Flood Prevention and Defence

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 11th July 2007.

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Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South 2:30 pm, 11th July 2007

A number of Members have said that they want to speak and I shall endeavour to include everyone, but Members should bear in mind that the wind-ups will start at 3.30 pm, so that might diminish their chance of being called. I hope that any interventions will be short. If we all work together, everyone who has said that they want to take part will have a chance to do so.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

This debate takes place in the context of the devastating floods that affected much of the country in late June and early July, particularly my own region of Yorkshire and the Humber. Six people died, and according to the Environment Agency, 20,000 properties were affected by surface water flooding. More than 3,000 properties were affected by river flooding or a combination of that with surface water flooding.

This debate also takes place in the context of an increasing number of flood events—not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe. The European Commission estimates that across the European Union between 1998 and 2004, there were 700 major flooding incidents, in which, sadly, 600 people lost their lives. Flooding is becoming more important on political agendas—not only in our own country, but across Europe.

Among hon. Members in the Chamber today, there is a great deal of expertise and local knowledge of these most recent floods and other flooding events that have affected various parts of the country, so I intend to keep my remarks as concise as possible and concentrate on five general principles.

I am secretary of the all-party group on flood prevention, which has met to discuss flooding problems since 2002. The first of the five issues that I want to raise is funding. Ministers are to be congratulated on increasing flood defence spending by more than £200 million to a total of £800 million by 2010-11. That was a speedy announcement. However, if we are honest we must say that if the floods had not happened, things would not have looked too good for the three-year spending review. Other officers of the all-party group on flood prevention and I have been meeting Ministers down the years; although major capital projects might have been protected, I was not too hopeful about flood maintenance being protected in the years ahead.

The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn and his Ministers now have the task of persuading the Chancellor to front-load that increase into the early years of the next three-year spending round, starting in 2008. In my own region of Yorkshire and the Humber, the projections are that spending on capital flood defences, as opposed to maintenance—of £15 million this year—will go down to just over £11 million next year, but will be £20 million the year after, £21 million the year after that and then a whopping £46 million, but only in 2011-12.

We need to bring that expenditure as far forward as is practicable. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers must also ensure that the political focus and commitment to flood prevention last for years and do not ebb once the great floods of summer 2007 become part of political memory.

In 2000, there was a similar step change in flood defence spending following the floods of that year. Many communities benefited from improved defences—including Selby, whose £10 million defences will be completed next year. However, by 2005 the Government were cutting the Environment Agency's flood defence maintenance budget; at £35 million this year, total spending by the Yorkshire and Humber flood defence committee is still below its £40 million peak of two years ago. As a result, start dates for work on improved flood defences in communities such as Leeds, Doncaster, York and Tadcaster have been put back time and again. Fewer than half the county's existing defences are in a satisfactory condition.

In summary, the political task for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to make it as politically unacceptable to cut the flood prevention budget as he did the overseas aid budget when he was Secretary of State for International Development.

I want to say one other thing about funding—that is, funding for the most vulnerable people, who did not have flood insurance because they could not get it or could not afford it. There must be many thousands of people in that situation. Again, the Government responded quickly; they said that there would be an extra £1 million for community care grants to buy the most basic essentials—cookers, fridges, new carpets, beds and bedding—for some of the poorest people in our society.

However, buried away in the Department for Communities and Local Government press release, issued on Saturday, was a statistic that to date—in the entire country, as I understand it—only £21,600 had been spent on such grants. Clearly, an awful lot of people are in need. Average flood damage for one house is estimated at £30,000. Now that the money has been allocated, it is incumbent on Ministers, particularly at the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that those eligible know about the community care grants and that they should apply for them. That means a lot of people, including everyone on pension credit—probably the majority of pensioners in those areas—those on jobseeker's allowance and those on income support. As officers of the all-party group on flood prevention, one or other of us will ask every week how much of that money has been spent.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

While the hon. Gentleman is on the issue of funding, I should say that I am sure he is aware that the southern end of my constituency is severely at risk of flooding from the sea and that nothing like enough money is being provided to protect the area. Worse still, environmental considerations are being used as an excuse for failing to find the necessary funding.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the points system used to allocate funding is grossly inadequate? It is ludicrous that of the 44 points in the priority scoring system, both people and the environment should score 12 points—that is, both have equal weighting. Do the Government not need to address that? In most cases, people and their homes are surely worth far more than environmental considerations.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

That should be the last long intervention. Members should be wary of the length of their interventions because of the number of people who want to speak.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

The intervention was interesting nevertheless, Mr. Hancock, and reflected a point made by the Audit Commission in its recent report. I shall rattle as quickly as I can on to my fourth point, which I hope deals with the many rural communities that find it difficult to get the necessary flood defences.

I move quickly on to my second point. Who is in charge, particularly in respect of surface water flooding? Like me, many hon. Members will have stood in meetings in villages, towns and suburbs. The basic question has been about which among the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, the district council—Selby district council, in my case—the drainage board or the water board is in charge of the relevant ditch or culvert. I stood in the village of Saxton, where six people suffered from surface water flooding, only last Friday. I shall not go into the technical solutions for that particular culvert and ditch, but they are known. The real question is about who will be responsible for carrying them out.

Interestingly, during the height of the flooding, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs started a consultation on the very issue of who was in charge of surface water management. There is one particularly telling sentence, which I hope to find during the course of my remarks. Basically, its gist is that the Environment Agency is responsible when it comes to river and coastal flooding, but it is not at all clear who is responsible when it comes to surface water flooding. In a second, I shall refer to a massively good analysis in the document about how surface water flooding occurs. Five options are listed in conclusion; one is that there should be a single authority for dealing with surface water management—perhaps a local council or a local drainage board. There are analogies to be drawn with crime prevention. Councils are responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with crime prevention. Either councils or drainage boards should be responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with surface water management and storm water.

The document analyses the causes of storm water flooding, such as compacted ground in urban areas. In car parks, for example, 75 per cent. of the rain that falls runs off into the system. It would be 10 per cent. in other areas. The capacity of the below ground drainage systems is typically designed with a one-in-30 annual probability of overtopping. The probability for highways drainage is just one in five. Both above ground and below ground systems often cannot drain effectively into the rivers in times of storm. We do not have as many storage facilities, sumps and so on, as many other European countries. Pipes and culverts collapse or are blocked. Ofwat has said that the water companies should spend £950 million to try to deal with those problems but only 0.1 per cent. of our sewer network is renewed each year. The assumption is that our sewers will last for 1,000 years and clearly some of them do not. That causes problems.

Also, 40 per cent. of our internal drainage systems mix sewage and storm water in times of storm. That causes tremendous problems for many of our constituents. If one authority was responsible for dealing with surface water and storm water, or at least for co-ordinating the other authorities, that would be an advance. On planning, we need to consider who is doing the co-ordination. The Government have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee for new developments. Perhaps they should go further, and when the Environment Agency objects to a development there should be an automatic public inquiry, like in Scotland, before that goes forward.

With the best will in the world, the Environment Agency's expertise is river flooding and coastal flooding, not surface water. Water boards often do not comment on individual planning applications. They might comment on a local development plan, but they do not comment on the sewage implications of quite major developments. Indeed, they do not have an incentive to point out the inadequacies of the drainage system because they would then be partly responsible for funding the upgrade. Under the Water Industry Act 1991, a new development can connect automatically to the public sewer and drainage system. If one body—possibly the local council, or the drainage boards in some areas—was responsible for dealing with surface water matters to do with both management and planning, that would be a significant advance.

I am aware of the passage of time, so I want to move rapidly on to three other points. First, as I represent a rural area I am aware of the role of farmers in helping with this problem and improving flood prevention. Mr. Gummer has been particularly vocal on the matter in recent weeks. My right hon. Friend Mr. Morley, who was a distinguished Minister with responsibility for flooding, has often spoken of the importance of flood meadows and of changing the incentives for farmers to manage their land so that they retain more of the flood water on agricultural land rather than letting it go into defended settlements. The Ouse water catchment strategy in my area is a model for encouraging that process and retaining more water in the dales and moors of Yorkshire rather than seeing it coming down rapidly into the settlement areas. The Environment Agency has to win hearts and minds when it adopts such a strategy. It has to win over farmers and provide the right incentives as well as to persuade communities such as Carlton in my constituency that the communities will be defended if there is a change of strategy. Nevertheless, it is an important issue to consider.

In reply to Mr. Tyrie, I mentioned that I would deal with the points system. Let me read the two lines from the recent Audit Commission report on "Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England" that deal with that point:

"Less densely populated communities, which may flood repeatedly, have received lower scores because the number of households affected or the economic loss is relatively small compared to the cost of a new or improved defence. The Agency expects to address this problem with a new scoring system based on outcome measures."

The Audit Commission does not go into any more detail. If the Minister could tell us when the scoring system will change and how it might affect rural communities, that would be of interest to many Members.

Secondly, in my area, we have tried to match funding in some communities. Following a campaign that lasted a decade and that was led by the parish council, the village of Elvington managed to get generous funding from both the city of York and the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee to fund a £400,000 scheme, which will be completed this year. It took an awful lot of effort and perhaps such joint funding could be encouraged rather more in the future than it has been in the past.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

Villages in the Trent valley have been badly hit—small, rural communities. Is it not wrong that big urban areas should score on the point system while small local communities lose out? Ought we not to change the criteria for allocation?

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

That is a telling point. The devil is in the detail on this, is it not? Hon. Members would be interested to hear from the Environment Agency about how it intends to change the point system so that the needs of rural communities are better catered for.

I promised to be as brief as possible, so I shall move on to my final remarks, which are about information. The Environment Agency and many other bodies, including insurance companies—notably Norwich Union—have provided much more flood mapping in recent years. It is a valuable resource for people who are buying houses, looking to see whether they live in a flood plain and so on. As the Environment Agency has provided that information, it should be made widely available free of charge. There is an organisation called OnOneMap that tries to provide information to new home buyers and has been told that it cannot use the Environment Agency's information. That information has been provided through taxpayers' money and I understand that OnOneMap is a reputable organisation. It should be able to use such information, because it is of interest to consumers.

As regards information from the insurance companies, we have to be grateful that we live in a country where the majority of people can get flood insurance—for example, in the Netherlands, one cannot get river or coastal flood insurance. That is partly because of the partnership between the Government and the insurance industry. The industry says that as a rule, if someone has a one-in-75 chance, or better, of being flooded, it will insure them. There are lots of anecdotes about people who find it difficult to get insurance, even when they live in such areas. The Association of British Insurers needs to chivvy along some of the insurance companies a little more and to make it more clear who can be complained to. I understand that people cannot complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service unless they have a contract with an insurance company. The insurance companies are doing a good job by paying out as quickly as they can, but given that they have reached that agreement with Government they, too, have responsibilities and they need to deliver on insuring homes that fall into that category.

I have found the quotation from annexe A of the consultation document, so rather than précis it, I shall read it. It states:

"While the Environment Agency has a general supervisory responsibility for coastal and fluvial flooding it certainly has no statutory role in relation to other forms of flooding and nor does existing legislation assign any specific responsibilities or duties. The roles of other organisations involved in flood risk management are also unclear."

That is beautifully put. I have confidence that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will battle tirelessly to ensure that flood management and flood prevention remain as high up the political agenda in the next few months and coming years as they are now and that they will resist any attempts by the Treasury to claw back any of the money that has been promised.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 2:49 pm, 11th July 2007

I congratulate Mr. Grogan on securing this timely debate. My constituency has not suffered in the floods of the past few weeks, but we suffered quite seriously in the floods of 2000, as did the neighbouring constituency of Lewes. The thoughts of my constituents are with the people who have been so terribly affected by the recent floods. Their hearts go out to them and they understand the devastation that has been caused and felt.

I wanted to make a brief speech to talk about what has happened since the 2000 floods and the lessons that can perhaps be learned from them. We were all terribly impressed by the immediate reaction. The then Minister, Mr. Morley, came down within days and toured the site. Shortly afterwards there was a meeting in Downing street, organised by the then Prime Minister, who brought in the leaders of all the affected local authorities and gave them an absolute commitment that lessons would be learned, money spent and steps taken to prevent such floods from happening again. He could not prevent it from raining—even that Prime Minister could not do that—but he promised to put in place relevant measures to prevent the flooding from happening again. We then had another visit from the then Minister, who echoed that promise at a meeting in his office to talk about the issues of concern. Since then absolutely nothing of concrete, literally, has been built to prevent future flooding. That is a great lesson that we must learn, because the same has been the case in many constituencies.

We had a consultation process and everybody agreed that what was needed was upstream storage to prevent a huge volume of water from coming into the town of Uckfield or the small surrounding villages that had been affected. A model was built, on which one hundred and something thousand pounds were spent, and it cleverly proved that if one poured water into the model, it would eventually come over the top somewhere. Without £100,000 being spent, we think that we could have told them that.

Now, nearly seven years on, there is a proposal for a small bund in the town, and I am encouraged by the approach that the Environment Agency is taking to that. It would stop minor flooding but not the type of serious flooding that we saw in October 2000. The reason why such flooding would not be prevented, we were told, is that we simply do not score enough points. Uckfield is a busy market town in the middle of Sussex, yet it does not score enough points because not enough houses were flooded. We need a system that takes into account the real needs on the ground.

Nearly seven years on, the flood risk remains and the likelihood has increased. We were told in October 2000 that flooding would be experienced once every 50 or 100 years but we now know that, with global warming and climate change, such events can be expected more regularly. People continue to have problems insuring their homes, because no defences have been put in place. Insurance companies have said, "We will insure your homes if money is spent on flood defences, but if not, we are not prepared to provide the insurance." The biggest employment area in East Sussex, the Bell Lane industrial estate, finds it difficult to attract new investment because of the risk that businesses may again be flooded and destroyed. Above all, we want the Minister to say today that he will honour the commitment that was made by the then Prime Minister and the then Minister that defences would be put in place to prevent such flooding from happening again.

I wanted to be brief, because I am well aware that many other Members wish to speak. In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Selby said that he wanted to ensure that funding did not ebb once the great floods of 2007 started to be forgotten. That is exactly what happened to many of our communities that were flooded in 2000—we feel that we have been forgotten. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he understands the commitment that was made by his predecessors and intends to honour it.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Thank you very much, Mr. Hendry. It is very generous of you to be so quick.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest 2:53 pm, 11th July 2007

I, too, thank Mr. Grogan for raising this timely matter. He reminded me of a meeting that some of us, as officers of the all-party group, had with a Treasury Minister almost exactly a year ago. Our pleas for a little more money for flood defences fell on deaf ears. I echo the hon. Gentleman's comments, and it is a little sad that we have had to wait for absolute devastation before getting more money. Having said that, I welcome the money.

In my patch, we have been relatively lucky this time, in that there have not been deaths or devastation on the scale suffered in other areas. I praise the defences that we have in place in my area. If and when we have further severe floods, I should like to invite the Minister to come and see, within a two-mile space, demountable defences, pallet defences and a bund, which are absolutely magnificent at protecting the town of Kidderminster from the River Stour, which floods frequently. The bund has a hole in it for the river to flow through, and the hole is big enough only for an amount of water that will not flood the town. The water flows back into an old marsh, where we will, I hope, see snipe breeding and kingfishers flying in the near future. The bund is a marvellous thing where geography allows it.

The defences have been no help at all with the recent flash floods. One housing estate in my constituency was devastated when 55 mm of rain fell on a relatively small hill and dashed down through the estate, under which is a culverted stream. The stream is called a critical ordinary watercourse, and I should like the Minister to explain what that is. It was certainly critical during the floods, because the culvert was entirely inadequate. The grids were partially blocked and were of the old style, blocking water as well as rubbish. I understand that there are new-style grids that block rubbish but let water come through over the top of it.

Another difficulty was that a road built at the outflow of the culvert acted as a dam, stopping the culvert discharging. Will the Minister ensure that all culverts—of critical ordinary watercourses and less critical ordinary watercourses—are examined for patency? It could not be all that expensive to renew the grids and make them of the new pattern that allows water through. I do not think that camera studies for patency would be too expensive. The Government should also consider, where geographically possible, the building of relatively small bunds to dam up the flow and protect culverted watercourses.

As well as the devastation of some housing estates, we had the absolute devastation of 45 places on the preserved Severn Valley railway. That has removed the major tourist attraction in my area and cut the income of people who depend on tourists coming to the railway. It is marvellous news that Advantage West Midlands has stepped in with a large sum of money to help restore the railway. Sadly, but quite understandably, that has been greeted with a fair amount of exasperation from people along the course of the railway whose houses have been utterly devastated and who are not getting the compensation that the tourist industry is getting.

The other huge problem is sewers, to which the hon. Member for Selby referred. I have been part of the all-party group on sewers and sewerage for some time, and I should like an update on the review of unadopted sewers, which cause tremendous troubles time and time again. I should also like a comment from the Minister on the help being given to the uninsured. Is there a survey of the number of people affected who were not insured? Are the people who were adequately protected able to renew their insurance at reasonable rates?

I have commented many times that I am puzzled about flood maps. The insurance industry's flood maps of the major river areas seem pretty satisfactory, yet in the press there have been condemnations of the Environment Agency's flood maps, implying that they are not the same.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 2:59 pm, 11th July 2007

I, too, congratulate Mr. Grogan on securing this timely debate.

My constituency has been devastated by the floods. Four towns in my constituency—Beverley, Hornsea, Withernsea and Hedon—have been affected, along with practically all the village communities in between, such as Thorngumbald, Ottringham and others up and down Holderness. In fact, at one stage, residents of Hornsea were cut off entirely by flood waters and were unable to get in or out. We often refer to the isolation of towns such as Hornsea and Withernsea in our ongoing campaign to protect community hospital services.

The local area including Hull received one sixth of its annual rainfall in 12 hours. In case I move on to any suggested or implied criticisms of authorities, it is terribly important that we recognise just how devastating the downpour was and that, no matter what preparations had been put in place, there would have been some flooding, and some misery would have been caused.

My constituents and I believe that more homes were flooded and for longer than was perhaps necessary. Like other hon. Members, I am asking the Minister to look seriously at the issue and to ensure that lessons really are learned and that there is follow-through. We all know the reality of political life—we recognise that attention is given to something but then moves on. Therefore, we are looking to someone of the Minister's calibre and self-confidence at the Dispatch Box to maintain the issue at the level that it deserves and to see it through. I am confident that he, along with the Secretary of State, will do so.

I join other Members in offering my condolences in respect of those who tragically lost their lives, and I pay tribute to the heroic efforts—and there certainly were many—of those in the emergency and other services who went above and beyond what could reasonably be expected. Time and again, I met absolutely exhausted people from the council, from Yorkshire Water, from the Environment Agency and from the fire and police services working flat out. It was a real community effort. I also pay tribute to the community itself, which came together.

During the initial downpour, Humberside fire and rescue service received more than 3,000 phone calls and the police received a further 4,800 calls. When I toured the area on the first Wednesday after the flooding, I was struck by the generosity, kindness and unity of the people I met. Many people had to rescue each other.

One central issue for the Minister, which I believe has been taken on board—I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it already—is that no one agency is responsible for flood rescue. Clearly, that is ridiculous. The duty needs to be given 100 per cent. to the fire service, in my opinion. If the Minister has other ideas, I am sure we will all welcome hearing about them. The fire service needs to have the resources and equipment to ensure that its officers do not enter water in equipment designed purely for fighting fires. In fact, as I saw in Leven, boats were commandeered by local residents so that they could make rescues themselves, and that was despite the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services.

Hull, of course, has been terribly affected. The leader of Hull city council called it the "forgotten city". Within 48 hours of his doing that, the floods Minister was travelling up the M1 to visit the area, and he was followed 24 hours later by the Prime Minister. I note in passing that I invited the Prime Minister to visit my devastated area in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but, unfortunately, he was unable to do so. In the first week, I invited the Secretary of State as well, but he also has been unable to visit. It would be appreciated if the Minister would come and visit our area, as people in east Yorkshire often feel neglected.

No one would begrudge the attention that is now being paid to Hull city council. It says that up to 17,000 homes—17 per cent. of the total number of households—have suffered damage, that more than 24 per cent. of the city streets have been affected, and that six Hull schools remain closed. It says that the estimated clean-up costs could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

According to the East Riding of Yorkshire council, 2,500 homes have been affected. I do not yet know precisely the number of homes that have been affected in my constituency. The most conservative estimate is that at least 1,200 homes have been flooded out and have suffered severe damage. On the basis of the average figure given by the hon. Member for Selby of £30,000 per house, one can see that the cost of repairing damage to homes in just my constituency—an area that has not yet merited a visit by any Minister at any level—will be some £36 million. That is greater than the total regional budget for flooding, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has suffered from cuts. I hope that the Minister will bear those facts in mind when he responds.

Much went right with the rescue and clean-up operations and, as I said, individual staff worked very well, but there was a distinct lack of communication and leadership, at least as perceived on the ground. I have spoken regularly to people from the East Riding of Yorkshire council. They feel that they have worked extremely hard—and I know that they have—trying to communicate through the local radio station, through the council's website and so on. The point that I would make to them is that if the people at the receiving end do not feel that they have been communicated with—if Withernsea and Hedon town councils, and the parish councils of Leven, Burstwick and other affected areas feel utterly isolated and alone—the communication strategy has not succeeded. I hope that it will be reviewed.

I shall quickly pick up on some other issues. Yorkshire Water, which is responsible for much of the surface water drainage and has many of the assets to deal with it, was not invited to silver command in Hull until Wednesday, even though silver command opened on Monday at the beginning of the floods. Yorkshire Water was not actually invited until later. That is a small issue but one that needs to be addressed.

There is certainly a feeling on the ground that people did not come prepared. I shall be interested to hear the views of East Riding of Yorkshire council as we audit what happened. No one could come up with a bottom-drawer flood response booklet. Even if they were not trained, at least they would have been able to come out and make assessments. If the sewage is down, do we need portaloos, and how do we get them to where they are needed? Equipment did arrive, and people did come together, but there was a sense that problems had not been anticipated and that, in many cases, solutions had to be found by local communities rather than by the authorities to which they were looking for solutions.

As the Minister knows, in theory, the police take leadership in a flood situation, yet there was some confusion between the agencies, at least as far as people on the ground were concerned. I wonder whether he intends to review the issue of who takes a lead. I am no expert, but my personal feeling is that the council—the community leaders—is the most appropriate body to take overall leadership. It has the greatest range of assets. There may be many reasons why that is not the right solution, but we need absolute clarity about who is in charge, and who is supposed to rescue and who is not.

I am aware of the limited time and I have probably gone on too long already, but I wish to mention funds. The East Riding of Yorkshire council is not a shroud-waving council. It is very measured in what it says and does, but it estimates highway damage at between £5 million and £8 million. It lost a bridge at Spittal, highways and verges have collapsed, and ancient springs that have not been seen for a long time have burst forth. As the Minister knows, of the £14 million announced by the Prime Minister, £1 million has gone to the Department for Work and Pensions for, I imagine, some emergency help, £3 million has been put into highways, and £10 million is available for general purposes. Given that £5 million to £8 million is required in the East Riding of Yorkshire, we can see that the money is inadequate.

Six schools have been closed, five of which are not expected to open in September. Transport costs in a rural area such as the East Riding are immense. The costs of finding alternative accommodation are immense. The costs are huge. Where is the money to come from, and what will happen? The funding for the East Riding of Yorkshire council education authority is the fourth lowest in the country. Perhaps it has been driven by its financial needs, but it is recognised as the best financially managed authority in the country. What is it to do? If it redirects its capital budget, it will have to close down other programmes, which will impact on performance. If performance is affected, there will be cash implications.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the ongoing impacts, and that today he will commit to conducting an audit or assessment—I suppose that initially it will have to be a rough assessment—of, for instance, the damage to highways and other public sector assets. Once that information has been put together, I hope that he will make a commitment to give a funding boost to local transport plans in this year. That would probably be the appropriate way to deal with the matter.

Can the Minister also tell us what constraints there are on the supply of services? There is a limit to the number of contractors. The danger is that there will be sky-high prices if all the money is given this year, and that money will be wasted. Again, I would be interested to hear the Government's response. Perhaps the work could be phased in over two years so that we can ensure that public money is best spent to that effect. I would be interested in the Minister's views on that. I certainly support the view of the hon. Member for Selby that surface planning should be looked at by only one authority, whose only interest and incentive is to get things right and which has no conflicting interests.

There is also the important issue of the insurers, which I hope that the Minister will take on board. Whole streets and estates have been flooded out and ruined. The Government have been working with the Association of British Insurers, and the East Riding of Yorkshire council has provided accommodation for the insurers so that it can work with them. It is working with them on planning issues to ensure that whatever needs to be done to help people can be done sensibly. However, the insurers all have different ways of working; they are bureaucracies, and some are less flexible than public bodies. Where whole estates have been taken out and there is a shortage of contractors, it could take 18 months or two years to deal with the problems. If we do not have a rational system, it will not be this Christmas, but next Christmas before we get people back in their homes. Can Ministers work with the insurers, bang heads together and get companies to act in a united way? It must surely be cheaper for a contractor to come in and deal with the whole estate at once. That will also cut down on the costs involved in subsidising people to live elsewhere and it will certainly be good for people. If the Minister can play a role in that, that, too, would go down well.

My last point relates to the Environment Agency. I hope that the Minister will have a close look at the issue of Burstwick drain. The internal drainage boards have been saying for years that the silt at Hedon Haven, where the outlet is, is not being removed, so the drain does not empty properly, even at low tide. We have a highly tidal system, of course, so although the water will flow out at low tide, it will stop and back right up at high tide. The outlet has not been de-silted properly and the doors failed. The outlet was also designed to have pumps, but none has been installed. It took till the Friday for a large pump to come up from Somerset, and it was Friday evening before it was working effectively. There was a real danger that there would be more flooding on top of the misery that had already been visited on so many villages and on Hedon town. I hope that the Minister can look at that and at the fact that, according to the internal drainage boards, the drain has not been properly maintained.

I have put many questions to the Minister and I appreciate having had the opportunity to ask them.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Yvette Cooper, Minister of State), Department for Communities and Local Government 3:12 pm, 11th July 2007

Let me start by making it clear that there was damage and suffering across the country, which should remind us all of the importance of not claiming precedence for any one area in terms of its suffering. In that sense, it is unfortunate that Hull has claimed to be the forgotten city, because many areas have suffered serious flooding, and they include not only Hull, but the north and south banks of the Humber, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster and elsewhere. We are all in this together, and it is important to remember that.

Let me refer briefly to what happened in Sheffield. I want to do so partly to place that on the record; we have so far been unable to do so. I note that my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett is here today. It is important that we put what happened in Sheffield on the record because it underlines the significance of this debate about flood defence and flood prevention.

The industrial damage in Sheffield has been well documented in the media. Corus had to close. Georgia-Pacific, a paper mill in my constituency, is now up for sale. Cadbury Trebor Bassett was also affected. Meadowhall, one of the biggest retail malls in the country, is still suffering and is now only partially open. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that hundreds of smaller engineering companies depend for their business on larger companies such as Forgemasters and Corus. Some of those smaller companies were also underinsured.

Many jobs in the city are at risk. The city has regenerated over recent years and desperately needs the help promised yesterday by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Those jobs are critical; indeed, the most important point over the long term is probably that we preserve them and prevent them from disappearing. The future of South Yorkshire's economy is at stake.

It is often forgotten in all this that small charities and community centres are badly damaged in such circumstances, and they are not always well insured. The Newton Hall community centre in Chapeltown in my constituency was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. People there are now worrying about whether they can continue their good work in the local community. In addition, the A6102 Middlewood road north suffered a 60 ft landslip and will, even with the best of efforts and immediate funding—the funding needed for just that one small stretch of road is in the region of £2 million—not be open until 2008.

One old people's home in my constituency was evacuated twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. Its residents are dementia sufferers, and their distress will be obvious to all, so I do not need to explain it. On top of that, a nursing home in Stocksbridge was flooded on Monday the 25th.

There were moments of light humour. One woman in Winn gardens described to me how she found a frog on her mantelpiece once the flood water receded, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside will remember that. However, residents from Mill lane, Deepcar, and Station road, Oughtibridge, were evacuated from their homes, and they are still not back. Most seriously of all, Falding street in Chapeltown was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. It was flooded not by the River Don, but by a local beck, and that underlines the seriousness of the situation. The cause of that flooding appears to have been a blocked culvert, which underlines the point made by Dr. Taylor, and I shall return to that later.

There were heroes in all this. An individual called Craig Stenton not only rescued a boy from the beck in Chapeltown on Friday the 15th and saved his life, but rescued a local family from Falding street on Monday the 25th. Members of the family could not get out of their house, so he took them out on his shoulders and in dinghies. There were heroes, and the situation brought out the community spirit.

What do we need to do? There are several things that we need to do, and my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan underlined many of them. First, we need a rigorous reassessment of the flood risk. I got some maps for my area from the Environment Agency website. I live at the top of the Don valley and I am told that my flood risk is 0.l per cent. That proved to be true on Monday the 25th. The residents at the top of Winn gardens were told that their flood risk was low, and that, indeed, proved to be the case, because the flooding of Winn gardens stopped halfway up the estate. The people at the bottom of Winn gardens were told that their risk was very high—so far, so good. The people of Falding street, however, were told that their risk was moderate, and of all the residential areas in Sheffield, theirs suffered the most. They have nothing left of their homes—their floorboards and everything else has gone. I visited the area twice, and the memories of what I saw—the raw emotions of the residents of Falding street—will remain with me for ever. So, too, will the bitter taste that the contaminated mud and muck left in one's mouth.

People who live close to rivers, becks, streams, the sea and the coast need the best possible information and assessments from the Environment Agency. We therefore need a reassessment—perhaps in recognition of climate change—of what the genuine risk may be. That risk needs to be more widely publicised, and we need a debate about the issue. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also needs to front-load its spending on flood defence and flood prevention. However, it needs to allocate that budget according to a rigorous assessment of risk and in a transparent manner—we need a debate about what is necessary and where the priorities are.

If we had asked any citizen of Sheffield whether they thought that they would ever be flooded, they would have said, "No, we live on a hill." Sheffield is built on seven hills, and nobody thought that it would ever be flooded. We have never suffered this before. The only other great flood in Sheffield was in 1864 and was the result of a dam bursting its banks because it had not been properly engineered or finished. However, we have never suffered before the flooding that we experienced recently and we need a reassessment of the risk.

We need to do more to make home owners and tenants aware of the level of risk that they face, and to give advice on how to minimise that risk. A pilot scheme is under way at the moment involving a £500,000 flood resilience grant from DEFRA. That is being tested and entails advising people on how to protect their homes from flood with water-resistant floors and walls, putting sockets higher up the walls to protect the electrics, and so on. Members of the House need to be made aware of the outcome of the pilot. If it proves to be a worthwhile exercise, and to save money in floods, we should roll it out, and I look to DEFRA to provide the funding.

We need to examine water management infrastructure again. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby pointed out that drains are the responsibility of local authorities, rivers and becks are the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and sewers are the responsibility of the water boards. That does not make sense. We need an over-arching body to oversee the maintenance of those waterways, and I agree with him that the local authority is probably the most appropriate body. However, we need to reconsider how effectively local authorities maintain their drainage systems. The comprehensive performance assessment includes in its performance indicators the cleanliness of public space and the condition of unclassified roads, but not the maintenance of the drainage system. My hon. Friend the Minister was a local government Minister so he may understand what needs to be done about that. Perhaps he will pass the message on.

We need a flood defence strategy that gives the necessary protection and gives insurers no excuse to refuse insurance to anyone in this country who lives in a potential flood area. We need to work with the insurance companies to ensure that they stick by their statement of principles and that the Government's work is, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, watertight, with the result that the insurance companies will come up with premiums that are manageable and affordable for everyone.

I live in S6 in Sheffield. I phoned up for a renewal of my insurance policy last week and was refused insurance even though my flood risk is less than 0.1 per cent. DEFRA needs to do something to ensure that the Association of British Insurers gets a grip on what is happening with insurance companies, and that they stick by their statement of principles.

Finally, I want to mention the moorland management project that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred to. It is true that much of the water that came down the River Don on Monday 25 June originated in the Peak district. We have degraded our blanket bogs to the extent that they are now emitters rather than absorbers of carbon. They have been drained, over-grazed and polluted by the acid rain from Manchester and Sheffield, and, although my hon. Friend the Minister lives on the wrong side of the Pennines, he at least understands the problem. DEFRA needs to put more money into moorland management and the restoration of the blanket bogs, because, more than anything, along with adequate drainage systems and flood defences, it is the restoration of our natural moorland habitats in the Pennines that will probably protect large parts of the urban populations in the north.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

We have eight minutes, so, if the remaining two hon. Members who want to speak before the Front-Bench spokesmen take four minutes each, everyone who wanted to will have been able to contribute. Can we play fair by each other?

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

No; I hope that you will stick to the four minutes, to be fair to everyone.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Yes, I agree that we should all try to give each other fair time.

I welcome the remarks of Mr. Grogan and congratulate him and Dr. Taylor on their work with me on the all-party group on flood prevention, which has been very useful.

I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Member for Selby made, and do not need to go through them again. Suffice it to say that I associate myself with his remarks and the five points that he made, which were well put together. Although I was planning to make comments on a general basis, wearing my all-party group hat, I shall, given the time, limit myself to comments about my constituency.

I want to associate myself with the comments of Charles Hendry, who said much of what I would say, substituting Lewes for Wealden. In 2000 we had some severe flooding and everyone in Government was caught unawares. The then Deputy Prime Minister said that he had had a wake-up call, and we were promised all sorts of action. I am sad to say that that has not materialised. The DEFRA budget was under considerable pressure from the Rural Payments Agency fiasco and foot and mouth disease, and the budget was cut. It is very welcome that £200 million more has now been provided; it is good that the Government have done that. However, we need more, because the money put into flood defences is more than repaid by the avoidance of floods. The cost-benefit ratio is enormous. When floods happen, as they have in Hull, Sheffield and elsewhere, the cost to the public purse is fantastic. Money spent on flood defences is money well spent, and I am surprised that the previous Chancellor did not identify that.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I ask hon. Members to be fair to each other.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

We must not lose sight of the issue, now that it is once again high on the agenda.

Lewes has been divided into six cells, only one of which has been dealt with, despite the fact that the floods were enormous and caused mass devastation with hundreds of people out of their homes. The flooding devastated the financial centre of the town and even now only one cell of the six has been repaired. The Cliffe area in the middle of the town, which is its financial and shopping centre, has not been protected, because the points system says that not enough people live there. It does not matter that the whole town depends on the Cliffe area; the points system does not allow it to be dealt with. That is a disgrace.

My message in the four minutes that I am allowed in the debate is that the people of Lewes were given a commitment in 2000. We were told that the needs of Lewes were recognised, as were those of other communities that had been flooded. That commitment, following the then Deputy Prime Minister's wake-up call, has not been adhered to. He rode off into the sunset, and Lewes is still without flood defences.

I want to hear from the Minister, first, that the Government will give more attention to adaptation, because although they have rightly talked quite a lot about climate change and getting carbon emissions down, they have not focused enough on adaptation measures to deal with the climate change that is inevitable. Secondly, I hope that he will say that he recognises that communities were flooded in 2000 and that they need to be dealt with. We all greatly sympathise with the communities that were flooded in 2007, which must be dealt with too, but let us not forget about those that were flooded seven years ago, which are still waiting for action.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 3:27 pm, 11th July 2007

You and I, Mr. Hancock, are used to having only four minutes to speak, from serving the Council of Europe. It is a good discipline. I agree with almost everything that has been said this afternoon, and I will not repeat it.

I want to begin on a positive note, by saying that the flood defences in Malton and Norton that were installed following the terrible floods of 1999 and 2000 actually work. Malton and Norton were not flooded on the occasion of the flooding in North Yorkshire two or three weeks ago. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the town of Pickering. Like Malton and Norton, it was to have a flood defence scheme following what happened, particularly in 2000, but no such scheme has been built. Pickering has now been flooded no fewer than six times in nine years, and the most recent flood was the worst of all, with many more properties affected, including many that had never been flooded before.

A flood alleviation scheme for Pickering is gathering dust on a shelf in the Environment Agency in York. It will take some time to design, let alone build, some of the flood defences that will be necessary after what happened in the past three or four weeks, so some of the new money could be directed, I should have thought, at schemes that have already been designed. I honestly feel that it is Pickering's turn.

I want to make four points about future policy, because this is a debate about policy. First, we must have regard to frequency in relation to where we build flood defences. We need to treat the smaller market town communities equally, and not be diverted into thinking that because more homes were flooded on the most recent occasion of flooding, all the money should go to the urban areas. That is the worry of my constituents in Pickering. Secondly, we need imaginative solutions. A diversion costing £50,000—which has been put to the Environment Agency—would have saved nine homes and two businesses, I understand, from being flooded in Pickering this time. Yet the flood damage is far more than the £50,000 it would have cost to build it, which shows that we need to be more imaginative.

Thirdly, there is no question but that river management and maintenance must be improved. The maintenance of the River Derwent is little short of a disgrace. A farmer came to see me on Saturday and asked whether I had realised that the water was not draining away from the Derwent basin. I said that I had noticed that there was a lot of flooding in the fields, which is ruining the wildlife. The farmer then told me—I have asked for this to be verified and maybe the Minister can help us find out the answer—that the Kirkham sluice gates are now permanently closed because of disrepair. If that is the case, it is completely unacceptable.

We need to manage waste water and sewerage better. There is much policy discussion these days on combating global warming and climate change, and rightly so, but we are doing nowhere near enough to counteract the effects of climate change. This matter is urgent and is doing huge economic damage to our society. Restricting capital resources in the way that Government policy does, is a false economy. There are at least £1.5 billion worth of insurance claims, but they will not give everybody restitution. Money spent on flood defences would secure people's homes, prevent damage and give people the security and dignity of knowing that they will avoid this experience in the future.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

You have one minute, Mr. Bayley.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 3:31 pm, 11th July 2007

I am pleased that the Prime Minister has announced that the budget for dealing with floods will increase by £200 million. That was the size of the total flood budget at the time that the Labour party came to power. However, a larger increase is still needed, for which I hope that there will be cross-party support.

I shall say one thing about the case for public funding. Some community benefits cannot be bought by individual citizens, for example public health or environmental protection. Protection for flooding is a clear example of that. In a terrace of houses, one householder cannot protect himself from flooding, and the same applies to communities as a whole. There is a case for social solidarity in relation to this issue; we all benefit, so we should all contribute. There is a misunderstanding about that approach because people sometimes say that those who live at the headwaters of a river face no risk of flooding and therefore they are not included in the national bargain. However, of course, they are at risk because the water that falls where they live flows down the river. It is the river that keeps them dry and it flows through downstream areas. That is why everyone in the country has a mutual social benefit in having decent flood protection and alleviation measures in place. That is also why there is a case for yet more public expenditure on this issue.

Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 3:32 pm, 11th July 2007

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will try to be as brief as possible to give the Minister time to reply to the many interesting and important issues. I have two key points to which I should like the Minister to respond.

The first key issue is that of the co-ordination of flood defences and flood prevention. The reality is that in many areas there has clearly been surface water flooding. For example, in Hull, which I visited last Tuesday, the floods were simply caused by an enormous inundation—4 in—of rainfall in one day. Monsoon levels of rainfall overwhelmed an already high water table caused by the large amount of rain in the previous weeks and overwhelmed the drainage system. In addition to that, I am told—I would like confirmation from the Minister on this—that one of the pumping stations operated by Yorkshire Water could not operate at full capacity because it was not proofed against the inundations suffered in that area.

There are a number of clear lessons to be learned. One is that we need to bring the water companies into the planning process and ensure that it is properly co-ordinated. Local authorities, drainage boards, the Environment Agency, the water companies, and therefore Ofwat, all have a responsibility for prevention and flood defence measures in low-lying areas. Mr. Stuart pointed out that Yorkshire Water was only invited to silver command on Wednesday and that there has not been joined-up thinking between the relevant bodies. The truth is that the Government were aware of that some time ago because in March 2005 in its first response to the Autumn 2004 consultation exercise "Making Space for Water" the Government clearly stated:

"So as to facilitate an holistic approach that is risk-driven, the Government will work towards giving the Environment Agency an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks."

That must obviously include surface and ground water flooding. The timeline at the back of the Government's response clearly states that there should be an

"Extension of Environment Agency's strategic role to other forms of flooding and coastal erosion—legislative and organisational considerations" and a consideration of the impact. The timeline for that was due to finish at the end of 2006, but such is the revolving door of Ministers going through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—usually on promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after some incredible mishap—it seems that nothing has happened about completing that. I know that the Minister is new to his role, but it is terribly important that he does not just say what the Government said in 2005, but that he delivers the joined-up co-ordination that is required.

The second point that I shall make in the one and a half minutes remaining to me concerns the budget. The truth is that last August there was a £14 million cut in the flood defence budget. We know the consequences of that from the evidence that Barbara Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, gave to the Select Committee on Public Accounts. She said:

"one of the casualties of our cuts mid-year last year was the pace at which we were able to do catchment flood management plans."

Ultimately, that had an effect on capital expenditure because there were delays in, for example, feasibility work. Whenever that has been raised in the House, Ministers say, "But the capital budget was not cut." That is a disingenuous response because the truth is that the overall flood management budget was cut. I am told, and it has not been denied by any DEFRA Minister in either of the two statements that have been made, that the Treasury was on the prowl and was waiting for more cuts just before the latest floods. Indeed the Environment Agency sent out to the regional boards a document requiring them to plan on

"flat cash in line with our current 2007/08 baseline"— this was sent out last month—

"with any growth limited to capital investment".

The truth is that the only reason that we have had a U-turn and an increase in the budget to £800 million, which I am delighted about, is precisely because of the recent floods. It is crucial to establish—again perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on this— whether the Treasury is up to its old tricks on the budget. It has given us an £800 million figure for 2010-11, but no figure for next year or the year after. The last time the Government announced a substantial increase in the flood defence budget they did exactly the same thing; they made a big increase in the last year of the three-year plan and had a low build-up to it.

From what we have heard today, it is clear that a much more substantial commitment to public funding for flood defences needs to be made and to start as soon as possible. This issue needs to be far higher up the Government's list of priorities. More people have been killed in the floods over the last few weeks than in the terrorism incidents that have perhaps unfortunately overshadowed the need to plan for flooding. The fact that the flooding incidents happened slowly, unexpectedly and less dramatically than the terrorist incidents does not mean that they are any less of a serious matter of national security. Climate change means that we will have more enormous inundations and monsoon-like rainfalls and it is precisely because of that that we need to ensure that we are properly prepared. The Government are not properly prepared either in terms of co-ordination or budgets and it is about time that they were.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:39 pm, 11th July 2007

This is a timely debate and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, Mr. Grogan, on securing it. He has touched a chord. All of us would wish to remember not just the loss of life, but, as Ms Smith, said, the loss of possessions, the intrusion into homes and those removed from their homes for some time.

In particular, I hope that the Minister will comment on the losses in rural and farming communities, where insured losses are estimated at £10 million, but where uninsured losses will probably reach £15 million. I join those who have paid tribute to the emergency services.

The Chief Fire Officers Association labelled the non-joined-up thinking after the flooding as "institutional confusion". Will the Minister say that there should be an end to the confusion and that there should be one lead body and lead Department? At the moment, too many Departments are involved—DEFRA, the DCLG, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Treasury and, potentially, the Cabinet Office, through its resilience responsibilities.

Let us consider also the local response by district and county councils, unitary councils, internal drainage boards, environmental health services, social services, private insurance companies, the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, and the police, fire, ambulance and health services. If we learn nothing else from the tragedy of the most recent floods, can we please end this confusion and have one lead body? I would argue that one of the emergency services—the fire service would seem to be a good start—could work with and co-ordinate everyone else. We need also one lead Department.

Will the Minister ensure that we learn those lessons? My hon. Friend Mr. Greenway has mentioned already the flood alleviation scheme in Pickering in his constituency, but a further three such schemes in north Yorkshire have not gone ahead, about which the Minister should perhaps feel a little embarrassed. One is in Thirsk in my constituency. Another scheme would have benefited the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Stuart and residents living in Hedon and Burstwick, near Hull. The Hull tidal surge barrier was perhaps the biggest such scheme and would have helped the whole of the Hull area.

On 18 January, a press release on the Environment Agency's website promised that those schemes would go ahead. For his own benefit, the Minister might like to find out why the schemes for Pickering, Thirsk, Hull, Hedon and Burstwick did not go ahead. I think that it detracts from the excellent work of the Environment Agency and all of the emergency services when we learn that those schemes were due to happen this year, but did not proceed.

Furthermore, will the Minister look at the abysmal and flawed warnings that are often given? The Environment Agency relies on very modern equipment and asks people to refer to its website. From the houses that I saw in Toll Bar, however, I do not think that a home computer was top on the list of priorities for home furnishings. For the most part, people did not have access to home computers. Many people, if they were not at home, did not receive flood warnings, either by phone or mobile phone.

Can we consider an updated system, such as the one that worked very well after the floods in 2000 on the outskirts of York—in areas such as Rawcliffe in the Vale of York—where parish councillors acted as voluntary wardens and went round giving flood warnings? I understand that in Toll Bar, the police were wandering around giving flood warnings as the floods were actually entering people's homes. That is another lesson that we have to learn. We need the most modern and effective system for reaching people in time so that they can evacuate their homes and take their possessions with them.

On planning permission, the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee, but will the Minister take the Government one step further and give it the power to block planning applications in inappropriate places such as on functional flood plains? It simply is not fair that the owner has to be aware of it, and I do not think that it is relevant to make the developer liable either, which was a question put to the Prime Minister today. Let us consider the Thames Gateway, where it is proposed to build houses and blocks of flats on stilts. If we know that they are going to flood, is it really fair to invite people to live in them? I ask the Minister to look very carefully at how those planning decisions are made.

On affordability and availability of insurance, for many people in deprived areas, insurance can literally be unaffordable. Toll Bar, in particular, is a very deprived area. It is a former mining community. I think that many parts of Hull and Sheffield might fall into similar low-income categories. It is not out of a lack of good will that people did not want to insure their homes; they had to make a lifestyle decision and they felt that they could not afford insurance.

Will the Minister ensure that in future cover is extended to those who have been flooded and remain at risk of flooding? Some businesses in north Yorkshire suffered hugely between 2000 and 2005. Will he ensure a level playing field? I welcome the support that the Government are giving through business grants to areas of south and east Yorkshire, where businesses have suffered. However, I believe that that money should be made available to others. May I provide him with the names and addresses of businesses that suffered between 2000 and 2005 because either they did not have insurance or they have not gone back to operating full-scale businesses such as dental practices? May I make representations to him about that? I hope that he will have regard to them and take them on board. Also, given the losses and heartfelt pleas made today, will he promise a full Government inquiry into the damage caused, and look at how much was caused because flood defence schemes, such as those mentioned today, did not go ahead?

I gather that many pumping and electricity stations are built in areas prone to flooding. Sometimes, pumping stations are not functioning because the electricity substations are flooded. Perhaps that is an additional point for the Minister. I know that that happened in Selby and Beverley. I hope that he will take that on board.

Finally, allowing the Minister plenty of time to wind up, may I ask him to promise to streamline the decision-making process and put one body in charge in order to remove confusion, and to have a one-stop shop for advice so that people know who to turn to for sandbags, skips and portaloos? That will enable victims of flooding, on the day and in the following months, to know exactly who to turn to. Furthermore, will he have regard to waterlogged land that has been contaminated? I know that a partial derogation has been granted, which the farming community welcomes strongly, but will his Department also allow farmers to enter waterlogged land that may be set aside, so that they can salvage what crops they can? There is perhaps a misunderstanding there. If they do so, farmers might infringe cross-compliance rules for flooded land that is set aside.

It is absolutely true that £14 million was cut from the flood budget. Let us remind ourselves why that money was cut: because the Government failed to implement the single farm payments on time. It is perverse that through the fault of one part of the Department, other areas, up and down the country, have suffered subsequently.

Will the Minister review the fact that farmers are paying a levy to internal drainage boards to drain ditches and other areas such as the outflow of main tributaries? Many of the rivers that flooded have not been dredged for years and are full of debris and choked with plant matter that prevents and impedes water flow, and the result is flooding of farmland.

On a positive note, one of the Minister's predecessors, Mr. Morley, enjoys in his own constituency a pilot scheme whereby flood alleviation scheme money is provided—partially, I think, through the EU European development fund—to allow upstream land to flood. The scheme allows farmers to be reimbursed for the resultant loss of land from production. It seems rather bizarre that a former Minister with responsibility for flooding has such land. Will the Minister say whether we can have some of that money in the rural areas that we represent, and will he ensure that the schemes, if successful, are trialled throughout the country?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:50 pm, 11th July 2007

The debate has demonstrated—if it needed demonstrating—the value of Members of Parliament to their constituencies. The knowledge and experience that has been fed back is very important, and the fact that members of the public have an MP for their area is also important—regardless of the party to which that MP belongs. My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan has done his constituents and the House a great service in obtaining the debate.

I am conscious that I shall not be able to answer all the questions that have been raised. Several hon. Members have accepted that fact, and I apologise in advance for it. I am well aware that many thousands of people will be reading Hansard online and in more traditional ways to see what is going on and to see the Government response. It is right that I should take the opportunity, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to put on record the sympathy of all of us in these terrible circumstances for the loved ones of the bereaved.

In the time available I shall try to answer the thematic points and then move on to the specifics. On funding, none of us knows whether the recent floods were caused directly or indirectly by climate change or whether they were simply exceptional events. We know, however, that similar tragedies have occurred around the earth, such as in Karachi in Pakistan, where 250 people have been killed in the past two weeks through exceptional flash floods, and in southern Australia, which has experienced the most severe drought on record. I do not know whether those events are connected, although it seems likely that they are.

We can predict flooding from coastal erosion and from the interaction of tides and waterways with some degree of accuracy. Hon. Members have spoken about that. It is possible to review the flood plain situation too. However, it is important to understand, and to say to the public, that nobody can predict where the next floods will take place.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, for chairing the debate, which has been exemplary. I was about to rebut the allegation of Chris Huhne about funding—he mentioned the in-year reduction in the non-capital budget. There has not been a U-turn by the Treasury. The flat cash assumptions that are made across Government—some are better and some are worse—are part of the spending review period. When one is profiling capital expenditure, it would not be wise to front-load it in years one or two. The hon. Gentleman will know, from his knowledge of economics, that the planning of capital expenditure requires a lead-in time. Having said that, all hon. Members have welcomed the extra money that has been provided.

Let me warn both the House and members of the public who might be following this debate that, as hon. Members have said and as the chief executive of the Environment Agency and its chairman, with whom I had a long conversation in preparation for this debate, have said, it is not possible to predict where the next flood will be. The recent floods were, in some parts, surface water floods. The Environment Agency does not set out to tell us where floods are going to take place, because that is not known. It can tell us only the likelihood of floods in certain places. Given our experiences, particularly the nature of the flooding in South Yorkshire, one would never have imagined that there would have been severe floods in the Pennines. If the House is asking me to provide funding for all eventualities in the light of that background, I must say that it is not possible to do so. However, funding increases were set out in the announcement made by the Secretary of State.

In all tragedies, disasters or, indeed, malicious acts where the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 is triggered, there is a lead agency in the immediate response—the gold command—and usually the chief constable is in charge. Hon. Members who recall debating that Act will know that that is required in order that agencies come under a single command and control structure. Such a structure is in place.

Mr. Stuart spoke with great knowledge of his area and the response, and, as he indicated, both the perception and the reality are important. The truth is that this country is in its early days of civil contingency and civil resilience response under the gold command structure. One should always remember that the lead Department complements the response structures that are in place through the Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, whether we are dealing with a terrorist bomb, a flood, foot and mouth disease, a fuel supply crisis or something else.

We have improved enormously as a country in that co-ordination. It can always be better, and that is why the lessons-learned exercise, which we are under a statutory obligation to carry out, covers both the lessons learned from our knowledge and information on the flooding and the lead-up to it, and the response of the agencies, be they public, private or voluntary. All hon. Members are invited to take part in that lessons-learned exercise. Indeed, the Government take the attitude that it is not only necessary but desirable to have an open mind about that. We can always learn lessons, but we cannot predict accurately the next flood or incident.

It is also worth putting on the record the understanding that I believe exists among officials, in the agencies and among Ministers about the psychological and human impact of flooding as well as its physical impact. My hon. Friend Ms Smith spoke movingly about her experience—I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House could share such experience. Civil resilience planning requires, above all else, public resilience. It requires the common sense of the British public, and that has been evident in spades in this response. No amount of planning can compensate for that.

Farms, businesses and homes have been damaged by some of the most severe floods and exceptional circumstances. Two main points have been made, one on the funding and the other on the lessons learned. I hope that hon. Members will accept that those have been understood by the Government.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked a number of other questions. Water companies are involved in the planning exercise. I do not know about the specific circumstances to which he referred. The hon. Member for York—

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am well aware of the difference between my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley and Miss McIntosh, both of whom speak with experience about flooding because of where their constituencies are. She asked about access to fields for farmers, and I hope that she will be pleased to learn that the Secretary of State has addressed that issue today. She asked that one lead agency be in charge. The lead agency for the flood defence preparation and for the immediate response is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in terms of Government agencies. The lead agency on the ground is the gold command; it takes authority in the area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough raised questions about the lessons learned and the need to front-load cost to flood defence—

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. I am afraid I must intervene. I should like to thank the Minister and all the hon. Members who took part for the courtesy that they showed the Chair and each other during a useful debate.