With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about recovery efforts following the recent flooding. Above all, I would like to express my deepest sympathy and the sympathy of the whole House to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with them.
The scale of devastation in the flood-hit areas is enormous. Our current assessment is that 31,200 homes and 7,000 businesses have been affected. Many roads and rail links remain closed. Schools have been damaged. Agriculture has been hit hard and the lives of thousands of people have been disrupted.
The recovery effort will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. The Prime Minister and I have agreed that the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), should take the lead to co-ordinate Government support. He has been working closely with colleagues across Whitehall to do so and I am grateful to him for all the work that he has done so far. He, like my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary, has visited some of the worst affected areas. Indeed, just this morning he met the chief executive officers of key affected local authorities. We will follow that up with a further meeting in Leeds on Wednesday, and other visits from colleagues are planned.
Media reporting has tended to focus on particular areas such as Hull. But the fact is that a large number of areas and a very large number of people have been affected across the country. We recognise that and our commitment is to mobilise assistance to every community that has been affected.
I myself have visited communities in Toll Bar in Doncaster, and in Sheffield. Physical damage is the most obvious effect of flooding, but I was struck by its emotional impact, too. I have met people who have been devastated by what has happened: such as the elderly man living alone who had lost not just his possessions, but the phone line that was his link to the outside world. Luckily for him, his daughter was around to help him. I recognise, too, that many others feel angry about what has happened. We must help them to try to pick up the pieces of their lives.
I have also met some of the brave men and women who have made a real difference at a difficult time. Families and friends have helped each other out. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service, and the police have done an excellent job. Local authorities have stepped up to the mark and I would like to acknowledge their resourcefulness, and the way that they have prioritised to give most support to the most vulnerable. The voluntary sector has really come into its own.
In fact, a whole range of organisations has worked together to give people the practical help that they need. I have seen fantastic co-ordination of services, such as the Sheffield humanitarian aid centre which was set up immediately. In Sheffield, the local authority visited 2,000 families in the first 48 hours. I have been impressed by how very testing events have brought out the best in people.
Communities want to get back to normal as swiftly as possible. Our priority now is to support them in doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will continue to work closely with the local authorities, the fire and rescue services, the insurance industry and other partners, who have already done so much, to ensure that everything possible is being done.
We are providing vulnerable people with access to crisis loans and community care grants, so that they can afford basic essentials such as fresh clothes and bedding. We are giving people advice so that they can help to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. We are meeting the Association of British Insurers tomorrow to ensure that hard-hit households and businesses get the support that they need urgently.
We are working to protect jobs. The regional development agencies have set up a range of funds to support small businesses affected by the floods but there is much more to do. We are now gathering information daily on the scale of the challenges, and the visits will carry on. We know that we need to maintain our efforts and that there are long-term problems that we have to face across a range of areas. Where schools are still closed, councils have swiftly arranged alternatives to ensure that children are educated. The Department for Children, Schools and Families stands ready to work with schools to look at re-profiling some capital expenditure to help get buildings up and running again as soon as possible, and especially by September. While local authorities have undertaken sterling work in assisting with short-term homelessness, many homes are going to be uninhabitable for some time and we know that medium to long-term temporary accommodation will be needed.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keeping the situation under review and remains in close contact with the National Farmers Union. Transport and infrastructure is an issue; rail links have been affected, some roads are closed and others are seriously undermined. The Department for Transport will assist local authorities once the full scale of the damage has been assessed.
It is because there is much more to do that, on Saturday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government will be providing a rescue fund of £14 million. We are working to get these resources to local authorities as soon as possible. These funds will be in addition to the significant extra resources that local authorities can access through the Bellwin scheme.
Some £10 million will go direct to local authorities in the flood-hit areas to support the work that they and other organisations are already doing, particularly to help those who have lost everything and need immediate support. We will work closely with the Local Government Association to help local authorities deliver this support quickly and effectively, and with the minimum of bureaucracy. Communities told me that they wanted the money to get to them as quickly as possible. Some £3 million will meet immediate claims from local authorities to help with the cost of repairing roads and bridges, and £1 million will help some of our most vulnerable people to replace essential household items, such as cookers and beds.
The Prime Minister also announced that we are making changes to the Bellwin scheme, which is designed to help local authorities reclaim costs in emergencies. Instead of having only two months to claim under the scheme, local authorities will now have six months. Instead of being able to claim 85 per cent. of the expenses incurred, local authorities will now be able to claim back the whole costs of eligible expenditure. This will help to ensure that assistance reaches those who need it most. Debate has already started about what more we can do in the long term to reduce the chances of this kind of destruction happening again. This is a real concern among those who have been hardest hit by the flooding.
It is clear that we need to continue investing in the fire and rescue services, so that they have the equipment they need. The Government have invested £200 million in “new dimension” equipment for the fire and rescue services. I saw the crucial difference that this could make, with new high-volume pumps being used to drain flood water in the midlands and the north.
We also understand the need to continue investing in flood defences. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced to the House last Monday, Government investment in flood defences will rise from £600 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. We have strengthened planning policy on development and flood risk; this makes sure that planners and developers work together to locate new developments away from flood risk areas where possible. It also makes sure that any necessary new development in a high-risk area is safe and does not increase flood risk.
We must learn from the events of recent days. These rains were unprecedented, but it would be wrong to suppose that such an event could never happen again. We must consider what more could be done to prevent this scale of damage in the future. It is right to be thinking for the long term, but we should not let that detract from the urgent business of giving practical help to the people who are suffering now.
The new measures that I have outlined today are essential, but let me reiterate that they are a first step. In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to work closely with local leaders to help all our communities get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new appointment and wish her well in her new role. I also thank her for the advance copy of her statement. I join her in paying tribute to the emergency services, councils and voluntary workers who have worked tirelessly over the last fortnight to help the victims of these terrible floods. I also join her in expressing sympathy to the victims of the flood. It will be a long time before those communities can enjoy anything like normal family life. It was evident from watching her on Saturday that she had seen people’s distress from visiting those dreadful scenes, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We should not be in the game of laying blame, but I have several questions regarding the right hon. Lady’s statement. Financial support from central Government is essential to ensure that councils are able to rebuild; otherwise, they face cuts in local services or hikes in council taxes due to the cost of reconstruction. In Saturday’s statement, the Department said that the Bellwin scheme reforms would not be permanent. Why is that? In 2001, its predecessor Department warned that the “main live issue” with Bellwin was
“local authority expenditure on flood protection and response to flooding”.
Is there not a case for a complete review of the Bellwin scheme, including the capital costs of flooding, rather than using these short-term fixes? Councils such as Herefordshire and Carlisle have previously introduced local council tax discounts for the victims of flooding. Will the right hon. Lady encourage councils to adopt such measures? Can such expenditure by flood-hit councils be claimed back under Bellwin?
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the public are entitled to have the best information available on flood risk? The National Audit Office has warned that fewer than half the country’s high-risk flood defences are at “target condition”. Will she place in the Library a list of the defences that are below target condition? Do not residents deserve more information not just about coastal and river flooding, but about urban drainage problems and our creaking sewerage system?
If the right hon. Lady believes in openness, will she speak to the Environment Agency about its clampdown on websites such as OnOneMap, which seeks to make the agency’s public flood map data more accessible to the public? Insurers are calling for full access to the agency’s national flood and coastal defence database. Should not both the public and insurers be given free access to that data, provided that insurers continue to insure at-risk properties?
The Government are planning extensive development on the Thames Gateway, much of which is floodplain. What plans does the right hon. Lady have to revise building regulations to ensure that new homes are built in a way that will minimise damage if there is flooding? What funding mechanisms will be used to ensure that the new developments are constructed with robust flood defences? What steps are being taken to encourage the use of natural wetlands and the restoration of natural floodplains to prevent upstream flooding?
The Secretary of State says that the rains were unprecedented, but we have witnessed a succession of major floods in recent years. The Government created the regional resilience team and regional civil contingencies committees to improve co-ordination of emergency responses. What role have they played in tackling recent flooding, and what lessons can be learned to improve their responses to other disruptive civil emergencies?
The Chief Fire Officers Association has criticised the “institutional confusion” among the myriad public sector agencies responsible for tackling flooding incidents and has called for a single lead agency to co-ordinate responses, but was that recommendation not made three years ago after the Boscastle and Carlisle floods? Will the right hon. Lady place in the Library a copy of the conclusions of Exercise Trident, the flood contingency planning exercise of 2004, so that we can judge what advice was given? Will she confirm that the £14 million that the Chancellor announced is to replace last year’s £14 million cut in the budget? Are new moneys to be made available?
If the Minister is not to come to the Dispatch Box with ever-increasing frequency, we need to understand why our infrastructure could not cope with changes in the weather. We need to learn the lessons and to improve co-ordination. Above all, we need to know who is in charge.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him very much for his kind words in welcoming me to my role. I am grateful for his tribute to the emergency services in these circumstances. I am delighted that he started his contribution by not seeking to allocate blame to any organisation. It is absolutely right that we all try to come together to ensure that we provide practical help to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the financial support. In these circumstances, the Bellwin scheme will be extended to cover 100 per cent. of costs, and he asks why that is not the norm. We have made the change because we are looking at exceptional circumstances; the rainfall was unprecedented. It is right that the Bellwin scheme should continue and that we should have the flexibility to extend it in exceptional circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Bellwin scheme should cover capital costs, as well as resource costs. I understand that, in exceptional circumstances, if resources would be better used for capital rather than revenue expenditure, we could consider some claims for capital costs, but that it would be very unusual for us to do so. More often than not, local authorities need revenue for things such as immediate rest centres and immediate cleaning up. They are not really looking for capital moneys in these circumstances; they are usually looking to cover revenue costs.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether local authorities could offer council tax discounts. One of the issues raised in my initial discussion during my visit to Doncaster on Saturday was whether there might be some relief from council tax in cases where people cannot occupy their properties. That is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I have no doubt that it will be an issue in the longer-term discussions.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that information is absolutely vital. People have been reassured when they have been given good, timely and swift information about what is happening and about the resources available. Our flood defence programme is indeed not just about physical flood defences; there is also an extensive programme of flood warnings and other information made available locally to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Environment Agency database is available to other bodies, and I will certainly look into that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Information is important, but what is crucial is getting the right information, not information that could lead people to panic about the circumstances or to make hasty judgments.
As for the Thames Gateway and building on floodplains, the hon. Gentleman will know that about 10 per cent. of properties in England are constructed on floodplains. We have recently revised our planning guidance in planning policy statement 25, which provides a much more rigorous planning framework for building on floodplains. Plans must now be submitted to the Environment Agency for it to take a view. The presumption is that we try to direct development away from floodplains, but where development is necessary, there is now much more emphasis on risk assessment. I recently saw a scheme that diverted the watercourse to enable the water to spill over on to a wetland area, instead of it being constrained in a rigid watercourse, which in the past had led to flooding problems. Being more innovative and smarter about the planning regime will help in those circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the regional resilience teams established under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I hope that he would agree that that Act has put in place an effective framework whereby people can carry out exercises to cover the various eventualities. I was delighted to learn that the last exercise carried out in Sheffield in May dealt with the possibility of wide-scale flooding. Perhaps that contributed to the excellent provisions, including a humanitarian aid centre, that were put in place.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of institutional confusion and the absence of a single lead. I do not accept that, because there is a clear single lead under the 2004 Act. The police have the lead for a whole range of different emergencies. They establish Gold Command to take strategic decisions and Silver Command to look at situations across the area, and they usually have Bronze Command, which involves the taking of detailed tactical decisions on the ground. That kind of organisation has been proved to work in very many circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asked about money, which was inevitable. The £14 million package, £10 million of which is from my Department, is new money and I am sure that he will accept that.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about whether our infrastructure can cope with changes in the weather. What we have seen over the past few weeks—and the devastation that has been caused to thousands of people, businesses and homes across the country—is perhaps a little more than a change in the weather, but he is right that we need to think ahead, to look at how the climate is changing and to see whether we need to take any further steps. The one overwhelming message that I received from my visits was that people were coping extremely well with what had happened this time, but that they would find it very difficult indeed if there were to be similar events in future.
As a Back Bencher, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I echo the praise of the people of Hull for the emergency services, the voluntary services and the local authority workers—they all worked tremendously hard. The floods damaged more than 5,000 houses in Hull, closed many schools—4,000 children were looking for a school—and caused great damage. Tragically, a man was killed in the process of trying to stop the floods and help a neighbour. In those circumstances, it is easy to understand why the people of Hull think that they are the worst affected on this occasion.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that in the past seven years, we have had floods in Carlisle, York, and Boscastle, and now we have floods in the Yorkshire area? These events are not just a matter of exceptional weather, although of course that is part of it. They are happening much more frequently. We had better begin to recognise that we have fundamentally to review our whole water management system. In particular, I draw her attention to the drains and sewage that have contaminated so many houses and schools. Cleaning those buildings will take a long time—even before the repairs start. No doubt we will determine the long-term consequences. In view of the fact that the Government have committed some money for immediate application, will my right hon. Friend ensure that that clean-up is considered not only by her Department, but by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so that we can get youngsters back to school and people back into their houses? We have to do that. Will she send some officials to Hull to discuss how we can use that money immediately? I thank her for all her efforts, and particularly for agreeing a few days after the floods to send a Minister to Hull.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done in Hull both to try to alleviate the problems experienced by local people and to bring together the various local agencies, so that they were able to be very effective. I extend my sympathy to the family of the gentleman who died in Hull, Mr. Mike Barnett. That was a terrible tragedy and I know that there is to be a full coroner’s inquest into the events that happened.
My right hon. Friend is right that there have been recent incidents in Carlisle and Boscastle. In my previous role as Minister with responsibility for the police, I had occasion to visit both those areas and I was particularly struck by the fact that the effects were apparent many months after the initial events took place. One of the things that I am concerned to ensure is that the action both of central and local government continues for the long term, because many families will need support in the long term. Sometimes it is easy for the media circus to come and go. We have to ensure that all our agencies are working to support people.
My right hon. Friend mentioned schools. Many primary schools, in particular, have been affected. We are having discussions with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to see whether we can re-profile the capital programme in relation to “building schools for the future” to make sure that improvements are made, and to see whether some immediate extra funds will be available to get schools up and running as quickly as possible, and particularly by the start of the new school year. That will give the families security.
May I first welcome the Secretary of State and her new team? We have regional and sub-regional connections and I look forward to meeting her across the Dispatch Box from time to time. I thank her for today’s statement. It is extremely important that recent significant events be tracked carefully by Parliament and Government, and that we understand exactly how they will unfold and how the Government will engage with the problems that have arisen.
We associate ourselves with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for the many thousands of families who have been affected and the businesses that face disaster as a result of the flooding. We also associate ourselves with the thanks given to the emergency services, the local councils and the voluntary sector—they have done so much work.
We welcome the extension of the Bellwin scheme, but will the Secretary of State confirm that there is to be no threshold on claims made under the scheme by local authorities? Will she also say more about the exceptional circumstances in which capital claims might be considered? As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made clear, some of the damage is significant and, in some cases, it will be more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild than to clean out and refurbish—one course of action involves capital, and the other revenue. Clearly, if the reconstruction process is to represent value for money, the Bellwin scheme should reflect that fact; it should not be a difficult case that has to be argued. Those decisions need to be made within days and weeks, not months. The plan of action for Hull, for instance, which has many schools out of action and 4,000 damaged council houses, must be developed quickly.
In the medium term, we must consider the resources available for assessment, as loss assessors from the insurance industry seem to be in short supply. There is perhaps a capacity problem in the building industry, too. Will the Secretary of State undertake closely to monitor those issues and to ensure that, if necessary, resources are drafted into the affected areas to maintain steady progress? She herself has said that it is important that the effort should not be relaxed once the media circus has gone. Previous disasters overseas have shown that that is exactly what happens. Those apparently trivial points about capacity are often at the heart of the difficulties that people face in resolving such issues.
Will the Secretary of State give special consideration to the pleas made by one or two local authorities for additional help and support in dealing with the crisis that they face? I am particularly thinking of Hull as, by all accounts, it is the most severely affected local authority. Looking to the longer term, she has referred to the changes that will be made under planning policy statement 25. However, she will be aware that a large slice of the planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected, on the ground that they would result in building on floodplains, has been approved. I would like an assurance that those cases will be given particularly careful consideration, so that we do not build in problems for the future.
Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned the £800 million for flood prevention work, and said that the work would take place up to the year 2010-11. Will she say what the phasing is for that increase? Will she give the House an assurance that that money will kick in, and will be available for expenditure, at the earliest practical moment?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I have no doubt that Greater Manchester will figure significantly in our discussions. He asked me to make sure that progress is tracked carefully; I entirely agree that we need to make sure that we keep our focus on the events that occurred.
I am particularly pleased that our regional Ministers will also be playing a role, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, who has been extremely involved in taking these issues up in recent days.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of support to businesses, which is important. I visited Meadowhall, the shopping centre in Sheffield, which had been quite badly affected by the flooding, and that was particularly true of the retail businesses. Yorkshire Forward has set up a scheme and has provided £1 million to help small businesses. Advantage West Midlands is looking at something similar, and there is something similar in the east midlands as well. The regional development agencies will therefore help businesses with their immediate costs.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Bellwin threshold, which is 0.2 per cent. of local authority budgets, will still be in place. We have extended the grant to cover 100 per cent. of costs, which is a significant expansion, but the threshold will still be in place. He asked about the capacity of the insurance industry, particularly in relation to assessors. The Association of British Insurers indicates that the process of getting assessors in is well under way. Certainly, on my visits, I found some variation in the responses of different insurance companies. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, and the relevant Ministers from the Treasury, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, I hope, from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are meeting the insurance industry tomorrow, so I hope that the House appreciates how seriously we are taking the issue of insurance to make sure that claims are dealt with speedily and fairly and that there is sufficient capacity to get on with things, because that is a top priority for members of the public. The hon. Gentleman mentioned builders, and we need to be careful that reputable builders are involved in the restoration work.
I mentioned the new planning guidance, PPS25, and we need to make sure that it operates properly, that we manage the risk of building on the floodplain and, where there is development, that it is appropriate to the area. We will continue to keep a close eye on that. The £800 million for flood prevention is to be made available for the next comprehensive spending review period. I am not in a position, and nor is my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, to give the profiling of that expenditure as yet, but I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s request that it kick in as soon as practicable to meet requirements.
In Wakefield, 2,000 homes were directly affected by the flooding, and I was contacted by Rev. Mike Croft of St. Catherine’s church on Doncaster road about the lack of information that people received about personal hygiene and about their inability to wash their hands. That was solved by a generous donation from Boots the Chemist in the city. However, when I tried to write to the homes that were affected last week, the Environment Agency told me that its useful eight-page guide about what to do before, during and after a flood was available only online and that I had to download it and photocopy it. When I rang the agency up again this morning to say, “Actually, I think you should deliver that guide to me”, I was told that it would take three to five days for 500 leaflets to travel from Leeds to Wakefield—a distance of only 10 miles. May I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that information on hygiene and Environment Agency advice are distributed to every household affected in the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although, like her, I am grateful to Boots for helping out in these circumstances, it is our responsibility to make sure that households have proper health advice. Clearly, there are problems relating to toxic water, drainage and sewage, and it is essential that those are dealt with for public health reasons. I take on board what my hon. Friend said about the Environment Agency not having leaflets available, and I will certainly work with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary to make sure that that is remedied as a matter of urgency. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should get that information out to the households concerned.
Does the Secretary of State appreciate the frustration of people in Ripon, who have been expelled from their homes for the second time in seven years, as they were told that the scheme that was approved three years ago does not have sufficient priority to go ahead? Losing one’s home must be treated as a priority. Will the Secretary of State look at agro-environmental schemes to give farmers an incentive to hold water on the land through the way they manage their farms? At the moment, those schemes do not incorporate that element. Will the right hon. Lady also discuss with the Treasury whether local authorities, which contribute a derisory amount to local flood defence committees, can increase their contribution without those amounts falling foul of the capping criteria?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a telling point about the effect of repeat flooding on households. Having recovered from one flooding episode, there can be nothing worse than to be faced with the same circumstances again. I entirely understand that. On the flood scheme priorities, I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary about these issues. The matter of farmers holding water on land has been brought to my attention. It may well be that more can be done with innovative planning schemes and by finding different ways for the water to be held or to be discharged harmlessly, rather than causing the flooding problems that we have seen. We will certainly look into that. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the various capping criteria and whether there is the possibility of some leeway. That will have to be considered as and when we get to that position. I hope that we do not get to that position, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman shares that hope.
I am fresh from the retraining course for ex-Ministers, so I shall try to keep within the rules. I associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I thank all my colleagues for the work that they have put in over the recent past. It has been welcomed and appreciated in the affected areas.
In relation to my constituency and its industrial base, there are some serious problems. The industry there is heavy industry, and eight or a dozen of the major companies—large companies—are facing real difficulties. Even smaller companies which have not been affected by the flooding but which are in the supply chain to the larger companies view the situation with concern. The chamber of commerce, in discussions with many of us in Sheffield, has asked us to raise the matter in the House and ask the Government to look specifically at the large companies in the Don valley, which are major producers and on which the smaller companies in the supply chain rely. That is important. In this world of globalisation, many of those companies are not funded from within the UK. Foreign investors and the parent companies will be looking at those companies, as some will have to relocate. That relocation may not be in the UK. That are some genuine concerns, which I hope my right hon. Friend will convey to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, as that wealth creation is extremely important to the whole of south Yorkshire and, indeed, to the nation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his—as ever—incisive, succinct and effective contribution on behalf of his constituency. I am well aware of the effect on businesses. I know from visiting Sheffield last week that companies such as Forgemasters and Corus Engineering, which are big employers, have been very badly affected. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I do not know whether we call it DBERR, or perhaps DEBRA—is visiting tomorrow and will meet representatives of the chamber of commerce to discuss the matters. The chief executive of the regional development agency, whom I met last week, is conscious of the need to give assistance. I am concerned about the message that this sends out, both to investors and to developers. We need to be conscious of the fact that in many areas, for regeneration and for industrial investment, it is important that proper steps are taken to maintain the confidence of those communities. Many of our areas are now thriving through regeneration and we need to keep that confidence going.
I thank the Minister for her statement, and I thank her colleague the Minister for Local Government for visiting my constituency last Friday afternoon to see the damage. Three rivers flooded in Chesterfield—the Rother, the Hipper and the Whitting. Between them, they closed three of the six main roads into town, and affected 60 businesses and up to 1,000 houses. That they flooded is no surprise, because they have a track record going back well over a century. Prevention, of course, is better than cure and cleaning up afterwards. The defensive works on the River Rother are planned to start in 2011 and the feasibility study for the River Hipper is drawn up but with no date attached to it. Will the Minister assure me that she will be lobbying her colleagues in Government to make sure that money for these planned preventive works are brought forward, otherwise we will be back in a few years, going through the same story?
Yes, I am aware that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there has been significant damage. It has not figured quite as much on the media as some other areas, but I understand that 500 homes, two retail parks and between 60 and 80 other premises have been quite badly affected. Obviously, we want to ensure that we help people as far as we possibly can. He makes a telling point about prevention being better than cure. These matters will be considered across Government. There is always a need to prioritise, but with events such as these and thinking of the changes in climate, we need to make sure that we put our money where it can be used to best effect to try to protect as many people as we can.
Wherever flooding occurs, it disrupts lives and homes. Will the Secretary of State particularly consider rural communities such as Lowdham, Woodborough and Lambley in Nottinghamshire to ensure not only that they get their fair share of resources for the immediate clear-up but that, in the longer term, they are given priority when it comes to allocating resources for flood defence measures?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, in representing his rural communities, always ensures that they are not left out and are at the centre of concerns. He makes an important point. People in rural communities can often feel more isolated and, particularly where there is a settlement of only a few houses, the effects of flooding can be devastating. That is why I said earlier that it is important to ensure that the Government keep a long-term focus on these issues. When I went up to Carlisle after the flooding there, I found that some people’s mental health problems had lasted for a significant period, so help from health and social services was important, as well as dealing with physical flood defences. I will certainly ensure that rural areas remain a focus of our concern.
At the present moment, the Environment Agency has to allocate funds competitively among schemes in very large areas. That means that a town such as Banbury, which has the River Cherwell and the Oxford canal going through it, and has had a scheme worked up for some time, suddenly discovers that although it is still at risk—weather patterns are changing, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said—it is losing out because the Environment Agency thinks that there is a higher priority scheme in the Thames Gateway. I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. When this has settled a bit, could the funding of flood defences be considered on a cross-party basis? Under the current system, local government does not seem to be able to make much of a contribution, we are all dependent on going to the Treasury cap in hand, and a lot of communities are starting to feel very vulnerable.
This is clearly an important issue to people right across the country. Inevitably, there will be limits to the amount of money that can be put in. However, I would draw to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the fact that in 1997 we spent about £300 million on flood defences, whereas we are now spending double that—£600 million—and it will go up by another £200 million over the next couple of years. Significant extra investment is being put in. I have no doubt that it will never be enough to meet every single scheme that is proposed. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) who raised this in relation to his constituency, we must try to ensure that our finances are spent where they can have best effect and where they can protect people who are most at risk. I have no doubt that that assessment will be ongoing.
Northern Lincolnshire was also badly affected by the severe weather; in fact, we are just on the other side of the River Humber from Hull. I appreciate the comments that my right hon. Friend has made about helping the local authorities that have been affected. When I was out and about in Barrow upon Humber looking at the rescue work that has gone on there, everybody was full of praise for the emergency services. However, people have obviously been devastated, so can she give a little more detail about the rescue funds, particularly the £10 million extra for flood-hit areas?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning an area that perhaps has not had a great deal of the public spotlight, although clearly the problems for people there will be just as dramatic. I understand that 160 residential properties in north Lincolnshire and 400 residential properties in the whole of north-east Lincolnshire have been affected, together with businesses, so it is a significant problem. In terms of the rescue funds that are available, £10 million will go direct to local authorities, and we hope to have that money in their hands very quickly. We want to ensure that that is then distributed to people with the minimum of red tape and bureaucracy and that it is allocated to the people who are in the greatest need. That is rightly a matter for local authorities; central Government cannot micromanage it, and nor should we. However, we want to ensure that we help local authorities to do it as quickly as they possibly can to try to help people who in some cases literally walked out of the door with what they stood up in. The crisis loans and community care grants should therefore be available so that we can get a reasonable package to people who have found themselves in such distress.
Why were more than half the flood defences maintained by the Environment Agency in an unsatisfactory condition last year? What urgent action will the Government take to improve the standards of maintenance carried out by the agency, and to do the most important capital works to increase capacity where people are most at risk?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the events of the past couple of weeks have in everybody’s terms been unprecedented. It is inevitable that whatever the defences we had put in place some would be breached in such circumstances. As I have explained, a significant amount of extra investment has already been made in flood defences, and even more will be put in during the next couple of years.
Rightly, the right hon. Gentleman calls for urgent action. We all want action to be taken as quickly as possible, but it is important that extra investment is targeted at the areas where it will have the most effect, and where we will get the best value for money. It is without doubt that there is a significant amount of investment, which I hope will help in future, but it would be tempting fate for any Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box and say that we could have prepared for what has been a series of unprecedented events.
I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Sheffield so promptly, and for the rightful praise she gave to the efforts of the city council. I also thank the Government for the initial financial help of £14 million, the improved Bellwin formula and the help given to small businesses through Yorkshire Forward. However, one of the major needs in Sheffield is help with the capital costs of the repair and, in some cases, replacement of roads and other public infrastructure. Initial estimates say that in Sheffield that could run into tens of millions of pounds. I know that my right hon. Friend cannot give a commitment to a particular sum of money, but will she give an assurance that when the assessments are made of these detailed costs, she and her colleagues will listen carefully to the requests made and respond positively to them? There is no way that the city council can meet such significant costs out of its existing budget.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I was particularly impressed with Sheffield’s co-ordination of information for the local community. It has been one of the areas that piloted the 101 number, bringing together a whole range of services, which was extremely impressive.
On the capital costs, assessments will be carried out and we need to deal with the immediate practical help that we can give. My right hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Department for Transport is more than willing to visit Sheffield, and to sit down with the local authority to ensure that we have a proper assessment.
My constituency suffered enormously 18 months ago from the Buncefield explosion, and I share my community’s concern about residents who have left their homes. Losing a home is one of the greatest difficulties that anybody can go through, and 18 months on from the explosion there are still people in Hemel Hempstead living in hotels.
During the next few months, will the Secretary of State look carefully at how the loss adjusters and builders carry out work? In Hemel, building work has been done and people have returned to their homes, but they have had to leave them again because cowboy builders had been in. The loss adjusters are not so friendly once the cameras are gone. As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) knows, it is a really difficult situation. Perhaps some of the experiences we have had in Hemel will help hon. Members in other areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Clearly his constituents have been through a pretty harrowing time following the explosion. When I went to Doncaster on Saturday, one of the things that left an impression on me was the fact that people were very reluctant to leave their homes. Many were seeking mobile homes that could be established in the local area, so that the community could stay together. The Toll Bar area has a strong community spirit, and people wanted to stay there. The impact of having to leave home is very significant indeed, particularly for elderly people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about loss adjusters. It is important for us to keep close to the insurance industry and to ensure that the builders who carry out the work are up to standard and reputable, that they complete work to the right standards and that it is properly checked and assessed. The hon. Gentleman made some extremely useful practical points. Perhaps he could let us have the benefit of his experience from his area.
The European Union has a solidarity fund for natural disasters and floods from which up to £2 billion can be claimed for great events and from which much smaller sums can be claimed in the case of serious regional economic damage, which clearly applies to South Yorkshire and east Yorkshire. Why are the Government not accessing that fund?
My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are looking at the matter urgently. There are specific criteria for accessing the European Union solidarity fund. As my right hon. Friend said, it is normally for major disasters such as volcanoes erupting and earthquakes. However, I assure him that, if there is any prospect of our making a claim and getting some resources for this country from the European Union, I shall pursue it with the utmost vigour.
We rightly pay tribute to our emergency services, but the death of Mike Barnett near Hull was tragic. What is the Secretary of State doing to achieve better co-ordination between the services so that another tragic death of that magnitude does not occur? She has repeated time and again that the weather was unprecedented, but this is now the norm. Weather patterns are changing and we need to act appropriately. Surely it is better to take more preventive measures rather than wait until the event has happened. That needs to be done. We saw what happened in New Orleans when the United States was shown to be unprepared for a disaster. I believe that the same will happen here unless we take action now.
The whole House will want to extend its condolences to Mr. Barnett’s family about the terrible tragedy that happened. I think that I have already said that the emergency services that attended on that day found themselves in an especially harrowing situation. There will be a coroner’s inquest, which will look at the circumstances, and it would be inappropriate to jump to any conclusions about what happened.
The hon. Gentleman says that we need better co-ordination. My experience has been that the police, the fire services, the ambulance service, the voluntary sector and business support organisations have come together as a result of recent events in a tremendous way. When he tries to say that they have not responded, he makes an unfair criticism. We have a system in this country of proper civil contingency preparation and we can be proud of it.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the climatic conditions are now the norm. Most organisations said that the weather was unprecedented: the amount of rain that fell in such a short time is the greatest since records began. That does not mean that it will not happen again—we must be prepared in future; prevention is better than cure—but the hon. Gentleman’s failure to recognise that the circumstances are pretty unique does not reflect reality.
I was glad that my right hon. Friend acknowledged in her statement that the floods were not only in the big cities. There were several localised floods in my constituency. The numbers affected were not large but the floods were as traumatic for them as for anyone else, as I found when I met several victims over the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we learn the lessons of maintenance? It appears to me that several incidents were caused by obstructions in the drainage system and a lack of clarity about which authority is in the lead—the Environment Agency, the local authority, the internal drainage board or the water company. Will she ensure that those parties work together in future so that whatever problems weather brings, co-ordinated and improved maintenance will lead to less flooding and fewer victims?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the emergency services and for his constituents. I have no doubt that it is appreciated. He makes an important point about maintenance. Although the rainfall was unlike anything we had ever known, continuing maintenance is important. If the drains and the sewers are in good condition, they can absorb more water when it comes through. We will examine that matter to ensure that there is clarity about who is responsible and that good maintenance can contribute to better outcomes in the long term.
It is clearly not just maintenance that requires good co-ordination. The Environment Agency is responsible for fluvial and coastal flooding, but floods are increasingly to do with drainage problems. Will the Secretary of State review the responsibility for flood prevention—including the responsibility that appears to rest on local authorities and that which rests on, for example, the privatised water companies—to ensure that drainage systems are adequate and that Ofwat, the industry regulator, allows the companies where necessary to proceed with investment, in order to ensure that there is not an enormous discrepancy between the capacity of a drainage system in one part of the country and another?
Yes, the drainage problem is important. I have no doubt that increasing urbanisation has impacts on our planning framework, which is why we have been looking at PPS25, to try to ensure that we properly manage the risks of building on floodplains and of the kind of developments that are taking place. It is one of the issues that we can pursue. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is leading a group of Ministers across Government to ensure that we look at the issues. What is also important is that we learn the lessons from such events, and we absolutely mean to do that, so that we can best inform our policy for the future.