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Flooding (England)

Volume 462: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the serious flooding that has affected large parts of England in the past 24 hours. As the House will know, the flooding was caused by the most exceptional weather conditions: up to 100 mm of rain in 24 hours in several places. This follows an unusually wet month with up to double the normal average monthly rainfall, which has saturated the ground and caused rivers to rise above their normal levels for the time of year.

Sadly, I have to report the confirmed loss of three lives: a 68-year-old man and a teenage boy died in separate incidents in Sheffield, and a 28-year-old man died in Hull. I am sure that the whole House will want to join the Prime Minister in extending our very deep sympathy to the families and friends of all those who have lost their lives in these tragic incidents.

It is estimated that some 1,000 properties have been flooded in and around Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds, Hull, Grimsby, Rotherham, Doncaster, Cheltenham, Shropshire and elsewhere. We all know that flooding is every householder’s nightmare. Within the past two hours, the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), has attended the Gold Command meeting, and he is visiting some of the affected areas in south Yorkshire today. He will see for himself, and will report back to me on, the major impacts that the floods have caused. These are traumatic events, especially for the elderly people involved, and every effort will be made to support them.

This morning, the Environment Agency had in place 25 severe flood warnings, 133 flood warnings and 129 flood watches, mainly concentrated in Yorkshire, the midlands and Lincolnshire. The situation does, of course, remain subject to regular change. River levels are dropping in the upper catchments today, although they will still rise further downstream. Flood defence operations are in place, including, where appropriate, temporary defences.

The House will have seen reports of very real dangers associated with the Ulley reservoir near Rotherham. The emergency services are working to control the situation, utilising high volume pumps that have recently been bought for the fire and rescue service through the good offices of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The situation is potentially serious. Gold Command is monitoring developments very carefully and contingency arrangements are being made. Two hundred and fifty people from the downstream area have been moved from their homes, and the M1 motorway has been closed as a precautionary measure.

The founding principle of the emergency response system is for decisions to be taken locally through an integrated structure, with the police in charge once Gold Command is activated. I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the many who have responded so magnificently to this event at local level. These include the staff of the fire, ambulance and police and other rescue services, local authorities, the Environment Agency and the voluntary sector. We know just how hard the fire and rescue service worked in the ultimately vain attempt to rescue the man trapped in the drain in Hull, and saw on television the RAF search and rescue helicopters airlifting people at risk in Sheffield. Otherwise, there has been no requirement for armed forces support. However, armed forces liaison officers were deployed to Gold Commands yesterday afternoon, notably in Humberside and Sheffield, and are ready to provide support if required. Overall, some 1,400 people have been provided with emergency shelters and other temporary accommodation. The community spirit in all the affected areas has, from all the reports that I have received, been outstanding.

It is clearly much too early to make a full assessment of the event. All relevant lessons will be learned once the immediate priorities have been met. However, I have been assured that the Environment Agency’s new Floodline Warnings Direct system performed well in issuing warnings to very large numbers of people in areas affected.

Some water flowed over the flood defences as the unprecedented rainfall exceeded what they were designed to deal with, but there had been no reported structural failings of flood defences. The local authorities are responsible for the short and longer-term recovery effort in the affected areas, and I am sure that elected members and officials will rise to that challenge. The relevant Government offices and other agencies will work with the local authorities to support them in that process.

Emergency financial assistance is available to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme to help with non-insurable clear-up costs incurred in taking immediate action to safeguard life and property following a disaster or emergency in their area. Local authorities have one month from the end of an incident to notify the Department for Communities and Local Government that they intend to apply for activation of a Bellwin scheme. If approved, that Department will usually reimburse an authority for 85 per cent. of its eligible costs above a threshold related to the authority’s annual budget.

I am also pleased to note that insurers are playing their part in the recovery, and that the Association of British Insurers has advised that its members have staff in place to ensure that claims are tackled promptly.

Ministers and officials in my Department and elsewhere in Government have kept in close touch with the events around the country without getting in the way of the local delivery effort. I spoke last night at 10.40 pm to the chief executive of Sheffield city council and this morning with the chair of the Environment Agency. It is clearly most efficient that decisions on how to manage the event are taken locally, drawing on local emergency plans. Again, those seem to have operated well.

For many people, the immediate task is one of clean-up. However, it is also vital to prepare for any further wave of extreme weather. Heavy rain later in the week remains a real threat and all the appropriate agencies remain on high alert. I will report any further significant short-term developments to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the advance notice that he provided of it. I entirely endorse his remarks about the three people who tragically lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, their friends and families.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the immense hard work of the emergency services and those in the police, local authorities, the Environment Agency and the armed forces, who responded to the crisis with courage and the highest standard of professionalism. Will he join me in sending a message of admiration to the people of Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Rotherham, Doncaster, Shropshire and so many other places, who have shown great resilience and fortitude in the face of the worst flooding in living memory? Our thoughts are with them as they struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

Clearly, the weather conditions that led to the events are almost unprecedented, but how satisfied is the Secretary of State that the warning systems in place were operated effectively? The Met Office issued a weather warning on 12 June, which stated:

“The worst affected areas are likely to be northern parts of England, where rainfall totals over a few days may be close to the monthly average for June.”

On 15 June, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) raised his concerns in the House and called on the Secretary of State to make an urgent statement on the action that he would take to prevent people from facing the misery of having their homes flooded.

In the light of those warnings, what action did the Secretary of State take in advance of the problem? They were not the only warnings that the Government received. On 14 June, the National Audit Office issued a damning report on the adequacy of our flood defence systems. It noted that the north-east had received less funding for flood defences than other parts of England, where the risk of flooding was assessed as less acute. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee also drew attention to the imbalance in spending. In other words, several warnings were issued within days of each other and of the dreadful events. Is the Secretary of State entirely satisfied that his response to them was not complacent?

The statement stressed the importance of the local response system, but what of the Government’s responsibilities? Does the Secretary of State regret the fact that the Environment Agency was forced to make cuts in its flood protection budget last year to compensate for financial mismanagement in his Department? Does he know that the Environment Agency and the Association of British Insurers have been urging the Department to take the risks of flooding far more seriously for several years? Does he regret that he has failed to do that? He said that he is keen to learn lessons. Is not one of them that it is normally a good idea to listen to the experts when they provide expert advice?

In Sheffield, much of the damage has occurred in Brightside, one of the poorest districts. Can the Secretary of State make an assessment at this stage of the amount of uninsured losses that have occurred?

The Environment Agency has said that what we have experienced in the past 48 hours is consistent with the effects of climate change, and that the risk of flooding and extreme weather events will only increase. As the Secretary of State knows, climate change scientists have been warning the Government for years of the need to adapt to climate change. How have the Government responded to those warnings? Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the forthcoming Climate Change Bill to introduce annual reporting on the measures taken to adapt to climate change as well as those taken to mitigate its effects?

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the forthcoming water price review to issue new advice to Ofwat and the Environment Agency to ensure that adequate investment in adaptation measures is funded in future? Will he also hold urgent discussions with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, or her successor, on the lunacy of continuing to build houses on flood plains?

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his Government fail to respond to the challenges of climate change with a coherent, joined-up approach and a much greater sense of urgency, the terrible events that we have witnessed in the past few days are likely to happen again and again?

If the hon. Gentleman chooses, in the cold light of day tomorrow, to look at the contents of his remarks in Hansard, he will see that, unusually for him, they did not do justice to his knowledge in this area or to the way in which he has approached these issues, certainly in the 15 months that I have been in this post. The people of Sheffield and the other affected areas will have listened with some dismay to the way in which he approached this task.

The hon. Gentleman rightly sent a message of admiration, and I am sure that it was inadvertent that he did not mention the health services. It is important that all the public services should be recognised for the important work that they have been doing. As he said, these are almost unprecedented conditions. We shall have to wait for the historians to tell us whether they were completely unprecedented. The weather warnings are an important part of our local planning system, and the reason why the local system has worked well is that the local people in charge took heed of those weather warnings. In my conversations with people on the ground, they have told me that, where the emergency services have been brought into play and local authorities’ own social services provision has been needed, the systems have worked well. That is testimony to the good preparation that has been done.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the NAO report. The chief executive of the Environment Agency will be speaking to the PAC tomorrow. I do not want to get in the way of her defence of what has happened, but it is important to point out to the House that, between 2003-04 and 2005-06, the agency exceeded its target for protection, achieving flood protection for 100,000 houses, rather than the 80,000 target. Furthermore, there are 24,000 miles of flood defences around the country that are maintained by the Environment Agency. Many people who know this area will have been astonished that the hon. Gentleman—who speaks for a party that left us with a flood budget of £307 million in 1996-97—failed to mention that that budget is now £615 million. It has doubled under this Government. I hasten to add that, on almost every occasion, the Conservatives have voted against the measures designed to raise that budget.

I do not yet have a listing of the uninsured losses, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information in due course. He made the link with climate change, which I am sure is in many people’s thoughts. I want to make two points on that. First, climate change involves not only global warming but extreme weather events. However, it is unwise to seize on one event before the scientists have had a chance to make a full assessment of it, and before I did so, I would want to be sure that they were clear about the links to climate change.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of adaptation, which I am pleased about, and asked for annual reports on that matter. We have made it clear in the Climate Change Bill that there should be regular reports, but we think that a five-yearly basis is the right strategic basis on which to make these judgments. However, I will take into consideration his comments when we consider the draft representations of the Special Committee that is considering these issues.

All Members from the affected areas will welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and the fact that he has come to the House so quickly today to make it. I reiterate that our hearts go out to those who have been bereaved and to those who have lost so much in terms of their homes and businesses. I also commend the Gold Command for the direction that has taken place over the past 48 hours, and the public and emergency services and the RAF, all of whom have done a phenomenal job.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is prepared to cut through the bureaucracy that often surrounds financial intervention on occasions such as this by ensuring that, alongside rapidly dealing with the Bellwin formula once the claims are in, there is assistance, perhaps through emergency loans, to help the families and businesses who are faced with sheer devastation? He mentioned that the armed services were on standby, so will he consider getting them and their engineers in as quickly as possible to ensure that if there is a further deluge, as predicted by the weathermen, we have other emergency measures in place by this weekend, so that there is no repeat of what has happened over the last 48 hours?

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable authority having played a central role, if not in creating, certainly in upgrading the Gold Command structure that has proved its worth over the past 24 hours. We will certainly look at all suggestions about how we can support local people in coming to terms with this unprecedented event. In respect of a further deluge, the decision-making structure deliberately puts power in the hands of local people so rather than me making the decisions I assure him that all appropriate forces and provisions are at the disposal of local people in preparing for whatever contingencies lie ahead.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. As he said, our sympathies go very much to the families of the three people who we know have died as a result of the floods and to all the others who have suffered such terrible losses. My admiration, too, goes to the emergency services, the Environment Agency staff and all the other public services doing gruelling work to avert worse calamities.

My admiration, however, does not yet extend to the Secretary of State, who has—it seems to me—mishandled the issue of flood defences ever since he took over the Department. Is it not astonishing at a time of climate change that the Government cut spending on flood defences last year, in-year, by £15 million? Will the Secretary of State confirm that in York and elsewhere those cuts delayed projects by delaying feasibility studies? Is it not even more astonishing that last month the regional flood defence committees were sent a document by the Environment Agency, which said:

“Our planning assumption is that our resource settlement over the next three years will be flat cash in line with our current 2007-8 baseline (a real time reduction in funding) with any growth limited to capital investment”?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that as late as last week the Treasury was continuing to press his Department for real cuts in flood defences? Does not that show a devastating lack of foresight on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is it not yet another example of how lamentably he fails to understand the significance of climate change?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that his admiration for me is fully reciprocated. He has confirmed his unenviable reputation for being someone who never misses an opportunity for opportunism and I congratulate him on his consistency.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is simply not true that capital spending was cut last year—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) nods because he knows that. The hon. Gentleman will also know that in respect of revenue spending the delays last year to which he referred have been more than made up in 2007-08 already, so in the context of a doubling of spending his point is pretty weak. In respect of the Environment Agency’s planning assumptions, the hon. Gentleman claims a knowledge of economics so I do not know what other basis he thinks the agency should be using to plan for the future. Given that we have not yet made a settlement, it seems prudent to act on that basis, just as it would be prudent for the hon. Gentleman to wait until our comprehensive spending review announcement to see how the Government will continue to do justice to the important issues of flood defence.

I warmly support the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) on the need for urgent action before the weekend. In the longer term, will the Secretary of State agree to review the decision of the Environment Agency to shelve the £100 million scheme that was designed to protect Leeds city centre? Will he also ask the Environment Agency to expedite the Wyke Beck scheme in my constituency, which will help to alleviate flooding in an area that has been flooded three times in three years, to the great distress of hundreds of people?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will certainly take up those issues with the Environment Agency, and write to him as soon as possible.

Does the Secretary of State understand the frustration and anger of people in Ripon, which has had its second bout of major flooding in seven years, not because there are no plans to deal with the flooding, but because the plans have been in existence and ready to go for several years, and have been deferred each year? How many once-in-a-century events must take place before something is done?

The tenor of most of today’s contributions has been to recognise that such events are likely to happen much less frequently than once in a century—they are almost unprecedented events. The right hon. Gentleman, however, makes an important point. Like many other hon. Members, he wants increased spending on flood defence. Perhaps I might gently suggest to him that he persuade some of his colleagues to be as enthusiastic in their support of Government policy as he sometimes is.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Obviously, I associate myself with the expressions of condolence to the families of those who have lost their lives and sympathy for everyone who has suffered in this appalling tragedy. I thank council officers and all the other workers in Sheffield who strived so hard last night to ensure that an appalling situation did not become even worse.

May I make two financial requests? First, a lot of the damage last night was done in the main industrial area of Sheffield, which has been doing well in recent years. Some businesses, however, will now be out of action for several days, if not weeks, and will have lost a lot of specialist and expensive work in hand. Eventually, that may be recoverable from insurance companies, but in the meantime they will probably need some help through an emergency fund for cash-flow purposes. Will the Secretary of State consider that? Secondly, the public infrastructure of the city has been badly damaged. While the Bellwin formula will help with the clean-up, we will need longer-term help with investment in that public infrastructure, to ensure that the city’s economy can be kept going forward. Can the Secretary of State give assurances on both those points?

From speaking to my hon. Friend last night, I know that he is in close touch with many of his constituents. I echo what he said about the excellent work of council officers in preparing for and responding to the event. He makes an important point in respect of local industry, and I concur completely that Sheffield’s renaissance has been magnificent in the past few years. I will speak this afternoon to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the industrial issues raised. In respect of long-term investment, my hon. Friend will know better than I that an extensive plan is in place for upgrading the public infrastructure in the heart of Sheffield. Obviously, we will talk with the city council about how that can be taken forward in the new circumstances.

With unerring accuracy, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, in his foresight report a few years ago, predicted that we were moving into a period of more extreme weather events. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State assure the House that resources will be made available to the Environment Agency to revise its flood prediction computer model so that it can take into account what now appears to be an established change in the nature of our climate and weather and make our predictions on flooding more accurate?

With the small proviso that the change in weather patterns means that there is less of a pattern, and that it is harder and harder for any model to predict with certainty some future patterns, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to talk to the Environment Agency again about the way in which it works. We are coming up to the beginning of a three-year comprehensive spending review period, and that is a good moment to ensure that the money is being spent in the right places.

I join hon. Members in paying tribute to everyone who is coping so well with the flooding. In particular, I pay tribute to the public services in Hull, which valiantly tried to rescue Michael Barnett yesterday, who sadly died in a drain in Hull. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the public health implications of flooding are being addressed?

There is no suggestion that they are not being addressed. I am happy to ensure that either myself or my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who is in south Yorkshire, checks on that. If she has a particular issue to raise, perhaps she could let my office know. She makes an important point. We would certainly want to ensure that all the right measures were in place.

Obviously, I endorse the salute that has been given to the emergency services and specifically to the council officers in Sheffield, including Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief executive, who have done a magnificent job overnight, not least by keeping all Sheffield MPs and others updated on the events. Will the Secretary of State join me in extending special condolences to the family and friends of Ryan Joe Parry, a young 14-year-old boy? He attended King Ecgbert school in my constituency and tragically, at such a tender young age, lost his life when he was swept up by the River Sheaf in Millhouses park.

Much was said in the statement about the need for insurance companies to move quickly, and for health and safety and long-term funding issues to be addressed, but will the Secretary of State address himself to one thing, which I think might be overlooked? It might sound parochial, but my constituents have got in touch with me this morning in large numbers to say that one of the real problems, and one reason why so much water from the hills in Sheffield has swept down with the velocity that it has, is the degraded state of large parts of the road surface and drainage system in Sheffield. That is a familiar problem to all Sheffielders. It cannot, frankly, be dealt with with the resources available to Sheffield city council on its own; it requires central Government long-term assistance.

Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I hope that he will forgive me if, in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), I explain to the House that I have been passed a piece of paper which says that public health messages have been issued by primary care trusts.

It is invidious to pick out one victim out of three. I am sure that no one in the House would want me to do that. However, the loss of a 14-year-old life—as I understand it, he was a constituent of the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), and he was at school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—is an unimaginable tragedy for any family. Of course, I associate myself entirely with the condolences that the hon. Gentleman offered.

In respect of the roads in Sheffield, I have not heard the particular points that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have made, but from my briefing I know that a major road improvement plan for, as I understand it, the whole of Sheffield has been prepared, or is in the process of being prepared, for a public-private finance bid. I think that that would speak to the points that he makes. Obviously, we will have to look at the whole issue of urban drainage and whether or not the roads are contributing to flooding in considering any lessons to be learned from this tragedy.

My right hon. Friend may know that the latest reports from the national media in the last hour are that the water levels in the Ulley reservoir in my constituency are now decreasing. However, rain is predicted in the next 24 hours. Hundreds of my constituents have been moved out of their homes and are living in two local schools. The likelihood of them getting back into their homes is doubtful at this stage. Will he contact the local council to see whether it needs any immediate help?

Notwithstanding that, the possible cost of what is happening in Rother Valley and the surrounding areas is unpredictable. We need to ensure that we get help from central Government when that is necessary and sensible in the not-too-distant future. Will my right hon. Friend’s office make itself available to meet Rotherham metropolitan borough council and other councils from south Yorkshire to discuss exactly how help can be given?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the Ulley reservoir. It is good news that the water levels are declining, but I reiterate that the situation at the reservoir remains serious. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the potential problems have been resolved. The pumping out that is going on is very welcome, but equally he will have seen on television the discussion of the cracks in the reservoir walls. I take my right hon. Friend’s point that there has been a good response so far. Of course we will look, within the existing established rules, at how we can support local people and councils. We will also find appropriate ways to meet Members, local council officials and leaders, whether bilaterally or all together.

The Secretary of State will know that Shrewsbury regrettably has a long history of flooding. Today, many parts of Shropshire have been flooded. I am grateful to him for raising the Bellwin scheme, and I will certainly request my council to take advantage of it. There is a wet washlands scheme to protect the River Severn from flooding, which the Environment Agency has been looking at for a considerable time and I have secured Westminster Hall debates in the past on that vital scheme. Would the Secretary of State accept an invitation to meet with me and the Environment Agency representatives from Shrewsbury to discuss that scheme?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to invite me to be in the audience for his Westminster Hall debate because he knew something that I did not know in advance of the events of the next few days. I wish him good luck with his debate. The idea of what are known as turquoise belts on the banks of rivers presents a natural way to try to contain flooding and we will certainly be interested in the results of his debate.

Many of the villages around Nottingham have been flooded and are expected to be flooded again if there are further downpours this weekend. I suspect that we are stuck with this change in our weather patterns and I accept that the Environment Agency has a key role to play in flood management. I would like the Secretary of State to address two points. First, virtually the whole of the UK is a beneficiary of Victorian over-engineering of the drains and sewerage systems, and there is now a critical case for revisiting the drainage systems that are appropriate for the 21st century. The water companies have been very good at managing tidal flows of cash into their own pockets, and it would be helpful to place a duty on them to put an equal priority on the tidal movement of water that arrives in downpours.

The second point is that four of the main regions in Germany have already sought to address the change in rainfall patterns and introduced tough new planning requirements, such that almost 40 per cent. of the country is now covered by laws that preclude a planning application even being considered if it does not replace the soak-away land or include reservoir facilities in the structural foundations of buildings. Will my right hon. Friend consider that as a 21st century planning requirement, if this is to be the pattern of weather conditions that we are now to face?

As ever, my hon. Friend speaks with authority on these issues. If I had not been here this afternoon, I would have been at a meeting with all the water companies to consider a water strategy for the next 25 years, as well as some of the issues and possibilities raised by the next water price review, in which many people would like to see environmental considerations built into the system. I am sure that he would agree that there are benefits of being the first industrialised country, but it does mean that we have an old infrastructure in many areas. I agree that we need to consider all ways of upgrading it, on both the demand and the supply side.

In respect of planning, my hon. Friend will know that there are extensive new rules to ensure that sustainable development principles are built in, although I am happy to look at the German model in that area as in others.

It is nearly seven years since the town of Uckfield in my constituency flooded and the sympathy of my constituents will be with those so terribly affected today. However, in the course of those seven years and despite the pledges from the Prime Minister and others, not one pound has been spent to put in place the flood defences that are necessary to stop that sort of flooding happening again. Of course our hearts go out to those so terribly affected today, but can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that, in considering the nation’s needs for improved flood defences, the unmet needs of those affected by the 2000 floods will not continue to be overlooked?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words, even though I understand that his constituency has not been affected this time. Of course, all needs must be considered in the appropriate way, including those of his constituents. I am sure that the Environment Agency will want to do that as it plots the priorities for its budget.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to this emergency, and the success of the contingency plans? Extreme events cannot be planned for properly, and I am sure that he will review what has happened to people who have suffered the misery of flooding in their homes. However, after the last flood event, infrastructure providers such as Network Rail and the Highways Agency were required to look at how adaptations could be made to deal with the likelihood of more frequent extreme events. Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports from that review, and does he think that there should be a close examination of whether it has been implemented properly?

My right hon. Friend was significantly responsible for the response to the Carlisle flood, which for many is a model of how to bounce back from a tragedy of that sort. I have not seen the reports to which he refers, but I shall be happy to look at the matter and to engage with him and other hon. Members about the best way to respond.

Like other areas of the country, parts of my constituency have been flooded this week, and some of them were flooded for more than 100 days over winter. Much of the fens is at or below sea level, so will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the people who live there that proper flood alleviation programmes will be put in place? A lot of the water that accumulates in low-lying parts of my constituency flows from effective flood alleviation programmes upstream, in places such as Milton Keynes and Bedford. Do the people of the fens deserve equal treatment with people elsewhere in the country?

I visited some of the flood defence work going on in a constituency neighbouring the hon. Gentleman’s—

As I said, it was not in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but in a neighbouring constituency. He makes a very important point about the knock-on effects of different interventions. I am certainly very happy to tell him that the people of the fens have as much right as people anywhere in the country to expect that their needs are addressed in a way that is fair, transparent and open.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to ensure that the Government’s response is as robust in the vast number of flooded villages and towns in my constituency as it is in the larger cities. Will he give some thought as to how local authorities can be encouraged to ensure that schools and post offices are prioritised, especially in rural areas where alternatives are difficult? Kids must be able to continue to go to school: they must not be expected to take time off with their parents until September, and post offices must be brought back into operation as soon as possible.

I certainly hope that schoolchildren and those shopping at post offices in my hon. Friend’s constituency are able to resume normal service as soon as possible.

Once the initial crisis has abated, will the Secretary of State undertake to review planning policy guidance for building on floodplain areas? I am thinking specifically of the areas affected by the floods, but also of the Thames gateway.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will know that the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee in all planning applications. In addition, the new planning policy statement on climate change is directly relevant to many of the housing issues about which he is concerned. I commend that statement to him, as it offers a very significant way to address climate change impacts across the planning system.

May I join my colleagues in expressing condolences to the families of those in Sheffield and elsewhere who have lost their lives? I also want to pay tribute to the workers in the emergency services and Sheffield city council, whose response to the crisis has been first rate. There is a sense of profound shock that our wonderful city could be reduced to something resembling a war zone in the space of a few hours. It is obvious that urgent assistance is needed to help those affected rebuild their homes, or to rehouse them while their homes are made fit to live in again. Can my right hon. Friend give comfort to the people of south Yorkshire on that point?

My hon. Friend speaks eloquently—more eloquently than me—about the response of Jan Wilson, the leader of the council, Robert Kerslake, the chief executive, who has already been mentioned, and the whole city council team. I agree that they have responded magnificently and I hope that that is the view of people in Sheffield. I would not want to substitute my judgment for theirs, but everything that I am being told about the response by the city council and the response of people in Sheffield suggests that they have a council in which they should have real confidence and pride. In respect of the latter part of her question, the systems that we have developed have been designed to provide as much comfort as possible in the circumstances. It would not be right for me to pretend that anyone can wish away the terrible damage that has been done. I would not want to suggest in any way that I can do that. However, we are determined to make sure that other communities are able to follow the example of Carlisle and bounce back from this sort of event.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in Cheltenham and for the prompt response of the emergency services and the Environment Agency. According to the agency, ours was a once-in-80-years flood, which caused chaos despite a brand new £23 million flood defence scheme that was designed to withstand a once-in-100-years flood. Does the Secretary of State agree that more work needs to be done on that and does he agree with us and the National Audit Office that this would be the worst possible time to cut flood defence budgets in real terms?

I am very happy to look at the individual circumstances of the Cheltenham case, which obviously I have not had a chance to consider yet. In discussions of a Government of all the talents, I would very much welcome all the hon. Gentleman’s support for my spending review bid.

May I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and, in particular, his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) in relation to what we need to do in Leeds, which clearly has to be urgently looked at? The insurance industry will be looking at how these new extreme events may extend the nature of the risk that they have to insure. Surely that might lead them to question whether they want to take more households off-risk altogether. Will he have meetings with the Association of British Insurers and others to ensure that more people do not lose their insurance cover?

I am happy to reiterate what I said in my statement: we have a unique partnership in this country between public investment and the private insurance industry. I spoke at the Association of British Insurers conference last November. It is a valuable partnership that calls for responsibility on both sides, and we are determined to fulfil our side of the bargain.

The Secretary of State will know that his Department is considering proposals to transfer locally owned sewerage and drainage systems to the utility companies, such as Anglian Water. Will he please expedite the process and bring forward his proposals as rapidly as possible?

My right hon. Friend will know that this is the second consecutive week that houses and businesses in the Dearne and Dove valley in my constituency have suffered adversely from flooding. In many respects, that is unique, because Barnsley does not always suffer from flooding problems. We never have in the past. Doncaster and the Don valley, in the other part of my constituency, have a history flooding, but Barnsley does not. One point that is of major concern to residents in the flooded area is that there is an outstanding planning application for a further 200 houses, which has recently been turned down by the planning authority and has gone to the planning inspectorate on appeal. Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), does the Minister agree that when the planning inspectorate is looking at appeals such as this one, it needs to give serious consideration to the flooding aspect? I know that he cannot make a statement on a specific planning application.

The end of my hon. Friend’s question was also the answer, which is that I cannot comment on the individual case that is in front of the planning inspectorate, for obvious reasons. His main point, which is that we must build houses in a sustainable way—sustainable in terms of energy consumption, but also in their use of natural resources—is absolutely right, and we must reflect that in our planning system and other parts of Government policy.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House know, the flooding has had an absolutely horrendous effect on those who have suffered. All four towns in my constituency of Beverley and Holderness have suffered from flooding, as have many villages. There have been mass evacuations across the area. When all four towns in such a large rural constituency suffer from flooding at the same time, it is hard to accept that the preparations made by government at whatever level were adequate. Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that the Government’s plans for the future will mean that if such a thing were to happen in 10 or 15 years, people across a constituency as large as mine would never again suffer such flooding?

When coming to a judgment on the plans, the most important thing is to study the plans and determine whether they are sensible. Obviously, it is important that we make adequate and appropriate provision for the future throughout the country. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the extreme weather events to which we are being subjected are taking us into new territory, which requires a new degree of preparation.

May I reinforce the Secretary of State’s caution about seeking further analysis of the frequency of such events? In 2000, Hatton and other villages in my constituency that suffered flooding were initially told that that was a one-in-80-year incident, yet further analysis showed that the likelihood was more like one in 40. We should not take comfort from the apparent infrequency of such events cited in initial reports.

I draw attention to the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who reminded us of the foresight report. We will clearly have to face such events with increasing frequency, which must reinforce my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s efforts to gain a favourable result in the comprehensive spending review.

I think that one of my colleagues on the Treasury Bench was mumbling that that was a helpful suggestion and questioning whether my tactics of inveigling the Liberal Democrats to support my spending application were the wisest.

My hon. Friend’s serious point shows that we are required to think about at least the 25-year period that I was due to be discussing today with water companies and the representatives of water consumers. The five-year price review gives us a chance to take stock, but we need to examine the matter over a longer term. I am trying to do that in precisely the way in which my hon. Friend describes.

The Secretary of State knows that the Environment Agency’s budget has recently been under pressure. Does he agree that spending on flood defences can save an awful lot of money in the future and prevent an awful lot of human misery? Will he thus examine the Environment Agency’s budget for Yorkshire, which has suffered disproportionately over the past day? Will he consider especially the situation involving the River Aire across west Yorkshire?

I will certainly be examining with the Environment Agency all the regional budgets that it allocates. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that precisely the logic to which he points has led us to double spending in real terms on flood and coastal defence over the past 10 years. I hope that we can build cross-party support for such investment.

I associate myself with the condolences paid by my right hon. Friend and colleagues to the families of those who were tragically killed yesterday.

In January, I received a letter from the Environment Agency that stated that the flood alleviation scheme in my Wakefield constituency for Ings Beck, which is a tributary of the River Calder, will be delayed indefinitely, although it was supposed to start this year. May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) in asking for an urgent review of the way in which the Environment Agency prioritises such schemes? Wakefield has been flooded for the second time in two weeks. Many A roads have been affected, the east coast main line has been shut, and the M1 and M62 have been greatly affected because they follow the paths of the Calder, the Aire and the Hebble, which run through our city.

My hon. Friend speaks about her constituency with great passion and insight. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), it is important that we examine the areas of stress and learn from weather patterns as they develop. I am committed to doing that.

Home owners who suffer flood damage often fear that they will not be able to get insurance cover or that, if they do, it will be at a greatly increased cost. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will talk with the Association of British Insurers as soon as possible, to give its members the comfort that there will be an increase in flood protection works, so that they can maintain cover at a reasonable cost?

The whole Government are committed to our partnership with the ABI and the insurance industry. It is obviously in the public interest, in the interest of public expenditure and the interest of home owners. I cannot say often enough that we are determined to continue that partnership and to fulfil our side of the bargain.

Speaking from elsewhere, I want to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the flooding that occurred in Fazeley and Elford in my constituency and place on the record my thanks to all the public service employees who worked tirelessly round the clock and who had to make decisions such as to let cattle and stock drown, so that people could be saved. That loss of cattle and stock may not be claimable on insurance, because it may be considered the result of an act of God.

I shall not apportion blame until after the inquiry is completed. My difficulty is that, although the Bellwin formula will fund 85 per cent. of the cost, the disproportionate cost that falls on small authorities, such as Lichfield district council, will be heavy. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to speak to his colleagues in the Government to see whether the next grant settlement could take into account to some degree the cost of the flooding? The last thing that I want people who have gone through this nightmare to face is an increase in council tax bill next year.

I share my hon. Friend’s good wishes for his constituents and his desire to place on record both his sorrow for what they have been through and his thanks to the public services in his area. I am happy to find out what point my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has reached in the local government grant settlement process, but I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees that the Bellwin scheme provides the foundation for an appropriate response.

The Secretary of State will be aware that two rivers, the Severn and the Avon, meet at Tewkesbury and continue the length of my constituency as the River Severn. It is a great attraction, but the downside is that it makes flooding much worse. However, the situation has been exacerbated by far too much building not only on the floodplain, but close to it. Does he therefore share my alarm at the proposals in the regional spatial strategy to build thousands of extra houses in such areas? When those proposals land on his desk, will he look at them very seriously and very carefully?

We look at all proposals very carefully, although technically such proposals do not land on my desk; they land on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the sustainability criteria are to the forefront of the regional spatial strategies and we shall be keen—indeed, determined—to ensure that flood risk is properly taken into account when planning new housing numbers.

The Secretary of State is clearly aware that Shropshire is one of the areas worst affected by the storms, but he may not be aware that Ludlow has suffered unprecedented flooding, including the sweeping away of one of the bridges and a main access road into the town. He may also not be aware that the Severn valley railway—an historic railway that provides a great tourism and economic boost to the area—has suffered more than £1 million worth of damage to its railway track. Given what he said about the Bellwin formula, will he assure the House that sufficient funding will be available to match the applications from local authorities? Is anything available for bodies that are not local authorities that have suffered major infrastructure damage? If I may, Mr. Speaker, I should like to put my question in the context of the National Audit Office comment that of the £125 million available this year for new or improved flood defences, a mere £15 million is available for urgent works. Will that really be enough under Bellwin?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for filling me on the situation in Ludlow, of which I was not aware in such detail. I think that I am correct in saying that the Bellwin scheme is a demand-led scheme, not a capped scheme. That should provide some degree of comfort, although every case has to be examined individually. I or my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment will write to the hon. Gentleman, but my understanding is that the Bellwin scheme is restricted to local authorities.

Recent serious flooding in Kettering has led local people to point to the issue of blocked drains, and to the massive increase in the number of new houses being built. It is up to the county council to make sure that the drains are cleared, but will the Secretary of State ensure that in growth areas, where very large numbers of houses are set to be built in the next 15 years, the Environment Agency has the resources that it needs to monitor all the planning applications that come forward?

Certainly, we are determined to ensure, in growth areas and elsewhere, that we future-proof the provision that is made, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.