Flooding: Irwell Vale and Surrounding Areas

NDAs: Universities – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 29th June 2022.

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Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 4:00 pm, 29th June 2022

I will call Jake Berry to move the motion, after which I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is convention for a 30-minute debate.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered flooding in Irwell Vale and surrounding areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your redoubted chairmanship for the first time, Ms McVey.

Flooding affects communities all over the United Kingdom. Many Members present will live in an area affected by flooding and will understand that when communities flood, the effect is profound and devastating. It is completely debilitating for those communities. Yes, they may have accepted moving to an area with a 100-year flood risk, but, by gum, have they been surprised to have been flooded two, three or four times in a decade. In the past few years, hundreds of lives across my constituency of Rossendale and Darwen have been negatively affected. Homes and businesses in Whitworth, Bacup, Stacksteads, Waterfoot, Darwen, Rawtenstall, Helmshore, Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton have been devastated by floods in the past 10 years.

The reason why our area floods is the same reason we are one of the most picturesque and beautiful areas in the United Kingdom: our lovely rivers. We have the Limey Water, the Whitewell brook, the Darwen, the Spodden, the Ogden and the Irwell. In the summer, they are beautiful, burbling brooks; in the winter, they become raging torrents. It is those last two rivers—the Ogden and the Irwell—that really affect the residents of Irwell Vale, where there is a confluence just before the village. Irwell Vale, Chatterton and Strongstry have been flooded repeatedly by those rivers, which has been devastating.

It has proved historically difficult to mitigate the flood risk because the water comes from a wide catchment area. I have visited those communities on several occasions after they have flooded and the impact on their lives has been completely devastating. It is something the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he understands. He recently visited Didsbury, in Greater Manchester, after some flooding, and said that there is a

“huge psychological, emotional and financial cost” to the communities that flood. I absolutely agree. That is why I am grateful that over the past nine years, the Minister and her Department have already provided £1 million of investment for our local communities to try to stop the flooding. Back in 2014, residents of the village of Stubbins were delighted when their long-awaited flood defences were opened by me and others after finally being completed.

Today, I want to talk about the ongoing challenge in the catchment area that makes up the River Irwell and covers other areas. Floods have particularly affected Irwell Vale, but they also affect tens of thousands of people across the country. That is why the issue is such a priority for the Government.

The Irwell, which cuts through my constituency, is a river that was previously thought to flood very infrequently. In fact, it had a 100-year flood risk. However, it has flooded in 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2020. The communities of Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton also have the dual risk of overland flooding. It is not just raised river levels; they are in a deep, sheer-sided valley and when there is heavy rainfall, combined with rising river levels, the flooding can come from the back of the houses as well as the front.

In February, I was down there talking to the community, who explained how family members felt they could not leave home because they were constantly clicking “refresh” on the Government’s online flooding monitor; they sort of felt they would be more likely to flood if they were not in the house. Although that is not particularly rational, it shows what a huge impact living on a flood plain and in a community that floods has on the mental health of these families. That is why it is really important we debate that impact today.

For a number of years now, I have worked very closely with the Environment Agency, the Government and the communities, to find a solution that will serve this community not just in the short term, but for generations to come. The Government’s policy is that flood defences are not about how big a community is. This is a small community, but all communities must be supported. I hope the Government will reaffirm that commitment today, because the whole point of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is that no community gets left behind. The smallest hamlet is as important to the Minister as the greatest city, but all too often it is the smallest hamlet that gets flooded and needs the flood defences. I hope the Minister will reaffirm today that no community is too small to have the benefit of Government flood defence spending.

I want to talk more directly about the Environment Agency plan for Irwell Vale, Chatterton and Strongstry. Following the 2015 flooding, the Environment Agency worked closely with me and the local community. It did a large-scale appraisal on a whole catchment basis for the River Irwell and its tributaries. That was followed by a capital funding bid to further reappraise flooding issues and possible mitigation work for the community.

Following the 2020 floods, which were again devastating, the Environment Agency did further extensive work to ensure that solutions would deal properly with increased flooding frequency. I find it extraordinary that between 2015 and 2020 there was such a change in the expectations of flooding in the community that the EA had to revisit all the work that had already been done. That tells us how concerned we should be for these communities, which will be subject to more frequent flooding.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his efforts to secure funding. I know we will hear a little more about that in a second. I was also at Irwell Vale during the period of severe flooding and it was catastrophic—genuinely appalling. Irwell Vale is about 1.5 miles from my constituency. My right hon. Friend knows the fine town of Ramsbottom in my constituency well. How does he feel that the scheme he is about to describe will help flood defences in Ramsbottom?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Irwell Vale is a wonderful place, as my hon. Friend knows, as he has visited it. It is my main dog-walking route. I always do the leaflets there at elections as well, although that is not relevant to today’s debate. It is part of a string of villages and towns along the River Irwell, and the next significant town along is Ramsbottom, which is a wonderful place as well. A lot of what the Environment Agency is proposing in its current plan is about slowing the water flow down on the River Irwell. Although the plan is described as a linear flood defence, which might make colleagues think of me campaigning just to swoosh the water past my constituency and let it come over the top in Ramsbottom, that is absolutely not the proposal of the Environment Agency—even if it were mine, which it is not.

All the mitigation measures that the EA is taking further up the Irwell valley will benefit Ramsbottom, which has had significant flood events, particularly for local businesses, which I know my hon. Friend works closely with. Even though only 100 or so houses are identified to directly benefit from the work, it would in fact benefit the whole River Irwell catchment. As my hon. Friend will know, this is a river that goes into the centre of Manchester and has been responsible for flooding in Salford in the past. I know the Minister will want to look at the whole catchment approach. What we do in Irwell Vale benefits Ramsbottom.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

And obviously Waterside.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

And Waterside, of course. An economic assessment has been undertaken by the Environment Agency, and the benefit and cost of all of the options has been assessed. The most economically favourable solution—frankly, the one that is likely to gain the maximum amount of grant in aid from the Government—has been identified. There was a long list of options, many of which I looked at. That was turned into a shortlist. The preferred option has now been chosen. It is what the Environment Agency refers to, slightly misleadingly, as a linear defence. It includes several mitigation measures to slow down flow.

That brings me to where we are today. The problem faced by Irwell Vale residents and communities, and other communities, is that the grant in aid funding will not cover the cost of the project needed in my constituency. It has been clear for a while that, if the scheme is to deliver meaningful and sustainable solutions, we will have to look at a cocktail of Government funding to support it, unless we ask communities to pay significant amounts that they cannot afford. The estimated cost of the project is £19.6 million, which I appreciate is not an insignificant amount. If the Minister, or any of her colleagues, were to visit Irwell Vale and speak to the community there, she would see that the community understands that it is an expensive scheme. They have been completely realistic and pragmatic about the need to work hard to find funding.

Of that £19 million—which sounds like a huge amount of money—we have already secured just over £11 million. That brings me to the rump—the £8 million—for which we are looking to the Government for support. The Environment Agency, supported by me and the community, has already applied to the fund for frequently flooded communities, as well as other Government Departments. It is also looking to increase the local levy contribution to try to make up some of that shortfall. We believe that the frequently flooded communities fund is absolutely central to delivering the scheme in Irwell Vale, although the Minister may have a different view. We know that the Government have not yet made decisions about the fund; one of the purposes of this debate is to gently nudge the Department and tell it that giving us that funding would be a good thing to do for the residents of Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton.

Last year, the Government announced that another £5.2 billion would be available for flood work over the next five years, and that it would be invested in flood alleviation schemes. That is really important, not just for my constituency but for the wider River Irwell catchment. I am excited that the Government have allocated so much more funding—more money than any Government in history—to tackling flooding. I hope that the Government look favourably on our local scheme, which is supported by the Environment Agency and the council that covers the areas that my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe and I represent. It is supported locally and by Parliament. I thank my hon. Friend for attending the debate.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech outlining the threat posed by the River Irwell, pretty though it is. The Government have recognised that. In my constituency, and in Bury South, £30 million has been invested in Radcliffe and Redvales because of the threat that the Irwell poses to housing in that area. My right hon. Friend’s strong case for investment cannot be overstated, because the evidence clearly shows that destruction will follow unless money is invested.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I know those areas well. There are thousands of houses there. In the beautiful villages in my constituency, there are just 100-plus houses. I understand that the Government have to prioritise funding; there is not an endless pot of money. However, we have been waiting a very long time, and we have been flooded lots of times. Now that Radcliffe, other areas of Bury and Ramsbottom have had significant flooding investment, I hope that the Minister understands why we think that it is our turn.

We need the investment. We are talking about relatively few houses, but in truth, no one cares whether there are 100 or 1,000 houses in their community. In politics, we talk about houses when we should really talk about homes. We do not live in a house; we live in our home, and it is not just four walls and a roof. It is where we have our photograph albums from when our children or grandchildren were at school, loved items of furniture that have been in the family for generations, and all our possessions. When water comes through the air bricks in the house, or up through the floorboards, it is not just damaging people’s house; in many cases, it is washing away a life—a lifetime of memories, and all those happy events that took place in their home. That is why the scheme is so important. People who live in Irwell Vale, Chatterton or Strongstry have had that happen to them five times in the last decade.

In politics, we do not often point back at things and say, “I am really proud that I was part of that.” We probably should do a bit more of it. However, if I can deliver this money to the community that I have the privilege of representing, it will give me— though this is not about me—the opportunity to say proudly that debates in Parliament, and this debate, transformed people’s lives. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about future funding, and the Government’s ambitions for funding the scheme. I do not want to go back to these communities next winter, or maybe the winter after that, and have to explain to people why their life has been washed away again. We have a real opportunity today to change that.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:16 pm, 29th June 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms McVey.

I thank my right hon. Friend Jake Berry for securing this important debate on the flooding in Irwell Vale, and for describing the area and its inhabitants so passionately and so well. It is also good to see my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), and for Bury North (James Daly), who remind us through their very presence that raging torrents do not stop at constituency boundaries, and that we have to look at the problem in a whole-catchment, or catchment-sensitive, way.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, who has responsibility for the environment, is sorry not to be responding to the debate, but she is at the United Nations oceans conference in Lisbon, so I am afraid that my right hon. and hon. Friends have her stand-in today. However, I undertake to speak to her about this debate, and will ensure that she meets interested colleagues once again to discuss the issues to do with the scheme that have been outlined this afternoon.

The devastation caused by flooding is terrible. Having lived all my life in the Cherwell valley, I sympathise deeply with all those affected, including those who have been affected repeatedly over the past 10 years. It is even more devastating when a location is affected time and again. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen described graphically, residents rarely have a moment’s peace when the rain is coming from both directions.

I pass on my sympathies to all residents in my right hon. and hon. Friends’ constituencies who have been affected by flooding, including during really dreadful events in February 2020, when 56 houses were flooded, and on Boxing Day 2015—that was the really bad one—when 94 properties were flooded.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

My hon. Friend mentioned the Boxing day flooding. As she will know, it brought all our communities together, but these events also take away from all our local police services and other services. On that day, police came from Blackburn, Bolton and Burnley to tackle the problems, but as we know, there are sometimes other issues in communities on Boxing day. Does she agree that whole communities are affected? Also, we want people to live in these beautiful places on our patches, but house insurance is nearly impossible to get, because of flooding.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes some important points. It is always good to have conversations and debates on flooding with a group of interested colleagues, so that decisions can be made in a joined-up way.

Irwell Vale and nearby areas, including Strongstry and Chatterton, face a combination of risks from river, surface water, and groundwater flooding, which are all interconnected and therefore difficult to deal with in isolation. When flooding has taken place, the water has been very deep and fast-flowing, and has cut off access to communities, in many cases very badly. The EA recognises the importance of trying to alleviate the flood risk as much as possible, especially given the complexity of the risks. That is why the EA, working closely with partners including Lancashire County Council, has installed a permanent automatic pump to help reduce the frequency of surface water, and has done various works on banks and embankments in those communities, as well as having removed gravel.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen mentioned that the Irwell Vale scheme is sometimes described as a linear scheme; he rightly said it was much more than that. The estimated cost of the scheme is £19.5 million. The EA has secured around £11 million for the scheme through various sources, such as grant in aid, a local levy and the assets replacement allocation. As he said, that leaves a funding gap of £8.5 million.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I do not expect an answer on this today, but I would be grateful if the Minister could write to me. I have been told by the EA that one of the challenges is that it cannot start work on any part of the scheme until it can do the whole scheme. It is very frustrating for local residents to know that the £11 million is secured but cannot be drawn on until they have the full £19 million. Could the Minister, with her officials, undertake to see whether it is possible to do some elements of the scheme, particularly the wall rebuilding in Irwell Vale, which would protect properties now, in the hope and belief that further assets in the scheme could be funded at a later date?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I would be delighted to undertake that. I met with the EA team earlier today, and one of my questions was whether part of the scheme could be delivered while we continue to work together on further sources of income for the remaining £8.5 million. I was told that it was not quite as easy as that, but I undertake to ask for a detailed answer for my right hon. Friend, because some of the wall rebuilding might alleviate some residents’ concerns.

The frequently flooded communities fund may not be the correct route for further funding applications, but I was firmly reassured by the EA that it is leaving no stone unturned to try to source the remainder of the funding, and that several routes are being considered. I encourage all interested colleagues to continue to work with the partners who are determined to make that happen.

I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point about how all communities must be protected. The fact that 100 hundred houses are affected is not in itself a barrier to finding a substantial amount of funding. He said that the area is on his dog walking route; it is a beautiful area, and there is biodiversity that needs to be protected as well. It is not just about the homes, although they are the most significant factor.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

This is an excellent scheme with a fantastic champion, but all communities need to be protected. Ramsbottom in my constituency is a mile and a half down the road from Irwell Vale. We have had £484,000 of investment in the whole constituency. It is not enough to protect families and businesses on Kenyon Street. Will the Minister or someone from her Department meet me to discuss what we can do to ensure that Ramsbottom has adequate flood defences?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I know that the Radcliffe and Redvales scheme has been useful in his constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen made the valid point that this is not a linear scheme and the aim is not to move the water from one constituency to another and cause problems there. That is why it is important that we continue to deal with these flooding issues holistically, looking at these schemes as part of a wider picture. He mentioned the benefits of wider catchment approaches to flood management. I very much agree that a whole-catchment approach can unlock opportunities for areas such as the one we are discussing. The Government have committed to transforming the approach to local flood and coastal erosion risk planning. Every area of England will have a more strategic and comprehensive plan that will drive long-term local action. That will be in place by 2026.

The EA is already implementing an approach that considers wider-catchment benefits, and is taking that whole-catchment approach to new funding bids. It is collaborating with partners such as Moors for the Future and the National Trust to deliver a suite of natural flood management measures in the upper Irwell catchment. That includes moorland restoration on Holcombe moor and slow-the-flow measures in Buckden brook. It is very important that we continue to look at the wider picture when managing this water.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane has asked me to reassure all hon. Members that flood and coastal risk management is a top priority for the Government. I reiterate that she would be delighted to meet Members from this area to discuss the specifics of the bid, the new plan, and how that funding gap can be filled. I thank all hon. Members for this informative debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.