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Volume 463: debated on Monday 23 July 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the serious flooding that occurred over the weekend.

A band of rain swept across central and southern England on Friday, developing into intense rainstorms. In 24 hours, up to 160 mm or 6½ in of rain fell. With already saturated ground, this water rapidly entered rivers and drainage systems, overwhelming them. Transport was severely disrupted, with the M5 and M50 affected and train services unable to run. Many local roads remain closed and the public are advised not to travel in the worst-hit areas. The most serious flooding has been experienced across central England, particularly in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I must emphasise that the emergency is far from over. Further flooding is very likely, as the Thames and the Severn fill with flood waters from within their catchments. There are currently eight severe flood warnings in place, covering the Severn, the Thames and the Great Ouse in Bedford, while 50 other flood warnings are in place across England and Wales.

We believe that up to 10,000 homes have been or could be flooded. Our thoughts are, of course, with all of those whose lives have been so badly affected by the floods. In addition, up to 150,000 properties in the area including Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Cheltenham have lost, or risk losing, mains water, following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury. This loss of water supply is serious and we do not expect houses to have service restored for some days. Severn Trent, the water company, is making provision for some 900 bowsers to be deployed and refilled by tankers for those people without mains water. The company reports that about 240 bowsers are already in place, and priority is being given to hospitals and vulnerable customers. Precautionary notices to boil water have also been issued in Sutton, Surrey, following rain water getting into treated water storage.

Electricity supply is also a concern. A number of local electricity sub-stations have been affected by flood water, and about 45,000 properties have lost power, including at Castle Mead and Tewkesbury. A major national grid switching station at Walham, Gloucester, remains under threat, which could result in 200,000 or more additional properties losing their supply. That would have a knock-on effect on water supplies. Yesterday evening, armed forces personnel were drafted in to help fire service and Environment Agency staff erect a kilometre-long temporary barrier around the site and start pumping out 18 in of flood water behind the barrier. So far those defences are holding, but the water is still rising, so it is touch and go. If the station does flood, the national grid will be used as far as possible, but properties in the affected area will lose power. Contingency planning is under way to ensure continuity of essential supplies and services.

Last night, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of COBR, and today he visited Gloucester. Other ministerial colleagues and I have also been to see the problems first hand, in my case visiting Worcester, Evesham and Gloucester yesterday. I am sure that the whole House will wish to thank the emergency services, the armed forces, staff from the Environment Agency, local councils and the utilities, and others for the way in which they have worked together in implementing the emergency plans. I would also like to thank the local communities for their huge effort in helping each other.

Because this emergency continues, I would ask the public to listen out for flood warnings, particularly on local radio stations, to contact the Environment Agency flood line on 0845 9881188, to respond to advice about evacuation and, of course, to look out for neighbours and anyone who might be vulnerable as a result of flooding or the loss of their power and/or water supply. People should not go into flood water and children should certainly not play in it. Even 6 in of fast moving water can knock people off their feet, and the water will often be polluted or hide dangers.

As the waters recede, the clear-up will begin. The revised Bellwin rules will assist local authorities in the areas affected to cover the immediate costs of dealing with the flooding and its aftermath, and the Government will now look at the further support required for these areas. We will also increase funding for flood defences to £800 million by 2010-11, as I informed the House on 2 July.

Finally, the review that I have set up to learn the lessons from the floods of this summer will, of course, look at what has happened over the past three days. I have decided that I will ask an independent person to oversee the review. I will keep the House informed of developments.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and join him in extending our sincere sympathy to the many thousands of people whose homes have been flooded, whose lives have been turned upside down, and whose business premises have been wrecked by the floods. People have had to endure miserable and frightening experiences such as being stuck in their cars overnight, waiting to be rescued from flooded buildings, or camping in temporary accommodation. And, as the Secretary of State said, the problems are not over yet. I also join him in paying tribute to the emergency services, including the Royal Air Force, the fire and ambulance services, local councils and all those who have worked tirelessly in very difficult circumstances to cope with those miserable events.

I have said before that we are not interested in playing a blame game. The extreme weather events that led to the current floods, as well as to those in the north of England last month, are not the Government’s fault. They are a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature. What matters is that everything feasible that could be done to respond to the threat of flooding and to the flooding events themselves was done, is being done and will continue to be done.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient action was taken by the relevant bodies following the Met Office’s severe weather warning, which was specific to the M4 and M5 corridors in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, last Wednesday? The Met Office deserves to be congratulated on this occasion for being absolutely spot-on, but did timely and helpful information filter down to the public in the areas concerned? Chief fire officers have commented on institutional confusion between the numerous agencies involved in dealing with floods. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a much clearer line of responsibility for flood prevention and tackling emergencies?

Is the Secretary of State aware that, three years ago, the Government undertook to extend the powers of the Environment Agency to include flooding from drains and sewers by the end of 2006? Will he tell us what has happened to that initiative? There are reports that the Environment Agency was unable to install vital flood defences because they were stored too far away from where they were needed and got caught in the general chaos that made the roads impassable. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that was the case? If so, does he regard it as acceptable?

Huge numbers of people are currently without mains access to fresh drinking water and power. Will the Secretary of State tell us what measures are being taken to ensure that vulnerable people are getting a fair share of access to bottled water? Will he comment on reports that Severn Trent has said that it may take a week or even two to restore fresh water supplies in the Tewkesbury area? Surely it must be possible to speed that up.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s remarks about the efforts to maintain the security of the Walham electricity sub-station. I understand that, were it to fail, it could plunge a further 600,000 or so people into darkness.

Will the Secretary of State clarify who in Government has overall responsibility for dealing with this crisis? There were reports in the press at the weekend that the Prime Minister—it is good to see him in his place this afternoon—had personally taken control of the situation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

On 2 July, I welcomed the announcement that spending on flood defences, which was cut last year, was to receive an extra £200 million in 2010-11; but is there not a case for making that extra money available now? Is there any good reason for the delay?

As the Secretary of State knows, I have previously raised the issue of uninsured losses. I accept that it is still too early to make an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem and how it may affect small businesses and people on low incomes. However, one sector likely to be hard hit is farming. Tens of thousands of acres of arable crops such as wheat have been destroyed and crops like potatoes are rotting in the fields. What consideration has the right hon. Gentleman given to the financial losses to the farming sector and to their implications. I am pleased that the inquiry will be led by an independent person and I look forward to hearing more about it.

Looking ahead, all the scientific evidence suggests that severe weather events are likely to continue increasing in frequency and ferocity. That is consistent with climate change.

Will the Secretary of State hold urgent discussions with the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Transport about the priority accorded by local authorities and the highways agencies towards the mundane but essential work of properly maintaining drains and culverts?

While the right hon. Gentleman is talking to the Communities Secretary, will he raise the possibility of extending the Bellwin scheme to cover capital spending programmes arising from flood damage? Local authorities are understandably very anxious to obtain reassurance from the Government that the medium and long-term costs of reconstruction and repair will not fall only on their local residents. He might also point out to the Communities Secretary that although there is broad agreement that more affordable homes are needed, nobody will thank the Government for building homes that are subject to flooding and are uninsurable—least of all the people who move into them.

Finally, all our thoughts are currently concentrated on relieving the plight of the victims of these dreadful floods and on preventing further disasters as the tide of water moves westward. We want to offer our support to the efforts of the Government and their agencies to deal with the imminent dangers, just as our local councils are working in close partnership with them on the ground. However, the Secretary of State will know that, once the waters recede and people begin the long process of rebuilding their lives, many searching and awkward questions about the adequacy of the systems in place in this country to deal with emergencies will remain to be answered.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his appreciation of the efforts made in response to this emergency and for the spirit in which he made his remarks. I would like to pick up the points that he raised.

First, yes, the Met Office warning was pretty clear, but as the Gold Commander told me yesterday morning in Worcester, we do not know precisely which river catchment systems the rain will fall into until it actually happens. That certainly applied in respect of the M5 and the M50. We should bear it in mind that these are relatively new motorways, built to try and accommodate the removal of surface water. That shows one of the lessons that we have to reflect on as we design such roads in the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred to institutional confusion, but I have to say that in all my discussions, including at meetings that I have chaired and talks with the Gold Commanders in Worcester and Gloucester, I have not found any institutional confusion at all. The system in place is the Gold Command system, which has complete oversight of what is required in the areas covered. The emergency response has included the evacuation of people, bringing supplies in and providing help and support—such as offering shelter even for some motorists who found themselves trapped because they could not travel on Friday evening. All of that happened precisely because of the arrangements that have been put in place.

On the two barriers, it is the case that temporary barriers for Upton upon Severn and Worcester could not be deployed because of traffic congestion. In the case of the Upton upon Severn barrier, I am advised by the Environment Agency that even if it had been deployed, it would have been over-topped because of the weight of the water. In the case of Worcester, it would have protected about 30 homes. I accept that one of the lessons that needs to be learned is that if there are temporary barriers, they ought to be stored in a place that will enable them to be put up quickly. I will take that thought away with me.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point on the availability of water supplies. Local authorities, together with the water company and, indeed, the general public, all have a part to play in ensuring that everybody who requires water will have it made available to them. On the Mythe water treatment works, I have asked the very question that the hon. Gentleman put to me of the chief executive of the Severn Trent company when I spoke to him late yesterday evening. I have said that we will give any assistance that he requires to get access to the Mythe water treatment plant once the water level falls so that the work of repairing it can happen.

On the Environment Agency, there has been, as the hon. Gentleman knows because we discussed this last time, no cut to the capital budget. Some feasibility studies were held back for a bit because of the reduction in the budget, but that has been made up this year. It has had no effect at all on the response to the flooding over the past month. The additional funding that I announced to the House will come on stream. The precise details will be announced once the comprehensive spending comes out. It will have to take account of the fact that as those feasibility studies come in place, there will be a programme of capital works that the Environment Agency itself will want to fund.

I am acutely conscious of the distress caused not only to members of the public because of what has happened to their houses and businesses, but to farmers. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the steps that I have already taken to lift the restriction on accessing water-logged land, which applies until the end of this month—I will review it in light of the current weather conditions—and to enable farmers to ask for access to set-aside land for grazing or foraging in the light of the damage caused to their crops, although many of them are still under water.

As for looking ahead, the whole question of surface water drainage is a big one. The truth is that we are dealing with a system that has been in place for more than 150 years, and the surface water drainage system was not designed to cope with the unprecedented rainfall that we have been seeing. The most important lesson we can learn is that as we build from now on in we ensure that drainage can accommodate the flow of water that we currently see.

As for the Bellwin rules, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that they were extended in response to the flooding that took place at the end of June. Those extensions were applied by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Saturday to the local authorities affected. Capital work—repairs to possible damage to bridges and other structures—will be a matter for the individual Departments that are responsible for agreeing capital funding and approvals to discuss with the relevant local authorities.

Finally, a lot of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised and the questions that I and others have got about what can be done better in future will be picked up by the review. I am grateful to him for welcoming the fact that an independent person will oversee it.

We also wish to express our sympathy to all of those affected by the floods. They are severe and there has been an enormous amount of hardship caused for many, many people. We also wish to join in the congratulations offered to the emergency services and, indeed, to join in the pride that the House should rightly feel in their dedication and devotion to duty.

An independent review of the lessons to be learned from these events is surely welcome. Will the Secretary of State also confirm that he intends to proceed with the strategic overview for the Environment Agency of all flood risks, which the Government announced in March 2005? There is a confusion between what has been a good set of co-ordinated responses through Gold Command by the emergency services and the much less clear response of the agencies responsible for the prevention, forecasting and warning of flooding. After all, that commitment in March 2005 was before the revolving ministerial door in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took its toll. Ministers should now proceed with this.

Is it not crazy that the responsibility for preventing floods and for protecting us against flooding remains split between councils, water companies, the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency, all of which operate on different assessments of risk? Perhaps the Secretary of State will clarify that point.

Drainage is assessed as adequate when it deals with one-in-10-years events; river flood defences are expected to be proof against one-in-100-years events. When will the Department insist that those be brought into line, while, we hope, clearly taking account of what is happening because of climate change? When will the Department ensure that there is a proper map of drainage and sewerage systems that are poorly maintained or otherwise inadequate?

It is already clear that official assessments of river flooding are now woefully behind reality. For example, the new £23 million flood defence on the River Chelt at Cheltenham was meant to be proof against events once in every hundred years, yet it has been over-topped not once but twice in three weeks. On that reckoning, either the Environment Agency has to redo its sums or Cheltenham need not expect another flood for 200 years. Will the Secretary of State now review all existing provisions and future ones as, clearly, the greater likelihood of flooding means that many more schemes will pass the Government’s investment threshold?

The Prime Minister, whom I am delighted to see in his place, has to take particular responsibility for the Government’s flood failures, as he was the person who cut the flood defence budget by £14 million last summer. There is no point in saying that the capital budget was not affected; those are weasel words. The truth is that the overall flood defence budget was cut and effecting feasibility studies meant that capital projects are likely to be delayed. If he doubts that, I suggest he talks to some of the people involved with the flood board in Yorkshire and Humberside.

The local flood boards were asked only last month to plan for real-terms cuts for the next three years. Even after the Yorkshire floods, the Treasury conceded only that the flood defence budget should be boosted in 2010—as the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said—while saying nothing about the next two years of the spending plans.

I heard the Secretary of State say that we should wait for the comprehensive spending review, but surely the urgency of the situation demands that we get some clarity about the Government’s intentions earlier than that. Is it not time that the Government recognised the urgency of the threat posed by climate change?

On the last point, the Government certainly realise the scale of the threat from climate change. One cannot attribute a particular incident to climate change, but it is clear that the climate is changing and that human activity is causing that. We are likely, the scientists tell us, to see extreme weather events with greater frequency. We are talking about a huge excess of water here; in other parts of the world, there are droughts. That is the future with which the whole world must deal.

On the strategic overview, I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that the sensible course of action is to reflect on that in light of the review that will be undertaken, which will need to look at a number of the points that he raised, of which I am aware. On the different bodies that are responsible for drainage systems, it is surely right and proper that each body that maintains the asset should have the responsibility of ensuring that it is in an appropriate condition. We must ensure that we look at how all the different pieces connect because surface water drainage may be the responsibility of the Highways Agency, the local authority or some private landowner. We will have to reflect on that as part of the review.

On the over-topping of the defences, even the best defences have been over-topped. As we speak, the new defences at Gloucester Quay, built some years ago, are about 4 in away from being over-topped. Everyone is waiting anxiously to see whether the peak will be reached without breaching that defence or not, but that is the result of investment that has already been made. There are new defences at Kidderminster, Newport Pagnell and Towcester and the new Jubilee river has been brought into play. It is, in effect, a flood relief bypass for Maidenhead in particular. It has not stopped all flooding in Maidenhead, but it has resulted in some pressure being taken off the Thames.

On the flood defence budget, I simply say that it was £300 million a year about a decade ago, that it has risen to £600 million and that it will rise further to £800 million. Le me also repeat that what happened to last year’s Environment Agency budget has not affected the capacity of the EA or the defences to deal with the current flooding. The money was restored and, as I told the House two weeks ago, we will significantly increase it. We need to do that because of the weather that we now have to deal with.

Order. I am mindful that many Members wish to contribute, but I am also aware that there are two further statements to follow and the main business of the House. I therefore request that Members ask only one supplementary question. If they are also answered briefly, more Members will be able to ask questions.

May I first thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for visiting Gloucestershire? I also pay due regard to the emergency services, and to my neighbours in Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham who have obviously suffered more than I have in Stroud—although my visits over the weekend to properties made it clear to me that the situation in general is miserable.

On local co-ordination, it is a nice idea that we can rely on amateurs to open sluice gates and people to take seriously their riparian ownership, but it takes only one failure for the entire system to go wrong. I ask my right hon. Friend to look into that matter, and the operation of inland drainage boards. We could learn lessons from such investigations, and improve the effective, speedy, local action that is required in circumstances such as those we face.

I am very happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that that is one of the issues that the review will look into.

Although the Prime Minister has just left the Chamber, I wish to thank him for visiting the affected area this morning and to say that I entirely agree with his conclusion that we need to update the infrastructure. We also need to stop building houses on or near floodplains and to ensure that drains are clear and that emergency measures can be undertaken rather more quickly than they were on this occasion.

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the people of Tewkesbury for showing great strength during this terrible time? My constituency has been absolutely devastated. Only yesterday I personally helped people in wheelchairs leave their flooded flats—some properties might not have been given the right priority. Questions on such matters are perhaps for the future, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the most pressing task is to ensure that there is no loss of life and no injuries, and will he make sure that agencies have all the resources they need?

I certainly join in the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to all his constituents for their efforts and his expressions of sympathy to all who have been so badly affected. I know that this is a difficult time. From the beginning of the crisis, I have said to everyone I have met who is in charge of the emergency response that they should let us know of any further resources that they might need. I also ask the hon. Gentleman and all other Members—I met some on Saturday evening—to contact me about all relevant circumstances or events in their constituency because I want to make sure that every support is given.

In terms of floodplains, there will be an announcement on housing development to follow, but let me say that we strengthened in 2001 and then again, and more significantly, in 2006 the advice on that through the planning policy statement. It is clear that local authorities must now take into account flood risk in taking decisions on planning applications and the EA now has a statutory right to be consulted—it is the expert on flood risk and it will express its view.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The situation in Oxfordshire is very serious, and in Oxford it threatens to get worse as the Thames rises. Will he take note that the message I received from elderly evacuees at the Oxford United stadium reception centre, and from others I spoke to on my visit, is that the emergency response in Oxfordshire has been very effectively co-ordinated by the county’s emergency planning officer, the statutory agencies and volunteers, and moreover that the steps being taken are reassuring people who are desperately worried?

My right hon. Friend mentioned a review. I welcome the fact that it will be independent. Will he give the House some idea of the time scale it will work to, as it is important that the right lessons are learned?

I am glad to hear that from my right hon. Friend’s perspective the emergency response has been so effective. That does show the benefits of the planning that has been put in place and the structures that are operational. I hope that an initial report from the review will be available by the end of the year. The emergency phase comes first, and then looking at some of the longer term lessons from the clean-up. It is important, however, that we have a first look as quickly as possible, and that is what I will ask the independent person to do.

What is the point of having flood defences that are not used when they are most needed? That was certainly the case at Upton upon Severn, despite what the Secretary of State says—and much to the distress of my constituents who are still stranded there now. Will he ensure that the Upton mistakes are part of the remit of the independent review that he has announced?

As I have already said to the hon. Gentleman, the Environment Agency very much regrets that in those two cases it was not able to get the temporary barriers through, although—as he heard me say a moment ago—even if they had been erected, the advice I have had from the agency is that it would not have made any difference, because they would have been over-topped in any case. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point: if there are temporary barriers, it is important that they are capable of being put up. I undertake that we will look at the situation to ensure that that does not happen again.

When natural disasters of the severity that we have witnessed over the past few weeks occur in other parts of the world, the British public are extraordinarily generous in their offers of help. Can my right hon. Friend say if he is aware of arrangements to receive and harness offers of help from the British public, and will he give some consideration as to how the Government can encourage and support individuals and organisations to offer money, time and even temporary accommodation to people at this difficult time, in addition to whatever insurers and the Government are doing?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the natural human response when other human beings are in trouble, which is to extend a helping hand. In the case of the flooding that we saw in Yorkshire and Humberside, several funds were established to provide support to those who lost everything. It is early days in the present case, but I am sure that local communities will want to take the same sort of initiative to provide support to people who have lost a great deal. We would encourage them to do so.

As for physical assistance, one of the benefits of the planning that has been put in place is the way in which emergency services from other parts of the country have come in. I talked to fire crews and other crews, and the system works well, especially for boat rescue. One of the most impressive things that I saw yesterday was at the new fire control centre in Worcester, which is co-ordinating the boat rescue facilities from around the country, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and other fire and rescue services, to deploy them where needed to bring succour and support to people who have suffered so much.

I thank the Secretary of State for his visit yesterday to my constituents in Evesham, a town that has had its second dramatic flooding event in only nine years, and for enabling me to join him in his visit to Gold Command at Hindlip hall in Worcestershire. We were able to discuss issues of mutual concern and to congratulate the emergency services on the remarkable job that they have done in Worcestershire. I join him in saying that the co-ordination in the county was outstanding. However, the rain of course fell on the boundary of two if not three Government regions, and we also heard concern expressed about a problem with cross-regional co-operation. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the independent review will take proper account of the cross-regional issues, which could make a big difference to future flooding events?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and for the time that he spent yesterday morning, in addition to all the work that he and many other right hon. and hon. Members have done to support their constituents. He raises an important point, and, as part of the process, some of the new national arrangements have come into place. However, we need to ensure that if an emergency falls in an area that does not fit neatly in Government office regions or the Gold Command structures, the right people meet together to make things happen. That is another lesson that we need to learn.

Will my right hon. Friend take into account the experience of the residents of Moresby close in Swindon, whose homes first flooded in 2004? Ever since my election, I have been working with them to try to get Thames Water, the local council and the Environment Agency to work together to find a solution to the problem of the culvert that frequently floods their houses. Together, we helplessly watched sewage bubble up through the drains and lap at their garages on Friday. It was not pleasant, and solving this problem has taken too long. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that the independent review makes the agencies work together faster?

I cannot promise that the independent review will look at each individual case of flooding risk in that way, but as I indicated in answer to an earlier question, it will look at the broader point of ensuring that there is a co-ordinated overview of what the different agencies need to do.

On 16 September 2004, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), will recall, the Select Committee requested a White Paper from the Government giving details of how they would deal with the type of extreme event and flooding that we have now experienced. In the light of the non-appearance of that White Paper, may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that when the independent review reports and the Government make their response, that response has the status of a White Paper?

I will reflect on the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. What I am most interested in, and what I know that he is most interested in, is ensuring that the lessons, once learned, are applied so that we can deal even more effectively with such emergencies in future. Certainly, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has helped to put in place arrangements that several hon. Members have said are working quite well, and we have to ensure that we get on and make the right things happen once we know what we can do better in future.

My constituency is about to be flooded for the second time in four days. On Friday there were serious problems with surface water flooding, as the drainage culverts simply lacked the capacity to cope with the increased volumes of water. Tonight, the Thames in Berkshire will burst its banks, causing misery for hundreds of families. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the drainage systems are upgraded to increase capacity and that more money is spent on flood defences where they can make a difference?

As my hon. Friend will have heard, we certainly will be spending more money on flood defence. Let me also say that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), is going to visit Reading tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) raises an important point about surface water. In part, the problem is a consequence of the fact that more land has been tarmacked over and paved over, so there is nowhere for the water to go when there is flash flooding. That is a lesson that all those with responsibility for surface drainage have to take on board.

May I also congratulate the emergency services and everyone from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Gold Command and even BBC Radio Gloucestershire for their contribution to making the crisis in Gloucestershire less serious than it would have been? I also thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the personal interest that they have shown. However, may I ask the Secretary of State to ask the Environment Agency to extend its inquiry to the June floods in Cheltenham? May I also ask him to include in his own review some examination of why so much damage was done in Cheltenham in areas of relatively high ground close to culverts and drains? In one case, a stream that was normally a few inches deep rose 15 ft and inundated nearby homes.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words, and for his thanks. I will ask the Environment Agency, in reflecting on those lessons, to respond both to me and to him.

In Sheffield we had our floods three weeks ago, and one of the sites that I visited at the invitation of National Grid was the Neepsend transformer station, which was flooded, leaving several thousands of homes without electricity on a rotational basis. Furthermore, if the Ulley dam had burst its banks, the Brinsworth transformer station could have gone down, which would have left whole sections of Sheffield and Rotherham without electricity for several days. Could I have an assurance that the Secretary of State will ask the review to look at the vulnerability of our electricity supply system and the lack of back-up when a transformer system goes down?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. One thing that is very clear as a result of these recent events is just how vulnerable is the ecosystem of utility services—if I may use that phrase. One bit goes out, and there is a knock-on consequence; the power goes, and it is not possible to pump the water. By definition, water treatment plants need to be by a river because that is where they get the water from. The Mythe plant has not flooded before, as far as I am aware—I asked the chief executive about that last night. The plant is raised on the side of the river, but, even there it was overwhelmed. Looking at what arrangements are in place in future to ensure that utilities can be protected from this kind of event will be an important part of the review.

In the cost-benefit analysis of flood defence work, one of the crucial factors is, quite rightly, the probability of a flood taking place. In my constituency we have had two “one-in-30-years” floods in the past nine years, and that is common, certainly in the west midlands. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can assure us that in his review, that formula will be reconsidered, because projects that did not look viable on a one-in-30-years basis may well have a very considerable positive value on a one-in-10-years basis.

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I should be very content to ask the review to look at that very question.

May I look ahead some hours and days, and ask what is the prognosis for managing the build-up of water in the Thames as it comes through areas such as Runnymede, Spelthorne and Elmbridge, hits Teddington and goes beyond that into the tidal area of the Thames, past this building and into my own area on the Thames estuary? Can we have some reassurance that those waters can and will be managed, and if not, what is being done to alert the various authorities, both in the non-tidal Thames and in my area of Essex and opposite in Kent?

Clearly, those managing the watercourses, the river and the defences in place will do their best to ensure that flooding is minimised. Clearly, the existence of the Thames barrier, which protects a large part of London which is, of course, built on a floodplain, will also help. Below the Thames barrier things are more difficult. Further up, one of the things that the Thames barrier could do is to close up to allow some further relief for the water to pass down the system, to try to take the pressure off the Thames in its upper reaches.

In Herefordshire, particularly, and in Worcestershire, these summer floods are the worst in living memory. My own car was flooded, and I had to carry my daughter to safety on my shoulders through chest-deep water. The Secretary of State asks for suggestions about what could be done. The people of Tenbury Wells in my constituency have been flooded three times, twice in the past week. I do not know what the answer is for them, but I do know that he can look again at his plans for the single farm payment, because the fields that are flooded were full of crops, and if he could get at least 80 per cent. to the farming community before Christmas, he would have a tremendous impact on what is going to happen to the rural community.

I understand. I am sorry to hear about the personal circumstances that the hon. Gentleman, like many members of the public, found himself in. With the single farm payment, because of what has happened in the past, as he will be aware, what I am most anxious to do is to ensure that the targets that we have set are met. The worst thing would be to set targets that might not be achieved. But I have said that in the autumn, as we see what further progress is being made by the Rural Payments Agency, we will look into whether further targets can be set, but I do not want to do that until I can review the situation.

May I take this opportunity, since I know how many Members, particularly Opposition Members, have been affected, to express my thanks to the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) for the very considerable assistance that was given over the weekend to enable myself and my ministerial colleagues to contact right hon. and hon. Members?

My constituency is not a floodplain, but it has recently experienced two very serious flash-flooding episodes. My right hon. Friend has said that existing drainage systems will be looked at. Will he also insist that those undertaking the review plead with local authority planning departments to regulate properly new developments that link into the existing drainage systems, and please ask them to clean their grids more regularly?

The whole House would agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes, particularly the last one: it is important that drainage systems be properly maintained, because they can become blocked, which affects the flow of water. First, it certainly is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that when they give permission for new developments, the flood risk is assessed, as I have already described to the House. Secondly, it is clear that in future all local authorities will have to think about whether the current design standards for surface water drainage are adequate.

The Secretary of State referred to the “precautionary boil” notices that have been issued in my constituency. The incident that he referred to took place on Friday, as a result of the flooding of the Cheam treatment plant, and it took 24 hours before a decision was made to issue that “precautionary boil” notice, and a further 24 hours before the message was fully and finally received by all my constituents. Will his review look carefully and closely at what can be done to speed up the decision-making process, not least because by the time that the message finally went out to my constituents, most of the water that could have been contaminated would already have been drunk?

Without waiting for the review, I undertake to go away and ask precisely the question the hon. Gentleman has put to me about why there was a passage of time before the information was made available to members of the public. I shall respond to him directly.

Will the Secretary of State look at why several recent developments of homes in my constituency have been flooded, and will he ask why the Environment Agency did not insist on more adequate drainage and ditches when the developments were being put in place, to protect new owners from that terrible shock?

As the right hon. Gentleman will have heard in answer to an earlier question, we have now given the Environment Agency a much stronger position in the process by requiring it to be statutorily consulted when new planning applications come in. We have tightened the planning guidance—both in 2001 and in 2006—by further strengthening it to make it clear to local authorities that in the end, the planning authority has the responsibility for ensuring that it has weighed up all the risks before deciding to give planning permission.

I am sure that the whole House would like to pay tribute and give thanks to the armed forces, which yet again, at very short notice, have come to the assistance of the civil authorities in an emergency. Sadly, there are far fewer members of the armed forces—both Regular and Territorial—than there were 10 years ago, as a direct result of the policies of the Government and the Prime Minister in cutting the defence budget. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the units deployed on Friday and Saturday were doing beforehand? Were they on leave—either weekend leave, or leave following a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan? How many were in training for those deadly war zones, to which they may be going soon?

I do not have the information in relation to the forces, but the hon. Gentleman will have seen, as I did, the pictures of the RAF helicopters lifting people to safety—and Army personnel were heavily involved in the rescue operation at the Walham national grid switching station. I will endeavour to find out the information and provide it to him. I join him in paying tribute to the astonishing professionalism, bravery and skill of our armed forces.

My constituency, too, has been hit hard by the floods. Will the Secretary of State ask the independent review to look into whether it is possible to give the Environment Agency a power of veto over proposed developments on the floodplain?

Although the review is going to look into many things—some of which we have added in the course of these questions—I do not think that the whole future of our planning policy ought to be part of that. It should be recognised that we have already given the Environment Agency a strong position in the process, and that ultimately, the Secretary of State has the power to call in proposals, having regard to the advice that the Environment Agency gives.

Some unfortunate households in the Ludlow constituency have been flooded twice, and a small number three times, in the past month. The Secretary of State talked about the Bellwin formula being extended from two to six months, which is welcome. I want to ask him about some significant pieces of public infrastructure, such as the bridge at Ludlow, which has had its span doubled in width as a result of the flow of water. That is going to involve a significant engineering redesign, not just a simple repair, and the current estimate for completion is 12 months. That falls outside the six months. Can he confirm to the House today that it will be covered?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but engineering and bridge works, of whatever nature, fall outwith the Bellwin rules, because those rules cover the immediate emergency clear-up costs. We have extended the time in which local authorities can make claims, because we recognise that the clear-up itself may take quite some time. The issue that he raised would be picked up in the normal discussions between the relevant department and the local authority. If it is a road that the Highways Agency has an interest in—[Interruption.] It is not. Well, it would need to be picked up by the existing systems.

Ahead of the main review, will the Secretary of State undertake to sit down with the farming community and others to look at the possibility of relatively short-term improvements in our water storage capacity—involving, for example, balancing ponds, storage reservoirs and even possibly the planned, as opposed to the recent catastrophic, reversion of arable land to floodplain grassland?

I would be happy to meet representatives of the farming community to discuss those issues, because I am acutely conscious of the difficulties that farmers will face, which have already been raised. The farming community can make a contribution, as we recognise that one of the places where water can go is away from built-up areas, but that can have knock-on consequences on crops that have been planted.

In the second world war people were evacuated from Birmingham to south Worcester and Gloucestershire. We now face a situation in which things may get substantially worse and people may lose access to electricity and water. Emergency planning in Birmingham has considered whether we can evacuate people from Gloucestershire to Birmingham, and we are willing to help. The health of some people may depend on their having access to water and mains electricity. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is contingency planning, so that if it is likely that people will lose access to water and electricity, they are evacuated to where it is safe, whether that is Birmingham, Bristol or elsewhere—somewhere where they can access clean water and electricity to maintain their health?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he draws attention to the willingness of authorities that have not been affected, and the people who work for them, to extend a helping hand. Contingency planning is already taking place, but I hope that it will not come to that, and that the Walham electricity plant can be protected. However, those with responsibility for managing this emergency are looking at what may need to be done if the worst happens.

The Secretary of State mentioned the Walham national grid switching station, and I support what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said. Recent events have highlighted the critical needs of our infrastructure with regard to both electricity and water, and the fact that we are vulnerable at certain pinchpoints. We are not vulnerable to weather-related events alone; I am sure that the criticality of our infrastructure needs cannot have escaped the attentions of those who would do us harm. It is probably outside the scope of the independent review, but the Government should review our national infrastructure as a matter of urgency, to establish how vulnerable we are to all sorts of threats, as this event has highlighted may be the case.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and that is why the utility companies are part of the resilience forum structure. But, yes, we need to consider what more can be done to protect crucial parts of our infrastructure from rain, water and flooding.

Will the Secretary of State’s independent review assess the impact of infill development on our communities? Most of the flooding in my constituency was caused not by rivers overflowing but by the impact of water skating off the roofs and tarmac of houses built inside the façade of Edwardian and Victorian housing, whose drainage is not simply good enough to cope.

Two detailed points arise from the experience in Wootton Bassett in my constituency, where homes were flooded in Westbury Park. Wiltshire was badly affected, although not quite as badly as Gloucestershire. My first question is about the planning permission that has already been granted for building not only on floodplains but on the flood reservoir in Wootton Bassett. That would be a catastrophe if it went ahead. How on earth can we reverse outline planning permission that has already been given? Secondly, one of the bodies—

I am not aware of the precise details of the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but perhaps he would like to write to me with further details—although the matter probably falls within the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: people who give planning permission in future should reflect on the consequences of what they have given permission for.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Environment Agency offices for the whole of the Thames basin are based in Swift house in Frimley, in my constituency. I wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor in April to point out that following cuts to his Department’s budget, seven staff members had been let go in the previous 12 months. Many of my constituents who have been flooded out of their homes for the second time in a year will be asking why, at a time of acute climate change, the Environment Agency is laying off experts in flood management and defence.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advancing the argument that the events that he mentions have had an effect on the Environment Agency’s capacity to respond to the current emergency. Like all parts of Government, the Environment Agency is having to look at using its resources as efficiently as possible. I seem to recollect that when the James review was published, it suggested considerable reductions in funding for the Environment Agency.

Further to the answer that the Secretary of State has just given my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), there is significant concern that adequate resources might not be given to the Environment Agency when it has the new duties of scrutiny of planning, The run-off that was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) needs detailed consideration in the planning system, not a nod through. Will commensurate resources and staffing be given to the Environment Agency to allow detailed scrutiny of planning in flood-prone areas?

I know from my discussions with Sir John Harman and Barbara Young of the Environment Agency how seriously they take the responsibility that they now have to comment on those planning applications under the new powers that we have given them, and am I sure—not least in the light of what we have experienced in the past month—that that is exactly what they will do.