[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
It seems rather appropriate to have this debate on a day when floods have hit Cornwall. It is nice to see so many Cumbrian colleagues in attendance. I thought I would begin by doing something that I think is appropriate. On the day of the floods we lost a very brave police officer who undoubtedly saved many lives; he left a wife and four children. We then had a terrible bus crash, in which two young people and the driver lost their lives. On top of that, we had the terrible horrors of the shootings that took place not too long ago in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed). I therefore ask Members to stand with me in silence for a few moments to commemorate those losses.
A period of silence was observed.
I thank hon. Members. The families and friends of those who lost their lives and the entire community of west Cumbria will have greatly appreciated that.
My memories of the floods are almost surreal. I had already spoken with the Environment Agency when river levels were rising, but when I walked into my local in Workington, the Green Dragon, everyone gathered there was, unusually, glued to the television screen, watching with incredulity. They could not believe what they were seeing: lifeboats on the main street of a small market town, and floods that, at their height, were eight or nine feet high. At one stage, the lifeboats could not be launched because of the speed of the river. I rang the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who had just got back from Brazil. He agreed to come up, and the following morning I was standing with him on the market place in Cockermouth, just off the main street, and the water around us was still very high. All we could hear were helicopters, and there was a bright yellow RAF helicopter winching someone to safety.
The phrase I used in my first television interview after the floods was not mine. While my right hon. Friend was being interviewed, I turned to someone from the town and said, “This is just unbelievable.” He replied, “Yeah, Tony, it’s like something out of the Bible.” The Sky television interviewer then asked me how I would describe the floods, and I immediately said that they were of biblical proportions. That was copied and echoed by many newspapers and so on, and people said that I was clever to think of it, but the words were those of a constituent who just happened to be standing next to me.
On that first day, we got in touch with Cumbria Community Foundation and launched an appeal. The nuclear industry in particular was extremely generous, giving tens of thousands of pounds to start it off. Cockermouth, Workington and Keswick are relatively small towns, but we raised about £2.5 million in that appeal, which says everything about the generosity of west Cumbrians, of Cumbrians and of the rest of the country. In fact, donations came in from other parts of the world.
The real heroes in the early days were the emergency services. What I am about to say I say not in anger, but in sadness. The police were absolutely superb in those early days, and yet today they are facing 20% cuts. The police community support officers who did such a fantastic job are now threatened with redundancy, and I understand that the number of local neighbourhood policing teams is to be cut from 21 to 10.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about our local police. Like me, he spends a lot of time speaking with members of the police force, including PCSOs. After the year they have been through, how do they feel they are being treated at the moment?
They feel let down, is the honest answer. I recently received a letter from a PCSO in one of the towns I represent—I will not mention which one—who made just that point. She said, “When the community needed us, we were there. We now need the state, the county council or whatever to help and support us. I hope they will be there for us.”
Turning to the ambulance service, there was recently a vote of no confidence by nurses in both the West Cumberland hospital and Carlisle hospital in the local trust because of cuts, changes to working patterns and so on. They did an incredible job, and not only during the floods. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland was there for the people he represents after the shootings in his constituency, and we can only imagine what it must have been like for those nurses having to deal with that. In such small communities, the victims were often people they knew, and gunshot wounds, as we know, are particularly horrific. Yet this is where they are now.
With regard to the fire brigade, I would like to ask the Minister to respond to a quote from the Pitt report, which states:
“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned”
as a necessity
“by a statutory duty.”
That recommendation was published in 2007, and I wonder where we are now. I talked with my local fire officers just a couple of hours ago. The centre where gold command worked during the floods was in Cockermouth, in the fire and rescue service headquarters. That is now going. The service has been offered either a relocation to Penrith, with a reduced number of staff, or outsourcing, which means they would all go. They co-ordinated the entire rescue, with the police, the coastguard and everything else, but that is what they tell me is happening to them.
I sympathise very much with the hon. Gentleman’s points. He listed the three professional emergency services that played such a crucial role a year ago, as they have done many times since. He may be coming to this point, but for many of us in Cumbria there is a fourth emergency service: the mountain rescue teams. His party’s Government refused to give back the VAT and vehicle excise duty that those teams have to pay from their voluntary donations. The present Government have made sympathetic noises about that. Will he join me and other Members in pressing the Government to release what is a relatively small amount of money to give those teams not only a financial boost, but the formal endorsement that we, the community, recognise the value of their work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and congratulate him—or perhaps offer my commiserations—on becoming president of his party. It is a great honour for him and for the county, so well done.
The hon. Gentleman can have a look at my speech notes, if he wants, but the next two words on the page are “mountain rescue”. Cockermouth mountain rescue team, in particular, gave immense help. It is unusual for people in my position to apologise, but I will, because we should have done as he suggests and exempted mountain rescue teams from VAT. I fed that into the Government whenever I could, but it was always resisted. I am happy to apologise for the fact that my Government—the Labour Government—did not do that. I fully support what he, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and others are trying to achieve, because it is important. There is a symbolism associated with it. It would say to the mountain rescue teams that they are recognised, and they should be rewarded and congratulated. As a little aside, in 2001, my very first question at Prime Minister’s Question Time was on mountain rescue teams. I have a great affinity with them, and I am happy to support what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) proposes.
Something else that is close to my heart is the lifeboat service, and during the floods the Maryport inshore rescue lifeboat in particular did incredible work. Just before the regional development agencies were disbanded, we had agreed a sum of about £1 million to build a new lifeboat station. That service now has a brand-new lifeboat, but nowhere to put it. It had planned to put it into a brand-new lifeboat station in Maryport, but there is no RDA funding.
I could go on discussing the emergency services. The RAF, too, did an incredible job, as did the coastguard and an organisation that many of us did not really expect to see: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That sounds strange, but the RSPCA was involved. I can remember being at a barrier set up to keep people away from the danger, and an elderly couple came up to me whose only concern—whose greatest concern—was their pet, which had been left in their flooded house. I got in touch with the RSPCA, which got a basket and rescued it. We should not forget its contribution.
The Environment Agency, in particular Glyn Vaughan and his team, did and are still doing a tremendous amount of work. In all the discussions and debates that the Minister will have on budgets, he should ensure that the Environment Agency is protected as much as possible.
Before my hon. Friend moves on too much further, we do not yet know the cost of the Cumbria floods. I believe that the insurance adjustments are about £200 million so far—I repeat, so far. The RSPCA undertook a fundamental role in protecting livestock. Has he spoken to any farmers—I know that he has spent a great deal of time with them over the past year—who need feed for their herds and cattle about the role of the RSPCA and how much money it may have saved them?
Thank you, Mr Sheridan. I very much concur with my hon. Friend’s comments, and farmers are saying that. Let us not forget that hundreds, if not more, of cattle, sheep and other livestock ended up out in the Solway Firth, having come down the Cocker or Derwent rivers and been swept away. The livestock were hugely important, but the fields are still covered by boulders and debris and there is still a huge amount of work to be done.
I also pay tribute to volunteers, of whom there were hundreds during that extremely difficult time. I am not sure how many of us would put up complete strangers. I am not sure how many of us would say to someone we had just met on the street, who had only the clothes that they were wearing, “Come and share my house with me,” yet that is what people did. They offered their own homes and bedrooms; they fed others and looked after them.
Another group I pay tribute to—I know that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will agree with me—is the churches. We forget at our peril the spiritual side of all of this. When people are going through trauma and difficulties, having lost their home and possessions, it is important to be able to talk things through with others. The churches were on the streets, not just offering tea, coffee, sandwiches and so on, but listening and talking to people, and being there for them. The churches together played a huge role, particularly in Cockermouth.
I also pay tribute to the local authorities, who did a tremendous job, in particular Jill Stannard, the chief executive of Cumbria county council. Other Members here will have known Jim Buchanan, a good, honest and decent man who passed away quite recently. I pay a personal tribute to him. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I also thank Harry Dyke and Jill Elliott from Allerdale borough council.
While I am thanking people, I should thank the media—I do not do that very often—both national and local. The Sky coverage was excellent, as was that of Border Television, BBC Radio Cumbria, and in particular my local newspaper, The West Cumberland Times and Star, and Nicole Regan and her staff. Their conduct was fantastic.
I am speaking into the microphone this time, Mr Sheridan.
My hon. Friend mentions the role of the media in the floods last year, and the crucial public service that they performed in informing people about water levels, weather forecasts and the emergency responses that were in place. Was he as saddened as I was to see such a stark contrast between how the media undertook and performed such a fundamental good this time last year, and how they acted in June?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In a sense, the media were with us for the floods, but during the terrible incident of the shootings—we have spoken about this in other debates—elements of the media behaved deplorably, offering people money and so on, so that within days the vast majority of people in west Cumbria wanted them to leave them alone.
I have said that the floods rose to nine feet. I talked about sheep and cows going down the river, but there were also containers—think of the size of a container on the back of a lorry—Ford Transit vans and people’s garden sheds swept down. It was incredible. Much of the focus was on Cockermouth, where businesses were devastated and the flooding was horrendous, but I also want to mention Hall Park View, which is in Workington. It was completely flooded—every house under several feet of water. People there felt that the focus was not on them because Hall Park View is just a single street, but they suffered equally. They got a little angry sometimes, and I can understand that. However, I was speaking to a resident from Hall Park View whose house had been flooded by several feet of water and I asked her, “How are things?” She said, “Well, Tony, there are people much worse off than us.” I thought that that summed up the spirit.
The hon. Gentleman will also please remember the communities of Eamont Bridge. The suffering of Cockermouth was truly terrible, but even in places such as Eamont Bridge near Penrith, there was terrible devastation of people’s lives and families. Perhaps we could look at institutional mechanisms that we can put in place to try to ensure that such things do not happen again. In Eamont Bridge, I noted the huge complexity of dealings with the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency, and trying to measure river flow. What sort of institutional procedures can we put in place to ensure that that does not happen again?
I offer my sympathies to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. As well as Hall Park View, the village of Barepot was completely devastated, but because it was on the other side of the river, people tended to forget about it. In Camerton, people could not bury their dead because the churchyard was flooded. Wives could not be buried next to their husbands and so on—it was horrendous.
On the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, there has to be co-ordination by a range of organisations, but the money has to be in place. I shall deal with local models a little later, but we could learn a great deal from the flood action groups—Sue Cashmore’s group in Cockermouth and Cecil Thompson’s group in Workington. Sue’s group, working with Brian Watson, actually has a structure. It has a chair and sub-committees, including ones dealing with the media and the Environment Agency. It is a very professional organisation, from which we could learn a great deal.
We have said that Cockermouth flooded, Workington flooded, houses flooded and so on, but that was only part of the story. The hon. Gentleman mentions Eamont bridge. The bridges going down in west Cumbria was absolutely devastating. Not only did it result in loss of life, but we lost Harbour bridge; we lost Northside bridge, where PC Barker lost his life; and we lost Navvies bridge. Workington, or Calva, bridge is still not open. On the Saturday, the Papcastle bridge was closed as well, and I talked to a taxi driver the following day. He had already agreed the fare—£5 or £6—to go from Workington to Seaton, which is a journey of about a mile. Someone standing in Workington can see Seaton. That day, the taxi driver did a 180-mile round trip: he drove from Workington to Penrith, Penrith to Carlisle, Carlisle to Maryport, and Maryport to Seaton. He then dropped his passenger off—for a fiver—and drove all the way back. That gives hon. Members some idea of the difficulties that we faced. On top of that, even when Papcastle bridge was repaired, people were still doing 20 or 30-mile round trips, when a mile would normally have done. The forbearance and patience of people in Seaton, Siddick, Northside, Barepot and further afield who were having to travel such huge distances, was absolutely incredible.
My hon. Friend is giving a moving, telling and detailed description of the events of last year. He has talked about the travel chaos and the absolute devastation that was caused to businesses and to people’s ordinary lives, but would he, as a former teacher, care to talk about the effect on the schooling of children in our part of the world—not just the effect on academic achievement and attainment, but the impact of the disruption to their lives, including their psychological well-being?
I am very happy to do that. I spoke to the then Secretary of State and the Schools Minister, and made the point that it might have to be borne in mind that, because of the disruption, some of the students would not do as well in their exams as they could have. They were having to get up two hours earlier and were then stuck in traffic, going round and round. Those who had been flooded out might have been living in a caravan, rented accommodation or a bed and breakfast, and might not have had a computer or been able to do their homework. All that had a massive effect. I was delighted that the Government gave additional funding for extra buses, but having to travel 30 miles to get to school, perhaps arriving late, and then leaving early and missing lessons so as to get back, also had a massive effect.
The big change came within a week of the floods, when we managed to get a footbridge up and running. People said to me, “Why did it take a week?” and I was thinking, “Hang on. We’ve done very well to get it done in a week.” I want to pay tribute to the Army, who did a fantastic job. I think that the footbridge came from Bedford. Getting a footbridge from there to Workington and getting 200 soldiers up there to pile both sides of the river and get a bridge across in a week was a phenomenal achievement, and it said an enormous amount about the armed forces. The local people took them to their hearts and kept going down with pizzas, cakes and sandwiches. After a few days, I spoke to the Army officer in charge and he said, “What is marvellous is that we have to do lots of drills and practices, and it’s nice to do something for real that makes a huge difference to the lives of people here.”
The hon. Gentleman rightly pays tribute to the swift work that was done to tackle some of the worst infrastructure problems. The previous Government, the local authority and the emergency services deserve credit for much of what has happened over the past 12 months. It is worth flagging up, however, that in Backbarrow in my constituency there is still no footbridge. Some 12 months on, the residents who live on one side of the river—the overall majority of the population—have no means of getting easily across it to where Leven Valley post office and primary school are located. Still today, children are being bused in to a school to which they ought to be able to walk. That is a county council responsibility, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman might ask the Minister to intervene, as the case is relatively easy to fix. That community is still rent in two.
I am sure that the Minister has taken appropriate note of that. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and the other Cumbrian MPs know, in the near future hopefully all six Cumbrian MPs will meet, and one issue that we will look at is flooding and bridges.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Army, and I also congratulate the reservists on the role that they played in securing the footbridge. The Minister had a bit part in the Government’s response to the Cumbria floods. Does my hon. Friend not worry, as I do, that with the abolition of the Government office for the north-west, which played a key role in co-ordinating not just the Army’s response but that of other agencies, and the abolition of the other RDAs, there will be a gap there for any other future natural, or other, disaster in the English regions?
I share that concern. I am delighted to see here the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, who vividly remembers the floods.
On the first morning, I rang Steve Broomhead, the chief executive of the regional development agency, and said, “There’s devastation here. If you look down the main street you will see that businesses have been flooded beyond repair.” He said, “You can have £1 million,” and not only did he deliver on that, but in the end he delivered £1.45 million to businesses. About 90% of the businesses in Cockermouth are back up and running, due in large part to the care, work and effort of the RDA, and that will be sorely missed.
This incredibly useful contribution is a fantastic way of raising with Parliament and Ministers the problems with the floods, and with planning for the future. May I push a little, not just on resources but on what we can actually do regarding planning, institutions and training? Looking at the current water levels in my constituency, and at what is happening to the world’s climate in general, what worries me is that we might be moving into a world where this happens far more frequently than we would like. Are there things, apart from providing money, we could do to ensure that this is a priority for the years to come?
There are things we can do. I mentioned the Pitt report, which I hope will be implemented. That will give a statutory role to all this planning. I am not saying that lack of maintenance caused the floods—they were created by the huge amount of rain—but dredging needs to take place, and we need to maintain our rivers. Part of the reason why the tree trunks and the branches came thundering down the rivers was that the rivers had not been cleaned out. If the Environment Agency has to make dramatic cuts in its budget, I am worried that one thing it will not do is all the general physical maintenance—the cleaning and dredging. That concerns me, and I am sure it concerns others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He will probably share my concern that the Government are cutting by a minimum of 20% the flood defences budget—I remember that from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Does he agree that that will do nothing except increase the likelihood that we will see such tragic events in Cumbria and elsewhere in the country?
I agree, and the best example I can give, if you will bear with me, is Carlisle. The flood defences created there cost about £35 million, and at the time of the Cockermouth floods, those defences held—only just, but they held. The estimated cost to the Exchequer—the state—of cleaning up if we had not invested that money was about £70 million or £80 million. Cutting back on flood defences and resilience measures is a short-term approach and does not value the long-term benefits accrued by investing now and in the near future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Powerful points have been made about maintenance and the need for co-ordination, and although he is right about the flooding in west Cumbria being of “biblical proportions”, does he agree that both co-ordination and maintenance were absent in Ulverston in south Cumbria and in the surrounding areas affected by flooding? There needs to be maintenance of investment and greater co-ordination to prevent buck-passing between agencies and local authorities. We have to grip this now if we are to prevent a repeat of the problem, as we have seen in the past week in Lowick Green, where the Farmers Arms flooded again, almost to the day that it was afflicted last time.
I agree, and co-ordination has to take place. If we do not invest now, we are only storing up problems and difficulties for the future. It is a little simplistic to say, “Well, we’ve got these budget cuts that we need to make”. To cut off or slow down funding now, which will mean a huge loss of investment in years to come, does not make any sense to me.
The hon. Gentleman is being characteristically generous. On the point about co- ordination being so critical, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for the all-party work that helped the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 pass at the end of the previous Parliament. It gives out co-ordination powers and various responsibilities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that means that those authorities that have been given responsibility need to take it? I have two examples. First, many communities around the Lakes, in my constituency and in others in Cumbria, such as Bowness and Ambleside, flooded because of poor preparation regarding the maintenance of water levels in the Lakes at the wrong time of year. Secondly, one only gets a flood warning text if there is a risk from river water flooding, not if the risk is from surface water flooding. Those issues need to be tackled, because although it may have been a once-in-a-thousand-years occurrence looking backwards, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, looking forwards, these will be much more regular occurrences.
I agree. Picking up on the hon. Gentleman’s point about co-ordination, I actually began having meetings with Cockermouth flood action group before the floods, and I have had meetings with Barepot-Workington flood action group as well. One of the things I always insist on is inviting Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Lake District National Park Authority, the Highways Agency, the local council and so on. Doing so avoids the issues that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale raised. If we are all sat round the same table with the residents from the action group, it is difficult to pass the buck and say, “Well, it’s not us, it’s the county council”, or, “It’s not us, it’s Natural England”.
The hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Westmorland and Lonsdale are right: more can be done that does not necessarily require additional hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure. However, as my hon. Friend said regarding Carlisle, not only did the expenditure there save up to 3,000 homes on the night of the 2009 floods; it saved 1,200 jobs at McVitie’s biscuit factory. The cost saving there alone was well worth the £35 million that went into the flood defences.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need hard defences as well as the soft defences further on in the environment? Parton, a village in my constituency, that has suffered in the past from flooding now has its own flood action group. People take shifts at 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning when the rain falls, alert each other, put down the sandbags and put in the flood barrier defences. We had council workers working in their spare time—unsalaried—and local businesses, such as drainage firms such as Mayson Bros, providing investment out of their own pocket. They were not contractors; they were doing it because they wanted to do it. That is the definition of something that has existed for 200 or 300 years—the big society. That same building company, if it is on the bones of its backside because the contracts are not coming in, and that same council worker, if he is still in a job, probably will not be inclined to put in that extra effort now—
I agree with my hon. Friend. Sue Cashmore and Brian Watson’s group in Cockermouth has looked again at what happens when they get a flood warning—who goes where and to which high ground and which buildings, and how many people there are. It is all organised and sorted, so if that is what the big society is, they are doing it and have been for some time.
I mentioned the footbridge, which was vital, but we needed a road bridge, and the only bridge that existed was the railway, so we needed a new railway station and a train to run between Maryport and Workington, because that was the only way of getting across the river. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), because whenever I went to him and said, “I need”, he said, “You can have”. There was rarely a hesitation. I said, “Look, the need is desperate. We need a road bridge quickly”. I think we got a road bridge in about three months, which cost about £5 million. That is a lifesaver for people on both sides of the river. The free train cost about £1.5 million, and sometimes it was full and had to do extra journeys, but it kept the wheels oiled and turning. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is here.
The team of companies that got the new rail station up in, I think, six days, which is an incredible record, won a national award at Grosvenor House. We have all seen when travelling by train the people at the ends of platforms taking the numbers, and one of the funniest things was that they flocked to west Cumbria. There was a new train and station, and they were there taking photographs, which helped the tourism industry enormously. Strangely enough, the chief executive—the top man—of Direct Rail Services Ltd lives in Seaton, so it was useful for him to be able to get backwards and forwards.
This will be a brief intervention as the hon. Gentleman has been very generous. On tourism, I wonder whether it is worth pointing out that the media, which did a wonderful job during the flood crisis, as has been said, nevertheless also contributed—probably inadvertently—to the general sense that Cumbria was closed for business. When the flood waters went away, perhaps even after a week or 10 days, people as close as Lancaster would not visit the Lake district because they assumed that we were all in complete chaos. As may have been noticed, I have kept out of the resource discussions, but as the hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree, a strong marketing operation is utterly crucial, so that Cumbria can stand up against those problems and ensure that it is clear that it is open for business when such things happen, as they occasionally and inevitably do.
I very much agree, and I want to touch on tourism a little later. There are ongoing problems; there are businesses still not back in operation and people still out of their homes. I want to highlight one particular case that I have been trying to deal with: that of Mrs Michelle Lockett, who is still not back in her home due to disputes between loss adjusters and the insurance company.
I am sure this is only a coincidence and has nothing at all to do with the debate, but, strangely enough, I got an e-mail this morning—we should remember that this situation has been going on for 12 months. In it, a guy from the National Insurance and Guarantee Corporation—the insurance company—says:
“The current position with this claim is that the majority of the Buildings element of the claim has been settled…With regards to the Contents element of the claim we have agreed to accept this part of the claim subject to the normal terms and conditions”.
I want to send a clear message to NIG and Crawford that I will be watching this case very closely.
Having said that, I am not going to have a go at all insurance companies and loss adjusters. When I meet them, they say that 70 or 80% of people are happy with what went on. There are examples of good practice among such companies. Some people in Cockermouth were back in their homes within a couple of months. I am not, therefore, having a go, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the insurance industry, of course, also includes practitioners of whom we would not want to see too many? However, the insurance industry and the insurance companies were a pivotal component of the community’s response in getting back on its feet after the floods.
Yes, absolutely. I pay tribute to the insurance companies and the good loss adjusters, but I want to remind people that things are not perfect. If people are still out of their homes after this length of time, something has obviously gone wrong.
I have a few ideas for the Minister from constituents—people such as Sue Cashmore and Michelle—about how insurance can be developed. I will not go through those ideas now, but leave them with the Minister. I ask him to take serious cognisance of them, because local people often have some very good ideas. I also had a visit from the CBI recently. It had concerns about climate change and small businesses, and perhaps I can pass on its comments and questions to the Minister.
In passing, I want to mention the consultation and the idea of a flood tax, which the Minister will no doubt comment on. There is an idea that, on top of having to pay additional—
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to reply. I have come across examples of insurance premiums being tripled or quadrupled and of people being asked to pay a £10,000 or £15,000 excess. People could now be asked to make a contribution on top of that. In my discussions with people in west Cumbria, that idea has gone down like a lead balloon.
I know that tourism is close to the heart of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. [Interruption.] I welcome the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson). It is nice to see him here. I think we have a full turnout of Cumbrian MPs, which is superb. Tourism is vital, but I wonder what message it sends when the chief executive of the Cumbria tourist board comes to see me and says that one third or two thirds of his staff have had to be axed. Half of them have already gone.
I want to say something that moves slightly away from what I have said so far, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland will talk about this, too, because it relates to the future of the nuclear industry. The one thing the people of west Cumbria—people such as Ron Williams from Bothel, Margaret O’Hare from Tallentire, and the residents of Westnewton—do not want any more of is in onshore wind farms. Even the planning inspectorate tells me that the cumulative effect of so many onshore wind farms in such a small area should be considered when looking at planning applications.
I supported offshore wind turbines, which generate enough electricity for about half of Cumbria. However, when people are prepared to put in a field half a dozen wind turbines that generate little electricity and are perceived as an absolute eyesore by those who have to live by them, we have to think again. There must be a balance between generation on the one hand and tourism and the environment on the other.
As Mr Ron Williams also pointed out—I can only concur—the wind blows on some days, but not on other days. However, the tide comes in twice a day, every day. We need to look at that issue, and I hope the Minister will say one or two words about it. There were plans for a barrage across the Solway to generate the electricity we need, but—
Okay. I will certainly do that, and I thank you for your good grace, Mr Sheridan.
I want to say a couple more things just to finish. Two things stick in my mind. Let me give hon. Members an example of how Cumbrian people reacted to the floods. The bridge had gone down and, tragically, the police officer had been killed. The community of Northside was left without electricity or telephones. Hearing that elderly people in Northside did not have access to telephones—they were elderly so they did not have a mobile phone—someone from Penrith, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, went into the town, bought 10 mobile phones, put money on them all, drove to Workington and handed them in to the community centre, saying, “These are for elderly people who don’t have access to telephones.”
I have one other little memory, and I will finish on this note. Jennings brewery was badly damaged and flooded. It was not able to produce the wonderful beer that it normally produced, so the beer had to be produced in Burton. Ten pence from the price of the beer was going to the Cumbria flood appeal, and I cannot remember the number of times I was in a pub when someone said, “I think I’ll just have another one. It’s for a good cause.” Those efforts raised about £178,000, which is a lot of 10 pences. It also says a lot about the amount of beer that is drunk.
In conclusion, people might think we are asking for special treatment in west Cumbria. However, I want the Minister to comment on the memorandum of agreement, because we are asking for the special treatment that is already provided for. I thank the Minister, and I thank all hon. Members for their comments so far. I will sit down and let others make their contributions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) for securing the debate. He has been after it for some time, and I am glad that, as usual, he has succeeded. He gave me my start in politics—for good or ill—when I was briefly his researcher in the European Parliament and it is a pleasure to work alongside him now. I speak in this debate as the shadow Minister with responsibility for this policy area, but also as a constituency MP directly affected by these issues.
I wish to point to the tireless work that my hon. Friend undertook this time last year, not only for his own constituents, but for the whole of west Cumbria, including my constituents. When the floods hit, my hon. Friend was a Government Whip, so he was unable to take part in any debates. However, his constituents know what he did on the Thursday night, as the rain kept coming down. They also know about the work he threw himself into on the Friday morning, when the devastation became apparent, and about the work that he has continued doing to this very day.
It is often said that the man who is his own advocate has a fool for a client, so I feel duty-bound to say these things on my hon. Friend’s behalf. Frankly, he hides his light under a bushel. I am proud to have him as my neighbour and to work alongside him on so many issues. I am also grateful that many of my friends and family members, who live in his constituency, have him as their MP.
My hon. Friend and I were in constant contact as the disaster unfolded, and I know what he did in the midst of the chaos—no one could have done more. He ensured that skips were made available for people emptying their homes. He went to buy nappies for the child of a young mother who was in desperate need and who did not know where else to turn. In addition—and he has not mentioned this—he was pivotal in establishing the local relief fund and in prising open the Treasury’s coffers, with the help of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who is no longer in his place, for funding for bridges, temporary train services and much more. I passionately believe that he provided a definition of a first-class Member of Parliament, and of leadership. He did what he did because he believes passionately in west Cumbria’s people and potential.
The belief, optimism and hope that pervaded not just west Cumbria but Barrow and other parts of the county in November 2009 are harder to find now, as they are throughout much of the country, because in addition to the floods and the community-wide psychological effects—the trauma and devastation—caused by them, our area, as has been said, has suffered significant further trauma since then. Earlier this year, two school pupils from Keswick school were killed when their bus was involved in a road traffic accident. Such a senseless loss of life caused widespread grief throughout my constituency, throughout my hon. Friend’s constituency of Workington, in Allerdale and further afield. Soon after, as the community was still reeling from that disaster, 12 people were murdered in that quiet corner of England. The community is still dealing with that event and processing its long-term response. My heart goes out to all those who were affected, and I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members present today for the recognition and respect that they gave to them at the beginning of the proceedings.
I mention those events because they are relevant. They are issues to which the community must respond and challenges that we must meet. The pattern is clearly one of challenge after challenge. None of us can directly understand the pain caused to those families who were affected by the events, but as a community our response has been typically resilient. However, I must be entirely honest—as my hon. Friend has been and as I am sure other hon. Members will be—and say that that resilience is not helped when the community sees reductions in the number of police officers and hospital services; money for rebuilding its schools taken away; widespread redundancies at the publicly funded Sellafield nuclear facility, which is the cornerstone of our local economy; and now cuts to the national flood defence budget. Our community shows stoicism in the face of tragedy beyond our control, but anger in the face of ideologically driven political choices inflicted by a remote Government with a dubious democratic mandate. I shall move on to those issues later.
I wish to pay tribute again to PC Bill Barker, who lost his life in the floods on 20 November last year. PC Barker was a constituent of mine and few, if any, of us can know what the Barker family are going through now. As the anniversary of his death approaches, it must be particularly difficult. It is a difficult subject to talk about. However, following his ultimate sacrifice, I know that he still occupies the thoughts of our entire community. He is incredibly well thought of and is held in almost unimaginable affection in the town of Workington.
I know that I have just spoken, but I want to pay tribute to Bill Barker’s wife, Hazel, who is a wonderful woman. She lost her husband and has four children. When I meet her or talk to other people about her the one thing that comes through is the incredible dignity of the woman. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees.
My hon. Friend puts it better than I ever could. Mrs Barker has displayed remarkable integrity and incredible dignity and is a superb mother to her children. I am sure that her husband would have been very proud.
PC Barker gave his life serving others and did it instinctively. Many of us either would not or could not do that. His sacrifice provides a definition of heroism for us all. His heroism was commended by the then Prime Minister and the heir to the throne, but the tributes from his wife, children and colleagues dominate all the others, in my memory. He was a devoted father and husband, an extraordinary friend and a supremely committed police officer. He elicited a rare combination of love and respect from those who knew him. He gave all he had for the people he served and will for ever be remembered by the people of west Cumbria.
Last year, the towns of Workington, Keswick and Cockermouth, and the areas around them, were the places most seriously affected by the floods that hit Cumbria. In Workington and Cockermouth there was devastation that is uncommon in west Cumbria. Streets were swept away, homes were ruined, businesses were badly affected and lives were put on hold. As Alan Irving of the Whitehaven News remarked at the time, the whole community of west Cumbria came together in the wake of the floods. Rivalries were abandoned—my hon. Friend the Member for Workington and I need not talk about rivalry, as there is certainly none between us, but our towns have long been the best of enemies, in a friendly way—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 in my hon. Friend’s constituency, helping as best I could, as the then deputy Regional Minister for the North West. I was overwhelmed to see my constituents fetching what food, clothing, toiletries, blankets and, in some instances, toys they could to help the people of Cockermouth and Workington who were stationed there. Those constituents of mine, who had travelled 20 or 30 miles to do so, saw it as their job and duty, and it is typical of them and of the constituents of my hon. Friend 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 we must first understand what happened. Credit must go to the Met Office for the ability it now has to predict extremes of weather with such precision. In the days prior to the floods we knew that they were likely. Heavy rain and gales affected Cumbria from 18 to 20 November, and the associated high river flows and flooding problems were made worse by ground that had already been saturated. By 18 November, Cumbria had already received close to the average rainfall for the whole month. The floods affected more than 1,300 homes and left many more without power and water. Of all the towns and villages involved, Cockermouth, as I have said, was the worst affected. Water levels there reached 2.5 metres. The village of Seathwaite set an unenviable record of receiving 314.4 mm of rain in 24 hours—a new UK record for the wettest November day in a single location.
As the forecast heavy rain arrived, gold command, as my hon. Friend mentioned, was promptly established. I had the opportunity to visit gold command at Carlton hall in Penrith, with the then Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The work that was undertaken there was remarkable. I have worked in the nuclear industry and am used to planning for emergency events, including evacuations, the co-ordination of local authorities and emergency services. To see the command in action was, in a strange way, reassuring. From the point of view of someone who lives in west Cumbria, having been born and raised there-—and as a council tax payer there—it was incredibly reassuring to see that the system worked, and worked well. If there are lessons to be learned from that and rolled out across the country, I would urge the Minister, who I know is sincere in his desire to improve things, to understand those lessons as well as he can.
The forecast heavy rain arrived and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said, people were evacuated from Cockermouth by helicopter. It was a surreal experience to see on television Sea Kings hovering just above the Cockermouth main street—something we thought that we would never see and hope never to see again—irrespective of the extraordinary times that we have lived through in west Cumbria in the past 12 months. My hon. Friend was the pairing Whip at the time, and he had not let me off. Therefore fortunately—or unfortunately—I was stranded in London. My hon. Friend let himself off the Whip so he was not stranded, but that has not affected our relationship and I bear no grudges.
The rapid attendance and full attention of the then Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs was incredibly important. It gave everybody in the area a sense of solidarity and genuine togetherness. To know that politicians from all parties, but especially the country’s leading politician and the relevant Secretary of State, were with us in a time of crisis, was important. It was unprompted and genuine.
Perhaps I can lighten things a little. I was in the sheep and wool centre with the Prime Minister. When he came in, he held the hand of a blind lady in a wheelchair. Somebody said, “It’s Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister”, and she said, “Y’all right, lad?” It must have been many years since the Prime Minister had been referred to as a lad, but that is typical of west Cumbria.
I was not there, but I think I saw that on television. By that time, I was safe, warm and dry, and matters were well in hand. I recall that the Prime Minister visited on more than one occasion during those two days. He was exceptionally busy.
I was incredibly pleased at the time to learn that the Government had implemented the Bellwin scheme, and that rather than meeting 85% of costs, which I believe is typical in such incidents, the scheme was introduced in such a way as to allow 100% of costs to local authorities to be met. That was an incredibly wise move. The Government confirmed that 100% of costs would be met, rather than the standard 85% and, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it was made clear that the costs of building the temporary bridge in Workington—the Barker crossing—would be met by the Department for Transport. The Department also contributed other short-term resources to help the county implement its highways recovery plan, and ensure that all affected areas were back in working order as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to all those involved in the logistics of establishing the train service and to those who helped to establish the brand new Tesco overnight, which was adjacent to the train service. It is a tribute to the feats that people can achieve in times of crisis. I pay tribute to Cumbria police, under the fantastic leadership of chief constable Craig Mackey, and to the county council, under the leadership of Jill Stannard, who I believe had been made chief executive that very day. I thank Cumbria fire and rescue service, the local NHS, the Environment Agency and all the welfare charities that have been mentioned. I also mention British Telecom and other utility companies, our magnificent armed forces and reservists, and many others who acted in superb concert as the floods hit.
The media have been mentioned briefly. Radio Cumbria was absolutely indispensible at the time. It became an irreplaceable service which, in my opinion, immediately demonstrated the value and strength of public service broadcasting—something that no other organisation could have provided. Border Television from the independent sector was also incredibly impressive.
As I went around the flooded areas, it became clear from several conversations I had just how vital the mountain rescue teams had been, especially in Keswick. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is no longer in his place, but he is right. For many years he has been a stalwart advocate of the need for mountain rescue teams to have their VAT refunded. When the Labour party was in government, I joined him in that view, both privately and publicly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington also joined in the debate, privately and often stridently. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I know that the Minister will take note of that point. It is a difficult issue because in our part of the world, and in many other places like Cumbria such as the Pennines, mountain rescue is a vital emergency service.
A number of organisations acted in remarkable concert. After speaking to people in Keswick about the mountain rescue service I was left in no doubt as to what the service provided. The case for financial help from the state is irrefutable. I mention the big society but not in a pejorative sense. Quite simply, if one seeks a definition for the kinds of things that underpin that centuries-old concept, the mountain rescue teams provide one such example. They offer services that no one else can, or will, provide.
Away from the heavily hit areas, many other towns and villages in west Cumbria were affected by the flooding. In some quarters, they were referred to as “the forgotten flooded”—places such as Parton, Cleator, Holmrook, Bootle, Egremont, Lorton and elsewhere. Thankfully, those areas did not witness the same devastation as Workington and Cockermouth, but they endured real suffering that was equally deserving of Government resources and support. At the time, I made the case in the Chamber that such support should have been forthcoming. I saw the effects of the flooding on those communities, and I pointed out that no community should be left behind. As a country, we need to take forward that principle and enshrine it in our flood defence policies.
Ultimately, the costs of recovery in Cumbria are not yet fully known. If we look at the insurance claims that have been made and paid so far, they are in excess of £200 million. However, we do not know what the effect has been on the economy or the tourism industry, and we do not yet know the long-term effects on agriculture and other sectors, so the final figure will be significantly in excess of £200 million.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington paid tribute to a number of ordinary people who were involved in the response to the floods when they hit. I wish to take the opportunity to pay tribute again to a special Copeland borough councillor, Councillor David Banks. When the banks of the River Ehen burst and houses along the banks of that river were flooded, he went to the aid of some elderly people who lived in his patch. With his bare hands, in the deluge and the pouring rain, he tried to rebuild the river bank with stones and baskets as the rain kept coming. That is the kind of people we are. Whenever my hon. Friend and I have taken part in debates such as this over the past 12 months, such statements have almost become a cliché, but it is no less true. That is the kind of people we are in west Cumbria and people such as Councillor Banks are the kind of public servants that we need.
As the people in the village of Parton taught me five years ago, it takes only a little bit of water to cause immense damage and for a flood to have a huge impact on the life of a family and its memories. Just one foot of water can ruin a home and destroy treasured and irreplaceable possessions such as invaluable photographs and mementos of children and other loved ones. Floods take away so much that can never be replaced.
The Environment Agency is among those organisations that have been pivotal in achieving recovery from the floods, not just at the time but since then. In the six months following the flooding, it extended the free flood warning service to an additional 3,000 Cumbrian homes and businesses. It began work with 30 flood action groups and commissioned a £100,000 study to look at the current standards of flood protection and possible options to reduce future flood risk in Cockermouth. In Keswick, it invested more than £700,000 in flood defence walls in the High Hill area, and in Ulverston it repaired existing flood defences and improved other flood defences to certain properties.
Before the floods last year, Carlisle had received significant investment in defences—between £30 million and £35 million—following the floods of 2005. Cockermouth, Keswick and Ulverston had all benefited from some flood defence investment under the last Government, and much more was planned. For example, in Keswick, which is now in my constituency following the boundary change before the last election, the Environment Agency had done a study to justify improvement works and had allocated funding to design works in 2010-11 for construction at an estimated cost of £5 million. I ask the Minister in all sincerity and with genuine respect to ensure that those works proceed. I certainly hope that they do. I have written to the Secretary of State regarding that issue, and I hope that the Minister can today give my constituents in Keswick the assurances that they seek about the flood works that they expect to take place there.
In Ulverston, funding had been allocated for 2010-11 to develop a scheme for Dragley beck, which is programmed for construction in 2011-12 at a cost of £2 million. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington will want it to be taken forward as well. The project at Dragley beck would raise the existing once-in-20-years standard of flood protection to once in 70 years. For Cockermouth, indicative funding is in place to begin studying a potential scheme in 2012-13.
The Environment Agency brought forward other schemes for Cumbria under the previous Government. In the light of the cuts, can the Minister notify Cumbrian local authorities about which flood defence schemes will be continued and which will be scrapped? The people of Cumbria have a right to know that as a matter of urgency. Heavy rainfall has raised the spectre of flooding again in the past few days. Flooding has been a real possibility in Keswick and elsewhere, and we need to know where we stand.
Flooding is one of the most difficult issues facing the nation. It is likely to happen more, not less. Carlisle flooded in 2005, before the horrendous floods in 2007 and the Cumbrian floods in 2009. We need to be able to meet the practical and policy challenges that flooding poses. The nature of that policy challenge for every community at risk of flooding means that it must be properly resourced by Government. The previous Labour Government more than doubled spending on the management of flood risk. That is beyond doubt: it is irrefutable. We are talking about west Cumbria today, but none of us should forget the other communities that have been affected by flooding devastation. I think that the costs of the floods in 2007 were in excess of £3 billion. Thirteen lives were lost. None of us should forget that.
Between 2007 and 2009, the Environment Agency completed 106 flood defence schemes. Will the Minister tell us how many flood defence schemes will be undertaken by the agency under its newly cut budget, year by year for the life of this Parliament? Further to that, will he tell us where those schemes will be? Communities such as those in Leeds and elsewhere need to know what is happening to their flood defence capability.
I genuinely look forward to working with the Government and with the Minister on issues on which we agree. Flooding should not be a party political issue. It should be an issue of national interest, on which we all work in concert to achieve the best results. However, an air of chaos is creeping into flood defence policy and planning in DEFRA. The £170 million cut in flood defence budgets just is not necessary. Indeed, it is fundamentally wrong. We all want to see greater efficiency in how public money is spent. I support the Minister on that, but I cannot support a £110 million cut in capital spending and a cut in excess of £60 million in flood and coastal erosion defence maintenance budgets.
The Association of British Insurers has expressed its disappointment. The insurance company Liverpool Victoria believes that reducing current flood defence maintenance budgets means that
“thousands of homes still at risk of flooding may lose home insurance cover.”
The Institution of Civil Engineers has also expressed concerns about the cuts in flood defence budgets. Now, the people of this country who live in areas of flood risk are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington mentioned, haunted by the spectre of a flood tax. A Conservative Member said earlier from a sedentary position that that was a myth. I hope so and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to explain why that is the case when he makes his remarks.
We know that the statement of principle between insurers and Government expires in 2013, which is only a few years away. Negotiation on that issue will be complex, so can the Minister tell hon. Members about the plan? Where are we going on this issue? Will he now publish the road map that was mentioned following the insurance summit in September?
We are used to the English language being assaulted by the present Government. The Prime Minister achieves nothing in Europe, but calls that a “spectacular success”. The Secretary of State for Health claims to match Labour’s spending, yet Conservative MPs from up and down the country tell me that hospital wards are being closed by stealth. Instead of being freed of red tape, police officers are actually being freed of their jobs. The Chancellor of the Exchequer claims to be protecting more homes from flooding by cutting the flood defence budget, and the self-proclaimed “greenest Government ever” will struggle to be the greenest Government of 2010. Welcome to the world of DEFRA-nomics, where we are meant to believe that those most affected by the cuts being imposed are, perversely, the most happy at the prospect. That will not wash.
Tragically—and there is an air of tragedy around this, as I have said—DEFRA Ministers currently occupy one of two positions. Either they actively want the Government to abandon their responsibilities or, as they used to refer to it, “get out of the way” and therefore are happy for these ideological cuts to affect flood defences in an exceptionally damaging way, or they really have no understanding of how the cuts will affect homes, businesses and communities up and down the country. The former is almost worse, because it would suggest that the likely effects of the cuts are understood, but are being disregarded. Which is it? Surely the cuts cannot have been made in ignorance. Surely they cannot have been planned in ignorance and will not be prosecuted in ignorance.
Will the Minister tell us today which flood defence schemes in which areas will be cut and which will proceed? Will he take the opportunity to tell us what discussions he has had with which local authorities about how they should pick up the flood defence burden, particularly in the light of cuts in their own budgets? Will he tell us how many flood defence schemes will go ahead for each year of this Parliament and where those schemes will be located? I hope that if he cannot tell me or other hon. Members that today, he will undertake to write to me or place a paper in the Library detailing where cuts in flood defence projects will be made.
Flood damage costs in England alone are more than £1 billion a year. According to Environment Agency calculations, one in six homes in England is at risk from flooding. More than 2.4 million properties are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea in England, and half of those are at significant risk. The Minister is aware of the figures. A further 2.8 million properties are vulnerable to surface water flooding. The Environment Agency calculates that in the worst-case scenario, annual flood damage costs could exceed £27 billion across the UK by 2080. Clearly, that is some way off, but it is a rate of increase that none of us would want.
This is no time to be playing fast and loose with our flood defences, no time for DEFRA-nomics and no time for cutting flood defence budgets. If the Government will not change their mind in the face of overwhelming evidence, independent advice and the experiences of very real human suffering that we know flooding causes, they must at least be honest about where their axe will fall and which communities they will abandon. We need transparency and honesty, but most of all, we need the Government to think again.
I thank the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), for the 32 minutes of his speech on this subject. In the 12 minutes that I have left to respond to the many very serious points that have been made in the debate, I will endeavour to answer his questions, but he has not left me enough time. I guarantee that I will write to him.
I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). On this day, which is almost the anniversary of the tragic occurrences in his and neighbouring constituencies, and on the day that we are thinking of the people on the south coast of Cornwall who have suffered similar disruption to their lives, although, happily, not quite as tragically as in his constituency, he and the hon. Member for Copeland are right to link those events with other tragedies that have happened in their area. I come from a constituency that suffered the flooding of more than 2,000 houses in 2007; it also contains the town of Hungerford. I therefore feel a sense of empathy.
The hon. Member for Workington should be applauded for his reasoned words, for his genuine honesty and for his generosity of spirit. He has shown his pride in the performance of people in his constituency, old and young, those who had a statutory role in the rescue activities and those who did not, who buckled down and did what they could. He has shown a generous appreciation of the efforts of the emergency services, the Environment Agency and the local authorities. It is touching to think of the role played by organisations such as the RSPCA as well. Perhaps the most moving was his tribute to the spirit of the local people.
The hon. Gentleman knows well that, just because a year has passed and his last constituent is, we hope, on the point of going back into a house, the problems are not over. In my constituency, the level of stress reported by local doctors’ surgeries increases when it rains. There is an element of post-traumatic stress related to such incidents that I am not sure we have got our heads around. Given the other tragedies that have occurred in Cumbria, I am sure that he and his colleagues will experience something similar. It is good to see every MP from Cumbria present for this debate. I pay tribute to their cross-party consensus, their pride in their area and their determination to learn from what happened.
I can pay no greater tribute than to Sue Cashmore, whom I must meet. I am sure that hon. Members are keen for me to big up other heroes, but what she is doing is fantastic. The hon. Member for Workington spoke with great feeling at the flood summit about the work being done by local flood groups, and they deserve our appreciation. To answer some of his points, I refer to what has been achieved through the summit. I hope also to dispel the myths that have been propounded by some hon. Members today.
I was asked about Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations on fire and rescue services. In fact, the Pitt review was not categorical on the issue of a statutory duty. It proposed that one should be introduced “as necessary”. There would be significant drawbacks to such a statutory duty. In his review of the response of the fire and rescue services to the floods of summer 2007, Sir Ken Knight, the Government’s chief fire and rescue adviser, concluded that a duty was not necessary. Fire and rescue authorities already turn out to flood events, as evidenced by past flood incidents. It is therefore not clear what difference a statutory duty would make. Moreover, a statutory duty could lead to the fire and rescue service being the only organisation carrying out flood rescue, because other responders, including many skilled and experienced voluntary organisations, such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, might feel that they were somehow subsidiary to that.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that we are about to announce a substantial sum of money to be spent by fire and rescue services, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Red Cross on flood rescue equipment. That announcement will be made tomorrow. It will cover a number of fire and rescue services, although I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman’s local service is included; I would be happy to inform him later.
I accept that. We will announce £700,000 as the first part of a £2 million fund for flood rescue equipment for fire services.
I will take up with the Treasury the point about mountain rescue services raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and I will keep him informed. I heard the points made by the hon. Member for Copeland about the wonderful role played by mountain rescue teams and the difficulties they face, and I will bear those in mind in relation to our strategies.
Hon. Members have spoken about bridges and of the wonderful and speedy work that was done to return those vital communications links to their communities. We must learn from those processes and consider whether we can perform them even quicker. I understand the problem facing the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Backbarrow, and I will keep in touch with him.
On schools, from my experience of the floods of 2007, I think that local authorities should include a member of the local education authority in their initial emergency planning team. If a flood happens in the day, parents need to know whether it is safer to collect their children or to leave them at school. If it happens in the night, they want to know whether schools are open or closed. It is important that LEAs are kept informed.
On funding, it is important that we understand the points that have been made about the demise of the Government office for the north-west. We are in the throes of rolling out the recommendations of the Pitt review and the important provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. That requires a coherent and cohesive strategy at national and local level. We are testing that seriously in Exercise Watermark, which the Secretary of State and I are going to see in progress tomorrow. The main part of the exercise will happen in March. It will test co-ordination, resilience and strategic risk planning at national and local level. We are determined that every aspect of that part of Sir Michael Pitt’s important report will be seen through. We have secured the funding to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced and to secure all the emergency activities that were so ably and rightly described by the hon. Member for Workington.
I will deal now with the myth of a flood tax. I am probably at fault for the way in which I floated our plans before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. That allowed for the hon. Gentleman’s comments in the local paper about a lead balloon, which I read. Of course such a proposal would go down like a lead balloon in flood-traumatised constituencies such as his and mine. I am not in the business of introducing a flood tax. However, I want to ensure that we provide for communities that always miss out because they cannot compete with other communities that bring forward plans for flood defences that offer a much better return for the money. Some communities, year after year, are pushed down the list in that way. Through our flood and coastal erosion management strategies, more communities are identifying risk, yet some are constantly pushed down. We want to provide those communities with some comfort, so we are saying that there are ways of unlocking funding that does not necessarily come from the taxpayer. I have seen innovative schemes around the country in which the planning system has been used to unlock additional money which, when added to Government funding, puts a scheme above the line and makes it possible. I assure hon. Members that a considerable number of schemes will go ahead that are fully paid for by the taxpayer, but we have to look for ways to unlock further funding. If the hon. Member for Copeland is honest with himself, he will acknowledge that if his party was in government now, he would be looking at precisely such methods—he would be mad not to.
I would love to go into detail about the many other issues that have been raised in the debate and pay further tribute to the wonderful people of Cumbria and the way they have responded to the terrible tragedy. In particular, I pay tribute to the family of PC Bill Barker. We have an opportunity for the House to work together. I will answer the points to which I was unable to respond in the short time that I was left, but I assure the hon. Member for Copeland that I will work with him, and any other hon. Member, to ensure that the problems faced by communities that have experienced flooding, and those that, sadly, will experience it in the future, are dealt with in a cohesive and strategic way.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.