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Flooding (Northumberland)

Volume 481: debated on Monday 20 October 2008

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

I am glad to have the opportunity to mention the very serious floods that Northumberland experienced on the weekend of 5 September. They were devastating and went well beyond the experience and expectation of the communities involved. Hundreds of people will not be able to resume living in their homes for months, in some cases for a year or more.

Many local businesses were directly and severely hit, and the whole nation saw on television how appalling the situation was in the historic town of Morpeth, which is the local market town for a significant part of my constituency. Its MP, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), is in his place, and he has secured a debate on Thursday on the situation in Morpeth. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is also present, and Ponteland, in his constituency, was affected.

Although I shall refer to the devastation that I saw for myself in Morpeth, I wish to draw attention to the fact that, although the numbers involved were smaller, the devastation was severe in a number of smaller communities. Worst hit was Rothbury, where more than 50 properties were flooded, many up to above window height and 6 ft or 7 ft up the wall in many cases. That happened in pensioners’ single-storey cottages. Access to the village was cut off by the floods, so the rescue efforts and counter-measures depended entirely on the small number of council and emergency service workers based in the village and the huge effort of voluntary organisations, volunteers and good neighbours.

Throughout the flooded areas, there were thankfully no lives lost and no serious injuries, and a great debt of gratitude is owed by all of us to the professionals, volunteers and neighbours who worked unceasingly throughout the weekend. The good neighbours included hotel proprietors such as those at Clennel Hall near Alwinton and the Percy Arms at Chatton, who took in and fed flooded caravanners and stranded motorists, despite the fact that their own staff could not get into work.

Other places where houses and businesses were flooded included Powburn, Warkworth, Belford, Kirknewton, Felton and a large area of the Till valley near Wooler, where rural businesses were completely deluged, crops destroyed and more than 800 sheep and other animals drowned. In the Ingram valley, the only road was washed away and homes were severely at risk. At Amble, there was very serious damage to the harbour wall, and equipment for the fishing industry was destroyed. Many places had severe flooding, from which properties only narrowly escaped with the aid of sandbags. No one could remember anything like it, even those who could remember the 1948 floods.

In dealing with the situation, I want agencies and Ministers—I am glad that the Minister for the North East of England is in his place—to consider four things: flood warnings, flood defences, future emergency planning and Government help for the recovery effort.

There were clearly failings in the Environment Agency’s warning system. A specific failing affected householders in one part of Morpeth town centre, who did not get the warnings that were issued elsewhere. At Rothbury, the warning system failed, apparently because the gauge was on the Usway burn and it did not rise rapidly owing to the rain falling on a surprisingly narrow section of the Upper Coquet catchment. A man in Warkworth who rang the Environment Agency because of floodwater rising in his house was told that there was no warning in place for his area.

All those defects in the warning system can and should be remedied urgently, and that will not involve huge expense or difficulty. Warnings would not have prevented the floods, but they would have assisted the rescue operations and enabled some people to move particularly treasured possessions to safety. Alnwick district council would have moved vehicles from its yard at Rothbury—they were wrecked.

Much more challenging, and more expensive, is the need to tackle flood defences. Some of that work is already planned—for example, to reduce the flood risk at Morpeth. Bringing such work forward for earlier completion is doubly sensible, because it is just the kind of available investment project that the Chancellor apparently recognises we need in a recession. The Environment Agency must engage with people in the Rothbury and Coquetdale areas to discuss how the flood risk can be reduced.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He rightly points out that a number of communities in Northumberland were affected by severe flooding, one of which was the village of Hepscot, just outside Morpeth. It was not affected to the same extent as Morpeth, but one of the main reasons it flooded was that the drains were overwhelmed. Does he agree that although simple maintenance—the cleaning of drains, and their upgrading, where necessary—would perhaps not have prevented the worst damage, it would have alleviated many of the problems that were faced?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, to which I shall return in a moment. Drain and culvert maintenance is very important.

I was discussing what the Environment Agency must do in a number of areas. In the Rothbury and Coquetdale areas, I want it to engage with local people to discuss how to reduce the flood risk. Work being done on the Coplish burn will not, by itself, be enough and, because of access difficulties, even that is not certain to be completed. There needs to be a public meeting at which the agency must explain and discuss the options that could be pursued, by extending the floodplain in upstream areas, for example. Local councillor, Stephen Bridgett, and I feel that such a discussion with local people is urgently needed.

The Environment Agency needs to be similarly open with the people of the Ingram valley. I share their anger that action that could have reduced the damage and the risk has previously been resisted by the agency on the grounds that the river would not pose the very dangers that we faced in September. The agency sent me a letter in October 2005, when I took up a demand for some work to be done, in which it stated:

“We refused consent for the works…on the grounds that the works would cause too much environmental damage. We have monitored the situation over the last 2 years and see no indication of rapid erosion, in fact the section of river appears to be naturally stabilising.”

That very section of river went from being 50 m from property to just a few feet away during the floods, so, in refusing consent for works, the agency had wrongly anticipated the situation. The agency has to take account of all sorts of issues, which results in local residents feeling that the interests of fish are taking priority over the homes and livelihoods of those who live and work in the valley.

Not far away, in Powburn, where there has been serious flooding, there is a belief that the massive landslip, which has closed the A697, prevented the flooding of the village from being even worse. When the road has been rebuilt—that cannot happen soon enough for the people in Glanton, because all the diverted traffic goes through it—it will need to incorporate some method of retaining floodwater in the dene, located between the road and the railway track, so that water does not overwhelm the village. The situation is curious, because people in the village, who are cut off from the south by a landslide, say, “Thank goodness for the landslide—it could have been even worse but for that.” We need carefully to examine alternative measures once the road is reinstated.

In the Till valley, older flood defences have been pierced to protect homes, which seemed to work, but agriculture and local businesses, such as the Fenton centre, paid a high price. Tourist businesses such as the Heatherslaw railway and the café were hit hard. The flooding of one group of recently built properties at Canno Mill, Kirknewton, was no surprise. The Environment Agency had objected to planning permission in 2004 because the development was on a floodplain. That is a clear warning for the future. The future flood strategy for the Till and its tributaries needs wide public discussion.

One vital but neglected part of flood defences in many areas—and here I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck—is the clearing of burns and culverts of obstructions that cause floodwater to build up quickly. That was highly relevant in Belford and Netherton, and the hon. Gentleman points out that it was also relevant in Hepscot. It is a local council responsibility, not the Environment Agency’s, and its importance should be more fully recognised. It is an especially challenging task in large rural authorities and it needs to be recognised in the funding formula. We have long-standing arguments about the funding formula as it affects Northumberland and the particular rural challenges that the county faces.

I turn now to the help that communities need. There has been some good, practical help from a wide range of authorities and agencies, both to householders and, in some cases, to business. DEFRA and the Environment Agency were proving very difficult over the disposal of the large number of animal carcases, refusing permission for local burial. However, One NorthEast stepped in to fund an emergency fallen stock disposal scheme, and farmers were grateful for that, but they still face huge drying costs and uninsurable crop losses.

The Government have the Bellwin system in place to fund local authorities up to 85 per cent. of non-insurance covered costs. For small authorities such as Castle Morpeth and Alnwick, there is a particularly strong case for the 100 per cent. help that some authorities received last year, and Northumberland, where its new administration has inherited a very difficult financial situation, faces a severe challenge that merits similar help.

Warkworth harbour at Amble is a small tourist port, serving the fishing industry and the leisure boating community. The harbour is very popular with anglers, visitors and local people who like to walk on the harbour wall. The floods had a destructive impact on the harbour. The river bed was scoured out by the volume of water and that also led to the washing away of the infill material behind the harbour wall. There is one section where the piles for the wall do not reach down to the rock, and in that section the wall has slipped down, tearing holes in the popular walkway along the top.

The situation has been exacerbated by the discovery that the damage is not covered by the insurance for the harbour. Costs of several thousands of pounds have already been incurred on emergency stabilisation works, and engineers are deciding what needs to be done as the next step. There are some funds for the works in the dredging reserves, but there will be a need for grant funding from DEFRA and other bodies that usually help to finance dredging operations. It is not clear how that money will be accessed or whether it can be obtained. Harbour income is very small. In the old days, it was a busy coal port, but that has long since ceased. The infrastructure of the harbour remains vital for the fishing community, the leisure boating businesses and the flood protection of the town of Amble.

I ask the Minister to give urgent consideration to that problem and the others that I have raised. She may be able to give me some answers tonight, as I gave her notice of the points that I intended to make. However, other issues—such as the Amble harbour situation—will require discussion with other parts of the Department. I look forward to hearing from her once she has had those discussions. I stress again the devastating impact of the floods in Northumberland and how important it is that we have help in putting the county back on its feet.

In the light of the recent flooding events in England at the beginning of September, I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) for giving me this opportunity to speak on a really important aspect of my new responsibilities so soon after taking up my new post and so quickly after the incidents to which he referred. I also note the attendance of several other right hon. and hon. Members with similar interests.

I should first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) for the interest that he took in such issues and the hard work that he put into the task. I know that he took a close interest in the outcome of flooding incidents around the country during his period in office.

Between Friday 5 and Sunday 7 September, heavy rain and flooding affected most of England and, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has described, the most serious consequences were felt in the north-east of England, my home region, including Rothbury in his constituency, a place that I know. Morpeth and Ponteland, also in Northumberland, were also hard hit. The severe rainfall that caused the flooding was first identified as a potential threat a number of days before the event, as a substantial low pressure system was identified tracking towards Europe from the Atlantic. By Wednesday 3 September, the Environment Agency and Met Office began detailed modelling accurately to track the low pressure system and to predict potential rainfall amounts. By Thursday the Environment Agency alert status was raised to “heightened” and the regional Government offices and local resilience forums were contacted by DEFRA and advised to begin preparations in case of serious flooding.

The right hon. Gentleman complained that the flood warning for Rothbury was not issued by the Environment Agency during the events of 6 September, and I acknowledge that the system did not work. I understand that that was due to limitations in its infrastructure network in terms of river level gauging. Clearly, lessons will need to be learned; they always do when an incident of such seriousness and of such a nature occurs. The agency is aware of the issue and is looking to improve the flood warning service for Rothbury.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate. Does the Minister share my concerns that although we are all trying to encourage the Environment Agency to push up registration for flood warnings, when such an incident happens it puts people off signing up to registration? If the Government could do something in that regard, it would be vital.

I acknowledge that flood warnings save lives. I understand that more than 70,000 more people have registered with the Environment Agency flood warning system. I do not entirely accept that such an incident puts people off registering. The agency is improving its advice to the public. It is running flood awareness campaigns and is working with the Met Office to improve the quality of flood warnings.

Flood warnings were issued in Morpeth. Let me say a little more about the events in Northumberland. Heavy rainfall early warnings were issued for the north-east of England and flash flood warnings were sent out across many further parts of the country on the Friday. Through the early warning system and the new and improved working arrangement between the Environment Agency and Met Office, warnings were issued to alert local authorities and the emergency services, and preparations were made to prepare vulnerable people and vulnerable areas.

The rainfall that occurred in the north-east was very heavy. Advice from the Environment Agency is that the flooding that occurred was estimated as a one in 60-year event. At the time, and since, a lot of attention was rightly focused on Morpeth, where the first flood watch alert was issued at 3.30 on the Saturday morning, with warnings escalating throughout the day. The first area to flood in Morpeth was the undefended High Stanners area at about 11 o’clock on the Saturday morning. River levels continued to rise and further severe warnings were issued for other parts of the town, with flooding from the river starting between 3 o’clock in the afternoon and 4.45 at various locations. There was also flooding from the River Wansbeck, which received 94 mm of rainfall between the Friday and Saturday. A number of areas of the town were affected by surface water, which affected many properties and contributed to flood defences being overtopped.

In Morpeth, approximately 1,000 homes and businesses were affected by the flooding and about 250 families were looked after in rescue centres and temporary accommodation. Rothbury, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, was completely cut off, as he described. In Ponteland, the River Pont burst its banks. Critical infrastructure was affected in the area, and four electricity substations were switched off. The ambulance station was flooded and all roads into Morpeth were impassable. The events were very serious indeed and when one is not affected by such events one can have nothing but sympathy for the families whose homes and businesses are affected.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to write to him about the damage to the harbour. I was not sure precisely what the damage was until I had heard his comments, but I am happy to respond in writing. In a moment, I shall say a little about the animal carcases to which he referred.

Flooding of homes and businesses is always devastating, but such events will take place from time to time, despite the substantial increase in flood defence spending that the Government are putting into effect. We must be ready to react at national, regional and local levels. The House may not be aware of the following schemes providing effective flood defence in other communities in the recent September floods. Such works enabled damage to be averted at 21,000 homes on the River Taff, thousands of homes on the River Wye in Hereford and the River Rhonda at Ferndale, 2,100 homes on the River Birket in the Wirral, and hundreds of homes in Warrington, Manchester, Bangor-on-Dee, Yorkshire and on the River Tees at Yarm, as well as 600 homes in York.

It is fair to say that the work done by the Environment Agency saved many houses in Ponteland from being flooded as they were a few years ago. In fact, because of the work of the Environment Agency, only about a dozen were flooded. That is positive.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. None the less, when there is such an event and the defences are not adequate, the impact on families and businesses is devastating. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth told me of his satisfaction at the success of the multi-agency approach co-ordinated by the Gold Command set up in Northumberland in September. Those involved showed what can be accomplished through strong partnership work. The successful evacuation of Morpeth is an example: it started at noon in the High Stanners area and full evacuation was under way by 4 o’clock, led by the local authority and supported by the emergency services and the Environment Agency. Approximately 180 fire and rescue personnel were used on Saturday, with all 22 appliances in Northumberland being utilised. Mutual aid assistance was given by neighbouring fire and rescue services, and the operation was supported by Northumberland Mountain Rescue, Northumbria Police Marine Rescue and the RSPCA. Fire and rescue people-carriers, as well as minibuses, were used to transport evacuated residents to rest centres, helping approximately 300 members of the public to reach safe accommodation at the height of the evacuation. By the morning of Sunday 7 September, the floodwaters had, thankfully, almost completely receded and roads were reopened. I commend the residents in the affected areas for how quickly they bounced back. Incredibly, much of the centre of Morpeth was open for business before Sunday lunchtime and the recovery operation was well under way.

Following any flooding event, the hard work really begins on the long road to recovery. In Northumberland, the local recovery and support operation will continue for some months yet. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is right to point out that a number of families will suffer for many months, perhaps from the loss of their home or from damage to their business.

I express my deep gratitude to all involved for the way they have pulled together in the face of such adversity. Recovery and restoration groups in Castle Morpeth and Alnwick are offering guidance and support to local residents, while representatives of the councils, the fire and rescue service and the police have visited local residents to discuss the support available.

The National Flood Forum is advising the recovery and restoration groups on the issues that they are likely to face as the recovery effort continues. One NorthEast, the regional development agency, has made £500,000 available to help affected businesses with immediate costs, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has confirmed that the Bellwin scheme has been activated to cover the immediate local authority costs of responding to the floods. I hear what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed says about whether the figure should be 85 or 100 per cent. Those matters will, no doubt, be considered. Applications for Bellwin assistance are being prepared by Northumberland county council and Castle Morpeth borough council.

I should like to express my gratitude for the actions of many third sector organisations following the flooding: they once again showed that our communities can really pull together at difficult times. Voluntary agencies have worked with supermarkets to provide food, goods and cleaning materials, and residents have provided donations in the form of furniture and household items. Community groups continue to provide drop-in centres to give affected families a break from the clean-up operation.

A distressing issue that can arise from flooding is the impact on wildlife and livestock. Many local people will have seen coverage of the issue in the press, and the right hon. Gentleman raised the subject. Unfortunately, it was reported that about 800 sheep were lost during the floods. Left unchecked, the existence of so many dead animals would have posed a risk to public health. The majority of carcases were disposed of thanks to arrangements made at short notice by the county council and funded by One NorthEast. I do not recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s description of the reluctance of the Environment Agency to engage. I am advised that a partnership approach was taken, and that the prompt action helped to ensure a proper response—the kind of response that we would have looked for—and I commend all those who brought about the fast and effective disposal of the carcases.

I know that many people have made public their thanks to the emergency services for the excellent job they did in dealing with the flooding, and I should like to record mine. For some citizens of Morpeth, the September floods will not have been their first experience of such events. Since September, the Environment Agency has carried out emergency works in the area, including a structural assessment of a damaged in-river weir upstream of Morpeth and of various flood defences in the town. It has also designed a replacement for a flood wall that was demolished by the force of water pushing against it after the town had been inundated. The initiation of the Environment Agency’s flood alleviation scheme, which commenced in December 2007, is important for the longer term. The River Wansbeck strategy study determined that a stand-alone flood alleviation scheme should be progressed in Morpeth. An initial site investigation was carried out, and an environmental assessment is under way.

Will the Minister give reassurance to those in the many other river valleys—the Till, the Coquet, the Breamish—that their concerns will be addressed, and addressed openly, by the Environment Agency?

Certainly the Environment Agency will examine incidents of flooding wherever they occur, and will obviously want to learn lessons and determine strategies to see what can be done to avoid flooding in future. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a range of areas that might be, or were, flooded. Clearly, the Environment Agency will have to look at the experience of the north-east, and Northumberland in particular, as a result of September’s rains.

Although substantial flooding did occur in parts of the north-east in September, it is important to remember the many flood defence systems that were not breached, despite the very heavy rain. I referred to a number of them earlier. Many properties were saved from damage in Bishop Auckland and West Auckland—places that I know well from my childhood—where completion of a dam at Spring Gardens held back flood water above the town at a height of 8.5 m; that seems an incredible height. In Hexham, at Cockshaw burn and Halgut burn, the combination of a new engineered channel and flood diversion pipe operated to take flood water away from the centre of the town.

The Environment Agency is responsible for maintaining and repairing flood defences, including the installation of temporary defences where needed. During the past year it has inspected 180,000 assets and carried out work that now means that 95 per cent. are serviceable and will perform as designed during a flood event. The Environment Agency spent £377 million building and maintaining flood defences in England, as well as raising public awareness through greatly improved flood mapping and warning systems.

More generally, our work to improve preparedness against flooding is ongoing and although we must recognise that we can never eliminate the risk of flooding, we are determined to improve our ability to reduce the impact of flooding. The Government are increasing investment and we will see a record £2.15 billion invested over the next three-year period. As I said, we will never be able to eradicate the threat, but I am encouraged that the events of September demonstrate the preparedness and professionalism of those charged with responding at every level. I am not complacent, but I believe that we are better able to respond to the threat.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.