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Flooding (Gloucestershire)

Volume 464: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

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

Thank you for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be very brief. As I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) has covered a number of the matters that I shall raise, I beg your forgiveness if I am repetitive. I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate; I was serving on a Public Bill Committee.

Given that a number of my constituents were affected by the flooding, I want to record my thanks to all the emergency services, and the armed forces, for the tremendous work that they did. I know my hon. Friend agrees that although the loss of life was tragic for the families and individuals directly concerned, we have the emergency services to thank for the fact that it was not very much greater. The way in which our emergency services in Gloucestershire, with Gold Command based at the tri-service centre, worked so closely together demonstrated the success of that model, and I hope that the lessons learned inquiry will make recommendations to the Government that will make them think again about the attempt to regionalise fire control.

Those of us whose constituencies were affected by the flooding welcomed the fact that Ministers were responsive throughout the recess and kept Members properly informed. We were able to question them on what was going on, which gave us a valuable opportunity to raise issues and secure action on a number of matters that affected us locally. I also thank Ministers for the £10 million that they have given Gloucestershire county council to help with the repair of roads that were damaged across the county—but having thanked the Minister for the down-payment, I should remind him that another £17 million is needed for further repairs. I know that his colleagues in the Department for Transport are working with officials from the county council to settle the details, and I hope that the money will be forthcoming.

I want to make two more points. The first concerns council tax. I am aware that the Department has provided money for a number of the authorities concerned. Tewkesbury borough council, part of which covers my constituency, has used the money very quickly. Much of it has been used directly to help constituents and to defray some of the cost. The Minister might consider encouraging the Valuation Office Agency to be as flexible as possible where constituents have suffered property damage.

A case in my constituency is being examined, and I hope that the right decision will be made. My constituents have been unable to live in their main residence, but because they are occupying a caravan on the site they are having to pay the full council tax on the property. That is clearly not appropriate. To be fair to the Minister, I should add that the Valuation Office Agency is considering the case. I hope that it will be able to observe the state of the property, and will charge the appropriate council tax for occupation of the caravan. I know that Ministers have been flexible when such issues have arisen in the past, and I hope that they will be so in this instance.

I raise my second point not necessarily in expectation of action in a specific case, but in the hope that Ministers may, as part of their response to the lessons learned inquiry, consider the rules governing utility companies and loss of water supply. In Gloucestershire a number of residents across the county were without mains water for a significant period. Because of the exceptional nature of the event, it has been decided that the compensation scheme, which would normally require Severn Trent Water to compensate both domestic and business users for the loss of their supply, will not take effect. Severn Trent Water has made a payment to local authorities in lieu of that, but it will not surprise the Minister to find out that that amount is significantly less than what would have been due under the scheme. It may be worth looking at whether it is appropriate that the compensation scheme does not operate in a case where a significant number of consumers have been affected.

To add insult to injury, Severn Trent Water is not even considering not charging them for water supply during the period for which they were without water. Constituents will have to pay their full annual bill. For a significant period, they were greatly inconvenienced. They would welcome the Government looking again at that matter.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise those issues and to put those concerns on the record. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says in reply.

It is extremely appropriate that we have this Adjournment debate in the first week of the return of Parliament. The last Adjournment debate before the summer recess was on flooding. I was grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to reply to that debate. I want to put a few, I hope, serious points on the record.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and I want to thank him, because my experience throughout the summer, during the many meetings, telephone conference calls and visits, and in reading letters and other correspondence, was that he acted with due diligence on behalf of his constituents. He criticised the Government or the authorities when it was helpful to his constituents and not when it was only helpful to him. He asked for what we could give him but did not ask for things that we could not give him. He behaved as an entirely responsible Member. If I were his constituent, I would be very proud of him. I would not say that I would vote for him, because that would bring party politics into it, but the serious point is that I would like to put that on the record. It says in Dod’s Parliamentary Companion that the hon. Gentleman has run six marathons. He must be a Lancastrian to have such stamina. I seriously congratulate him on the role that he played.

I said in the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall that, if ever there was proof of the case for single Member constituency Members of Parliament, it was the flooding events recently. Members of Parliament for constituencies across the political spectrum throughout our country were able to solve problems on behalf of their constituents. I hope that Ministers were able to play their part, too.

The Minister for Local Government was appointed as the Minister with responsibility for flood recovery in circumstances that would have made the late Lord Howell proud. He has done a sterling job. He has ensured that the flood recovery effort has carried on. Indeed, I think that we have had seven ministerial meetings, the latest of which was yesterday. Officials and Ministers from across the Whitehall Departments met, long after the national media, although not the local media, had lost interest. I thank also the flood recovery officials group, or FROG—a horrible acronym. It has been working very hard throughout the period; it is still working hard now.

I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). May I, perhaps unusually, answer his points first, because that will form the unscripted bit of my reply? I hope that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), the Whip, will allow me to do that, because we have a bit more time than we would otherwise have had.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean makes the point about Gold Command, and he is right. Built into the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 is the philosophy of lessons learned. Part of the approach of the professionals is always to ask for criticism, in order that they can learn from individual circumstances. It has been the endeavour of the Government that support for the civil contingencies procedure should be all-party, which is why we involve Opposition spokespersons in the briefings and so on. It does not work without public resilience and therefore requires an all-party approach.

The Gold Command structure is, on the whole, working. The experience from the floods in June and July was that we were a lot better off with that structure than we would have been without it. That is not to say that we cannot learn lessons, as the hon. Member for Forest of Dean says. I hope that we will be able to persuade him of the virtue of the regional fire control centres. As he knows, 999 is regional already and the idea of the regional centres is to make improvements. The co-ordination of kit and equipment—in this instance, in the floods and at other incidents such as Buncefield—has been made better by the regional control centres. I hope that he will be persuaded over the months of the benefits of that.

The hon. Gentleman was gracious enough to thank Ministers for their involvement, and I thank him for that. On the question of money, he again graciously acknowledged the allocation so far. The Minister for Local Government has been incredibly diligent in his approach and is leading the UK request to the EU solidarity fund. We also have the Bellwin scheme—created, I think, by Lord Bellwin. He is the only Minister to have anything complimentary named after him.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the Valuation Office Agency. That matter came up in one of the conferences with MPs and I shall take it up. If someone is living in a caravan in their own grounds and being charged when they would not be if they were living in a caravan not on their own grounds, that suggests that the hon. Gentleman—I am anxious not to make commitments that I cannot fulfil—has a point. The loss of water supply—we discussed that yesterday—is an ongoing issue.

The Minister for Local Government, the Secretary of State and other Ministers including myself visited many areas across the country during the unprecedented flooding and saw for ourselves how destructive, distressing and, on many occasions, frightening the flooding has been. The debate gives me the opportunity to echo the words of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean in praising the magnificent response of those affected. No civil resilience planning works without public resilience, which means that having confidence in the authorities is essential.

There are many stories and they will be documented over the years, but I want to put our appreciation on the record. I include in that the utility companies, which have been criticised but whose individual employees went the extra mile, as has been acknowledged. We know that the recovery from the impact of flooding is long and arduous and continues long after the media news reports have finished. I would like to thank BBC local radio—I know that the Secretary of State has done so on record with the BBC—as well as commercial radio, which played an important role. Their compilation of reports was hugely important in giving information, not just in reporting news.

The good news is that the comprehensive funding package of up to £57 million to assist flood-affected regions and to help those in greatest need, including funding for schools, transport and businesses, has been put in place. Over £2.5 million of flood recovery money has been provided to Gloucestershire and we have given local authorities the flexibility to decide what to do with that money based on local circumstances. That is almost as important as the amount of money given.

In addition, Gloucestershire will be given at least £10 million for highways works and more than £1 million for schools and children’s services affected by the floods. The South West of England Regional Development Agency also has a business recovery scheme. Grants of up to £2,500 are available to small and medium-sized enterprises, and, to date, almost £1m in grants has been allocated to businesses. The generosity of the public and businesses must also be acknowledged; I understand that they have so far donated almost £800,000 to the Gloucestershire flood relief fund, which will help those who have suffered hardship as a result of flooding.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is leading a co-ordinated effort across Government to ensure that we do as much as we can to assist those in the flooded areas. Our message is that they are not forgotten. A meeting yesterday to look in detail at the problems was attended by officials of more than 25 Departments and agencies, and we continue that work.

Let me repeat the point about the exceptional weather. Rainfall in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was the highest since records began in 1766. The flood warning I received in my ministerial box the evening before warned of severe floods in central and southern England, but it is simply not possible to give warnings of conditions of the severity that his constituency suffered—which created dangerous circumstances and, tragically, resulted in loss of life.

Measures are required to respond to and manage sudden increases in water flow: putting in place defences and better drainage; warning of flooding before it happens so people can prepare; and reacting quickly and effectively when it does occur, as it inevitably will from time to time, and our water management infrastructure is overwhelmed beyond its design capacity. We must also have procedures in place to minimise distress, to avoid injury and loss of life, to provide immediate rescue services and help for those whose homes have been made uninhabitable, and to maintain essential services. We witnessed in Gloucestershire the enormous effort people made to operate those procedures successfully.

In the longer term, we must look at how we can avoid making the problem worse, especially given the impact climate change will have in terms of rainfall levels and increasing the frequency and intensity of downpours. It is not possible to say that there was a direct causal link between climate change and the events in July in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but it is highly likely that there was a connection, and the case for climate change is proven—as, incidentally, the judge in the recent Al Gore film case recognised.

Physical defences will continue to be the most important mechanism that we have for protecting lives and property from the risks of flooding and erosion, but we recognise that building bigger and ever higher is not sustainable. Our cross-Government “Making Space for Water” strategy development programme is looking not only at how we optimise flood management spend, but at other ways in which we can take an in-the-round and sustainable approach to the management of risk from all forms of flooding—from rivers, the sea, groundwater, surface run-off and sewers. We are looking at, and delivering, a broad range of management measures.

We are aiming to improve management of the risk nationally by giving the Environment Agency a strategic overview of all forms of flooding in close partnership with local authorities, the water companies and other bodies. The hon. Gentleman made a point about co-ordination. The point is to have co-ordination, rather than the idea—I am not saying that he suggested this—that we give all control and ownership of the problem to one authority. We think better co-ordination is needed.

We shall look at the review that is being carried out by Sir Michael Pitt. Although I was not involved in his appointment, I could not have chosen a better person to carry out that review for us, and I am sure that co-ordination is one of the things that he is examining.

I thank the Minister for his generous remarks earlier, which are very much appreciated. On the investigation being carried out by Sir Michael Pitt, will he be able to meet all Gloucestershire Members of Parliament, individually if necessary? The Minister will be aware of the difficulties of getting six Members of Parliament together when it also suits Sir Michael’s diary. He is visiting Gloucestershire next week, when a number of us will not be available to meet him, and it is important that we have a chance to talk to him about the situation.

If Sir Michael cannot do so, I will listen to the individual Members of Parliament. I will raise this matter with him, and I know that he will be diligent.

The fact that Members of Parliament raised issues with Ministers, whether we are talking about my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and the Trent basin or the hon. Gentleman and the Severn basin and elsewhere in the country, benefited constituents. Not only were Members able to bring issues of huge importance straight to Ministers’ attention, but, more importantly, the team of officials—through the Gold Command structure immediately and through the recovery effort latterly—was able to hear the articulation of people’s frustrations on a range of issues directly from the areas. I was proud of our parliamentary system when that kicked in and did so in a completely non-partisan way.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that I shall urge that the approach he spoke of will be taken. If it is not, and probably in any case, we shall want to act at parliamentary level.

We have increased the funding significantly in recent years. I hope that hon. Members welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement that funding for flood defences will increase to £800 million in 2010-11. We are also working with the Environment Agency to develop a long-term investment strategy, to build on the one that we already have, for river and coastal flood-risk management, looking ahead over the next 20 years to deliver those objectives.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about insurance. I was disappointed to read the comments of the Association of British Insurers earlier in the week. The amount of money spent on flood defences is never enough—I say that openly, although I know that I will be misquoted in certain parts of the media. How does one know how much to spend? One takes a risk assessment, just as insurance companies do. The Government have increased significantly the amount of money that they are spending, but, as the Environment Agency is the first to point out, the lead-in times on projects can be significant. The projects cannot be turned on and off, like water—I hope that you will pardon the pun, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We think that our work with the ABI is constructive, and I know that it reciprocates that view. I assure hon. Members that we have found from our meetings that our shared commitment to the statement of principles that we have with it is secure. There has been no reason to think that insurance will not be available and that the statement of principles will be breached. My understanding is that insurers will use their best efforts to provide flood cover, and will work with customers who take measures to allow insurance to continue, even where they may not be covered by the statement of principles. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that they will be able to carry on getting insurance, and that we are committed to that statement of principles.

I have used more time than I would normally be allowed, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I have not used this debate to make a comprehensive statement of the Government’s policy on flood defences; I would take more than the time that I could use, were I to do so.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the critical infrastructure. Clearly, we have to re-examine the defences against flooding. In critical infrastructure we need to include not just the utilities, but some infrastructure that may not be obvious, such as communications infrastructure. I look to Sir Michael’s report on that point. The hon. Gentleman did not suggest that the matter was simple, but let me say that it is not as simple as putting a barrier around a sub-station. As all of us who witnessed the floods know, drainage and the drain system are critical. Often the most dangerous aspect of flooding is the impact that is has on drains. While pumping out from the drains, one is also trying to stop the water coming in. That is true of critical infrastructure. It was the case at Walham. Water treatment works are often, by definition, at the most vulnerable points in the river basin. That is why they are where they are. The hon. Gentleman knows the geography of the Severn basin better than I do, but simply looking at a map shows why it is where it is.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about bowsers and the co-ordination between utility companies. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we have provision there, should it be needed—may goodness forbid it. From the information that I have, I am confident that that worked well, but it could always go horribly wrong. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take part in the review that Sir Michael is undertaking, which I know will be approached consistently.

Through the opportunity of this Adjournment debate, I wish to reassure the hon. Gentleman‘s constituents that the Government and their agencies have not taken their eye off the ball, but are aware that the problems are ongoing. That is as true in east Yorkshire, south Yorkshire and the east midlands as in his region. We hope that we can continue to work constructively to alleviate the devastation that his constituents suffered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Five o’clock.