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Flooding (Gloucestershire)

Volume 470: debated on Monday 7 January 2008

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

I am pleased to have secured my second debate on flooding. I thank you for awarding it to me, Mr. Speaker, and I thank the Minister for remaining behind to reply to it. I know that he has been extremely active on the issue of flooding. I am also glad to see other hon. Members here, including my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper).

A number of people have asked me, “If you held a debate on this issue in October, why are you holding another one today?” The reason is quite simple: to keep the issue on the agenda. Two inquiries are under way, one by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and one by the Government. However, it is important to keep reminding people that there are many in Tewkesbury—I shall talk about Tewkesbury, but I know that other areas have been affected, too—who continue to suffer from the effects of the flooding, which happened some months ago. Although the emergency passed long ago, the problems remain.

One of the biggest remaining problems is the fact that many people—567, according to an estimate by Tewkesbury borough council—are still displaced from their homes. Many are living in caravans, and throughout Christmas many had to live in cold, cramped conditions on the drives of their homes. Some have been able to use the upper floors of their houses, but it has been a very uncomfortable time for them. While the rest of us may have enjoyed some comforts over Christmas, they have been suffering.

Many people whose homes were devastated are back in them now. It seems to depend on the speed at which loss adjusters and builders have worked. I do not mean to suggest that some builders have been working slowly, but families who know, live near or are related to builders have tended to get the work done much more quickly than those who made arrangements through insurance companies. I make no criticism of the companies concerned—it is just a very slow system—but when they have allocated builders, the process has taken some time. It has been a very uncomfortable period for many of my constituents, and it may be months before those displaced from their homes can return to them.

I pay tribute to those people. I visited as many as I could before Christmas, and their spirit was incredible. Virtually all those who were living in caravans and would be in them over Christmas took the time to wish me a happy Christmas, although their own season had been so disrupted. Old people, young people, people who were ill, people who were healthy, children—a very mixed bag—were concerned enough to wish me a happy Christmas. That says something about the people of Tewkesbury.

Thankfully, in my constituency far fewer people—about 41 families—were still in temporary accommodation over Christmas, but does my hon. Friend agree that the best Christmas present we could give all these people is to look carefully at the lessons from the inquiries that are conducted, in order to ensure that this is the last time a significant number of families are prevented from living at home over Christmas and that it never happens to anyone again?

My hon. Friend is right. The main thing that most of my constituents want is for lessons to be learnt. They accept that we live on a floodplain and that we often see water on the fields, but they do not accept that things need be quite as bad as they were. We must learn those lessons.

As people work towards returning to their homes, their great fear is that the floods could come again. In his report, to which I shall return in a moment, Sir Michael Pitt described the fear that existed at the time of the floods. Now there is a different fear: what if it happens again? I do not think we can assume that this was a one-in-150-years flood. We do not know whether it was or not. Heaven forbid, it could happen again next week or next year. In the House we often discuss the problems caused by climate change, but I think we should take account of the fact that the same amount of rain could fall again at any time. We hope that it will not, but we really do not know.

People are living in fear, and although I have tried to establish contact with as many of them as possible—I have placed advertisements in newspapers and written to people—it is difficult to reach everyone. Despite all the activity going on around them, people feel alone. One thing that worries them is insurance for the future. Many face increased premiums, some cannot obtain insurance cover at all, and some are being told by insurance companies “If you want flood cover, there will be a very large excess on your policy”. One lady told me—and I think this is fairly typical—that the insurance company had said there would be a £10,000 excess on her buildings insurance and a further £10,000 excess on insurance for furniture and other items. Effectively, that person has no insurance. If it floods again, it will cost her at least £20,000 out of her own pocket. We may be in a position perhaps to criticise people who were not insured last time, but what about now? People cannot get insurance. The Association of British Insurers said:

“We continue to decline a request for new cover for a property which has recently flooded unless the property has already been reinstated and where we are supplied with details of the flooding, what caused the flood, what the cost of the damage was and—


“what action has been taken to avoid any future event.”

Surely that is beyond the control of the householder. It is not the Minister’s fault either, but I would like to ask him if he has any idea of what can be done in this respect.

Another problem is that business is down, particularly in the town of Tewkesbury. It has been a bit depressed for a while—more than it ought to be—but businesses are struggling to come to terms with what has happened. There was a tremendous loss of trade at the time, but it has not picked up as we hoped it would. I would welcome any suggestions that the Minister may have, but I want to say publicly that Tewkesbury is open for business. It is working and still open. As I have said, it did not end up like New Orleans sadly ended up. I hope that people will continue to come to Tewkesbury.

One of the problems is identifying who is responsible for which ditch, which drain and which culvert. Is it the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, British Waterways, the county council, the borough councils or the riparian owner? It is very difficult. Once an organisation accepts responsibility, it then must put the job right, which, of course, costs money.

I wrote to the Minister on 15 November specifying projects that needed completion. I shall return to those in a moment, but on the issues of drains, ditches, sewers and culverts, we have had heavy rain in some parts of the country, which has brought the problems to light. I wonder what state the ditches and drains are in throughout the country. We simply do not know. I am pleased that Sir Michael Pitt’s report has highlighted that as an important issue.

We have a problem at Prestbury, where houses where people have lived without flooding for 40 years flooded in June. The culverts were not joined up and a tree fell on another culvert. The tree was listed and the owner did not want it to be felled, so the problems go on. The problem now is that, some months on, the Environment Agency is saying that it wants the whole cost to be reassessed. There will be a further delay in fixing the culverts in an area where 500 homes remain at risk.

There is a problem with the bridge at Bredon road, which was cut off during the floods, causing the town of Tewkesbury to be isolated. The bridge has been repaired, but at low cost. I do not think that it would withstand future flooding. Planning permission has been sought for a further 105 homes further up the road, close to the bridge. Those houses would connect to the main sewers, which might not have the capacity to cope. What are the planning requirements with regard to drains? Who is responsible for the ongoing maintenance? Again, Sir Michael Pitt’s report asks those questions.

In Uckington, gardens collapsed into the river Chelt and one person at least is still awaiting answers from the Environment Agency about what can be done to rectify matters.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we in Gloucestershire need prioritisation by the Environment Agency in looking at some of the issues that he has addressed and the two or three issues that I have asked the agency to look at? That is the very least that the Minister should take from the debate.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I would go further as I have before on a number of issues. The Environment Agency, as it is formulated, is not up to the job. It either needs more responsibilities and powers, and perhaps more money, or it deserves to be scrapped. I really do not think that it serves a useful purpose as it stands. I again appeal to the Minister that something be done about it.

We have also had a problem with maps. The flood risk maps did not correspond to the floods we actually had—and Sir Michael Pitt referred to the fact that flood risk maps for surface water did not exist at all. This raises a question: if the maps do not correspond to the actual flooding we are having, should they be used to determine where houses can be built? I want to return to that, although I realise that I do not have as much time in this debate as I had last year, so I shall have to hurry up a bit.

I want services to be protected. It is good that Mythe water treatment works and Walham substation are now protected by Hesco bastions, but they are semi-permanent, and permanent measures are definitely needed. Alternative networked supplies are also needed.

On money, if Tewkesbury borough council wanted, for example, to spend a little more on flood relief, would it be allowed to go over the capping limit? I do not know the answer to that, and I wonder whether the Minister might be able to help. I am pleased that the Government have secured about £100 million from the solidarity fund, but I would like to know how that money will be distributed and used.

Turning to Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report, I am meeting him on 23 January and I will raise some of the following issues with him, but it will be useful to run through them briefly now. The report raises a number of good points, particularly with regard to drains, ditches, sewers, surface water and agencies’ responsibilities. For example, he says that

“the automatic right to connect surface water drainage of new developments to the sewerage system should be removed”.

That is a useful suggestion.

Sir Michael acknowledges, however, that it is an interim report. He says that more information is needed, and in a bid to help in that process I wish to make a couple of comments. Some of the interim suggestions are a little general. There is a lot of talk about strategies, assessments and guidances, and I hope that they can be worked up into more direct proposals for action. I also think that there is too much emphasis on homeowners doing work to protect against floods, which has caused a little offence in Tewkesbury. Sir Michael suggests that instead of being set against the floor, plugs should be mounted higher up on walls. That is fine, but one cannot move cookers right to the ceiling; there are obviously certain limitations on what can be done.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggests that it would cost between £3,000 and £10,000 to protect each home. People do not have that sort of money to spend. On that point, I understand that the Environment Agency has just taken away the £20,000 donation it makes to the National Flood Forum, which is unfortunate. That group is a charity; it advises people on flooding—and it suggests steps that Sir Michael’s report also suggests.

There has been a little too much emphasis on what individuals can do. That is not the main point. There is not enough emphasis at present on what the Government’s role should be in preventing house building on or near floodplains. Sir Michael says:

“No new building should be allowed in flood risk areas that is not flood resilient”.

To say that such houses must be resilient rather misses the point. There used to be green fields that soaked up water. If they are built on, that water goes elsewhere and causes a problem. Sir Michael was quoted—I do not know how accurately—in the Gloucestershire Echo as saying that there is no point in recommending no building in these areas as the Government would not listen. That weakens the recommendation. That is far too weak, and it does not appear to be too impartial or too independent. The point about where houses are built is the one that people make most frequently. People strongly feel that we should not have more houses on floodplains or even in areas close to floodplains.

To summarise, my recommendations are clear and they are the same as those I made a few months ago. There should be no building on or near floodplains. We need to clear out the ditches and the drains. We need to repair sewers and culverts. We need to create one body that is powerful and that is responsible for all this work and for flood prevention and defences. We need to identify vulnerable people and buildings and to create a list of them, so that they can be helped first should such a situation arise again. We need to protect the water and electricity works and to network the supplies, and we of course need to improve the defences as far as possible.

As I said, Sir Michael’s report is an interim one and I hope that we can move it on to become an even stronger report. I hope, too, that the Government will take account of the recommendations in it and of the recommendations that those of us who have to live in these areas—who have the pleasure of living in these areas, but who have suffered recently—will make.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on securing this debate and on his determination, as he said tonight, to keep this matter on the agenda. He is absolutely right to do so, because although he is right to say that the flood waters have long gone in the areas affected by the summer floods, many of the households, businesses and communities that have experienced problems in trying to get back to normal still have not done so. As Minister responsible for co-ordinating Government support for the recovery efforts, one of my principal tasks is to make sure that we give local councils leading those recovery efforts and providing that support the help and back-up that they need.

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to make sure that the Government are aware of the continuing problems that people face and the continuing pressure that councils are dealing with through this recovery period. I pay tribute to him—he has done that consistently since July, as has the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who has now left the Chamber, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). They have been consistent not just in their participation in the tele-conferences that I and my colleague Ministers ran throughout the summer recess, but in their attendance of meetings held by Ministers. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, he had a similar debate in October. Essentially, such efforts have ensured that Ministers have information first hand, direct from Members of this House, about the pressures that people are under, the challenges that they face and the support that councils and communities are rightly looking for the Government to offer.

The hon. Gentleman said that in future we might need to be prepared for events such as those that occurred in the summer happening more often. During that summer, we were certainly faced with severe, prolonged and unprecedented levels of rainfall that in many areas simply overwhelmed the drainage systems, flood defences and rivers. That rainfall resulted in severe damage to many properties. We estimate that during the two episodes of flooding in June and July, some 48,000 homes were flooded. Not just the gardens, outhouses or garages were flooded; there was water in 48,000 properties. Of course, the June flooding was mainly in South Yorkshire and Humberside, although there were pockets of flooding in the hon. Gentleman’s county of Gloucestershire.

Let me give the House an indication of the scale and severity of that rainfall. On 20 July, when the rainfall occurred that caused the problems in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, Gloucester received in one day one and a half times the average rainfall for the whole of July. Upstream at Worcester on the River Severn and at Evesham on the River Avon, the equivalent of two months’ rain fell in just one day. In Gloucestershire, approximately 4,000 homes and more than 500 businesses were flooded. Many other households and businesses were of course affected by the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works, which meant that some 350,000 people in the county went without water for some time. I pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the emergency services and local councils in protecting Walham. As I saw for myself when I paid a visit on 24 July, we came very close, had that sub-station been knocked out, to seeing a power failure not just in Gloucestershire, but potentially in large parts of south Wales as well.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the strength of community spirit and the generosity shown in the way that neighbours were looking out for each other—they continue to do so—and I reinforce that point, because that has been my experience. On 24 July, when I first visited Tewkesbury, I went to the town centre and was met by Police Inspector Brian Murnaghan, who was overseeing the distribution of bottled water. Sports centre staff were helping to distribute the water, and people such as the constituent whom the hon. Gentleman nominated for the local heroes reception were making sure that their housebound elderly neighbours got the water that they needed. Inspector Murnaghan was finishing off a 10-hour duty overseeing that operation in Tewkesbury town centre, and in the course of our conversation he told me that his home had also been flooded out.

The mayor of Tewkesbury, Councillor Phil Awford, gave up a good deal of his time to show me around Tewkesbury. He is a renowned and rightly respected campaigner as part of the National Flood Forum, but he said to me on that day, “Truth be told, nothing could have protected us from the scale of the rainfall that we faced in Gloucestershire at that time.”

My aim as the Minister responsible for the flood recovery is to ensure that we co-ordinate and put in place the central Government effort to support the local recovery efforts. Along with fellow Ministers, I have tried to ensure that despite the fact that the flood waters have gone—the problems have not—constituencies such as those of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud are not forgotten. Indeed, 22 ministerial visits have been made to Gloucestershire since the summer, not least those made by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who has played a great part in that programme. It is important that Ministers make such visits and it is important that Ministers at the centre of Government understand the challenges that are still being faced.

I am glad that the funding so far to Gloucestershire stands at about £15 million—there will be more to come. The hon. Gentleman’s area, Tewkesbury, has benefited greatly and has made good use of the flood recovery grant that we were able to put in place. We await any Bellwin application that his authority may wish to make. I visited Tewkesbury just before Christmas, on 17 December, when I met the chief executive and other leading figures of the town council. May I tell the hon. Gentleman that what happens in the future and what happens with planning applications was a concern raised by local representatives? I gave an undertaking then, which has been followed up by officials in my Department, that Government office officials and planning experts will set up a meeting in Tewkesbury—they have already written to Major Wilson, the town clerk, to get that under way—so that representatives from the local community and the council can discuss directly the sort of points that he is concerned about for the long term.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the first successful application that the UK has made to the European solidarity fund. I had a meeting in Brussels with Commissioner Hubner on 31 October, and she has since persuaded the European Commission to agree to proposals that mean that we should receive additional aid to contribute to the costs of dealing with the flood recovery in Britain. We are working through the terms on which that money can be spent with the Commission, and I hope before long to be able to settle that matter. It will probably be some time before Easter when we finally receive that money—that is the sort of time scale and pace at which the Commission’s programme operates; nevertheless, that is an additional resource from the special fund set up to help countries such as our own, which have been hit by serious national events like these.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of those who are still not back in their home. One of the most distressing aspects of the flooding has been the impact on families and households. Based on the work of local authorities in Gloucestershire, we estimate that about 1,250 households are still not fully back in their homes. Around 250 of those are staying in caravan accommodation. When I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency on 17 December, I met Mrs. Julie Irwin. Her family, including three children, are able to sleep in their house, but are otherwise living in a caravan. The oven in the caravan is too small for the Christmas turkey, which is an example of the stresses, many of which are hidden, on such families, who are still struggling. I pay tribute to Mrs. Irwin for the way in which she has coped, and to her son, who suggested to Gloucestershire county council that children from families who are not back in their home should be entitled to free school meals. The council has now put that suggestion into practice.

That visit was one of the reasons why I was pleased to be able to announce just before Christmas that I would make available an extra £1 million to the small number of authorities that have a large number of households that are still not back in their own home. We are consulting with local authorities about how to distribute those funds, and I hope to make an announcement shortly. That decision followed an important meeting that I had with the local authorities and the insurers, in which the authorities undertook to improve communications with those households not back in their own home and to assess the needs of those living in caravans better to understand the pressures of the onset of winter. For my part, I undertook to step up the advice available from the Government to deal with homelessness problems, and I have now made the extra money available.

On the question of the insurers, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was in his place on the Front Bench when the hon. Gentleman made the point about the lady from his constituency who faced prohibitive premiums. We would be interested in the details because we are keen to hold the ABI to the reassurances that it has given that no areas have been blacklisted for insurance, that existing cover has not been withdrawn in any area, and that there is no evidence of policy renewals being refused.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need to learn lessons. The first report by the Pitt review was important and we have accepted the 15 urgent recommendations. There will be consultation on those and others over the next three months. It is clear that we need to improve Government emergency procedures; to improve surface water management; and to review the role of fire and rescue services during floods. We will do that.

The local reviews, such as those led by—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.