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Flooding (West Oxfordshire)

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

I am well aware that these debates are predominantly introduced by Back Benchers, but there are times when a particular issue dominates a particular constituency. That is true of west Oxfordshire, my constituency and the floods of last July—not only the problems and clear-up that took place, but the fear that flooding could happen again. In fact, in villages such as Clanfield, Bampton and Kelmscott, it has already happened again. I went back there to see people and businesses that were affected by floods all over again in January. I must say to the Minister that every time that there is hard, big rainfall in west Oxfordshire, the fear starts all over again that rivers will burst their banks, that there will be flooding, and that businesses will be hit again. There is a large-scale concern about that.

What is more—the real reason for having this debate today—is that there is an element to the local concern that I do not believe is automatically covered by the general debates about flooding that we have in the House. I want to major on the concern about rural communities. In a nutshell, our concern is that because rural communities inevitably have fewer homes—even if there is wide-scale flooding, fewer homes are actually flooded—and a relatively sparse population, we will miss out on the help, the flood defences and the compensation.

I shall briefly set out what happened and some of the specific problems that the experience of my constituency highlights, and end by asking the Minister some questions. Clearly, what happened was exceptional. I say to all my constituents who suffered that everybody knows that some flooding was inevitable after rainfall on such a scale. People accept that. We saw the largest daily total of rainfall at Brize Norton in my constituency since 1968. Some 1,633 homes flooded internally and many more had flooded gardens or garages. People saw on their television screens clearly what happened in Witney, where the water came right over the bridge and up the high street, but they did not necessarily see what happened in some of the smaller communities such as Clanfield, Ascott-under-Wychwood, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Milton-under-Wychwood, Bablock Hythe, Asthall, Kelmscott and many others. When we look at the claims for flood grant, we see that about 55 villages were flooded, some incredibly severely. We are not talking about water up to knee level; in some cases it was 5 or 6 ft high in people’s houses. People were frightened that lives would be lost.

The floods had what the district council described in its report as a

“devastating impact on many businesses in West Oxfordshire”.

Some 265 business were flooded, some of which are only just reopening. Tourism was hit hard: major attractions such as the Cotswold wildlife park lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. We have to learn the lesson that when such things happen there is a danger of the whole of GB plc looking like it is shut. I hope that the Minister is looking at how to ensure, in the aftermath of flooding, that we advertise and promote British tourism strongly, which will ensure that people realise that the country is open again.

During the floods, some 150 residents were taken to rest centres and there were untold acts of bravery by rescue services, who performed magnificently, and by members of the public. I shall never forget seeing the biblical scenes of the scale of floods: cars and houses were completely overwhelmed, and in Bablock Hythe, for example, mobile homes floated away. The council distributed 40,000 sandbags and helped enormously with the emergency response and community support. That is the first lesson that I for one learned from the floods: when it came to working with local businesses, organising volunteers and deploying the local knowledge, West Oxfordshire district council, which is one of the smallest district councils in the country, did an extremely good job. I sometimes fear that some in Whitehall think that small district councils are part of the past. I can absolutely assure the Minister that on the evidence of its response to the floods, West Oxfordshire district council did an extremely good job. The fact that it is a small council actually helped, because it was in touch on the ground: it knew the networks and the volunteers and how to get the RAF to help. The council knew its area incredibly well.

The Minister will be reassured to know that some systems worked well. The bronze control was established at the district council office and the silver command at the police station in Abingdon. I visited the bronze control and I thought that the system worked extremely well.

On learning the lessons, no one is saying that the flooding was completely avoidable. Everyone accepts that such events will happen, and most people accept that, with climate change, they are likely to be more frequent. People understand that flash floods are particularly difficult to protect against, but people in my constituency want to know that everything that can be done will be done to reduce the impact of such floods in future. They are not satisfied that everything is being done. There is a general perception that everybody is talking a good game about flood defences and what we need to do for the future, but people fear that not much is actually happening.

Some of the specific problems are covered in Sir Michael Pitt’s first report, but others are not. Clearly, there is a need for better early-warning systems. The Minister should know that such systems really matter on the small rivers as well as the big rivers. Telemetry systems are needed. Both the Windrush and Evenlode rivers flooded progressively, going all the way down the river. There was no early-warning or telemetry system, and they could have made a difference. For example, people in Ascott-under-Wychwood were flooded to a depth of almost 5 ft, yet they had no warning from the Environment Agency or Met Office. Again, those people are not naïve: they know that that level of rainfall will cause a flood. However, as the district council concluded in its very good report on the floods,

“half an hour can make a significant difference to saving property and safeguarding homes and lives”.

That is why those early-warning systems on small rivers are needed.

It has also been suggested that we need a higher categorisation of risk that is issued only in exceptional circumstances, because experience shows that too many warnings are issued for low-grade risk, so people become complacent and fail to react. The Minister will be aware that there is a growing insurance problem as people come up to the time when they try to renew home insurance. For example, some with an OX28 postcode are being refused. What does the Minister propose to do about that?

In the time left, I should like to focus on two major points. The first concerns the work of the Environment Agency, and the second, as I said, is about the potential discrimination faced by rural communities when it comes to flood support. On the Environment Agency, when one talks to people who have been flooded, one question keeps coming up again and again: why has so little been done to clear out the ditches, dykes and culverts, and why is there so little dredging of rivers and streams compared with the past? I am not a scientist and I am happy to listen to the arguments, but I am not convinced that they are all old wives’ tales. There is truth in them, and such activities can make a difference.

That was really brought home to me at a meeting in Witney of a new body called the Witney flood action group. After repeated questioning, we got the agency to admit that the river had not been dredged for a long time and that the level of the river bed had risen as the silt was laid down. A number of people who have lived in the town for a long time can say when the last dredging and de-silting took place and how the river has changed. The agency must take that point seriously.

That brings me to my concern about the agency, which arises from dozens of meetings with home owners, farmers, councillors and those living in affected communities. My concern is partly political and partly operational. On the former, the agency gives too great a weight to animal habitat and not enough to human habitat. As the council’s report put it:

“Examples are the refusal or reluctance to remove fallen trees from drainage channels, refusal to allow removal of beds of ditches and rivers and a reluctance to consider improvements to existing systems. In many areas these conditions have been considered to have contributed significantly to the level of damage caused by the flooding by prolonging the flood and increasing the water levels”.

I echo absolutely everything that my right hon. Friend is saying, because we had extensive flooding in Vale of White Horse in south Oxfordshire. People in the vale say exactly what people in west Oxfordshire about the clearing of ditches and brooks. I propose—I think that the Environment Agency could do this—to provide a map showing who is responsible for what. That seems to be part of the problem. Some of the ditches and so on are on private land, so the agency says that it is not responsible. The map could say who is responsible, so that people could get on with the job themselves.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. There is uncertainty about that. On some occasions, the Environment Agency has been responsible for clearing; on others, it has not given permission for the necessary clearance. There are too many examples of people saying, “I cannot clear out this ditch, because I’ve been told that I would be disturbing important habitat.” Of course habitat is important, but in the end, we must try to protect households from flooding.

The operational part of my concern is that, even if the Environment Agency wanted to do more, it is not clear that it has the resources or the people to do it. A detailed report from Brize Norton parish council put it like this:

“Many areas of EA maintained rivers in West Oxfordshire have not received maintenance for years. The EA are now compiling another report. When this report is completed, will action follow? Or will it be the same story of a cash starved EA that there is insufficient funding to carry out the recommendations of the report?”

That sort of concern has been expressed again and again.

It is not just a matter of money; it is also a matter of co-ordination. One of the most fascinating things that I heard was that, when we finally pushed the Environment Agency to explain what it would cost to de-silt a section of the Windrush river in Witney, the agency said that it would cost £1 million. It turned out that 90 per cent. of that was the cost of dumping the silt in a landfill. It is crazy, when there is such a need for fertile soil, that that silt should have to go into a landfill. The Government say they want action, but the tax system is preventing it from happening. We need co-ordination.

There is a case for looking again, as I know the Government are, at how we co-ordinate responsibility for flood prevention. Although the Environment Agency does that at national level, it is less able to do so at local level. It might be more appropriate for district councils to co-ordinate, as they have the knowledge, the ability and the passion about their local areas to sort it out. I do not want to be unfair to the Environment Agency—it has been very helpful locally with meetings, it has worked closely with some of the groups set up and it has real expertise—but as we read in today’s report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is a critical shortage of field engineers that must be put right.

My biggest concern is the potential disadvantage at which rural communities are being placed. The current Environment Agency scheme for flood alleviation works involves a scoring system that makes it impossible for any rural community in west Oxfordshire to apply for help. Witney, the largest conurbation affected by floods, scores just nine points under the scheme, whereas the minimum threshold for qualifying is 21. To put it simply, we in west Oxfordshire were hit badly, but we are unable to bid for help under the scheme. Compared with large cities such as Hull, where thousands of houses were flooded, we will never be able to compete on a cost-benefit analysis basis.

That is my concern. The council is working hard and the Environment Agency is working hard. Everyone is working hard, having meetings with town and parish councils in the affected areas and coming up with ideas and proposals, but will any action be possible? We will come up with plans for bunds, balancing ponds and new flood barriers, but in the end, will money be available if we must compete with the big cities that were flooded? At the moment, it does not look as though it will. I plead with the Minister, not to give us all the answers—although I am sure that he has some of them—but to go away and think about how we can help the sparsely populated rural communities that were hit.

One solution might be to consider the severity rather than just the extent of the flooding, and to try to measure that differently. Another might be to hold back some funds for sparsely populated areas, because—at the danger of repetition—we will never come up with as many flooded houses in the whole 400 square miles of west Oxfordshire as some cities can. Could we aggregate the number of houses flooded in the whole district, aggregate some of the small schemes that have been proposed and apply that way? That is the most important question for the Minister, and I hope that he will consider it.

Farmers are another concern in rural areas. A number of farmers whose land has been flooded over and over again have come to see me. They are worried about water being left on the land for such long periods, which is bad for habitat. I am sure that the Minister will be able to bring us up to date on what he is doing to work with farmers on that problem.

I end with a few questions about funding streams. On the Bellwin scheme, it is obviously welcome that district and county councils have a system to get back some of the money that they have spent, but there have been problems with Bellwin. I shall mention two. One is that for small district councils, a threshold of £18,000 spent is quite high, especially if they must spend it twice, once in July and again in January. At the moment we are advised that they must cross the threshold twice. It would be fairer if they had to cross it only once. The other problem relates to the county council. The total cost for Oxfordshire of dealing with the floods was about £4.5 million, yet the repairs that qualified under Bellwin cost only £1.2 million and were therefore under the threshold, as some of the spending on things such as schools, roads and bridges does not count under Bellwin. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that, because we in west Oxfordshire are being hit twice: once by the cost to the district council and again by the cost to the county council.

I see that time is up. I am unused to making such speeches, as you know, Mr. Bayley, but I hope that the Minister can give us some answers about the work of the Environment Agency, how we might focus better on flood prevention and what work needs to be carried out locally. Above all, I hope that he can examine the issue of how to help small, sparsely populated rural communities. They have suffered badly; they have shown extraordinary courage and bravery in dealing with it; and they want to know that the Government are on their side.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in this debate, Mr. Bayley, not least because of your local knowledge due to the fact that your constituency adjoins that of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). Congratulations are due to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for securing this debate. It is one of the strengths of our parliamentary system that senior politicians have constituency interests and can raise them. My experience is that one can test policy best as a constituency MP rather than a Minister or shadow Minister.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done with the Environment Agency. He has chaired a number of local meetings with officials from the agency and the district and county councils in his area. I thank him for acknowledging on behalf of his constituents the severity of the rainfall that weekend last summer. It was an exceptional event, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement. He said that his constituents live in fear of repeat flooding, and I understand that.

I shall cut to the chase in the time available. As a Member of Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman wants answers for his constituents, so I shall try to give him some. On the crucial point about rural versus urban, it is true that during the past two decades there has been a deliberate shift in focus from the job of land drainage to the job of flood protection. That gives rise to the arguments heard by MPs—they are not old wives’ tales; they are often based in truth—that drains are not cleared as frequently as they used to be. That is because we focus on targeted flood prevention measures rather than simply land drainage. As he said, the two are of course interrelated, particularly where flood debris is carried into rivers. The central charge that there is a bias in favour of urban against rural is fuelled by that fact, but flood risk is the main criterion that we use among those that he listed.

The point-scoring that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned applies to new flood prevention schemes: physical schemes such as re-channelling rivers, improving the height of flood defences and so on. However, that does not mean that money is not spent nor action taken in constituencies such as his. For example, in his area, the major scheme to clear the silt between the Bridge street arches begins in the first week of June of this year, about which I think that he has been in correspondence with the EA.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out and the interim Pitt report highlighted, we need to co-ordinate the EA, as the strategic body, the resources, in some cases, of internal drainage boards—although I do not think that that is applicable in west Oxfordshire—and the district and county councils. A scheme is already under way for the removal of restrictions in the culvert of the Hailey road drain. We are examining whether we can create storage ponds at the top of the Hailey road drain, which has also been looked at by the agency. The district council is pursuing drainage improvements with the landowner—private landowners are part of the equation in many of these localised schemes—of the Aquarius development. Furthermore, the county council, with the EA acting on behalf of the Highways Agency, is clearing the Burwell meadow drain culvert beneath the A40. And there are a number of other schemes, details of which I can pass on to him after this debate. Although I understand where the accusation about the rural-urban divide comes from, in practice, the concentration on flood defence and targeted measures means that rural, or more sparsely populated, areas do not get overlooked. I give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of other specific questions, which I shall answer before giving the outline picture. He can read yesterday’s Hansard on our very good debate that covered many of the national policy points. I say that having noticed that the press bench is especially full today—I cannot imagine why that is! This is just one of many debates that we have had on localised flooding. However, he is absolutely right: we intend to publish maps, so that the public know about schemes in their areas and can get the information that they need.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the early warning system did not work last summer, as a result of two things: first, the sheer speed at which the events happened—there was no time to get the door-to-door information our there—and, secondly, frankly, because it was not expected. That last point is not a criticism. I have praised the district and county councils and the agency before, and, indeed, I visited the area in Oxford, further down the river basin, on that Sunday. None the less, flooding on that scale was not expected. We are putting in place the new telemetry systems in the Evenlode and Windrush to measure water flow in order to provide that early warning. I can give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the severity of floods should be a criterion. It is indeed a criterion. He mentioned insurance and the OX28 postcode, which I shall certainly look into, because our statement of principles agreed with the Association of British Insurers attempts to ensure that every household can get insurance. On the operational points, the fact that the silt incurred landfill tax, which amounted to £900,000 of the £1 million, is clearly unsatisfactory. Following the public meetings and representations received on that matter, we are examining alternative ways in which to dispose of the waste. It is foolish to put it in a landfill site, although I expect that the Exchequer would like the revenue and, no doubt, his constituents would benefit from the landfill tax credit scheme introduced by the then Prime Minister, John Major—and a jolly good scheme it is in Saddleworth, I can tell you!

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin scheme and West Oxford district council. I think that he is right. Owing to the local knowledge of the district council, it can target its work very effectively. It was a very wise decision not to go ahead with the unitary authority in his area, because then that would not have been possible. I do not remember which Minister took that decision, but my goodness it was a wise one! The problems with Bellwin beset any scheme with a threshold. We take some pride in the speed in which we got the money out their. I know that it was not fast enough for his constituents’ requirements, but it was very fast compared with comparable efforts. Of course, we were boosted by the £30 million from the European Union solidarity fund announced yesterday by the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey).

The Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Wentworth led the House to believe that we will get £110 million for the country to spend on flood recovery, for exactly the reasons that my right hon. Friend set out. How will the Government make up the shortfall? We have actually received less than a third back from that. I understand that that formed part of the budget, because the Government rightly assumed that they were getting it.

I am afraid that is not as simple as that. I am not trying to duck the question. I refer the hon. Lady to the written ministerial statement. For the purposes of this debate, I simply make the point that money has been made available in different forms through the Bellwin scheme and now through the solidarity scheme. West Oxfordshire district council received a total of £728,121—it always amazes me that we can be so accurate—which consisted of £663,500 from the flood recovery grant and £64,621 from the Bellwin scheme itself. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of future policy. As he knows, the interim report from Sir Michael Pitt has been accepted, and its key point is the strategic co-ordination with the Environment Agency in the various local authorities.

I thank the Minister for giving a detailed reply rather than a boilerplate reply. May I push him one more time on the cost-benefit analysis? He was right when he mentioned the schemes being considered in and around Witney to help with the flooding. However, the concern remains—I completely understand this—that when the crunch comes, and we measure up against thousands of houses and £1 million being spent elsewhere, smaller towns and villages will find it difficult to compete. Will he consider how we can ensure that the cost-benefit analysis can advantage—or at least not leave out—the rural communities?

I understand that point. Of course, we face a real policy dilemma, if not paradox. In part, the answer is geography. In order to protect downstream towns, one can provide flood storage areas in meadows and so on upstream. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is why our flood plans are not based on administrative district boundaries. The other part of the answer is that the risk of flooding is the main criterion. When one looks at surface-water flooding as well as river flooding, one will realise that the one in 20, one in 40 or one in 100 risk is weighed into the considerations, after which the other criteria then come into play.

I face a dilemma of how to balance the value of homes. The houses in one area might have significantly higher values—I always use Poole as an example, although it is probably unfair to stereotype it—than those in areas such as Leeds, for example. I do not want to stereotype Leeds either—if one looks, one can find an apartment in the centre of Leeds for £500,000. However, those criteria have to be balanced. I am keen to reassure hon. Members that that is well understood—that came up in yesterday’s debate as well. It is the land drainage as opposed to flood-risk prevention that gives rise to some of the concerns. My plans, which I have worked through with Pitt, are to smooth that out so that everybody, including the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, will know what the assessment of risk is, where it is and what the Government, the agencies and the councils are doing, and what they plan to do, about it. That is in the context of increased public expenditure—rising to £800 million in the third year of the comprehensive spending review. Is it enough? That is an open question.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the debate and for the way in which he has conducted himself. I hope that I have given him answers that he can pass on. If I have not, I am sure that the Oxford Gazette—

Of course, the Oxford Mail. How could I forget? It will put me right—I have the article in front of me.

4.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.