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Flooding (West Cumbria)

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

I begin by paying my own tribute to PC Bill Barker, who lost his life in the recent floods that affected west Cumbria. Few of us, if any, can know what the Barker family are going through right now. It is a difficult subject to talk about, but following PC Barker’s ultimate sacrifice and the incredibly moving farewell given to him by his family, Cumbria constabulary and the people of Egremont recently, he still occupies the thoughts of our whole community. He gave his life in saving the lives of others, and he did instinctively something that many of us either would not or could not do. His sacrifice provides a definition of heroism for all of us.

After all the tributes, given by people from the Prime Minister to the heir to the throne, it is the tributes of PC Barker’s wife, children and colleagues that dominate all others in our memory. He was a devoted father and husband and extraordinary friend, a supremely committed police officer and a man who elicited a rare combination of love and respect from those who knew him. He gave all that he had for the people he served and he will for ever be remembered by our community, and I should like to give him a simple thank you.

The Minister will know that the towns of Workington, Keswick and Cockermouth and the areas around them were most seriously affected by the recent flooding. In Workington and Cockermouth, we have seen devastation that is uncommon in west Cumbria, with streets swept away, homes ruined, businesses badly affected and lives placed on hold. As Alan Irving of the Whitehaven News observed, the whole community of west Cumbria came together in the wake of the floods. Rivalries were abandoned and the principles of community were reaffirmed across the whole of our county, with people in Whitehaven, Egremont and elsewhere showing incredible solidarity with their flooded neighbours.

On the Friday night after the floods hit, I stood in the Cockermouth sheep and wool centre helping as best I could, as deputy Regional Minister. I was moved to see my constituents fetching what food, clothing, toiletries and blankets they could to help the people of Cockermouth and Workington who were stationed there. They saw that as their job and duty, and it is typical of the people of west Cumbria that they should have done so.

There are many thank yous and stories from the days when the floods hit, and we will tell them for a long time, but I should like to give a special mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). As a Government Whip, he cannot take part in these debates, but his constituents know what he did on the Thursday night as the rain kept coming in, the work that he threw himself into on the Friday morning when the devastation became apparent, and up to this very day. I am proud to have him as a neighbour and to work alongside him on so many issues, and I am grateful that many of my friends and family who live in his constituency have him as their MP. We were in constant contact as the disaster unfolded, and I know what he did in the midst of that chaos. No one could have done more, from ensuring that some of his constituents had the rubbish skips that they needed to going himself to buy nappies for the child of a young mother who was in desperate need and did not know where else to turn.

The rapid attendance and full attention of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was incredibly important. Their solidarity with us in our time of crisis was unprompted and genuine, and I am grateful for the unprecedented suspension of the Bellwin scheme and the Government’s commitment to meeting 100 per cent. of the costs. The Government have confirmed that the rate of payment under the scheme, which provides financial support to local authorities in the event of an emergency, will be set at 100 per cent. in Cumbria rather than the standard 85 per cent. The Prime Minister has also made it clear that the costs of building the temporary bridge in Workington, the Barker crossing, will be met in full by the Department for Transport. I am told that the Department will also contribute other short-term resources to help the county implement the highways recovery plan, to ensure that all affected parts of the county are back in working order as soon as possible.

It must be said that Cumbria police, Cumbria county council, Cumbria fire and rescue service, the local NHS, the Environment Agency, animal welfare charities, BT, utility companies, our magnificent armed forces and many others acted in superb concert as the floods hit. Radio Cumbria became an irreplaceable service, almost immediately demonstrating the value and strength of public service broadcasting, which no other organisation could provide. Border Television was also very impressive.

As I went around the flooded areas, it became clear to me after a number of conversations, particularly in Keswick, just how vital the mountain rescue teams had been. They undoubtedly made the difference between life and death for many, and those incredible volunteers deserve our support and public money. In areas such as Cumbria, they are a vital emergency service. I have made the case before, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Workington, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—he is a passionate advocate for the mountain rescue teams in our county and it is a pleasure to see him here—for removing the taxes on mountain rescue teams in England. That case is irrefutable, and I urge the Government to do that in addition to reimbursing the cost of the damage and destroyed equipment that was caused by the floods.

Away from the heavily hit areas, many other towns and villages in west Cumbria were affected by the flooding. In some quarters, they have been referred to as the forgotten flooded—places such as Parton, Cleator, Holmrook, Bootle, Egremont, Lorton and elsewhere. Those areas thankfully did not witness the same devastation as Workington and Cockermouth, but they continue to endure real suffering that is equally deserving of Government resources and support, which must be forthcoming. I have seen the effects of the flooding on those communities for myself. None must be left behind. Ultimately, the costs of recovery are not yet fully known, and it is going to take more and not less public money to put things right.

At this point, I pay a special tribute to a Copeland borough councillor, David Banks. When the banks of the River Ehen burst and houses were being flooded, he went to the aid of some elderly people in his patch. He actually rebuilt—or tried to rebuild—a river bank with stones with his bare hands as the rain kept coming. That is the kind of people we are in west Cumbria, and the kind of public servants we need.

As the people of Parton taught me four years ago, it takes only a little bit of water to cause a flood and to have a huge impact on the life of a family. A foot of water can ruin a home and destroy treasured and irreplaceable possessions such as invaluable photographs and mementos of children and loved ones. Floods take away so much that can never be replaced.

Flooding is one of the most difficult issues facing the nation. It is likely to happen more, not less—we saw flooding in Carlisle in 2005—and we need to be able to meet the practical and policy challenges it poses, and I shall come soon to what those solutions may be very soon. After the media circus has moved on, as it now has, and when the drama has passed, we are left dealing with the reconstruction, and I seek assurance tonight that the solidarity and support of the Government will remain with the people of west Cumbria and the communities I have spoken about for as long as we need it. To put it bluntly, first, we must win the peace as well as the war.

Secondly, we need to look hard at the insurance industry in this country and the practices it deploys in such events. Tonight is not a night to point the finger of blame, but it is an opportunity to seek to further our understanding of what happens in the event of flooding. In particular, I hope the Government will help local businesses to derive at least some benefit from natural disasters such as those we have witnessed recently in west Cumbria.

I endorse everything the hon. Gentleman says, including his support for the emergency services and his call for infrastructure support for the county. Will he comment briefly on the need for Government support for the tourism industry across Cumbria? Quite understandably, the message was put out that Cumbria was closed for business and off limits. Many parts of the tourism industry have seen a drop in their income in the past two or three weeks of up to 70 per cent., but were not flooded. Does he agree that some Government money needs to go into promoting the tourism industry across Cumbria, so that it too can recover quickly?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I must say that one reason why we brought him very quickly into the Regional Minister’s council was that he is such a passionate and effective advocate for the people he represents in this place. He made his point as effectively in the council as he makes it tonight, and I agree with him. I understand the Secretary of State from the relevant Department will be visiting Cumbria on Thursday. Like the hon. Gentleman, I will be putting that case to the Secretary of State, and I thank him for making it tonight.

We must look at the insurance industry and the practices involved, and ensure that local businesses can benefit from natural disasters such as those we have seen and experienced. That means we must pressurise insurance companies to prioritise local businesses and trades when insurance-funded reconstruction work is necessary. A move such as this would not only mean that businesses could start work quickly—delay is often a critical factor—but would help to boost local economies that have been badly harmed by the flooding. We need to look at changing the current system. Experience in Carlisle has shown us—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle for sharing his experience with us—that there was a real appetite for local, accountable, contactable building companies, rather than ones that appear out of nowhere overnight and then disappear without a trace. Some specialist work will need to be undertaken by specialist companies, but most of it can be undertaken by local providers. In areas of flood recovery, the local economy is often badly hit, and this is one way in which the economy can be helped to recover quickly. If insurers will not change their arrangements, the Government should look at changing those arrangements for them.

Thirdly, we need to examine our local coastal and river flood defences and improve them where necessary, as quickly as possible. West Cumbria clearly requires new flood defence measures similar to those in place in Carlisle, which worked so well as the rains hit. We need to make sure that the necessary measures are in place in waterways, roads and rivers such as the Ehen, the Irt and the Greta so that the chances of the structural chaos caused by such rainfall ever happening again are reduced significantly. Sadly, they can never be eliminated completely.

Fourthly, our road network requires serious attention, particularly the A66 and the A595. The A595 south of Calderbridge should never have been de-trunked. My community has never accepted this decision and the assumptions upon which this decision was made are now redundant given the worsening weather conditions and the fact that west Cumbria is set to once again become an international centre of excellence for the nuclear industry. Fifthly, our farmers need real help, not just now, but in the future, and I cannot stress that enough. Sixthly, we must assess what has happened to our water drainage systems since privatisation. We must determine accountability and responsibility and we must allocate resources where necessary to ensure that the network in place is sufficient to cope with events such as this, insofar as that is possible.

None of these things will happen overnight, but I know that they are necessary, I trust that the Government share our understanding of these needs and I trust that we can now begin the reconstruction effort apace. As a proud west Cumbrian, I know that we will come through this stronger and better equipped for the future. I stress that Cumbria is well and truly open for business—our hotels, hostelries and tourist attractions—and there is no finer place to be in the winter, summer, spring or autumn than Cumbria and west Cumbria in particular. I urge people to come and spend their Christmas holidays there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on securing this timely debate on an important subject. I thank him for the role that he played as deputy Regional Minister for the North West. I am also grateful to other hon. Members representing the area for their work in supporting the families, businesses and communities that were and still are affected so deeply. I endorse the remarks that he made about our hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) and other MPs and their tireless work during that time, and I join him in the tribute that he paid to PC Bill Barker. I extend my sympathy—and, I am sure, that of the whole House—to PC Barker’s family and friends.

It is worth recalling the sheer scale of the traumatic weather incident that befell the people of Cumbria in those few days. The Met Office tells us that, in Cumbria, 372.4 mm of rain fell at Seathwaite and 361.4 mm of rain fell at Honister between 8 am on Wednesday 18 November and 4 am on Friday 20 November. Provisionally, the 24-hour total at Seathwaite of 314.4 mm is a UK record for a single location in any given 24-hour period.

Thanks to the expertise of the Met Office, we could see that severe weather was coming that week. On Monday 16 November, the Met Office issued an advisory notice of severe weather in western Britain for Thursday 19 November. That was upgraded on Tuesday 17 November to an early warning of severe weather for parts of north-west England and south-west Scotland. That too was upgraded on Wednesday 18 November to an early warning of extreme weather in Cumbria and south-west Scotland.

In addition to good forecasting, we had for the first time during a major flooding incident the expertise and experience of the new flood forecasting centre, which was established by the Government in April. The centre provides a unique service, with Met Office forecasters and Environment Agency hydrologists working side-by-side and giving emergency responders a longer lead-time to prepare for and respond to flooding. Their work was quite staggering. I was there in advance of the extreme weather that hit and saw the collaborative work done and the value that it added to accurate and timely forecasting, enabling the centre to send out advance flood warnings and to respond on the ground well in advance. It played a significant role.

The centre also played an important role in providing emergency responders with early guidance on the rainfall forecast, as well as expert advice on the flood risk impacts. Indeed, 36 hours before the flooding occurred, the flood forecasting centre indicated a high risk of significant property flooding and extreme danger to life in Cumbria via its flood guidance statement and through rolling telephone conferences.

Of course, we recognise that, despite good preparation by government, the many agencies involved and the responders on the ground, such severe weather brings tragedy. As we have said, we all mourn the loss of PC Bill Barker, whom the Prime Minister rightly described as a very heroic and brave man. It is fitting that the new footbridge in Workington has PC Barker’s name forever attached to it.

I know that we have done so before in the House, but it would be wrong not to say again how indebted we are to the many individuals and organisations—too many to go through again—that showed such heroism, bravery, care and consideration for those whose lives, homes and businesses were threatened by the floods. All who were involved in the emergency response deserve the highest praise. I note the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland rightly highlighting the role of the mountain rescue teams. I am sure that his words will have been heard and noted by other Ministers.

Attention is now rightly focused on helping the affected communities to return to normal as quickly as possible. That work involves many organisations, locally, regionally and nationally. One of the great benefits of the response in those difficult times was the joined-up work across government, agencies and volunteers on the ground. Cumbria county council has put in place local recovery arrangements and has been using the recovery plan developed following the Carlisle floods in 2005. A recovery co-ordinating group has been set up and is meeting regularly. It involves the county council, the three district councils most directly affected—Allerdale, Copeland and South Lakeland—the Health Protection Agency, the Environment Agency, the Government office, the police and the chairs of the sub-groups covering business and economic recovery, health and welfare, environment and infrastructure. We have learned from what has gone before and tried to make our preparations for rescue and recovery far better.

My hon. Friend is rightly keen to ensure that Cumbria benefits from the significant investment that the Government have made, and are making, in managing flood risks. As he will know, spending across government has doubled over the past 10 years, and we are investing a record £2.15 billion over the current three-year spending period. In fact, one of the signal successes in traditional river defences was the result of investing more than £30 million in the Carlisle defences. Those defences held. I pay tribute to the contractors commissioned by the Environment Agency to fill in the remaining 20 per cent. at short notice and in desperate circumstances. Those temporary infills held and saved many homes and possibly lives.

One of the homes that they saved that night was mine. I and my neighbours were out until 2 o’clock in the morning working with the contractors, who worked for 24 hours non-stop. To be honest, we had very little help from the district council, but with the contractors’ help we managed to save not only the houses, but the biscuit factory that employs 1,200 people.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Heroic efforts were made by all concerned to avoid the worst. The impact could have been far worse than what we saw, bad as that was.

Cockermouth, Keswick and Ulverston have all benefited from investment and more is planned. In Keswick, for example, the Environment Agency has done a study to justify improvement works and has allocated funding to design works in 2010-11 for construction at an estimated cost of £5 million. For Ulverston, funding has been allocated in 2010-11 to develop a scheme for Dragley beck, which is programmed for construction in 2011-12 at a cost of £2 million. That project would raise the existing one-in-20-year standard of flood protection to one in 70 years. For Cockermouth, indicative funding is in place to begin studying a potential scheme in 2012-13.

We have already seen what good investment can achieve in places such as Carlisle, where some 3,000 properties were saved from flooding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said. In Appleby, a flood action group was set up in 2005. The residents of The Sands, which has no formal flood defences, have taken advantage of the DEFRA property-level flood resilience grant scheme to install flood-resilient and resistance measures on their individual properties, the cost of which averages out at about £2,000 a property. Forty-six properties were protected from flooding by those simple, easy and cost-effective measures.

We need to tackle the problem at all levels. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland has rightly made it clear that we do not focus just on the larger communities in west Cumbria. There is a long list of projects in Cumbria for which the Environment Agency has identified an indicative allocation of expenditure. In his constituency, they include projects at Nor beck in Cleator moor, Skirting beck, Low Mill and the River Ehen in Egremont. The provision of community flood defences in those locations is subject to the necessary project appraisal, as always, to find solutions that are technically, economically and socially acceptable.

During my time in this place I have found that one of the most important things about flooding is to listen to those who are repeatedly affected by it. Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that the relevant Departments and the Environment Agency will listen to the representations that I make on behalf of the various flood action groups, such as Keswick flood action group and Parton flood action group? People who have experienced flooding know where it strikes and what its effects are. That is important.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One of the lessons that we have learnt from previous flooding incidents is about the need to listen to people on the ground who have been affected. I can give that commitment to him as a constituency MP and in his role as the deputy Minister for the North West, and to other Members who are affected. We are keen to keep talking, as the weeks and months roll by, about what the experience has been and what we can learn. Even though the response on this occasion was far better than what we saw before, as I have highlighted and as is generally accepted, I have no doubt that there are lessons to be learned. We need to get better every time.

Let me talk about the fairly sizeable package of support that is now being made available in various areas. The Department for Transport will fund the bridge and road repairs, in line with its emergency funding scheme. The £1 million community recovery fund announced by the Prime Minister and supplied and managed by the Department for Communities and Local Government will be for local authorities to use as they see fit in assisting those local residents and businesses affected. The North West Development Agency opened its £1 million flood recovery grant scheme on Wednesday 25 November. The NDWA is also investing in a further £100,000 to push the message that Cumbria is ready to welcome visitors after the floods.

The Communities and Local Government Secretary has announced that the Bellwin scheme for local authorities for emergency clear-up costs and temporary accommodation will be set at 100 per cent. above threshold, rather than 85 per cent. Department for Work and Pensions’ social fund community care grants are available for people on qualifying benefits to meet the cost of replacing essential household items, and crisis loans are also available. I pay tribute to the local community fund that has been organised by volunteer groups on the ground. It is absolutely astonishing how they have been able to mobilise that charitable support in such a short time, and they deserve support.

My hon. Friend referred to the use of local building contractors, which is a salient point. They can be used to carry out the drying and repair of buildings affected by the flooding. I am glad to say that this matter has been taken up by the county council and others, including Ministers, and by the Association of British Insurers, whose representatives I have met in the past few days. We are staying engaged with the ABI, and—to give credit where it is due—it is fair to say that it has been quick to respond to events by issuing advice to people who have suffered flood damage. The association has urged people to contact their insurers as soon as possible and confirmed that the first priority for insurers must be to ensure that every claim is dealt with as quickly as possible and do everything that they can to help customers to recover.

In selecting builders, insurance companies will, of course, want to know that they have the capability and expertise to provide what is needed to do the job right. They have panels of specialist builders to enable them to react quickly to any event—as they conspicuously did after previous flood events. I assure my hon. Friend that some on those panels will be undoubtedly drawn from local contractors, or will use subcontracted labour within the area. At this stage in the recovery process, insurers are using specialist drying-out and stripping-out contractors, and I understand that some of them are local.

My hon. Friend and other MPs representing the area have mentioned the importance of having some choice in these matters. In the longer term, and when rebuilding starts, it will be open to those affected to choose their own builders, and insurance companies will manage them through the process. Should they do that, some of the risk will ultimately fall on the policyholder, because quality and price cannot be guaranteed in the same way. It is therefore very important that people get the right builders in, but having that choice is important.

The Government have been working hard and consistently to provide better, more sustainable management of flood risk for people, homes and businesses. We have been responding vigorously to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations arising from the 2007 floods, not least through the Flood and Water Management Bill that will shortly come before the House. In relation to streamlining and accountability, the Bill will give the authorities that manage flood risk better powers to do so, putting local authorities in charge of dealing with local flood risk and the Environment Agency in clear charge of overseeing flooding and coastal erosion nationally. That clarity is important, and it flows from Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. However, it will not remove the need for local authorities and the Environment Agency to work closely together on the ground. The events in Cumbria signally demonstrate how effective such joined-up working can be in protecting livelihoods and property.

The rainfall and the resulting flooding in Cumbria last month were an extreme event, but none of us can be in any doubt that we will face similar challenges in the future. The latest UK climate projections that the Government published in June this year suggest that winter rainfall totals are likely to increase by 20 to 30 per cent. for much of England and Wales. While we cannot say that this event was caused by climate change, we can say with certainty that such events are consistent with the predictions for climate change and are going to occur more frequently, so we must learn the lessons.

We must also continue to build on the community-based and multi-agency approach to planning for, responding to and recovering from flooding events. The people of west Cumbria, and the many organisations that helped them, have done a great deal to show us just what can be achieved by pulling together.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).