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Flooding (Hull)

Volume 513: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010

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

I am very pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate this evening, three years after the flooding in Hull in 2007 that caused such havoc for my constituents. I remind the House that the flooding in Hull was caused by surface water flooding, that one in five homes were flooded, and that June 2007 was the wettest month recorded in Yorkshire since 1882.

I first pay tribute to all the local services in Hull that worked so hard for my constituents on the day of the flooding and in the months and years that followed. Many issues pertaining to the flooding are outstanding, but tonight, because of the limited time, I wish to explore just three. The first is the progress that has been made so far on legislation and new policy directions. The second is insurance. Thirdly, I will seek reassurance from the Minister about future funding for flood protection measures in my constituency.

I thought it right to start by examining the coalition agreement to see what the Government have to say about their plans for flooding protection. It states clearly:

“We will take forward the findings of the Pitt Review to improve our flood defences, and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk.”

I was pleased that Hull was quick off the mark after the floods and had a report produced by Professor Tom Coulthard at Hull university. We then had the national Pitt review. It is to the credit of the previous Labour Government that all 92 recommendations in the review were accepted and many implemented in the provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. I seek reassurance from the Minister that those provisions will be implemented as soon as possible. I also seek information about the possibility of the new coalition Government producing a water White Paper in the near future.

One of Pitt’s clear recommendations was on surface water management plans, suggesting that local authorities should become responsible for ensuring that arrangements were in place to assess and manage local flood risk from all sources, including surface water, and for developing a surface water management plan.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing an Adjournment debate on this extremely important issue. Does she agree that the first stage of water management is to ensure that we avoid building not only on floodplains—I think that that is a common view—but anywhere where it will lead to the blocking of a watercourse or an increased risk of houses flooding?

The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and I believe there is support for that view throughout the House.

The surface water management plan in Hull, which will have an impact on the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will bring together the East Riding of Yorkshire, Hull city council, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency to put together a workable plan. A scoping exercise was undertaken, and the previous Government provided £250,000 to develop the plan further. This summer there will be consultation, including on an aqua green in my constituency in the Orchard Park and Greenwood area, adjacent to the Cottingham area, which the right hon. Gentleman represents. I understand that the aqua green, alongside the other provisions set out in the consultation, would cost about £20 million to implement across the city. I seek reassurance from the Minister tonight about the future of that funding.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I know that she has been a strong advocate for Hull during and since the flooding. While we are on the issue of surface water, I know that significant progress has been made, but the one point on which we do not seem to have made a great deal of progress is having a single number for residents to use to report all surface water flooding. That was a huge issue in Hull and the East Riding on the day of the floods, and we need more progress on it.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I hope that the Minister will address that point.

I turn to the issue of small grants to households, which was an important issue in Kingston upon Hull North. The previous Labour Government gave £5 million as part of a grant scheme to enable local authorities to apply to help their residents to protect their homes through the use of flood boards and air brick covers. My local authority, Hull city council, did not apply for that money. There were several rounds of the grant, but there seemed to be confusion about whether the council could apply. I would like to hear from the Minister whether further grant money will be available and whether the conditions could be clearly laid out, so that, as I hope, my constituents can apply for that money through Hull city council.

It is appropriate to pay tribute to the work that Yorkshire Water has undertaken in my constituency by investing in the Bransholme pumping station, which failed in June 2007. It has put in additional pumping facilities, and extra capacity is currently being developed at the station’s lagoon. That is all to be welcomed, but further housing development is planned in the Bransholme area, so we need to keep an eye on whether we actually need a brand new pumping station in the years to come to meet the demand. Also, Yorkshire Water is looking to identify changes that might be necessary to the Humbercare sewerage system in Hull.

I turn to the issue of insurance, which has been an ongoing issue since 2007. The insurance industry has agreed to provide flood cover for most properties, but this is subject to the Government continuing to invest in flood risk management. I am aware of the statement of principles under which the insurance industry will provide insurance. That will run out in 2013. However, the Pitt report found that some people suffered from a hike in premiums and that excesses were much higher than before 2007. For example, Mr and Mrs Pearson lived in Kingswood and were insured with Norwich Union. In late December 2009, they were told that their premiums were to go up 33% and that their excess was to be £6,000. They were also told that if they personally commissioned an independent expert report specific to their property that took into account the flood defences put in place, the insurance company would look again at the insurance premium. They were told by the insurance company that HU7, where Kingswood is, was very likely to flood again, but it did not seem to know anything about the work being undertaken to protect the area. It was only once my office had intervened and provided information from Yorkshire Water that we could get the premium down.

I am concerned that insurance companies do not seem to be aware of what is happening in areas such as Kingston upon Hull North, and are not distinguishing between the risk from surface water flooding and river flooding. At the moment, insurance companies only have to provide insurance for householders who had insurance in 2007, so in Hull the insurance market is essentially closed. Personally, in my home, I have come across this: I cannot shop around in the insurance market, but can only go to the provider I had in 2007. It was found that many people affected by the floods did not have insurance. It is disappointing that although some local authorities have adopted a cheap insurance scheme for council tenants, this has not been taken up by my local authority. I am concerned, therefore, about the future for residents in my constituency and their ability to find affordable insurance in the future.

That leads me on to the point about the continuation of funding for flood protection. It is estimated that by 2035 we will need about £1 billion a year to protect ourselves from flooding. Liberal Democrat Hull city council has constantly asked for more money for Hull, particularly from the previous Government, to invest in flood defences in the city. I was dismayed today, therefore, to read in the media reports that it is likely that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have its budget cut by 30% in the comprehensive spending review. I also understand that plans are being prepared by the coalition Government to privatise flood defence infrastructure, which means that the private sector will have to make up for the coalition Government’s cuts to the Labour Government’s plans for flood defences. Those private sector bodies would then be allowed to pass on the costs of flood protection to the people and businesses in the areas at risk of flooding, in the form of extra council tax, water rates and, perhaps, contributions from business.

Even most market economists would accept that there can be no greater example of a public good than flood defences. We surely cannot hand that responsibility over to the private sector to make a profit at the expense of communities at risk of flooding. Of course we want to encourage private investment and partnership to add to our flood protection work. However, handing flood defence to the private sector is not the way forward to protect us from flooding, and would be another burden on people and businesses in my constituency, which has some of the most deprived areas in the country. They have suffered from the recent recession and, I believe, will now suffer from the policies pursued by the coalition Government.

It appears that the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition is now preparing a flood tax on the victims of flooding in some of the most deprived parts of the country, which, in Yorkshire and the Humber, include Hull, Sheffield and Doncaster. I know that the Minister is a fair-minded gentleman. I hope that he can reassure me this evening that the money put forward by the Labour Government for flood defences will be protected and that DEFRA will stand up to the Treasury by delivering on the commitment made by the previous Government that people would not suffer by having a flood tax imposed on them—a commitment made not only to the people of Hull, but to the people of the rest of east Yorkshire and the other parts of the country that suffered in the flooding of 2007. I hope that he will also be able to answer some of the other questions that I have posed this evening.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) on securing this debate and on raising a number of points that I shall endeavour to answer as best I can. She and I both contributed to Sir Michael Pitt’s review, because we both represent constituencies that suffered from flooding and surface water flooding. I therefore understand entirely, as she will, the experience for those households affected; we probably both spent time in the days after those awful floods wading through houses that had been destroyed and meeting people whose lives had been completely turned upside down by the devastation. We were all impressed at the time by her concern for her constituents—a point echoed again this evening.

Let me address one point directly before I address any others. We have no plans to privatise flood defences, contrary to what was reported in the press today. That is not to say that we will not be looking, where appropriate, for contributions from beneficiaries to new schemes and other sorts of levy-funded operations, which we have discussed in the House in recent days and weeks, but I am happy to reassure the hon. Lady on her point as best I can.

The events of summer 2007 illustrated just how important the issues of flood management really are. Floods destroy homes and businesses, and pose serious risks to life. I know that the people of Hull understand that better than most, as do my constituents who suffered in the floods of that year. It remains the case that Kingston upon Hull and the surrounding areas have the greatest concentration of people and property at risk from flooding outside London.

Floods often happen quickly. The damage that they cause can take years to put right and, for those affected, can leave a lasting legacy of concern about it happening again. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have had the same experience as me, in that when there is heavy rain, the level of stress and trauma among our constituents who have been previously affected rises. We are only just starting to understand the implications that that has for people.

We often refer to extreme rainfall in terms of millimetres, but when we read about 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools of rain falling on Hull per second, the seriousness of the emergency becomes clear for all to see. It is therefore no surprise that Hull was the worst affected city in 2007, with 100 millimetres of rain in 24 hours, leading to the overwhelming of drainage systems and the flooding of 600 streets, nearly 9,000 homes, 1,300 businesses and more than 90% of the city’s schools. Nor is it surprising that the 2007 floods, which affected many areas, led to the largest recovery effort since the second world war. Specific recovery funding was provided by the previous Administration, and a successful UK application was made to the EU social fund. However, recovery on such a scale takes time. The previous Government took their last count in June 2009, at which time 48 households in Hull were still wholly or partly displaced from their homes.

The hon. Lady asked about the water White Paper. We will publish it in the summer of next year, and I very much hope that she will give us her thoughts on how it can be taken forward. It will look at a number of related issues, including, principally, the Walker and Cave reports, but if she feels that it should cover issues such as surface water flooding, I am certainly open to suggestions. I cannot answer her question on small grants now, but I can assure her that I will write to her and that I will see what can be done. I completely agree that very small grants—for air bricks, for example—can make a big difference when dealing with the technology of flood prevention. We want to encourage people to take responsibility for their own homes.

May I just ask the Minister a practical question? If he is going to write to the hon. Lady, could he write to everyone in east Yorkshire?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I will certainly include him in the circulation of any such letter.

We all know that flooding happens, and that we cannot prevent it. Houses will get flooded. That is why the Government are determined to act on the hard lessons of past events, and why we have already made it clear that DEFRA’s priorities under the coalition Government will include taking forward the findings of the Pitt review to improve our flood defences and prevent the unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk.

No one can have any doubt about the coalition Government’s focus on deficit reduction, and DEFRA has already made a significant contribution to the savings that must be made in the current financial year. Flood management makes up a big proportion of the Department’s budget, but immunity from the new financial disciplines is simply not possible. Despite those financial pressures, however, we have decided that we should maintain an increase in the money that taxpayers spend on flood defences this year. Thoughtful planning will mean that that will not impact on the number of households that we protect. We will continue with that thoughtful planning in our work on what is, as everyone knows, a necessarily challenging strategic expenditure review process. Indeed, that is already happening.

One issue that we must take forward in that context—it is one that is important to the people of Hull and the surrounding area—is insurance. I recently met representatives of the Association of British Insurers to discuss how we could work together to ensure that we have a way forward on flood insurance and a road map to 2013, when the current agreement between the Government and the insurance industry, known as the statement of principles, ends. I am confident that the partnership that we have built with the ABI will help to ensure that appropriate and fair successor arrangements are in place after 2013.

On insurance, it is a matter of great regret that many of the people who are offered access to the cheap schemes often provided through local authorities or housing associations choose not to access them. I have raised this matter with the ABI and with housing associations, and I will continue to raise it across government if I have to. When such schemes can be included as part of people’s rent, I believe that there is a case for offering them as an opt-out, rather than an opt-in scheme. I know of a housing association that offers £5,000-worth of household insurance for 50p a week. It is perfectly possible for people to make a rational choice on this if they are given the necessary information. I think that an opt-out would be better than an opt-in, but that is a personal view. I shall, however, take the matter up with the ABI.

The hon. Lady talked about information being made available to insurers, and that is a crucial point. The Environment Agency is the guardian of the data on surface water management plans, and it is important that that information should be passed on to insurers. I have had exactly the same experience as the hon. Lady, where insurers just say that a house has been flooded, and as far as the insurance company or broker is concerned, no distinction is made between surface or fluvial water, or between whether any or a lot of remedial action has taken place. My local authority is the guardian of that information at the moment. I want the Environment Agency to be absolutely up front—there are no secrets. In fact, we want to make public the work that government in all its forms is doing, so let us make sure that the Environment Agency makes that data available as soon as possible, so that insurance can access it. I am completely with the hon. Lady on that.

Will the coalition Government support the flood summit this summer that the previous Labour Government had committed to holding? Will that happen? It seems a good opportunity to share information so that people understand what is happening.

Absolutely; it was an excellent idea brought forward by the previous Government and we will continue with it.

There is a lot of work in progress right now. I know that a working group has been set up in the Hull area to put together a multi-agency flood plan to define the roles and responsibilities of Government Departments and agencies for all flood risks. We have already heard from the hon. Lady about work by Hull city council on a surface water management plan. I understand that measures are in place to ensure joint working across Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire. That type of multi-agency and cross-boundary partnership working is especially valuable.

Consultation by the Environment Agency on the River Hull flood risk management strategy and the River Hull and coastal streams catchment flood management plan began early this summer—on 21 May, I believe—and will run for 12 weeks. It closes on 13 August. The strategy includes a number of recommendations on works to improve the defences in the city of Hull and the maintaining of pumping stations and flood banks. Such consultation is important. I would urge all groups and individuals with an interest in flood management in the area to contribute. That certainly includes farmers and others who naturally have concerns about the impact of possible changes on farm land. Their concerns are matters that will be fully considered as part of the assessment of options.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge that a lot of good work has been done since 2007, including by the people of Hull. The Environment Agency has almost completed a £10 million refurbishment of the Hull tidal barrier, which protects around 17,000 properties from tidal surges. Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency have undertaken to refurbish the equipment in the East Hull pumping station. The work to the agency’s pumps will cost around £900,000 and is due to be completed by the autumn.

There are new flood defence schemes at Burstwick, Hedon, which I believe is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and Hessle. The scheme at Hedon has been completed, while those at Burstwick and Hessle are under construction. Maintenance work and the removal of debris has happened on a number of watercourses, including the western drain, Setting dyke and Cryke beck. There have been improvements to pumping stations at East Hull and Bransholme, and the installation of new infrastructure at Burstwick, New Clough and Westlands drain. There has been a variety of small, local levy-funded projects—work funded by the local levy raised by the regional flood defence committee, plus supplementary funding from the Environment Agency, including projects in or close to the hon. Lady’s constituency.

There is more to do, including at the national level. I have already said that one of DEFRA’s top priorities is to take forward the findings of the Pitt review. Part of that is the work that we are now doing on the review of the regulations provided in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in the context of the better regulation action plan announced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We are working hard on establishing a time scale for implementing the Act, but it is especially pleasing that many of the authorities that will have new duties and powers under the Act are already getting on with managing flood risk. For our part, DEFRA is also working with key players, including local authorities, the Environment Agency and professional bodies, to ensure that they have the capacity to implement the Act.

Implementing Sir Michael’s recommendations is not all about legislative change. Another important part is ensuring that local emergency planners and responders have the tools they need. We know that our emergency services, local authorities and the affected communities all do a fantastic job when called upon. However, one of Sir Michael’s interim recommendations was that we should have a national flood emergency framework to provide a common point of reference. Like Sir Michael, I want to ensure that there is clarity about roles and responsibilities, and a proper multi-agency approach to both flood planning and the emergency response. We hope to publish the framework very soon.

One very good way of involving communities is through parish councils. In Swinefleet, in my constituency, and in Airmyn parish council, on which I sit, we have produced our own flood emergency plans. I think that we should try to extend that throughout the country, and get parish councils thinking about how they can deal with emergencies such as flooding.

I entirely agree. We discussed that at length during a recent meeting of the chairs of the forums. There is an enormous amount of work that we can do to encourage such activity. We need a bottom-up, community-led approach. Some might even describe it as a “big society” approach, while others might call it a co-operative movement. I do not care what it is called; what is important is to understand that a lot of emotion is involved in protecting people’s homes. I have seen wonderful examples of communities pulling together and not only enjoying the process, but creating a flood watch scheme rather like a neighbourhood watch scheme. People keep an eye on the excellent data that the Environment Agency now publishes, which enables them to provide information, make plans and take action whenever that is required.

It is also worth mentioning Exercise Watermark. On taking office, I was determined that the pressures on budgets should not prevent such an important exercise from taking place. Watermark will be a comprehensive test of local and national preparedness, and will no doubt yield some important lessons for us all. I am delighted that the Humber local resilience forum will be involved in the exercise, which is planned to take place next March.

Let me end by giving the hon. Lady an assurance. Yes, we face very difficult financial circumstances, and yes, DEFRA faces the challenge of identifying the savings that are necessary to the Government’s plans for dealing with the deficit. However, our absolute priority is to ensure that our flood defences remain as robust as possible. Of course I cannot guarantee that every single scheme will continue—I would not give that impression at a time when we are going through such a difficult process—but I can assure the hon. Lady that flood resilience is an absolute priority.

This Government want to continue in the spirit of the last Government, and to ensure that the schemes that are needed are there. We want to ensure that we are using every possible means to access funds—to use local resources and, when possible, levy funding—and also to ensure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as a Government. We will not satisfy everyone, but I can assure the hon. Lady that this is an absolute priority for the Department and the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.