to a high standard—illustrate that we cannot always protect our communities from all flood impacts 100 per cent of the time and that we should be considering all actions that can be implemented to increase flood resilience.

It has been an exceptionally challenging few days. We should not underestimate the impact that severe weather events have on our families and communities. It is critical that we take action to mitigate the impact of future events, and the Scottish Government will continue to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question would now press their request-to-speak button.

Photo of Tess White Tess White Conservative

I associate myself with the tributes to the people who tragically lost their lives in storm Babet, and I pay tribute to the front-line responders, emergency services, individuals, businesses and community organisations who have worked tirelessly to support the affected communities. From River Street in Brechin to the North Esk caravan park in St Cyrus, scores of people are homeless, with little prospect of return in the coming months.

As happened to so many others across the north-east, my home in the Mearns has been badly damaged by the severity of the storm. Families are living in Airbnbs and depending on the goodwill of others. The flood defence scheme in Angus, which cost £16 million in 2016, was all but swept away in a matter of hours. Infrastructure needs to be repaired, and significant changes need to be made in the vicinity of River South Esk. There are massive issues with coastal erosion and with flood damage to farms in Montrose that need to be addressed. The bill could run to millions of pounds.

My three questions to the cabinet secretary are as follows. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the funds that will be made available through the Bellwin scheme will touch the sides of the crisis? How will the Scottish Government work with insurance firms to help residents who have been hit by flooding, as Humza Yousaf has committed to doing? What support is available to Angus Council to rehome those who will not be able to return to River Street for months?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I am well aware that, through personal experience, Ms White will be aware of the damage and the trauma, and of how frightening it is to be a victim of flooding and the dangers of rapidly rising water. As she has done, we should always pay tribute to those who have lost their lives. Three lives were lost in Scotland, and there are reports of four lives having been lost elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

People will have protections under homelessness legislation, and the Scottish Government and our housing colleagues will continue to support Angus Council in that regard.

It is important to recognise that the flood defence scheme was built to a very high standard and has, in the past, done the job that it was designed to do. On this occasion, it did not, but it is worth remembering that it delayed the deluge and allowed valuable time for evacuation. There will need to be an assessment of repair costs.

As I said in my statement, the Bellwin scheme is now operational. There will need to be assessment of the damage that has been done at local level, and there will be sympathetic discussions between the Scottish Government and the local areas.

I confirm that the Scottish Government has been in touch with the Association of British Insurers, because we need a timeous and sympathetic response for the people who are in need. We will also continue to engage closely with our colleagues in Angus.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I thank the minister for advance notice of her statement. We in Scottish Labour also send our condolences to the families who have lost a loved one. The floods have had a devastating impact on people’s homes, on businesses and on farming communities.

I also thank the emergency services and communities for coming together to support people in their time of need. I welcome the fact that the Bellwin scheme has been activated to support local authorities, given the scale of the damage that has been caused, but lessons must be learned urgently.

The Brechin scheme was built only seven years ago and was designed to deal with a one-in-200-years incident. We urgently need to understand why it failed to protect the communities that it was designed to serve. That will be critical to planning for new infrastructure. Can the cabinet secretary say what the timescale is for publishing an analysis of why the damage was so severe? What work is being done to review existing and planned flood prevention infrastructure? What will be done to accelerate flood resilience to support communities, businesses and farmers?

Finally, I agree that the climate crisis will lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather. How will we make sure that all our transport infrastructure—road and rail—is resilient and equipped to deal with the more extreme weather that we will face?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

There was a lot in Ms Boyack’s question, so if I do not respond to all of her points, I will be happy to correspond with her with further detail or to ask my colleagues to do that.

The damage was so severe because the weather was so severe. We had two storms within two weeks, and, there was two months’ worth of rainfall in two days.

I absolutely concur with the point that Sarah Boyack raised about learning lessons, as the Scottish Government contributed 80 per cent of the cost of the Brechin scheme. Although such engineering projects are vital, they are only one part of an overall plan. We need to learn the lessons so that, as we move forward, we can assess where engineering projects will be most beneficial and can be targeted at areas that are most at risk. In short, however, the engineering projects are only one part of the solution, and I hope that I have managed to speak to that in my statement today.

The member’s point about farmers is very important. Our farmers and food producers are on the front line of climate change and the climate emergency. I appeal to retailers and supermarkets to be responsive, respectful and, where possible, sympathetic to the needs of farmers and food producers. There is a range of support available—for example, through RSABI, which is the agricultural benevolent fund, and the agri-environment climate scheme.

The member also touched on the importance of a national flood resilience strategy, which needs to capture all the actions that we must pursue.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

During the recent extreme weather events, which had significant effects in my constituency, including the tragic death of my constituent Wendy Taylor, a number of flooding problems were, thankfully, avoided through the outstanding efforts and intervention of local volunteer resilience groups. Those groups have tried-and-tested experience of managing such situations—including in Aberfeldy and Alyth, to name but two areas—and they work in collaboration with public sector responders.

Will the Government commit to building into future resilience plans the vital role that volunteer-based organisations can play in supporting communities to deal with the awful effects of flooding, and take practical steps to offer the necessary support to make that happen?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

The short answer is yes. I echo John Swinney’s comments and thanks, and I pay tribute to the resilient volunteers in his constituency and across the north-east who have, as he said, been outstanding.

Voluntary and community sector organisations are, alongside statutory response organisations, valued participants in our resilience structures, and in the processes for planning and responding to, and recovering from, emergencies. In order to assist them, the Scottish Government emergency planning portal Ready Scotland, at www.ready.scot, has been updated to include a new section that is designed to support and help community groups, voluntary sector partners and the public to understand how they can participate in an effective and joined-up response to emergencies.

I can also advise members that my resilience officials have been running a series of online community resilience workshops, which have to date been joined by 240 participants. We will continue to work with the voluntary and community sectors and, in particular, with local authorities, which play a lead role in engaging with local communities, to understand their training needs and to provide additional resources if those are required.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

It is vital that the public follows official guidance, in particular with regard to red weather warnings—the highest level of alert—to help to preserve life and aid the emergency services. Many stakeholders worked hard to communicate those messages to support residents and businesses to take the right actions.

Can the cabinet secretary outline what additional steps the Scottish Government is considering to help local authorities, emergency services and others to reinforce communication channels for future incidents?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Mr Golden raises an excellent point. It is a fundamental point, because storm Babet had the first red alert that this country has had since 2015, when there was a red alert for storm Desmond. We need communication at each and every level.

I contend that the communication at the national level was effective and, where support was needed and requested, emergency services supplemented communications support and communications-officer support to local authorities. One of the benefits of having a resilient structure that operates at local, regional and national levels is that they can all chip in and support each other and direct support where it is required.

Ms Boyack raised a point about important learning. Bearing in mind that there are instances of people not following advice, I am particularly interested in looking in more detail at the barriers to people following advice and at how we might increase the prospect of people following advice, not just through our many communications channels, but by looking at who communicates—and how they do so—messages that can be destabilising and frightening. That was an excellent point, which I will definitely pursue.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and for paying tribute to the people who went above and beyond during the storms.

As a representative of the north-east, I know the harsh impact that extreme weather events such as Babet have on the energy and food security of rural communities. With each extreme weather event, we often see delayed deliveries of goods and empty supermarket shelves. Will the Scottish Government commit to ensuring that the energy and food security of rural communities such as Banffshire and Buchan Coast are built into future resilience plans, so that power cuts are minimised and shelves are restocked in good time?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Extreme weather events can be extremely disruptive to supermarket operations. Empty shelves sometimes represent sensible behaviours by citizens who have acknowledged weather warnings and are preparing themselves for disruption.

The wellbeing of people in an emergency has to be a key and central part of resilience planning. Access to food is one element of that, so we will continue to seek opportunities to support and improve that. Food features significantly as an issue in the Scottish Government resilience meetings, and we have well-established routes and relationships with key stakeholders, including supermarkets, to monitor supplies and potential issues. However, over the years, we have learned a lot about managing supplies—not least through the Covid pandemic.

With regard to energy resilience, although the energy sector is reserved to the UK Government, as a Government we work closely with the UK Government and the energy network operators. Although there were power outages and substantial disruptions, the energy companies and the energy sector worked hard to ensure that more than 30,000 households were reconnected as quickly as possible.

Photo of Mercedes Villalba Mercedes Villalba Labour

I offer my condolences to everyone who has lost loved ones and been affected by the devastating impact of storm Babet.

Unless we act, extreme weather events such as last week’s storm will become more frequent and severe, and we will continue to mourn victims of climate change around the world. However, the Scottish Government has already admitted to breaching its statutory climate duties and has already missed four of its five most recent emissions targets. Can the minister assure my constituents in the North East Scotland region that her Government will meet its next emissions reduction target?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

My understanding is that the Parliament has a duty to work together to ensure that we, as a nation, do everything possible to meet our pivotal climate change targets. The Government will always aim high, and I am sure that the Parliament will always hold us to account.

I agree with the member that storm Babet and other, frequent storms emphasise once again that climate change is not some distant future event—it is with us here and now.

With regard to our future actions, the consultation that will be undertaken on the national adaptation plan will be crucially important, as will the national flood resilience strategy, which will be published next year. Crucially, it is about us all working together, not just across Government but across the Parliament and the nation.

Photo of Evelyn Tweed Evelyn Tweed Scottish National Party

I offer m y condolences to the families and friends of those people who died in storm Babet.

In my constituency, areas such as Aberfoyle and Callander regularly flood. Discussions on large-scale flood defence schemes have been on-going for some time. What support is available to residents and business owners to help reduce the risk of damage to their properties while they await progress on flood defence schemes?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

T he responsibility for the development and delivery of flood protection schemes rests with individual local authorities, which are best placed to respond to those local resilience needs. Nonetheless, the Scottish Government continues to fund the Scottish Flood Forum, which we have done since 2009. That includes £220,000 of support for this financial year. The purpose of that investment is to enable the forum to work with communities to build resilience and to support those who have been affected by flooding. As I mentioned in my statement, the forum provides invaluable advice on property flood resilience, and it encourages families and businesses to prepare a flood emergency plan and a flood kit, and communities to set up flood resilience groups.

Those who have experienced flooding can also get individual advice and information. Some of that is in and around managing insurance claims as well as dealing with the practical impacts. In my statement, I mentioned that the Scottish welfare fund is available with the crisis grant scheme for those who are on a low income, and that can be accessed via local authorities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have five more members who wish to ask a question. In order to get everybody in, which I would like to do, I will need much shorter answers—with respect, cabinet secretary—and short questions.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Thankfully, we have avoided deaths in North East Fife, but I have witnessed the distress that has been caused by flooding in recent weeks in places such as Freuchie Mill.

I have been working with farmers for some time now on the climate extremes in relation to drought and flooding, and I note the schemes that the minister set out in her statement. I urge her to explore whether those schemes are flexible enough to cover flooding and drought on, for example, reservoirs, which can help for the future.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I will speak to my colleague Ms Gougeon to ensure that our schemes are as flexible as possible. I know that she has been engaging with the farming community and food providers through a range of round tables, but Willie Rennie’s point that the issue is about not only flooding but water scarcity is well made.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

I also pay tribute to all the responders and communities involved in storm Babet and extend my deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost their lives.

Given the harrowing scenes that emerged of the extensive damage that storm Babet caused to people’s homes, what initial discussions have taken place with the Association of British Insurers, which I understand has deployed extra resources into contact centres and on the ground to assist people, including those who are affected now and those who might be affected in the future?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

The Association of British Insurers has been in on-going discussions with Scottish Government resilience and flooding officials and has set out a range of measures that the insurance industry is taking to support affected communities as quickly and sympathetically as possible. Those measures include deploying staff to flood-hit areas and preparing to make emergency payments to flooded households.

The ABI is also working with the Scottish Flood Forum, which is an independent Scottish Government-funded charity, to produce an advice document for the public called “Responding to Floods: What You Need to Know”, which is available on the ABI website. I believe that the ABI has also proactively shared materials with MPs and MSPs in affected areas.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Potato crops were flooded, livestock washed away and newly sown fields destroyed. Farmers have been left to carry the can or rely on support from RSABI or Forage Aid. Will the Scottish Government commit to supporting farmers wherever it can, in whatever way it can, and include them, food producers and suppliers in a storm Babet resilience review to ensure that their losses are considered and that food supply chains will be protected in the future?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I would like to reassure Ms Hamilton that Ms Gougeon will be taking forward a range of discussions. As I intimated earlier, our farmers are very much on the front line of climate change and the climate challenge that we face. I know that Ms Gougeon is in regular contact with NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy and that she will continue a programme of engagement. It is right that those voices and the needs of those who are managing our land are heard, as we all need to work together to minimise the impact of what will certainly be more frequent weather events.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I, too, send my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives, and I pay tribute to all those involved in the response, particularly in Angus and Mearns. Thank you for providing rescue, support, supplies, welfare checks and so much more.

The cabinet secretary will know that we must not only consider what residents and businesses need now but consider longer-term mitigations, defences and adaptations. Will she say more about how we can support communities to become more resilient over and above the physical defences and infrastructure that we know that we need?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

We will continue to work with the voluntary and community sector and, in particular, with local authorities, which, as I said earlier, have the lead role in engaging with local communities to understand their needs and to provide additional resources if required.

Doing what we all can to prepare our homes, families and communities for the disruption that might come from emergencies can make a huge difference. I once again point to the Government’s website www.ready.scot, which has plenty of advice for the public on how to be as prepared as possible.

The other imperative lesson that we have learned in recent times is that flooding does not just occur in areas that have a history of flooding. There is an exercise to undertake in order to raise awareness that flooding can affect any individual or community at any time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the ministerial statement. I apologise to the member whom I was unable to squeeze in.