Flooding (Rochdale)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 20th February 2008.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 4:00 pm, 20th February 2008

I indicated to Paul Rowen and to the Minister that there is likely to be a Division on the Floor of the House at 4.28 pm. I suspect that neither hon. Member will wish to return for two minutes, so they may wish to pace their remarks accordingly.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

Thank you very much, Mr. Gale. I am sure that we can manage that between us. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise issues surrounding the heavy rainfall and flooding that occurred in Rochdale on 21 January and it is good to see my near neighbour, the Minister responsible for flood policy, responding to the debate.

Having just returned from Bangladesh, I appreciate that the problems in Rochdale and the UK pale into insignificance when compared with the flooding that occurs on a regular basis in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the flooding in Rochdale in January, and the other floods that occurred during the summer of 2007, offer us valuable lessons, locally and nationally, that we need to learn. That was illustrated by Sir Michael Pitt, in his interim report, when he stated that

"flood risk is here to stay".

I have had discussions with the Environment Agency, Rochdale council and some of the local people affected by the flooding, and all were positive and indicated that important lessons both locally and nationally can be learned from this and similar incidents. Flooding in Rochdale occurred in the following areas: first, at the bottom of Bury road and on the Mellor street junction, due to a non-main river culverted under the road. That drains into the River Spodden, but because of the volume it gushed up through a manhole cover. I was told by businesses at the bottom of Bury road that that area has flooded eight times this year. Clearly there is an urgent need to resolve that problem.

Secondly, in the Littleborough area, seven houses in the Whalley avenue and Calder avenue areas were flooded. The cause of that problem is well known. Houses built higher up on land that formerly had a mill lodge have caused a culvert to collapse. Up to 50,000 gallons a minute were gushing down the remaining sewer, which cannot cope with such volume and regularly floods. Again, I have had discussions with Rochdale council, which has proposed a solution, although in my view building additional pipes just moves the problem further down river. The company that built the original houses ought to be tackled for causing the additional flooding. The third instance of flooding occurred when the River Roch burst its banks around Keller street and Heybrook, flooding cellars and allotments. Several horses had to be rescued from the allotments by the fire service, but regrettably other livestock on the allotments were drowned.

There are clear implications for the location of future house building and for whether insurance will still be available for houses built on river flood plains. Indeed, there are plans to build more houses in the areas of Rochdale that I have just mentioned. The Association of British Insurers said that a third of the 3 million new homes that the Government plan to build will be on flood plains. If that remains the case, there is a real concern that flood insurance might not remain available, which would have severe implications for home owners.

In the town centre, the college car park was flooded, threatening an electricity sub-station, which could have lost electricity supply for a large part of the town. Staff in town centre offices and the town hall, and students at the college, were evacuated as a precaution. I have with me a photograph of the Lviv bridge, taken from the Rochdale Observer that shows how the River Roch came dangerously close to flooding the whole town centre. I am sure that the Minister is aware of a further incident of flooding in the Milnrow area.

That incident, and those from last summer, were considered by the Environment Agency's report and the interim report by Sir Michael Pitt. They illustrate the following points that need to be looked at. The first is the lack of co-ordination between the Environment Agency, the council, the Highways Agency and United Utilities about who is doing what. For example, people ringing the council were given three different phone numbers for officers to deal with the flooding problems. Secondly, the Mellor street and Bury road junction has been flooding for years with both the council and United Utilities saying that it was not their responsibility. A recent letter from United Utilities to me stated:

"We are not responsible for this flooding, and may I suggest you contact Rochdale Council."

I am not bothered who is responsible, but I wish to see a solution. That sort of attitude illustrates the lack of co-ordination and the fact that no one is ultimately responsible for ensuring that work is carried out.

Thirdly, there is the lack of a flood disaster plan detailing who does what. For example, shopkeepers in the town centre were questioning why they were not warned when the council decided to close its offices. Fourthly, flood levels forecasted for Rochdale and Littleborough were below the flood warning trigger level. If the Minister looks at the photograph that I have with me, he will see that Rochdale town centre would have been dangerously close to flooding, if the River Roch had breached its banks at that point. Clearly there is a need to review the trigger level and therefore the warnings given to people about the possibility of flooding.

The majority of flooding was the result of surface water flooding, for which no warning is in place despite drainage systems being overwhelmed. As a result of such incidents, I am pleased to say that the council has agreed that over the next 12 months every gully in the borough will be cleared. That is to be welcomed. However, there remains an urgent need to consider better co-ordination between United Utilities and the council, particularly on the capacity of the drainage system to cope with rainfall that, as a result of climate change, is becoming the norm.

Rochdale suffered a near miss. Unless we act now, we might not be so lucky again. What happened there was nearly as bad as what happened in Doncaster and Hull. If the town centre had flooded, the cost might not have been as great as in the latter places, but it could have run into many millions of pounds. We were very lucky. I do not want to see a repeat of the situation, which is why I believe that urgent action is necessary. The River Roch was inches from bursting its banks and flooding our town centre.

In light of that, I would like to ask the Minister to consider introducing the following so that we learn the lessons both locally and nationally: first, a new floods Act giving the Environment Agency strategic overview of all forms of flooding, including surface water flooding, and setting out clear responsibilities for emergency planning, clear long-term planning, warnings and so on to be taken by councils, highways authorities, water companies and house builders when going about their business. Secondly, will he consider requiring providers of critical services, including electricity and water, to consider steps that they should take to protect vital power and water supplies? We know what happened in Gloucestershire where a whole power station was nearly engulfed. Had the sub-station in the centre of Rochdale been inundated when the Roch broke its banks, that could have caused a similarly severe loss of power.

Thirdly, the Minister should consider requiring house builders and infrastructure providers to take action to reduce flood risk. Such measures could be included in the current Planning Bill and in the forthcoming climate change Bill. Houses built on flood plains must have adequate flood defences, and if they are not built into the plans, the Department should have the power to require the builder to do so. If we do not do so, as the ABI has warned, many people who have flood risk insurance will no longer have it. If the Government are to meet their house building target and more than 1 million homes are to be on the flood plain, we need to see action on that issue. We also need to ensure that infrastructure organisations provide adequate defences for rail and roads, so that they are not cut off, if and when flooding occurs.

Fourthly, there is a need to make more information available. The Environment Agency's floodwatch text messages provide valuable warnings, and many people at risk know about them, but they are not known by everyone. For example, in Rochdale town centre, the council and the college decided to close, but there was no mechanism in place to warn others of possible danger, which shows that not only locally, but nationally, we must review our system for issuing flood warnings.

Fifthly, we need to continue with short and long-term investment to strengthen our flood defences. Over the past five years and earlier this year, the Environment Agency has spent a considerable amount of money strengthening the River Roch's flood defences, which has helped in Littleborough, where flooding is nowhere near as great as it has been. However, in view of what happened in Rochdale town centre, we must examine the issue.

The issue is not unique to Rochdale. Its implications in an era of global climate change affect us all and have important implications for public policy. I strongly believe that we can develop the policies to resolve those problems, and that the good will exists on all sides to make it happen. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:12 pm, 20th February 2008

I congratulate Paul Rowen on securing the debate. He has made a number of intelligent points, and I am glad to be able to report that I agree with the main thrust of his comments. I shall respond to his five points before I set out the Government's policy.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a new floods Act, and that was a recommendation of the interim report from the Pitt review. Giving the Environment Agency strategic overview and responsibilities is something that we are doing anyway: we have already done so for coastal protection, and we are considering it for inland flooding. There are other measures that a new floods Act might introduce, but he would not expect me to make any revelations; indeed, it is not within my power to do so.

On requiring providers of critical infrastructure to examine the protection that they afford, again, that has been taken on board, and the experience in Rochdale highlights its importance, because there was a combination of river flooding and, as the hon. Gentleman said, surface water flooding, which is much more difficult to deal with, particularly as it occurs in areas where people are not used to flooding.

On requiring builders to take action on protection, planning policy statement 25, which has been in place for about a year, gives the Environment Agency the opportunity to make objections and to call in proposals if the planning authority does not meet the agency's requirements satisfactorily. It is early days for that policy, and local authorities are still learning, but the hon. Gentleman is right that if one is going to build in a flood risk area, it must be protected by flood defence schemes and/or by resilience measures.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about information. We can always do more, and he cited a good example from his constituency. My hon. Friend Jim Dobbin, who has just assumed his place, has always made that point. The hon. Member for Rochdale called for continuing investment, and I am happy to report that the comprehensive spending review provided the Department, and through it, the Environment Agency, with additional capital resources.

I shall turn to the important point that the hon. Gentleman raised. He was gracious enough to acknowledge—for which I thank him—that the flood defences that were put in place in his area by the Environment Agency in 2005 improved the situation, which would have been a great deal worse otherwise. Nevertheless, the river over-topped, and as he said, the flood warning mechanisms did not indicate the level of water that eventually came about. The Roch scheme overview followed two successive floods in 1992, which flooded more than 100 residential and industrial properties in Littleborough and Rochdale, and led to the construction of the flood alleviation scheme.

On risk, the chance of flooding in Rochdale and Littleborough before the scheme was estimated to be between 10 per cent., one in 10 years, and 40 per cent., one in 25 years, in any given year. The scheme included strengthening and raising existing walls, new flood walls and embankments, and ramps to improve access to the river channel to make maintenance easier and safer. The construction works cost some £6 million and were completed within four years. In that scheme, it was agreed that the level of protection would be raised to one in 100 years, which meant that Rochdale and Littleborough had a 1 per cent. chance of flooding in any given year. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the formal opening of the scheme was held in July 2005. His points are therefore important. Measures have been put in place, and flooding occurred on different parts of the river. That indicates the issue that our country and others face.

I shall outline the Government's activities with the Environment Agency to improve the situation by reducing risk, by improving preparedness, warnings and emergency response. I point the House towards three documents. First, there is the cross-Government strategy, "Making Space for Water: Environment Agency strategic overview", which was published in 2005. That strategy development programme was the most thorough review of flood risk management policy for many years. I say that, because the accusation is sometimes made that it took last summer's floods to make the Government sit up and take notice. That is unfair. The hon. Gentleman did not make the accusation, but in case others did, I put that statement on the record.

The second document was Sir Michael Pitt's review, and we published the third document on 7 February, just last week. The new water strategy, "Future Water", included a range of announcements on surface water drainage management and other aspects of water policy. It confirms our aim to clarify and improve management of the risk nationally by giving the Environment Agency a strategic overview of all forms of flooding in order to address exactly the situation that Rochdale met in microcosm just three weeks ago, when the responsibilities of United Utilities, the local authority and the Environment Agency were not clear.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

Earlier, the Minister quoted the figures on risk. Does he intend to ask the Environment Agency to reconsider the risk? There are lessons. On investment, he rightly said that there are still areas at risk of flooding. Can we have a review, and will it happen nationally?

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

Indeed. In the case of Rochdale, as I have said, the risk assessment following the new scheme meant that the risk was put up to one in 100—much less of a chance—yet we nevertheless had floods. We are considering the situation. Whether it was due to climate change is a moot point, but we face the likelihood of increasing rainfall as a result of climate change.

I shall make some more specific points in addition to my clarification of the management of the risk nationally by the Environment Agency. As with the coastal protection overview role, the inland changes will be informed by public consultation. They will also take into account the results of the 15 projects that we are currently funding to help to identify improvements in surface water drainage. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the capacity of drains, which is important. Surface water drainage has a complex interaction of systems, with different responsibilities in different boroughs or sometimes within boroughs, districts and counties. We made a range of announcements on that point in the water strategy document to which I referred.

The partnership between the Environment Agency, local authorities and the water companies, and inland drainage boards in other parts of the country, is crucial. It involves long-term planning as well as the risk management decisions to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are also encouraging better resilience and resistance of buildings themselves, and he and I have mentioned the emergency infrastructure. We have a £500,000 project in partnership with local authorities in six areas, which is exploring the feasibility of providing financial assistance to households in areas where community defences cannot be justified, to make their homes more flood-resilient. We are also working with the insurance industry to consider ways to encourage the public to make greater use of flood resilience in their homes, and the level of premiums is important.

As for the recent event in Rochdale, we understand that last summer, about two thirds of the flooding was caused by surface water rather than over-topping or the breaching of river defences. We are therefore developing flood risk maps for surface water similar to those for fluvial overflow such as happened in Rochdale. Surface water flooding is difficult to predict and often a result of sudden, localised rainfall events of the type that the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton and I are used to in our part of the country. Such events occur across the United Kingdom.

Often, small variations in the built environment can have significant effects on how water flows. The hon. Member for Rochdale gave examples of buildings in Rochdale that are not themselves at risk of flooding but can cause flooding elsewhere in the drainage or river systems. In his area, the river travels mostly through built-up areas and has done for hundreds of years, which affects how surface water interacts with river water.

We know that we can never prevent all flooding. Flood warning and emergency planning are therefore key, and the Environment Agency is engaged in a £200 million programme to improve its flood forecasting and warning systems, which warn of potential flooding from rivers and the sea. We are looking into developing a warning system for surface water, although, as I have said, there are significant technical challenges.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the lessons learned from Rochdale will be important not just for Rochdale but for the rest of the country. It is important to understand why the system there was not as had been predicted. He said that all that requires funding. We have increased the funding significantly within the context of a long-term investment plan, so the whole country knows what it has at the moment, what it can expect and what the risk base is.

The important thing about public consultation is not just to have warm words from a middle-ranking Minister. It is important that we understand the drainage and river systems, and local people understand them best—in my experience, down to street level. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention my constituency, and I declare an interest: Railway street, in the fabulous village of Newhey, was subjected to flooding. I know the reasons for that flooding from talking to residents there, who can point out to me exactly where it will occur. The Environment Agency does a fantastic job—the hon. Gentleman has made that point publicly. I thank its officials and employees for the work that they did in Rochdale, but even they, with their expertise, cannot replace that local knowledge. I give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance.

We will increase expenditure to £800 million by 2010-11. Is that enough? I do not know; nobody knows. It is more than the Association of British Insurers suggested before last summer's events, which is important. I have mentioned the strengthening of policy for planning authorities, whereby the Environment Agency is now a statutory consultee on planning applications in relation to flood risk. Powers have been established under the new policy for call-in by the Government.

We all need to take responsibility. I echo the hon. Gentleman's words about the flood warning systems and appeal to the public to play their part in the preparations. Those who have not already signed up for flood warning systems should do so, and not just in areas that have experienced river flooding, because as we have seen, other areas can suffer from surface water flooding and the interaction of that with other water. The agency provides useful information. I know that not everybody has access to the website, but increasingly people do, and it is a useful source of information. There is also the floodline phone service.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and take his points seriously. I confirm that in response to his points two, three, four and five, the answer is yes. On point one, we are already doing it but have not ruled out the need for new legislation. I assure him that I take the matter seriously. He gave the example of Rochdale, but flooding has happened in other places and will happen elsewhere. We have to put plans in place. He says that it is not clear where responsibility lies. At the end of the day, it lies here. That is why I give him those undertakings. Thank you, Mr. Gale, for chairing the debate.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.