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Flooding (Morpeth)

Volume 481: debated on Thursday 23 October 2008

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

I am grateful to the House for allowing me to discuss the very serious flooding that occurred in Morpeth over the weekend of 5 and 6 September. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in his place. He introduced a similar debate in this House on Monday evening.

While other parts of the north-east of England were affected by the most intensive rainfall in living memory, the town of Morpeth was devastated. Morpeth has a population of about 19,000. It is located in the heart of Northumberland and lies in the valley of the River Wansbeck. It was a thriving market town and is the home of the administrative headquarters of Castle Morpeth borough council and Northumberland county council.

The first indications that anything was amiss came with a warning from the Environment Agency on the afternoon of 5 September that a flood watch would be issued for Morpeth and Ponteland from 1 am on Saturday 6 September. Early indications predicted an event similar to that which occurred in 2005. Although river levels were high and gave cause for serious concern in 2005, no properties were damaged. However, it became clear on the Saturday, following a period of unprecedented rainfall, which equated to three times the monthly average falling in just 48 hours, that a very dramatic event was unfolding. From 8 o’clock on the Saturday morning, the water levels were already much higher than in the 2005 event, and torrential rain was still falling with no signs of abatement. Indeed, from 9 am, the pleasure boats that were moored in the River Wansbeck and should have played an important part in the subsequent evacuations were being overwhelmed and were sinking. Staff from Castle Morpeth council were fully stretched in closing off roads and attempting to sandbag vulnerable areas. The whole of Northumberland was awash. Villages were being cut off and numerous roads were closed.

The emergency services were at full stretch. At 12 noon on Saturday, Gold Command was called and 15 minutes later the first evacuations started. The rescue helicopter from RAF Bulmer, the RNLI, the fire and rescue services from Northumberland and Tyne and Wear, the police, council staff and residents worked throughout the day and night to ensure that everyone was rescued. There was no loss of life. This was due in the main to the skill and dedication of all the people I have mentioned, but also to the spirit and courage of a number of friends and neighbours who acted quickly to evacuate the most vulnerable to places of safety.

The Environment Agency played an important role in the early flood warning system. For the majority of those registered under the scheme, it worked very well. Five hundred and twenty three homes were contacted with a warning. For the residents of the Middle Greens area of Morpeth, it did not work at all. There are more than 300 homes in that area, which is situated next to the river. Of those, 198 homes were registered under the scheme, but for them the system failed completely. I have met the Environment Agency’s new chairman Lord Smith and Ian Hodge from the region, who inform me that they have changed their procedure. The previous system divided Morpeth into a number of separate areas and issued warnings depending on the perceived risk. Middle Greens’ warning was not physically activated by an operator. In the light of that mistake, they have taken action to ensure that that will never happen again. In future, all the registered areas in Morpeth will receive the same warning at the same time.

The flood damage to Morpeth was extensive and devastating, with 1,012 properties affected—913 residential and 89 commercial. A total of 714 were privately owned, and of those 562 were seriously affected. Of those seriously affected, more than 300 households are currently displaced, and that number is rising daily. There are more than 30 properties where drying has not even commenced. Some 172 properties are owned by registered social landlords, and of those 150 are seriously affected. A total of 90 households are currently displaced, but it is accepted that that number will rise to 150. Tragically, of those numbers, 112 households are known to have no insurance cover at all.

Among the worst affected buildings were essential community assets, such as the ambulance station, a large doctor’s surgery, the library and the leisure centre. It is to the great credit of Castle Morpeth borough council that on Sunday morning, as soon as the water levels began to drop, it started the physical clean-up. On the same day, Gold Command handed over the ongoing work to Castle Morpeth. It set up the Castle Morpeth community recovery and restoration group, which has since adopted the name Springboard. It is a multi-agency partnership and it has been set up to assist the affected community, and to manage its recovery and restoration.

Drawing on the experience of other severely affected flood areas is of prime concern to the partnership. Best practice has been the driving force. Ascertaining that everyone in the affected area was safe and well was done without the need to affect forced entry into any of the properties. Morpeth now faces huge challenges. Many of the shops remain closed for restoration work, which is affecting those businesses that are still trading. Many are struggling to survive at present, and are eager to get the message out that Morpeth is still open for business.

To compound the problem, car parking is becoming increasingly problematic. The residential streets are narrow and easily congested. A loss of car parking owing to flood-related issues is further compounded by a massive increase in builders’ vehicles and skips. That in turn is acting against efforts to attract additional footfall into the town to support the existing retail trade.

Homelessness is expected to rise. About 400 households are currently displaced, and many of those people are staying with family and friends. From experience elsewhere, I know that that is unsustainable in the long term. The supply of temporary and emergency accommodation is virtually exhausted. Long-term contingencies are urgently required and I look to the Government to assist in the funding of those contingencies.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen, as I have done, the amazing work being done by voluntary organisations and public authorities, working together in providing continuing services to the people most affected. I have found the amount of extra effort put in by staff members and volunteers very impressive, and I am sure that he has too.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with him, and it is a subject I intend to tackle in more detail later. I have been hugely impressed by the voluntary sector and council officials in Morpeth.

Apart from the long-term contingencies, there is an increasing need for emotional and psychological support, which will have an even greater impact as people are unable to return to their homes for Christmas. It is important that the agencies responsible are able to identify and respond effectively to a need once it is identified. Additionally, there is a need to lift morale throughout the period of recovery. I am delighted to say that there appears to be no increase in criminal activity. However, there is genuine concern that household possessions kept on the first floors of houses in housing estates that are virtually deserted overnight could be at risk. The police are currently providing additional patrols in the affected areas, and I ask the Minister to press for the continuation of these much-needed patrols.

I mentioned earlier the large number of properties that were not insured. Flood damage repair and renovation to an insured property could be severely compromised if it is adjoining an uninsured property with similar levels of severe damage. There is no doubt that severe financial hardship is being experienced by everyone affected by the flooding, but especially those people who are not insured.

Unfortunately, many of the main public buildings were badly affected by flood damage. Morpeth library was immensely popular and well used by many residents. So severe was the damage that it will probably have to be demolished. It is therefore essential that a new library is built as soon as possible. The leisure centre suffered similar damage, but no decision has yet been made about its future. However, one thing is certain: it will be closed for a long time. The same applies to the doctors’ surgery and the ambulance station.

I have tried to outline briefly the extensive damage that the huge flood did to the town of Morpeth. I am here to seek Government support to help to rebuild the town and, more important, to ensure that we do everything possible to prevent a similar occurrence.

The Environment Agency has been heavily criticised for its failure to warn the residents of Middle Greens of the impending flood. That criticism was fully justified, but we need to ensure that the early warning system never fails again. The agency has assured me that the changes it has introduced will guarantee that everyone is informed in future. I also urge residents who are not registered to register now—it is a free service.

I have met the agency’s new chairman Lord Smith to press for early implementation of a new flood defence scheme for Morpeth. He has agreed to visit Morpeth in the next few weeks and he is keen to move forward quickly with the scheme.

The economic assessment is almost complete, and it is intended to consult the people of Morpeth on the options available no later than next January. The agency intends to run several items in parallel to enable it to commence the scheme several months earlier than originally planned. I am delighted to say that funding no longer appears to be a problem.

In the next few weeks, work will commence on rebuilding a much stronger flood wall to replace the one damaged near the library. Urgent structural assessments will take place of all the various flood defences in the town and of the damaged weir at Highford. The agency is also considering my request, which residents affected by the floods put to me, to begin river bed dredging and clearance. There is a strong economic case for the scheme, which could bring huge investment to Morpeth.

A new flood defence scheme would release valuable riverside land for redevelopment to complement the current town centre development. A new health centre, providing state-of-the-art diagnostics and treatment, has been under discussion for more than two years. We should accelerate that development and include a new library on the site. If it proves necessary to demolish the leisure centre, consideration should be given to building a new one, perhaps on a new site. There are many other options—I merely make the point that enormous opportunity exists for the town and we need to maximise it.

While local business and commerce has been badly affected, 1,000 properties require extensive building works, new furniture and decoration. At a time of building slump, that could help many local businesses. I hope that people source those services locally, and of course we must endeavour to keep out the cowboy builders.

I was impressed with the Government response during and immediately after the flooding. I was contacted by the duty Minister—the then Minister for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas)—from 10 Downing street at 9 pm on the Saturday evening to warn me that Morpeth had been badly flooded. I was on holiday in Dorset and I returned home immediately. On Sunday morning, I was called again, this time by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), who inquired about the extent of the damage and sent his best wishes to the people of Morpeth. I spoke to him and the Minister responsible for flood recovery, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who said that he wished to visit. He did so the next day. The people of Morpeth also received a much-needed boost in the form of a royal visit by Prince Charles and his wife. They were accompanied by the Minister for the North East of England, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), whom I am delighted to see in his place today. He has done a great deal to help me and the people of Morpeth. By any standards, it was a great response.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will, in her response to the debate, show the same concern for Morpeth and assist its speedy recovery. Morpeth needs urgent funding in the form of Bellwin. It also needs another £600,000 to try to assist the local authority with the expenditure that it has already incurred. I will provide my right hon. Friend with the detailed breakdown of that expenditure.

Castle Morpeth council is a very small local authority; its chief executive Ken Dunbar, his deputy Trevor Walker and all its employees have performed remarkably. They are conducting an inquiry into the flood, and it is essential that all agencies co-operate with it. Their hard work, skill and dedication have been exemplary. They deserve our thanks and recognition for their excellent work during the flooding and for their ongoing work since then. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the necessary funding is in place for them to continue it.

The voluntary sector also performed exceptionally well. The Red Cross has been invaluable, as have the Lions and the Rotary club, which are raising a large sum of money to assist flood victims. The citizens advice bureau is under increasing strain, but understandably has to deal with many more cases. I request that the Government make a direct donation to the voluntary services in and around Morpeth to enable them and others to continue helping the people of the area.

In conclusion, the events at Morpeth on that terrible September weekend were both dramatic and dangerous. That no lives were lost is down to the skill and dedication of the emergency services and of many Morpeth residents—and, of course, some good luck. The Environment Agency’s decision to commence an early flood defence system means that it will probably not happen again. Morpeth needs all the help the Government can provide to help with rebuilding and regeneration. I hope that the Minister will confirm in her reply that that help will be made available.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate. We had an interesting and useful debate on Monday night on the wider issue of flooding in Northumberland, which was inspired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). I apologise to those Members who were present—including my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and, indeed, the Minister for the North East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown)—in that some of what I say today may be a little familiar. It is important to reinforce some of the important points.

It may be worth saying that over the last 40 years, Morpeth has grown rapidly, with about 1,000 properties estimated to be at risk of a one-in-100-year event. Current standards of protection vary for different parts of Morpeth and the Environment Agency estimates the average protection at about 60 years. Several studies of the River Wansbeck flooding have been carried out, the most recent of which is the Wansbeck strategy study. My hon. Friend referred to it and I will return to it in a few minutes.

The Northumbria regional flood defence committee provided funding through the local levy to carry out investigations in Morpeth further to understand the flood risk and to establish whether any quick wins could be developed. As the scope of the local area project has been developed in 2007, additional flood defence grant-in-aid funding became available and the project transferred to that funding stream.

As I described on Monday, the circumstances arising between Friday 5 and Sunday 7 September affected most of England, but the most serious consequences were felt in the north-east, with the constituency of Wansbeck and the town of Morpeth in Northumberland being most affected. I applaud my hon. Friend for the strenuous lengths he went to to draw the issue to the attention of Ministers, albeit that we were first alerted by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck spoke personally to the Prime Minister about the impact of these events on Morpeth and he also secured a visit by the Minister for Local Government.

I thus congratulate my hon. Friend again on the efforts he has already made, as well as on today’s debate and the various suggestions and requests that he has made. The issues that he—and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—raised today will be studied in detail and given careful thought and consideration by me and my ministerial colleagues as we consider how the Government should respond to the experiences of Morpeth.

I also described on Monday how the severe rainfall that caused the flooding was first identified as a potential threat a number of days before the actual event itself. By Wednesday 3 September, the Environment Agency and the Met Office began to track the low pressure system and potential rainfall. By Thursday, they were beginning preparations in case of serious flooding. 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 arrangements between the Environment Agency and the Met Office, warnings were issued to alert local authorities and the emergency services, and preparations were made to prepare vulnerable people and areas.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the incredibly heavy rainfall that affected the north-east, with 150 mm of rain—6 inches—falling on to already saturated ground and full river catchments over 48 hours. The average monthly rainfall for that time of year is 50 mm, or 2 inches. I am afraid that I always convert metric measures to imperial in my head. In fact, according to the Environment Agency, the flooding that occurred was estimated to be a one-in-150-years event.

At the time—and since—a great deal of attention rightly focused on Morpeth, where the first flood watch alert was issued at 3.30 on Saturday morning, with warnings escalating throughout the day. I described that during Monday’s debate. My hon. Friend mentioned the flood warnings. For the purpose of the Environment Agency’s flood warning system, Morpeth is divided into five areas. Four warnings were issued. The severe flood warning intended for the Middle Greens area was issued as a downgrade at 12.49 pm. The residents would not have received that information: it went to professional partners only. A downgrade is normally issued when the Environment Agency believes that waters are receding and there is a settled outlook. Although the residents did not receive the level of flood warning service that the Environment Agency expects to offer, they were engaged in constant dialogue with the agency’s professional partners, and the evacuation from Middle Greens was not compromised.

I do not entirely agree with the Environment Agency’s statement that the evacuation was not compromised. Had it not been for neighbours and friends in the area, a number of disabled people could not have been moved out. That happened long before the emergency services arrived. The problem was compounded by the fact that two burns burst their banks, which prevented the emergency services from getting in. Although I accept most of the points made by the Environment Agency, I am afraid that on that occasion it was wrong.

It is the purpose of debates such as this to allow precisely that sort of representation to be made. I know that the Environment Agency will want to learn lessons, and indeed has already learned lessons, from the experience of Morpeth in September. It is trying to find ways of making the system more resilient, including rationalising warnings so that the whole town receives the same warning should such warnings ever need to be issued again. It is also instituting additional checks to ensure that the mistakes made in Morpeth are not repeated. It has apologised for the errors, and reaffirmed that although the warnings were not received as planned, it was in constant dialogue. It clearly believes that the evacuation was not compromised, but as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the residents of Middle Greens are very grateful indeed for the actions of their neighbours, to whom I pay tribute for their swiftness in rising to the challenge.

In Morpeth, approximately 1,000 homes and businesses were affected by the flooding, and around 250 families were looked after in rescue centres. As my hon. Friend said, and as I said on Monday, the evacuation of Morpeth was successful. As I acknowledged on Monday, flooding of homes and businesses is always devastating for those affected, but such events will take place from time to time, despite the substantial increase in flood defence spending that the Government are implementing. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s description of ministerial readiness to respond to the events of that September weekend. I was also, therefore, pleased to hear of the success of the multi-agency approach, and that those involved showed what can be accomplished through strong partnership work. On Monday, I paid tribute to the emergency services for the excellent job they have done in dealing with the flooding events, and I know that that would be echoed on both sides of the House. The actions of many third-sector organisations following the flooding events has once again shown how our communities can pull together at difficult times. I hear what my hon. Friend has said about further financial assistance being needed by such organisations. Such matters will have to be considered while we await the full claim from Castle Morpeth for the Bellwin assistance.

In Northumberland, the local recovery and support operation is under way and will continue for some months yet. I am particularly grateful to all involved for having pulled together in the face of such challenges. I described the involvement of One NorthEast, the regional development agency, which has made more than £500,000 available to help with immediate costs for affected businesses, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has confirmed that the Bellwin scheme has been activated. Castle Morpeth has registered an intention to claim for Bellwin assistance and has been provided with the necessary information to help with a subsequent claim. The Department for Communities and Local Government awaits the details, and it is also expecting a request for an extension to the normal arrangements for reimbursement referred to by my hon. Friend, and it will consider that when it is received.

On Monday, I described some of the emergency works the Environment Agency is carrying out in the area. However, more important for the longer term is the initiation of the EA’s flood alleviation scheme, which commenced in December 2007. The River Wansbeck strategy study determined that a stand-alone flood alleviation scheme should be progressed with in Morpeth, and an initial site investigation was carried out and an environmental assessment is under way. In addition, in partnership with the Northumberland Strategic Partnership, a detailed business case is being carried out to determine the impact of flooding on local businesses. The scheme is at the end of year one of its current four-year programme. However, the EA is exploring the possibility of an accelerated time scale for construction of the works. I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend’s description of the EA’s willingness to engage at a local level, listening to what local residents have to say about the EA’s proposals. I commend that way of working, and I encourage the EA to continue down that path. I know that he will be quick to raise with me any concerns he might have should that approach begin to slip, and I will be very open to hearing them.

Although substantial flooding did occur in parts of the north-east at the beginning of September, it is important to remember the many flood defence systems that were not breached despite the very heavy rain. I referred to some of those in detail on Monday. The EA 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 EA spent £377 million building and maintaining flood defences in England, as well as raising public awareness through greatly improved flood-mapping and warning systems.

When reassessments have taken place, there has tended to be an acceptance that more flooding of fields may help to save properties. Most people accept and understand that. However, will the Minister also accept that if that is done—and, effectively, that happened in parts of Northumberland—the burden on agricultural businesses becomes much more serious, and we may need to look at ways to help agriculture to cope with its taking the bigger impact of floods, instead of homes?

I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has made that point. I discussed that very issue with the president of the National Farmers Union this morning. It is very important that the Environment Agency considers all stakeholders and all those affected as the country wrestles with the problems of rising sea levels and the threat of high levels of ground water and the sort of inundations that we saw that weekend in September. He is absolutely right that if the water moves somewhere else, somebody else is affected—perhaps not their life and limb and their homes, but agricultural businesses are also very important and the impact of flooding on them needs to be taken into account. As a new Minister in this area, I intend to look into that and ensure that it is not discounted as we consider all the effects of flooding.

I have described the increased investment, and in recent years our experience of managing flood events has also increased. Last year, we immediately established an independent review of the lessons to be learned from the September 2007 flooding, led by Sir Michael Pitt. Sir Michael’s final report was published on 25 June 2008 and includes 92 recommendations. The Government have already welcomed the report and announced initial allocations from the £34.5 million that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set aside for the next three years to take the recommendations forward. We will say more about our plans later this year, and I hope that a prioritised action plan will be produced—in the autumn, it says on my notes, but it feels as though we are near winter given the weather outside. It will certainly be produced shortly.

Over the past year, we have undertaken a vast amount of work to increase preparedness against future flooding, and we have taken on board the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on a diverse range of projects such as the encouragement of better surface water drainage, the exploration of resistance and resilience measures for householders in high-risk areas, the finalising of national guidance on multi-agency flood planning and many more.

An important aspect of our work is the production of a floods and water Bill, and a draft is planned for pre-legislative scrutiny, for which it is an excellent candidate. We propose that there will be consultation in 2009. It is our intention that the draft Bill will simplify and streamline the rather complex and perhaps outdated flood and coastal erosion risk management legislation, including on the interrelationship of the roles and responsibilities of, among others, the Environment Agency, local authorities, internal drainage boards, the Department and Ministers.

Although we will never be able to eradicate the threat of flooding, I remain confident that the events of September demonstrate the preparedness and professionalism of those charged with responding at national, regional and local level. I am confident that we are much better prepared today for the challenges that we will face in the coming months and years, although for those people whose homes and businesses were affected, we can have nothing but sympathy and a commitment to do more to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Five o’clock.