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Flooding (Gloucestershire)

Volume 464: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

I note that we have a little longer for this debate than might have been expected, but I assure the Minister that I do not intend to drag it out just for the sake of it. However, there are, of course, important issues to address, and I am pleased to have secured the debate for that reason. I thank Mr. Speaker for awarding it to me, and the Minister for attending today.

My hon. Friends and colleagues from other seats in Gloucestershire—Forest of Dean, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Stroud and Cotswold—have all taken an interest in what I am discussing, although unfortunately they are not able to be here because of other pressures. They, too, have suffered in recent months, and I pay tribute to their work in fighting against the difficulties that we have experienced.

I want to approach this debate in three parts. I want to consider what happened on 20 July and since, what is happening now and what should happen in the future. In June of this year, I remember visiting a number of people in my constituency and, by invitation, slightly beyond, to look at the difficulties they had experienced following floods in that month. I visited people who told me that they had lived in their properties for 40 years and never been flooded. There was some kind of warning there, I suppose. The storms were similar, although obviously those in July were a lot worse. There was a warning in June that there was a problem because places flooded that had never flooded before, and it was depressing to me to have to visit those people again in July, when they had been flooded for a second time.

I suppose that 20 July started like any other day, but the rain came down very heavily. Perhaps it should not have, but it seemed to take us by surprise. The rain continued for a lot of the day, probably all of it, and people’s journeys home became extremely difficult. A journey that should have taken me one hour took me four. The mobile phone network went down completely and it was impossible to phone home or make any arrangements. I was one of the lucky ones: many people did not get home at all. My house is not that far from the M5 motorway, and I know that people slept in their cars on the motorway, including police officers, who had no way of getting away from the situation. People slept in borough council offices, and some slept in public houses, which was probably the preferable option, but not one they would necessarily have chosen. It seemed to get worse.

On the Saturday, there seemed to be a little respite, but water continued to come from the hills and down the rivers, and on Sunday, things got very much worse. As things progressed, the town of Tewkesbury got cut off and became an island, as probably the whole world knows—Tewkesbury is now world famous for the wrong reasons. I have to stress that other parts of my constituency were also very badly flooded. Part of the hospital at Tewkesbury had to be evacuated, the doctor’s surgery was flooded and had to be evacuated, meaning that the doctors were displaced, and many businesses were closed. Of course, many people had to leave their homes; some of them had to be rescued from their top floor. It was a desperate situation. When we lost the water supply, we had to live off water supplied by bowsers—a word I had never come across before 20 July—and the filling of bowsers and the delivery of bottled water became a major issue. [Interruption.] I am glad to welcome the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has managed to make it to the debate.

Tragically, and worst of all, during the next few days, three people lost their lives as a direct result of the flooding; Bramwell and Christopher Lane, and Mitchell Taylor were all killed. That was extremely tragic, but it could have been so much worse. We lost our mains water supply—some people lost it for up to three weeks—and as many as 350,000 properties were affected in this way. We very nearly lost our electricity supplies. It was estimated that up to 600,000 households could have lost electricity.

At this point, I would like to congratulate the emergency services, particularly Gold Command, under the direction of Dr. Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire. I would like to congratulate the armed forces, Tewkesbury borough council, parish councils and many others—particularly those individuals who helped rescue people and deliver bottled water. It really brought out the very best in 99 per cent. of people. There were no divisions and no party politics; everybody made a tremendous effort. I personally knew many people who worked hard, but there were many others whom I did not know and whom I will probably not meet again.

Perhaps unusually for a politician, I would like to congratulate the media on their role, especially Radio Gloucestershire, a local radio station, which broadcast accurate and up-to-date information every minute. That was extremely helpful. Perhaps unusually again for a politician, I would like to thank and congratulate the supermarkets and those who supplied the bottled water.

Most hon. Members realise the importance of their staff. I want especially to congratulate my constituency assistant, Mark Calway, who worked night and day to try to help people with their problems. Far be it from me, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, to try to brighten up the Prime Minister’s week, but I must thank him for what he did. He showed a great deal of interest and I am not prepared to play party politics about the matter. His many interventions were welcome. I also thank and congratulate the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and everybody at every level, including those in Cobra and Gold Command, who tried to help to alleviate the disaster. I am told that it was the biggest operation in peacetime Britain, and that is significant.

I apologise for being late and leaving early. My hon. Friend—in this context—knows that I am going to meet the rural advocate to discuss flooding. Does he agree that one of the problems was the apparent lack of knowledge about the susceptibility of the critical infrastructure, including the water treatment plant at Mythe and the sub-station at Walham? I appreciate that we discussed that yesterday in a Select Committee meeting with the Environment Agency, but some uncertainty remains about who takes the lead when those facilities are threatened. Does he agree that we need to determine how we protect those critical infrastructure facilities and who takes command when they are threatened?

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and has made one of the most important points. I shall deal with that a little later, but I emphasise that he is right.

The second part of my speech is about the current position. Tewkesbury and the surrounding areas have recovered well but many people are still living in caravans on their own drives, and will do so for many months. In a discussion with the chief constable this morning, I was reminded that they will have to eat their Christmas dinner in caravans unless they are fortunate enough to be invited elsewhere. Many people remain displaced from their homes. Businesses, especially shops, pubs and restaurants, lost much business. When we lost the water supply, restaurants could not prepare food properly and consequently lost an awful lot of business. However, I want to convey the message that, although some people believe that Tewkesbury was like New Orleans, it was not that bad. Tewkesbury was not affected in quite the same way and it is open for business. I hope that I am allowed to make that plug.

Of course, people have still got to get their houses back together and make insurance claims. The process of claiming appears to have gone fairly smoothly—I have not heard many complaints about it—although it took time for assessors and others to come out. Given the scale of the problem, that was understandable, but matters are progressing.

Concern has been expressed about future insurance premiums and the future availability of insurance. I want to spend some time considering that because, yesterday, the Association of British Insurers made the worrying statement that it could not guarantee insuring people against flooding in future because of the Chancellor’s statement the other day and the lack of money, as the association put it, from him for the alleviation of floods. I hope that the Chancellor will provide enough money to guard against future problems, and I want to discuss shortly some of the things that I hope will be done.

I am also a little concerned about the ABI’s position, although I do not want to be too much against it. I asked the ABI what specific schemes it felt would not be able to go ahead, because of the Government’s position, that it felt should go ahead. Again, I am not defending the Government at all, but I was a bit concerned this morning to receive an e-mail from the ABI that in answer—or non-answer—to my question said:

“We do not have details of specific schemes that will now not go ahead.”

I am not defending the Government—I will say quite a few things that I want the Government to do—but I do not want the ABI to use the Government’s position as a cop-out. That is not the ABI’s role. Insurers take the premiums and they have to pay out. It will be difficult for people if they cannot get insurance. There might be some justifiable criticism of people or businesses who did not take out insurance, but if insurance is not available to them, that is a different proposition. I should like the Minister to address that concern.

I come to part three of my speech: what do I think should happen in the future? We live on the confluence of two rivers in Tewkesbury. It is a beautiful place. We have the abbey and we have a lot going for us. The rivers brought a lot of trade in the past, but of course we recognise that Tewkesbury is on a floodplain and that the rivers flood frequently. The fields around Tewkesbury flood probably two, three or four times a year. That is not a problem; what is a problem is the kind of situation that we face currently.

Although we accept that we live on a floodplain and that sometimes we will be flooded, people’s primary concern now is that we should learn lessons from what happened. It is far too easy for the headlines to disappear, for people to forget about the situation and for nothing to happen. I hope that we will learn the lessons. I make no apology for returning to the fact that three people died in my constituency because of the flooding or that people beyond have suffered. We must learn the lessons. What do I think those lessons are? The biggest one is that we should not build houses or other buildings on or near floodplains. If we do that, the water obviously has nowhere to go or not as many places to go, whereas if the floodplain is a green field, the water can rest on it and eventually disappear. If there are buildings on that field, that cannot happen.

One area of building in my constituency, in a place called Bredon Road, was part built and flooded. That was not a good calculation. In a written answer to my question number 146213, the Minister for Housing quoted planning policy statement 25, with regard to strategic flood risk assessments. That is welcome as far as it goes, but I do not think that it goes far enough. I know that the role of the Environment Agency has to some extent been strengthened on that point—I shall return to that—but the provision does not go anywhere near far enough.

I am also concerned about how we determine what constitutes a floodplain. When the Environment Secretary came to Tewkesbury he told me that the flooding that had occurred was far worse than the definitive map, which suggested where the flooding might take place if the 1947 floods were repeated. The flooding this time was worse. I had a meeting with somebody from the Environment Agency who suggested that if water lay beneath the surface of land, it was okay to build on. That is profoundly wrong and dangerous.

There is currently an application, which will be with the Secretary of State any day now, at a village called Longford in my constituency, which is very close to Walham electric works, which almost flooded and which we almost lost. The appeal to the Secretary of State is by Hitchins and is to build some 600 houses on an area that floods and to which the access roads also flood. Surely that application must be turned down when it reaches the Secretary of State’s office, otherwise we will have heard just empty words.

I should like to associate myself with my hon. Friend’s earlier remarks about all those whom he thanked. I should also like to thank the ministerial team, who played a significant role in keeping us informed. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; the problem now is defining and redefining the floodplain, but also recognising the fact that where building is allowed can sometimes have an impact on other places further downstream. That is very worrying. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that, when an application is proposed, we need to look not only at the impact on the immediate area but at the impact further down the river, the brook or whatever.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

There are areas of Tewkesbury, such as the Wheatpieces estate and the Stonehills estate, of which people said, “Well, there you are, they didn’t flood. It wasn’t a problem.” That misses the point entirely. The next estate, Priors Park estate, was very badly flooded. We are also losing gardens. Houses are being built on gardens, which are defined as brownfield sites, and that land loses the ability to soak up water.

That raises the question of why so many houses are needed. I do not want to go through all the issues. We know about ageing populations, about couples separating, about people wanting more than one house, and about immigration—we have had net immigration of well over a million in the past 10 years. All those factors put pressure on the housing situation, and we have to think about this very sensibly.

Unbelievably, there are proposals from the regional spatial strategy in my constituency to build thousands of houses north of Gloucester and north of Cheltenham. That is asking for trouble, and the proposal must be rejected. We must find a better way forward, and better places to put the houses. We cannot build thousands of houses in the areas that have suffered so badly over the past few weeks.

When we have to build houses, the builders should have a greater responsibility to ensure that the drainage system is adequate. In answer to my parliamentary question number 146214, the Minister helpfully replied but his answer was not strong enough. Things need tightening up. We also need to ensure that ditches and drains are cleared regularly, and that they are repaired when necessary. I had some displaced people living with me for a while; they were delightful. They lived much higher up than me, but their house, unlike mine, had flooded because their drains did not work. In fact, they had worked in reverse and thrown the water out into the property. I accept that that was an exceptional time, but in many cases, the drains were simply inadequate and the ditches were not cleaned.

We need to draw up a list of priority people and priority buildings, so that we can help more quickly in times of difficulty. I went for a walkabout on the Sunday, and I came across some sheltered accommodation. Nobody had been there, and water was surrounding the buildings. It was coming up through the floors of the flats, and we had to push people out in their wheelchairs to avoid what could have been a terrible situation. We then had to wait for ambulances and police cars to arrive. This place was called Lanes Court in Priors Park, the estate that I mentioned earlier. Nobody had been round to check up on it; it had not registered on anyone’s radar screen. There was no emergency relief for those people.

I tabled a parliamentary question on that subject—question number 152885—to which the Minister responded:

“Under central guidance on the requirements of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, it is the responsibility of all the statutorily designated Category 1 responders, including local authorities, emergency services, Primary Care Trusts and the Environment Agency to identify and make plans to assist vulnerable people in any emergency.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 1523W.]

Well, in spite of what I am sure were the best efforts of all involved, that did not happen. It certainly did happen to some extent, but many people, such as those whom I have just mentioned, did not get rescued until they happened to be stumbled across. Many old and disabled people had bottled water brought to their houses, but that did not happen across the board. There were still many vulnerable people.

The fire and rescue service made an absolutely tremendous effort, but I do not think that it was quite prepared for a disaster of this scale in terms of the number of its officers who have been trained to carry out rescue operations in water. Some are trained to do that and did an excellent job. Others also did an excellent job, but we need to reflect more on whether there are enough fire rescue officers trained in that particular line of service.

I spoke to the chief constable of Gloucestershire this morning about the tri-service centre. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Stroud is no longer in his place, as I hoped that he would agree with me about it. On 20 July, the emergency services people were able to talk to each other immediately at the operational level. Nothing needed to be set up: they managed the emergency very well indeed and it would not have been as effective if it had had to be managed regionally. The local emergency people all knew the local council people, people from the utilities, MPs and so forth. It is interesting to note that when the merger of police forces was first discussed, relevant documents observed that a force as small as Gloucestershire’s would not be able to handle an emergency on this scale. In fact, the force handled it very well indeed. I thus make a plea for the tri-service centre to be retained. It is working well and should be allowed to continue to do so.

As to securing water and electricity supplies, which the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, we have to ensure that the Mythe water works, located close to my home, is protected. We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of people to lose their drinking water again. In respect of the Walham electricity works—one sub-station apparently serves 600,000—it cannot be right to put people into such a vulnerable position. I understand that Hesco bastions, which are protective borders, have been put around the Mythe works on a temporary basis, with the possibility of them becoming permanent, but I have to say that this is not rocket science. It should be simple to provide those protections, which must become permanent at Mythe, Walham and elsewhere.

We also need to secure a network of alternative supplies. It is strange that so many people who could lose their water supplies are dependent on just one service or one water treatment plant. When the Prime Minister went there during the crisis, his first remarks were something like, “This is rather an old building or an old service station, isn’t it?” Well, he had a good point. The plant usually works very well and the people employed there work hard, but so many people’s water should not be dependent on one particular water treatment plant and the same applies to electricity.

I want to touch on the role of Severn Trent. It is perhaps understandable that it was totally overwhelmed by what happened. However, it operates—I suppose inevitably—as a monopoly, so it is in a different position. People cannot choose to go elsewhere for their water. A great deal of anger was directed at Severn Trent: some of it may not have been justified, but I can certainly understand quite a lot of it. I suggest that Severn Trent should be more a part of the community and should update its emergency planning. There was a tremendous effort in Tewkesbury to get bowsers and bottles of water to everybody. I believe that we ended up with most of the available bowsers in the country, so what would have happened if there had been a similar emergency somewhere else in the country? All the water companies need to be aware of what can happen and ensure that they can respond to these situations more strongly if they occur again.

I come on to the Environment Agency. Some years ago, the Environment Agency was monitoring a chemical treatment plant, operated by Cleansing Service Group and based in Sandhurst in my constituency. It was watching it so closely that the whole thing blew up one day and it simply did not carry out its job properly. I have many criticisms of the Environment Agency and I shall run through a few issues that are linked to it. If they are not currently its responsibility, perhaps they should be.

I have already mentioned drainage, but I want to touch on the responsibility for brooks, rivers, waterways and drains. In answer to my parliamentary question 148307, the Minister said:

“Drainage is a complex issue and responsibility rests with water and sewerage companies, the Environment Agency, local authorities and private owners.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 9W.]

It is too complicated—too many issues fall between two stools. The responsibility needs to be clearly defined.

The Environment Agency has become a statutory consultee in planning applications. That is not strong enough. It needs to have a much greater say in whether certain planning applications are granted. It needs a better and faster warning system: the Environment Agency claims to have warned many thousands of people, but many people were not warned about what was coming. Farmers were particularly affected, and while I pay tribute to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Farmers Union for their excellent work in getting water to many livestock, there was a big problem with the warning system, which needs to be examined.

Spending on specific national flood defence projects is necessary, but individual flood defences also need to be up to scratch. The Environment Agency needs more responsibility, more powers, adequate funding and more confidence to sort out problems, or else it needs scrapping. As it stands, it serves no useful purpose; we cannot leave it as it is.

We heard a lot about the weather that led to such problems being unprecedented. I shall steal a phrase from the chief constable of Gloucestershire—I warned him that I would—who was the head of Gold Command. He said that if such weather happens again, it will not be unprecedented; we will have gone through it before, in July this year. I am glad to welcome to the Chamber the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who also suffered and worked hard during these difficulties. I thank him for offering to help me out when it was difficult for me to be in three or four places at once.

The weather might have been unprecedented this time, but if it happens again, it will not be unprecedented. It might have been a once-in-150-years event. We are told that the effects of climate change will be severe, so we cannot take the view that it will not happen for another 150 years. Heaven forbid, it could happen tomorrow, next week, next month or next year—perhaps it will not happen for another 150 years, but we simply cannot take the chance.

As we know, Tewkesbury is an area that will flood, but let us not make it worse than it needs to be. Let us do everything that we can to lessen and mitigate the damage of any future heavy rainfall. More than anything, people who have suffered, and are still suffering, want to see lessons learned. Please let us learn those lessons.

Order. Owing to an administrative error, a petition from the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was not called before the Adjournment was moved. In the light of the time available, I am prepared to call him to present his petition now.