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Flood Risk Management

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2011

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

There is a contradiction at the heart of the Government’s policy on flood alleviation. In answer to a parliamentary question about flood risk, the Minister told me that

“The latest UK climate science confirms that rising sea levels and more severe and frequent rain storms are likely to occur—resulting in increasing flood and coastal erosion risk.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 922W.]

He said that the Environment Agency suggests that river flows may increase by 20% by later this century.

On the same day but in answer to another question, the Minister said that the flood risk management budget, paid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Environment Agency, would fall from £354 million this financial year—the Government inherited that figure from the former Labour Administration—to £259 million next year. That is a reduction of 27%. It does not make sense to reduce public investment in flood risk management when those risks, and the costs that flow from those risks, are increasing.

Capital funding in Yorkshire has been hit harder than in any other region. According to a letter from the deputy chairman of the Environment Agency to the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee, funding has fallen by more than 50% compared with last year. Why has my region suffered a larger cut in Government funding than all the others?

The consequences for Yorkshire have been blunt. Three schemes in the Environment Agency’s programme were to have gone ahead in 2011-12. All three have been axed. The York scheme would have provided improved flood defences for the Water End and Leeman road areas of the city. There was a scheme for Thirsk. There was a large scheme to protect Leeds city centre, and York still needs flood defences to be provided in the Clementhorpe area, but that was not included in the original programme.

The Environment Agency tells me that those schemes have been deferred indefinitely, but I was pleased to hear the Minister saying in response to an urgent question in the House earlier today that the schemes have not been cancelled. Will he explain to my constituents the exact status of those schemes? If they have not been cancelled, I presume that it is envisaged that they will go ahead. Will he give us a time scale for when those schemes are to go ahead?

Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is considerable urgency for flood schemes in the city of York? I shall be talking about Leeds later, but when I lived in the city of York the Kings Arms was flooded almost to extinction almost every other year. Does he not agree that we badly need these schemes, especially those for York and Leeds?

The River Ouse, which flows through the centre of York, drains water from about 3,000 sq km of the Pennines. When there is heavy rainfall, the river rises enormously. At the moment, York has severe floods; the river has risen by about 15 feet above its summer level. When that happens, the Kings Arms public house gets flooded. I am sorry to say that there is no defence in the world that will stop it being flooded several times a year. It almost trades on the novelty of being built in such a way that people can simply hose down the mess and get on with the drinking.

Hundreds of private homes in York—and hundreds of businesses in York; I shall say more about them later—suffer catastrophically when the river rises. In 2000, when the River Ouse rose to its highest recorded level in 400 years, some 350 homes were flooded, and hundreds more came within a whisker of devastation. I left my job as a junior Minister then and went back to York to join Silver Command, which managed the crisis. I remember clearly the November night when hundreds of local residents and 500 soldiers from the 2nd Signal Regiment were sandbagging the Leeman road and Water End area, putting sandbags on top of the existing flood defences to protect the homes behind. Those homes came within a centimetre of being inundated. About 380 homes most certainly would have been inundated, and perhaps another 120 were at risk. Indeed, the leader of York city council was evacuated from his home; he lived in the area at the time.

I shall quote from a statement prepared for this debate by York city council’s chief engineer:

“Water End is shown in the York Strategic Flood Risk Plan as being an area of Rapid Inundation and failure of the existing defences in times of a severe flood could result in a depth of water inside properties in excess of l m, in a very short period of time.”

I remember preparing evacuation plans 10 years ago. Our fear was not that we would have seepage and slowly rising water levels in people’s homes, but that the flood defences might collapse. The engineers believed that that was a real danger, so much so that we tipped thousands of tons of sand and gravel behind the built flood defences to strengthen them. If they had collapsed, we could have had a wall of water running through the centre of York, which would have caused absolute devastation.

The City of York council received advice from the Association of British Insurers about the cost of repairs if the Leeman road and Water End flood defences were overtopped. The calculations were based on 382 homes being inundated. ABI’s advice was that the cost of repairing each of those homes would be between £20,000 and £40,000. The total cost of repairs for one flooding event would be £11.5 million, almost twice the cost of the flood defence scheme that the Environment Agency has deferred. The community largely consists of two-bedroom Victorian railway cottages. Many of them are privately rented, and others are owned by people on low to modest incomes—the priority group that the Government say should be helped by the new flood defence plans.

Ten years ago, 100 or so homes in the Clementhorpe area of York were inundated. It received a lot of attention because one of the streets involved is called River street. The papers all carried pictures of firemen evacuating people by boat. That area, too, needs protection. A temporary scheme has been provided by a private benefactor, but it does not work as the council would like, so it is not being used at the moment. Before this debate, I asked the Association of British Insurers and individual insurers, and I am grateful for their advice. For obvious reasons, insurers are always cautious about telling the public how much they pay out in claims. One told me that in York it has paid out £12.5 million in claims for flood damage—800 claims in all—over the past decade. The claims peaked in 2000 when it paid out in respect of 286 properties, and again in 2007 when it paid out in respect of 247 properties. The average claim per property flooded was £25,000.

When we debate the problems and risks of flooding, we often talk about home owners and households. It is quite right that individual people—our constituents—should be at the front of our minds, but we must not forget that businesses are very seriously affected, too. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) is nodding his head. He has had a much more recent experience of flooding than, thankfully, we have had in York.

In response to the Government cuts in capital flood defence schemes, Gary Williamson, the chief executive of the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire chamber of commerce said:

“I find it extremely concerning that the Government would take such a gamble with York and North Yorkshire economies. The cost of flood damage can have a devastating effect on businesses and is something that small, independent businesses and retailers may struggle to recover from.”

The impact of the floods in 2000 on businesses in York was catastrophic. Visits to main attractions, such as York Minster and the Jorvik Viking Centre, dropped by 94%, from 5,425 in November 1999 to 356 in November 2000. Once the flood had gone, the number of visits was down by 86%. Bed occupancy in hotels was down by a third. Retail business was down between 30% and 50%—it varied from shop to shop—in the busy pre-Christmas shopping period. The York Minster shop suffered a 72% fall in sales. Overall, as a result of the floods in 2000, there were 200,000 fewer visitors to the city, costing something in the region of £10 million, and that ignores all the other business and commerce in the city that suffered as a result of the flood and the subsequent severing of a railway line. The railway is an extremely important commercial highway, pipeline or communication link for York. When the line just south of York in Selby was severed by the flooding, it cost the city far, far more.

What will the Minister do to get the Leeman road and Water End scheme back on track, working with me, as MP for the city, and the local authority, the City of York council? Like all hon. Members, I understand that the country’s macro-economic position is weak. In the last published quarterly figures, we learned that the economy had contracted by 0.5%. Economists are now asking what the Chancellor’s plan B is should the country fall back into recession; in other words, two consecutive quarters of contraction of the national economy. Of course Labour has argued that the deficit must be brought under control, but the way in which the Chancellor is doing that is too fast and the cuts that he is implementing are too deep. In the run-up to the Budget, the Chancellor will obviously be considering his options. He may not announce it in the Budget, but it is perfectly obvious to all of us in this Chamber that the Treasury is considering a plan B. If the Chancellor were to respond to the worsening economic situation by relaxing the pace of public expenditure cuts, the most obvious place to provide an expansion—or perhaps a lesser contraction—of public expenditure would be in relation to capital schemes. We know that there is a current account deficit, but even when Governments are running a current account deficit, they continue to invest over the long term, and rightly so. When someone buys a house, they take out a mortgage for 25 years. When the Government invest in flood defences, they also need to borrow and pay back over a long period of time and pay back, because flood risk is a long-term risk and the flood defence will be there for 50 or 100 years and the capital scheme needs to be financed over that period.

Perhaps the best example that I can give my hon. Friend is Carlisle in Cumbria, which was flooded a number of years ago. In 2009, as a result of a £35 million investment in flood defences, Carlisle did not flood. As a Government, we spent £35 million to prevent flooding. If we had not spent that amount and Carlisle had been flooded, it is estimated that it would have cost between £70 million and £80 million to clean up and repair the damage. Surely that is a good example of how we need to spend in the short term to ensure that we are not stacking up long-term problems.

My hon. Friend gives an extremely good example. The Environment Agency says that the cost-benefit ratio of its schemes in the pipeline are 8:1, which was confirmed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recent excellent report on flood and water management legislation. That means that we get back much more than we pay. If we leave it to each individual to try to insure themselves—if they are able to insure themselves—the cost to them and the private insurance companies will be much greater than the cost of investing in flood protection. Moreover, if we were to relax the squeeze on publicly funded capital schemes, the jobs that would be created would be in the private sector, precisely where we need to create jobs to pull the economy back on track and to get the Government’s fiscal position looking better than it does now.

I ask the Minister to talk this matter through with the Treasury in the run-up to the Budget. I do not expect any feedback in the purdah period before the Budget. None the less, I hope that his Department will make representations, so that if the Chancellor is talking about relaxing the squeeze on public expenditure, he looks at capital works, particularly the cost-effective investments in flood alleviation.

I will try to be brief because I know many Members want to speak. The City of York council and the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee are considering alternative sources of funding for the Leeman road and Water End scheme, including the possibility of funding from the European Union, which is available to support businesses. I have talked earlier about the enormous impact that flooding can have on commerce. Is the Minister prepared to work with the council and the Environment Agency to try to get support for such a scheme?

Consultation documents from the Minister’s Department reveal that the Government are seeking to transfer part of the cost of providing flood defences from central Government budgets to local communities. I am not making a particular point about that, but I hope that the Minister will listen and focus on what I am saying. He can describe it slightly differently if he wants. It would be a mistake to have a flood tax added to local authority taxation because the boundaries of local authorities do not match the boundaries of river catchment areas. If we are planning to deal with flood waters, we need to plan for the river catchment as a whole.

When York floods, we provide a service for places upstream, because we take the water away from them and prevent them from flooding. Equally, when Selby floods it does a service for the city of York, as it takes our water away and saves us from flooding. That is precisely what Selby is doing at the moment and hopefully it will not flood as a consequence. We are interdependent—that is how nature works—and the funding response needs to take account of how nature works and be based on river catchments rather than local authority areas.

One way in which we might do that is through giving responsibility, in part or in whole, to water and sewage management companies, which of course have been set up to follow river catchment areas. We talk about the “Severn Trent” region. Why is that a region? It is a region because anyone extracting water needs to follow the river courses. Equally, anyone dealing with flood water needs to follow the river courses.

It would be wholly unfair if people in York had to pay for draining water away from upland areas on the east side of the Pennines—the 300,000 square kilometres of land that York drains—or if Leeds city centre had to pay for draining water away from people living upstream in the Wharfe valley. Yet it would be fair for people living in those valley catchments to work out collectively how to deal with the water as a whole. That is what the Environment Agency says they need to do.

I will give way in just a moment.

I see excellent work that the Environment Agency has done upstream from York, creating small ponds on agricultural land, planting trees and building dams that can be closed at times when there is a lot of water, so that water can be stored. If we can slow the run-off, we can convert an 18-foot flood over 24 hours in York, which would be catastrophic, into a 15-foot flood over three days in York, which would be quite manageable. The Minister will have seen such schemes. They exist because we cannot expect small communities—working village by village, town by town, city by city—to protect themselves without a scheme being worked out for the catchment area as a whole.

I ask the Minister to consider an interesting proposal that has been put to me by Yorkshire Water that the company could perhaps buy flood defence infrastructure from the Environment Agency, which would give the Government a capital receipt. Yorkshire Water would be able to do so because it can go to equity markets, which a Government cannot do. Of course such a scheme would increase the cost of water, because the company would have to repay the cost of managing floods more effectively. However, it would mean that those increased charges were spread across the river catchment area as a whole—upstream and downstream communities—rather than on downstream communities exclusively.

I said that I would give way to the hon. Gentleman. I will do so, then I will give way to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and then I will sit down.

I just want to support what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about the need to think strategically. In my constituency of Stroud we have the Slad valley, which is a relatively small valley. However, if we had a co-operative Environment Agency, a less rigorous interpretation of the water directive and a general willingness to allow local people to do what they think should be done we would solve a huge number of problems for Stroud, which has nearly 5,000 houses in total that are vulnerable to flooding. My appeal is for more local flexibility, so that we can take action and implement flood alleviation measures.

I am glad to receive support from the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that he will join me in saying that these risks, which people in both our constituencies face, are present and real risks now and that we need Government funding now to address them. I say that because by the time that we work out a new system in five years’ time, our constituencies might have flooded.

In fairness to everyone else who wants to speak, I will take an intervention from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and then I will draw my remarks to a close.

I just want to make the point that upstream flooding, which the hon. Gentleman describes as a form of alleviation in main urban centres, has a cost for the agricultural communities in the areas concerned. Even as far away as Northumberland, we were aware that in east Yorkshire there was considerable resistance to such schemes, but they are an essential part of flood management. Nevertheless, it requires a lot of co-operation and discussion with the farming community, to ensure that a proper balance of interests is recognised.

That is obviously right and it is a very important contribution. We cannot get flood risk management for free, whether it involves building flood defences in York city centre or paying farmers to let their winter cropping fields flood at a time when they would otherwise be planting root vegetables or some other crop. However, it might be both cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to pay the farmers to grow more trees, create ponds and use other measures to retain some of the water long enough to protect downstream areas from inundation.

I could say much more about the consultation documents, about what the insurers are telling me or about the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, but I will sit down now so that other Members can have their say.

Thank you, Mr Sheridan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am somewhat nervous, because I have known the gentleman sitting to the left of you—the Clerk, Mr Hennessy—for 30 years and I have never spoken in front of him before. It is a new experience for me.

I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing the debate. As Members may know, I will bore for Britain on the topic of coastal defences and, of course, river defences too. I mentioned the issue of flood defences in my maiden speech and in recent debates on shoreline management plans, and I will continue to do so because it is absolutely the No. 1 defining issue in my constituency of Suffolk Coastal.

I pay tribute to the Minister who is here today. He is actually very popular in our constituency, not only because he yet again confirmed the situation regarding Felixstowe’s flood defences in the main Chamber earlier today but because he visited my constituency. When he did so, people liked the fact that he listened, reflected on the facts and actually did something about them. We have seen that in some of the thinking expressed in the consultation paper and also in his encouragement of officials at the Environment Agency and Natural England to do the right thing by working with local people and landowners, to get more for less out of the budget. Sadly, due to the economic legacy that we inherited, that budget is slightly reduced from what we would of course like it to be.

In fact, I will go further and say that the Minister has been so successful that the risk is that he will get promoted, but we desperately do not want that to happen because we need him to sort out the fish problem too. Having said that, I will move on to other issues.

I generally welcome the change in thinking on flood defences. For me, there is an incentive, as that change in thinking will help people and communities who help themselves. It is that partnership model that I recognise, but it is a model that still provides protection, within the funding formula, so that where there are wards of deprivation the formula acknowledges that deprivation and will work towards alleviating it.

That gives a fresh element of hope to my constituents who, under the shoreline management plans, were told, “You’re on your own”. Actually, this new model is a way forward. The Minister has already seen some of the schemes in my area that I want to commend to the House. For example, at Bawdsey there was a situation whereby the economic benefits under the calculations did not derive any financing in particular. What happened was that some local farmers came together and offered up land for development. The local council agreed to grant planning permission for houses to be built on that land. Together the council and the farmers put the money from that development into a trust, which has now paid for coastal defences to protect the area around Bawdsey for some time to come.

More recently, in Thorpeness local home owners came together—I must admit that not all of them did so; one or two decided not to put their hands in their pockets. However, the rest came together and said, “We want to protect our shoreline along here”, and the Environment Agency, working with Suffolk Coastal district council, came up with a scheme that will make a difference to people’s lives.

There are ideas for future schemes. I am hesitant to speak about them, but one can see other opportunities whereby communities decide to have infrastructure development. I say that I am hesitant to speak about them, because I do not want my constituents to write in and say, “Thérèse Coffey demands turbine be placed in Felixstowe”; nor do I want my local paper to get the wrong end of the stick. However, there is an opportunity for communities around the country to come up with imaginative ideas for possible schemes.

For example, if we had a wind turbine in Felixstowe, that would work in a high wind when the port itself, down the road, is closed, because the cranes there cannot operate in high winds. That would contribute to the local economy, and the income could be ring-fenced and put into future sustainable defences, not only for Felixstowe itself but for areas, such as Felixstowe Ferry, at the mouth of the River Deben, that face particular difficulties at the moment. The Environment Agency is being very kind at the moment, but I recognise that that kindness cannot go on for ever with our future policy.

I am also interested to learn from the Minister how the pathfinder evaluations might fit into the consultation on the future of funding for flood defences and whether any element of that evaluation process will be incorporated in the consultation.

In Happisburgh, people are very excited because they have been offered some compensation for their houses that are about to fall into the sea. I mentioned that in the shoreline management plans debate, but unfortunately the Minister was in Brussels at the time, trying to do his best for us on fish. Although flooding is terribly disruptive to home owners in places such as York, the water normally goes away, and repairs are needed, but the risk with erosion is that it is terminal. Once someone’s house has gone into the sea, it has gone; not only that, the owner is liable for its safe disposal. With a ’60s or ’70s house with lots of asbestos in it, the owner might be able to apply for a grant of up to £5,000, but that might not cover the costs. The Pitt review constantly referred to in the consultation is based on fluvial flooding rather than on coastal erosion, which has been an add-on.

One thing that is mentioned in the document is that with homes built since 2009 it is the developers who are supposed to take on the flood risk. That is a reasonable suggestion, and I hope that anyone who has bought a house in a flood-risk area since 2009 realises that. With good design, housing can be a lot more resilient to flooding.

Under OM1 in the consultation, I am slightly disappointed to note that the agricultural land value estimate has not been updated or upgraded since the 2007 comprehensive spending review, despite in the other part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs there being thoughts on food security and about ensuring that we have that element. It would have been nice to see a slightly more generous value attributed to agricultural land.

Under OM5 to OM7, a lot of money is set aside per acre and per hectare for the recreation or preservation of habitats, to comply with the European habitats and water directives, and that, I am afraid, reinforces the view held by some that nature is more important than people. OM3 gives the figure of £3,050 rental income per year for properties at risk of coastal erosion. In my constituency, trying to rent a coastal property for £3,050 a year simply would not happen—a beach hut, perhaps, would be about it. The figure is probably more generous than it has been previously, but I urge the Department to think again on that.

I have to hold my hand up: I have not yet gone through the document with a fine-toothed comb, but will be working on that to ensure that I get my consultation response in by 16 February. However, the document contains some very encouraging phrases that reinforce the principle of partnership and give an opportunity to constituents who are being told that there is no public funding available for them.

I shall finish on two issues, one of which is the cost of delivery. There is an element of red tape in councils, with planning permission, and there are the aspects of the costliness of permits and studies for Natural England, and the consents from the Environment Agency. I know that the Minister has already taken action, and is committed to removing as many blocks as possible to make it as easy and cheap as possible for land owners to protect their defences—all force to his elbow. The Environment Agency told me a couple of weeks ago that it would not prevent land owners in “no active intervention” areas under the shoreline management plans from defending their property. That came as a bit of a surprise yesterday to some of the people at the all-party coastal and marine parliamentary group, and it was thrown up— perhaps anecdotally; I do not have enough evidence—that the Environment Agency might say that but Natural England will stop us anyway.

There is a tendency for one agency to say that the other agency will not allow it to do something, but in my experience getting them all together in the same room—ideally on site—means that some of that starts to fall away. Fruitful co-operation between agencies is the way forward, instead of blaming someone else for not doing something.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am relaying some of the anecdotes about the frustrations of landowners, but I agree that getting people in the same room to talk things through leads to constructive solutions, once the initial hurdles have been surmounted.

On the funding process, one of my local Suffolk Coastal councillors, Andy Smith, who is a lead council member on coastal matters, has raised with me the annual allocation of funding process. Some schemes take more than a year, and things are unclear or uncertain. There could be a project that was agreed a couple of years previously but which constantly comes up for review regarding the annual allocation of cash. There is something not quite right with that process, and I hope that we can get it right.

Finally, I am encouraging internal drainage boards to participate in the consultation because they could be effective delivery partners for a lot of the work that we want to do. IDBs are not the only solution, but they are a good one. They combine local landowners and councillors, and have an element of democratic authority. The future is quite bright, and could be very bright for coastal and river defences, but I urge the Minister to ensure that the policies of the previous Government, of making 100-year decisions on the basis of three years’ funding, are a thing of the past. There are many generations of families in Suffolk who have done their bit for their bit of land over the years, passing it on from generation to generation. Let us not kill off the chances of this generation for the sake of 100-year hindsight.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) for initiating the debate this afternoon.

After the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), had made a statement to the House on flooding on 17 December 2008, I asked him a question about his proposed trial areas for surface water management in Leeds. My question was about an area in the Roundhay ward of my constituency called the Wellhouses—a series of residential streets through the middle of which runs Gledhow beck. I had been approached by local residents who were concerned that they had the responsibility for maintaining the banks of the beck, which frequently overflows during heavy rain, exacerbated by the excessive outflows of water from the balancing lake in Roundhay park. As always, my right hon. Friend was courteous and helpful in his reply, and promised to let me know whether Gledhow beck would come under his plans to transfer surface water management to local authorities such as Leeds—one of his trial areas—in 2011. The subsequent answer was that it would.

Surface water management might appear to many to be a rather dry and uninteresting issue until their homes are flooded by exceptional rainfall or overflowing balancing lakes. I took up the issue affecting the residents of the Wellhouses because I was shown first hand the appalling damage that could be done in an instant to the homes of people I am privileged to represent. Most people never give a moment’s thought to the merest possibility of their homes being flooded, until it happens.

It is true that many parts of the hilly city of Leeds will never be in danger of flooding. Where I am fortunate to live—in Pudsey to the west of the city, between Leeds and Bradford—we are more than 650 feet above sea level and can be complacent. However, much of Leeds is built around the River Aire, and is therefore susceptible to flooding. On 15 June 2007, Leeds city centre came very close indeed to being overwhelmed by water, after days of appalling weather when a whole month’s rainfall fell in 24 hours—Leeds was not unique in that, that summer. Many city centre roads were under water, and the city almost came to a juddering, squelchy halt. On 27 June 2007, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported that more than 6 cm of rain had fallen during the previous nine hours,

“causing millions of pounds worth of damage to flooded homes, schools and businesses. Dozens of trains were cancelled and roads were gridlocked as the city tried to cope with the torrential downpour, the heaviest on a single day for 50 years.”

Suzanne McTaggart’s report added:

“The latest stormy weather comes after heavy rain hit Leeds just over a week ago, when rivers threatened to burst their banks and roads became waterways. Many areas saw six weeks worth of rain in just 24 hours yesterday…making this the wettest June ever—and possibly the wettest month since Met Office records began in 1882.”

On its excellent website, the Environment Agency says of its proposed Leeds River Aire flood alleviation scheme:

“Leeds has suffered from localised flooding in recent years which caused significant disruption to local residents, businesses and commuters. However, these floods were relatively small and there is always the risk of a much larger flood.”

The Environment Agency’s latest briefing on the Leeds scheme tells us that the agency is now working closely with Leeds city council to come up with an affordable scheme. It estimates that the current comprehensive scheme would cost about £190 million and would involve building raised defences on the River Aire, thus directly protecting 255 residential and 495 commercial properties and indirectly helping to avoid the flooding of 3,800 residential and commercial properties. The briefing suggests that if the city of Leeds were inundated by floodwater, the damage would total at least £480 million —several times the cost of the flood defences. DEFRA has asked the Environment Agency to continue working with Leeds city council to secure alternative sources of funding or to find ways to reduce the costs of the project, but initial indications from DEFRA, which I understand have now been confirmed, show that sufficient funding will not be available in 2011-12 to proceed to detailed design.

I intend no disrespect to my good friends who represent the great Yorkshire cities of Hull, Bradford and Sheffield, or, of course, to the wonderful people who live in those cities, when I say that Leeds is without doubt the engine of the whole Yorkshire regional economy. Like every other city in the UK, with the possible exception of London, Leeds has been badly hit by the economic downturn, but it still draws in tens of thousands of commuters every day, who come to work in the many businesses, legal practices and financial institutions that operate from Leeds city centre. Leeds is still the largest financial centre in England outside London—hon. Members can forget about Manchester. Imagine what would happen if the “relatively small” floods in 2007 became a much larger flood, as the Environment Agency fears they might, swamping the centre of Leeds, its wealth-generating businesses and its newly built apartments and homes.

Spending a relatively small amount now could, however, help to prevent catastrophe in the future. With climate change making rainfall in these islands ever more unpredictable, the River Aire will burst its banks sooner or later and drown our city. Not only will thousands of homes be affected, but millions, if not billions, of pounds of business activity will be halted, and thousands of hard-working citizens will have their jobs or their lives ruined—all for the want of the flood defences that could have been built, but which the Government cut because the deficit simply had to be repaid in four years, rather than five, six or even seven. [Interruption.] Sorry, does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) want to intervene?

In the summer of 2009, I was approached by the residents of Valley terrace, which is in an area of housing just off the Leeds outer ring road, in the Roundhay ward. They were upset that woodland between their homes and the noisy, busy dual-carriageway ring road was to be destroyed and built on by developers.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman’s city, like my constituency, suffered bad floods in 2007. If it did, he should surely attach some of the blame for the lack of action on building flood defences to the Labour Government, rather than blaming this Government, who have had only six months to do anything about this.

I have fought hard for 10 years for flood defences to be improved in York and I would accept—

Will the hon. Gentleman listen for a minute? I accept that the Labour Government, who put in millions of pounds and improved many flood defences, protecting some areas of the city, did not finish the job. However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who I hope will have the opportunity to speak, that while Labour was in power, we increased Government funding to the Environment Agency for flood risk management from £249 million in 2000 to more than £500 million in 2008-09—in other words, we more than doubled it. We provided funding for more flood management and protection schemes than was the case before. Our concern is that this Government are reducing funding.

I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. I was going to respond simply by saying that we cannot design flood defences in two or three years; it takes a long time to make sure that we have the protection that is appropriate to the environment and needs of a particular area to ensure that the system will work. A great deal of research has to go into these issues, from not only the Environment Agency, but every other agency involved. That is why these things were not done instantly after the 2007 floods.

Let me return to the points I was trying to make about the little piece of land between the ring road and Valley terrace. Some may accuse my constituents there of being no more than nimbys—that stands for “not in my back yard”—who do not want any further development now that they have their homes in such a lovely area. However, I supported their bid to stop the planning application, which would have destroyed that small area of woodland, because the woodland soaks up rainwater coming down from the hills into the valley where the ring road is situated. I am increasingly concerned—I would be interested in the Minister’s response—that planning authorities are allowing more homes to be built on woodland with no regard to the excessive surface water drainage problems that might occur as a result. I am delighted to say that planning permission was refused on this occasion—whether that was to do with my intervention, I simply cannot say.

That brings me back to the Wellhouses. June 2008 saw the publication of a not very entertaining, but very important DEFRA report, entitled “The West Garforth Integrated Urban Drainage Pilot Study”—hon. Members should try saying that when they have had a few drinks. Among its many conclusions was:

“The report shows that, as soon as serious resources are made available for investigating flooding problems and inspecting the condition of culverted watercourses, then opportunities for relatively modest actions become apparent that can have a significant beneficial impact.”

I am grateful to the Environment Agency, the leader of Leeds city council—Councillor Keith Wakefield—the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire chamber of commerce and my friend and constituent, Chris Say, for all their help in getting me the information, facts and figures on which I have based my contribution. This is an important issue for every resident of Leeds and has an impact on a much wider population. I therefore hope the Government are listening and will make our flood defences a priority at a time when money is in short supply—the futures of so many, and the economy of a whole region, depend on it.

It would be unfair of those of us from Leeds to take up all the time, because flooding is such an important matter, which affects people directly and in such a traumatic way, and other hon. Members must have their opportunity. I will therefore be very quick.

I had the opportunity to raise a question about this issue with the Minister on the Floor of the House earlier this afternoon. I should say that I am not making a political point. I will certainly not get involved in any political nonsense about which Government spent more. We are where we are, and we can settle political differences and arguments elsewhere. We are talking about flooding, which, as we all know, affects people in a very personal way. I say that in my defence. What I would also say, however, in what I hope will be a brief speech is that one difficulty with flooding assistance is that it seems to relate, on a cost-benefit basis, to the number of households. That is where the Minister and I were at cross purposes earlier this afternoon.

To illustrate what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) was saying, let me use the words of the flood risk manager in Leeds, who puts the case better than I could:

“the Government should treat this scheme as a special case”—

which is fine; we would expect him to say that. He continued by saying that

“a major flood to Leeds could set the economic recovery of the north back many years and the cost of that would far exceed the cost of the works.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East mentioned the £500 million of damage that could be done. I do not know whether the Minister has been to Leeds, but the river runs through the business and retail centre—the river and the canal run below the main train station—and it is a compact city centre, which flooding would damage tremendously.

The Environment Agency brief—when I mentioned it previously, the Secretary of State was talking to the Minister and seemed to disagree—stated:

“The city centre escaped inundation by a matter of centimetres in 2000, and there were further near misses in 2004, 2007 and 2008.”

I simply make the point to the Minister that the major economic centre and engine for growth for millions of people in west Yorkshire is the Leeds centre, and it has come disastrously near being put out of operation in a major way. The train station is built over the rivers. The 2000 flood threatened electricity supply in the city centre, which, in turn, threatened the major Leeds general infirmary. This is a question of a major catastrophe. The Minister will not think I am doing him any favours, but I do not want him to be on world or national television in his wellies standing looking at a flooded national city—the largest in the north. I do not want that to happen, for the sake of the city and its people and the surrounding towns and cities. That is how close we are, if the matter is judged on number of households and cost.

We are where we are. It is accepted that any Government would have to pull back the deficit, whatever the time scale. These are difficult times and priorities must be set. I understand the situation. I even offer something additional—without being patronising. I shall say this so that the Minister can use it against me—and the city—but I think that the scheme was designed in slightly better times. I question the £190 million scheme, especially given the number of schemes lining up throughout the city. In the Chamber, the Minister offered a meeting. I should welcome one, but its outcome would be to make it clear to the Environment Agency and the city, within agreed parameters, if possible, what type of scheme and expenditure are realistic in this day and age. We would say “Go away and if you can get something within those parameters we will look at the design work.” We are not speaking about this year or next year. The design work would be started on a more modest, but realistic, scheme. That would help.

There is an additional way in which it would help. The Minister will appreciate the problems. Quite rightly the previous and present Governments have told the city to get private involvement. Businesses and houses are being saved, and there is development, so they have told it to put some funding in and it has found, it thinks, £20 million. That is a lot of money but when it is compared with a £190 million scheme one might say, “I think you’ll have to do better,” and that causes problems. What if we were all to meet in a room and say, “Let’s get real with one another; let’s get this scheme down”? The city centre must be protected and we cannot have a national economic asset knocked out—but the work should not be at any price. We should get a realistic price and a realistic public contribution, and all agree to do the work as quickly as possible.

As I am chairing a Committee upstairs at a quarter to 4, I shall have to leave the debate, and I give my apologies now—I am not leaving out of disrespect. However, I should hope that the Minister would see my remarks as helpful. They are heartfelt on behalf of the city of Leeds, and west Yorkshire.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) on securing a timely debate on the same day as today’s announcement.

In my own patch in Wansbeck, following the most intense rainfall in living memory on 5 and 6 September 2008, a month’s rain fell in 24 hours, which meant that the river Wansbeck burst its banks and the whole town of Morpeth was flooded. That was compounded by other flooding problems including flooding from the Cotting burn, the Church burn and the Postern burn in Morpeth. There was extensive flooding throughout the town centre and nearly 1,000 properties, including many businesses on the main street, were directly affected, causing huge problems. Hundreds of residents had to be evacuated and emergency shelter was provided in the King Edward VI high school, at county hall and in the town hall in Morpeth. Iconic buildings such as the chantry and St George’s church suffered considerable damage, as did landmark shops. The emergency ambulance station, the doctors’ surgery, the health centre at Gas House lane, the Riverside leisure centre and the town’s main library were also inundated and had to close for a considerable period.

Firefighters, ambulance crews, the RAF, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the British Red Cross were among the emergency services involved in the rescue and recovery operations over the whole weekend. A collection of voluntary groups and the town’s churches came together to help hundreds of flood victims and the campaign was spearheaded by the Morpeth Lions club. Families were out of their homes for more than a year and businesses were closed for months, and still people from within the floodplain are not back in their properties.

Prior to the devastating flood, there was a huge flood in Morpeth in 1963, which was before I was born—people might question that. In an attempt to protect the community from further devastation in the future, I am working closely with the Morpeth flood action group, officers of Northumberland county council and the Environment Agency to try to progress the proposals for the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme. The proposed scheme for Morpeth is designed to reduce the risk of flooding from the River Wansbeck and the main burns in the town. It involves the storage of water upstream of Morpeth on the Mitford estate, the building of new defences in the town where none currently exist, and the replacement and refurbishment of some existing defences.

It is imperative that the flood alleviation scheme should be delivered to protect communities and businesses in the town of Morpeth. Local people need the reassurance that their homes are safe from the ravages of the extreme weather conditions and they deserve the peace of mind that those assurances will bring. Shops and businesses need to be assured that they will not suffer a reoccurrence of the devastation of 6 September 2008 and that they can have a secure future in Morpeth where they can build their businesses for the benefit of their employees, local communities and the local economy.

The hon. Gentleman presents his case eloquently. Many of the businesses he mentions are either owned by my constituents or employ them. A large area of my constituency will face the upstream flooding that is part of the alleviation scheme, but I think we all want to work together to ensure that Morpeth and Rothbury do not have to go through such an experience again.

I agree with that and understand the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, bearing in mind that his constituency is next to mine. I understand the associated problems, particularly upstream, as compared with those in the town centre of Morpeth.

In addition to the trauma and devastating personal and physical effects of the floods, local residents and visitors must now come to terms with problems obtaining buildings and contents insurance, which has been mentioned. It is a huge problem for people living on floodplains. The current agreement with insurance companies will continue until 2013, and who knows what will happen after that? It must be considered as a matter of extreme urgency. Many people living in Morpeth face huge rises in premiums and excesses. One gentleman living in the Morpeth floodplain was asked, after going to court, to pay £300 a month in insurance, and the excess was £20,000. That is not insurance. It is a massive problem. Individuals, families and businesses who have experienced the horror and trauma of flooding have had their lives turned upside down, and they should not have to face additional problems that cause them further distress and upset as well as imposing a huge financial burden on them. Those issues must be tackled as a matter of urgency.

I have not got much more to say, but I pay tribute to the men and women of the emergency services who, on all occasions up and down the country, have been absolutely fantastic when such things occur. They put their lives at risk to ensure that everyone else is safe.

To move on slightly from local issues, recommendation 39 of the Pitt review, which both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported before the election, stated:

“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 necessary by a statutory duty”.

The coalition agreement committed to

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

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives supported a statutory duty, and it is in the coalition agreement.

Will the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the flood wardens of south Derbyshire, who have taken duties on themselves as part of the big society? While waiting for other things to get better, we are looking after ourselves. We get out there on horses and take out flood signs. We know that those in the community are looking after themselves. We have professionals to look after us, but it is important for our villages and communities to do their best for themselves too.

Of course I pay tribute to those people. I am not sure whether flood defences and removing water from our towns, villages and city centres should be left to the whim of some big society, as I am not too sure what that actually means, but I certainly pay tribute to anybody who volunteers to secure their community against flooding problems. I am not sure whether people in my area would have access to horses. Maybe the hon. Lady can tell me after this debate exactly how it happened. It is interesting.

Now that the Minister is in office, does he still agree with recommendation 39 on a statutory duty involving the emergency services? If so, as it is in the coalition agreement, might that take place in the not-too-distant future?

The decision today not to make funding for the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme readily available in the next 12 months is disappointing to me, the people concerned who are heavily involved in the community, the local council and many others. As the Member of Parliament for Wansbeck, I will be working tirelessly with those organisations and interested parties to ensure that the scheme is progressed in its entirety. It is important not to consider flood alleviation schemes on a piecemeal basis, because that is not effective economically or in terms of flood prevention. I ask the Minister for the third time this week—I hope that he will bear with me; I have had two assurances from him already, and I am sure he does not mind giving me a third one—to assure me that everything will be done to ensure that the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme will be completed in the near future without delay, as quickly as possible and in its entirety.

It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokesmen no later than 3.40. There are two Members wishing to speak, so they should be brief.

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Sheridan. I will speak for two minutes only, in the hope that the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) will also be able to speak. I do not want political differences about who did what. Other than a fire, nothing worse can happen to a home than to be flooded with a mixture of water and sewage, as I saw when walking around the streets of Fairford after the 2007 floods.

I will make one or two brief remarks. In the 2007 floods, 250 buildings in the Cotswolds were flooded, including a school on which £1 million had to be spent, doctors’ surgeries and so on. I am a little concerned about a letter that I received from the Environment Agency. I pay tribute to its author, Barry Russell. In my 18 years as a Member of Parliament, I do not think that I have found such a helpful civil servant anywhere else in the country. He has been to public meeting after public meeting with me to explain what the Environment Agency can and cannot do. I do not blame him at all for what I am about to quote from his letter, but I would like the Minister’s observation on it.

Barry Russell says:

“In previous years, the local authority projects received funding from a ring-fenced pot of money. This is not the case for next year (2011-12), and all projects are competing on a like for like basis—both local authority projects as well as our own. Ultimately the allocations were based on the OM score, and funding was allocated to projects with a higher score than those submitted by the Cotswold District Council. I share your disappointment in not receiving the funding that you were anticipating for this scheme.”

It is easy to come up with statistics to show, in order of priority, which projects will give the best value for money and save the most houses. The problem in a highly rural constituency such as the Cotswolds, which has 110 villages, lots of which have flooding problems, is that it will never meet those criteria. Most of my constituency—with the exception of Cirencester, which flooded in 2000, 2007 and 2008—will never get any funding under the system. I accept that my hon. Friend the Minister has a limited pot of funding, but I ask him to look at the system of allocation.

I will be brief, as I know that I have only a couple of minutes.

The emphasis in this debate has been, rightly, on flood defence. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Environment Agency budget has sufficient funds to deal with two other issues. One is maintenance. One contributory factor to the floods in west Cumbria in November 2009 was the lack of dredging and maintenance of becks, streams and rivers. We must ensure that there is sufficient funding for that.

The other issue is flood resilience measures. It is all right having flood defences and doing maintenance, but individual houses and businesses need protection, and we must ensure that funds for flood resilience measures are sufficient.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) for securing this debate. He has demonstrated yet again his considerable knowledge of the issues, and I think that Members of all parties are grateful to him for securing this debate so that we can air them. I commend the Environment Agency workers who have been working around the clock, as they always do, in the north-west of England over the past few weeks, where rainfall has been high, heightening flood risks considerably.

Communities at risk of flooding require certainty from Government, and that is what I think has been at the core of everyone’s argument today. As I have said, we seek to work with the Government where we can and when we agree that they are doing the right thing. Issues such as flooding and flood defences should be above the typical, tribal knockabout of this House and of British politics in general, but we will hold the Government to account when we believe that they are not doing the right thing or acting in the public interest, and when we believe that their actions are likely to hurt those most in need.

We are all agreed that flooding is a life-changing issue. It is also a complex one and its policy solutions, or the solutions that we as politicians can provide towards the problem, are not simple. Sadly, flood defence in this country, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the bodies that rely upon it, and the people whom those organisations serve, are now beginning to pay the price for what many people and independent commentators believe is the Secretary of State’s fevered desire to be the first Secretary of State in the new Government to give the Chancellor what he wants—big, indiscriminate cuts, with little regard for how they could be accommodated, or for the effect that they will have on the Department’s core areas of work. We cannot escape that fact.

In many ways, the debacle over forestry privatisation has illustrated what we already knew about the Government—they are riven with contradictions and lack a clear focus on issues of real concern to people in too many areas throughout the country. There is no argument about the fact that there will be a 27% cut in flood defence spending this year—it has been confirmed by the Environment Agency. I have the greatest respect for the Minister—we have a good working relationship on the whole—but he has himself confirmed to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that cuts are taking place. The Prime Minister, however, is apparently unaware of that, or simply disinterested in the detail of the policies that his Government are prosecuting.

The Prime Minister has told the House that it is “simply not the case” that there will be a reduction in spending on flood defences, and that the comprehensive spending review settlement is “roughly the same” as in previous years but, in fact, it is not. Cutting is not the way to deliver the savings that the country needs; it is, in fact, a false economy. I trust that the Minister will encourage the Prime Minister to correct the record.

As I have said, communities that are at risk of flooding—we are talking about 5.2 million homes, as well as business properties—require certainty from Government, not a changing of the goal posts or an abandonment or reneging on agreements. The communities of York, Thirsk, Morpeth and elsewhere feel that sense of abandonment right now as their flood defence schemes fall by the wayside. It is a fact that the Government have announced a 27% cut in capital investment for flood defence spending for 2011-12, which means that many communities will face genuine uncertainty about their futures as projects are delayed or shelved. The cuts will leave many homes and businesses at a heightened risk of flooding.

The Minister said in the main Chamber today that those are deferrals, not cancellations, but they will feel like cancellations. The statement of principles is likely to expire before any investments are made, so those areas that are today missing out on flood defence investments face the prospect of being thrown at the mercy of a bear market when trying to find future insurance. Will the Minister confirm that he will not allow the insurance premiums or excess payments of anyone in any area to go through the roof as a result of his Government’s cancellations or delays? Does he agree that those areas that had expected investments, and that were told that investments would be forthcoming before the expiry of the statement of principles in 2013 have now been prejudiced? If that is not the case, how is it not the case? How much public money has been spent designing, characterising and consulting upon the schemes that will not now go ahead?

We know that York is the tip of the iceberg, that many more cancellations are in the pipeline, and that the Government’s spending cuts will determine which schemes go ahead and which do not. Today is the day that the Government can finally choose to be honest with those home owners, communities and business owners who live in areas at risk of flooding, and tell all of us which schemes will be cancelled and which will go ahead, and not just for the next financial year—there is no security in that at all. I urge the Minister and all his colleagues in DEFRA not to hide behind the Environment Agency—today’s announcement was by DEFRA, not the Environment Agency.

Even after today’s announcement, there are many unanswered questions, an awful lot of drift and there remains a significant lack of transparency. One of the principal concerns is the expiry of the statement of principles in 2013. The statement is the agreement between Government and the insurance industry that currently underpins household insurance provision. So far, we have heard nothing that will reassure home owners or business property owners that the Government are working in an effective way with the insurance industry to resolve the real threat of some homes and businesses becoming uninsurable and unmortgageable following the expiry of the statement of principles.

Some insurance experts have warned that when the statement of principles comes to an end, it will be devastating for consumers. Others have warned that it will be bad for consumers but a great opportunity for brokers. Does the Minister agree with that? Simon Douglas of the AA’s insurance division told the Secretary of State in a letter:

“Millions of people are at risk of inundation from overflowing rivers, coasts and estuaries during extremes of weather and that risk is increasing all the time. If spending isn’t maintained, it will compromise the statement of principles, which could see many homes become uninsurable.”

David Williams of AXA went even further by saying:

“We are committed to the Statement of Principles, subject to spending. Now that spending has been reduced, you could say all bets are off. The Government is in breach of its side of the bargain, so if insurers wanted to stop providing cover, they would probably be able to. The problem is nobody wants to be the first and end up getting harangued in the press.”

I think that all Members on both sides of the House would agree that the expiration of the statement of principles is a ticking time bomb, not just for individuals, home owners or business people, but for whole communities. It is hugely economically and socially significant.

What assessment have the Government undertaken on the impact of their budget cuts on the universal coverage of insurance provision for homes at risk of flooding? Will the Minister publish that assessment? The ongoing negotiations between the insurance industry and Government are of profound importance, so will he tell us, categorically, whether he is committed to the principle of universal insurance cover? If so, will he be transparent about his negotiations with the insurance industry and publish an update on them in the House of Commons Library? Finally on this issue, does he agree that the expiry of the statement of principles, without any meaningful system to replace it, will be a disaster for consumers, and will he seek a system of universal insurance cover for whatever follows the current one beyond 2013?

There are other critical questions for the Minister to answer. In 2010-11, the previous Labour Government allocated £35 million for Pitt and for adaptation budgets. That was outlined in the CSR for 2007-08 to 2010-11. Recently, the Minister announced that £21 million will be provided in 2011-12 to lead local flood authorities. Will he confirm that that is different money from that announced by the previous Government? Is it new money?

The Minister will be aware that local authorities were awarded £100 million for flood funding in 2010-11 through the Communities and Local Government formula grant. What contact has he had with his counterpart in CLG about the level of funding available to local authorities next year for flooding and related investment? The concern throughout the House is that local authorities have been given new responsibilities but no new money, and that local flood defence schemes in many areas face a double cut.

Local authorities are, of course, key to our national efforts to improve flood resilience. The 2009 DEFRA annual report states:

“Over the next 2 years we aim to offer an improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk for 145,000 more homes”.

According to a written answer form the Minister on 27 July 2010, we are actually due to exceed that figure and reach “at least 160,000 households”, which is a glowing endorsement of the investment that we made, and I welcome his recognition of it. The Secretary of State said of the next CSR period:

“We intend that, by March 2015, 145,000 households will be better protected”—[Official Report, 19 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 57WS.]

Will the Minister therefore confirm that the Government plan to do less over four years than we achieved in just two—yes or no?

The Minister said in today’s announcement that 112,000 homes would be protected. Will he confirm that that 112,000 is part of the 145,000 target previously mentioned? If so, what will become of the schemes for the remaining 33,000? The Minister also mentioned the role of specialist providers in relation to the provision of insurance cover. I think that many would say that that hinted towards an end to universal coverage, but I hope that he will refute that. What does he expect specialist providers to do, and how will they keep their excess and insurance premium costs comparable with today’s rates?

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about the cancellation of the Morpeth scheme, which has been halted because budget cuts have changed the outcome measures via which the EA has to assess projects. Will the Minister admit that that is the reason for the scheme’s delay and give the people of that town the clarity they deserve?

This is an essential point. The Minister talked briefly about value for money. Of course, anyone in his position is tasked with spending public money properly and I support him in doing that, but what is his definition of value for money in relation to public spending to protect homes? Will he acknowledge that there is a real fear that his Department’s budget cuts and his changing definitions of value for money mean that particularly sparsely populated areas at heightened flood risk, such as the one I represent and those that many hon. Members here represent, are on their own and that the Government have abandoned them? Will he give a guarantee that his budgets cuts will not prejudice flood defence schemes in the more rural, disparate towns and villages that are outside the larger urban conurbations? Such a move would be a scandal and I condemn it.

Finally, will the Minister lay a copy of the full Environment Agency funding allocation in the Library, so that hon. Members from all parties can examine the detail and inform their constituents about the current state of affairs? I am proud of my Government’s record in office in relation to flood defence spending: £2.36 billion over the past four years, 160,000 homes protected and the introduction of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. I am grateful to the hon. Member for York Central for introducing the debate. We need to debate these issues urgently in Government time on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that assurance today.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), who is excellent in so many ways, has a habit of asking me a plethora of questions and not leaving me enough time to even begin to answer them, but I will see what I can do.

As announced in the Chamber earlier today, the Government have announced £521 million to be invested in flood and coastal defences over the next year. Some 112,000 homes in England will benefit once the work has been completed. That money will help to fund 109 schemes that are already under construction, and work will begin on 39 new flood and coastal defence projects. Of those projects, 18 will provide vital repairs and safety enhancements to existing defences, and the remaining 21 will provide additional protection to 13,000 households at risk of flooding. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased that some of that investment is taking place in his constituency.

I pay great tribute to the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) for securing the debate and for his undoubted passion in standing up for his constituents on this important issue. One question he asked me is why his region is apparently missing out so much on the allocation of schemes this year. Yorkshire has received a smaller settlement in 2011-12 than in previous years—before he includes that quote in a press release, I ask him to listen on—but that is because a large number of flood defence projects have recently been completed in the region. Hundreds of households in Yorkshire are already enjoying better protection against floods and coastal erosion as a result of projects that have been completed—I concede—over a number of years.

That is an important point because we have to take a long-term view of the spending on flood defences. Very few schemes—almost none at all—go from conception to commissioning in one year. Some of them, particularly the one we have been talking about in Leeds, are very large schemes and run over a number of years. For example, a £2 million scheme in north Doncaster was completed in 2009, which reduces flood risk to 3,000 properties. A £10 million refurbishment of the Hull tidal surge barrier was completed in 2010, and reduces flood risk to 17,000 properties. There are many more schemes.

May I address the specific points that the hon. Gentleman and others have raised in this important debate? He asked what I would do to get the Leeman road scheme back on track. I assure him that the Environment Agency and I will work with him at every stage to make sure that we can get some movement on that scheme, but I cannot guarantee where it will sit in any future year because of the variety of other schemes that will come forward. I can assure him that, if our payment for outcomes scheme becomes the modus operandi of taking forward such initiatives in future years, there will be much more clarity for constituents about where they stand on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman raised a rather more macro issue about the current economic climate, and how this issue sits within it. He is right: the deficit issue is a current account matter. Our national debt is about everything; it is not just current or capital account. There are siren voices that say that we must invest more in infrastructure. We are investing in a variety of infrastructure—not just flooding schemes, but a variety of different ones. It is a question of having a balanced approach.

The hon. Gentleman talked about whether we can assist his flood defence committee in Yorkshire in obtaining European money. I assure him that he will have the full co-operation of my Department, the Environment Agency and other colleagues across Government in trying to secure any sort of funding that we can lever out of any organisation. I very much include the European Union in that. He rightly talked about the need for slow-water schemes and to think up-stream. I have been discussing the value of that with the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). We recognise that the beneficiaries in one community sometimes pay for flood defences in another area, which may well affect the viability of farming businesses and the like. We have to take a large regional approach to the matter, which is why our new payment for outcomes scheme takes a much broader view. The scheme recognises where beneficiaries are and what can be done to alleviate the problems in affected communities.

I was also asked how we are protecting businesses. The economic benefits from protecting businesses from flooding are taken into account in the prioritisation schemes included in the payment for outcomes system. That has been the situation in the past and it will continue to be so. We are working with the City of York council and the Environment Agency to consider opportunities for external funding. It is crucial that there is greater local involvement at the heart of reforming the funding for flooding and coastal erosion risk management.

My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) made an excellent speech and raised some important issues. I was so impressed by the level of innovation from her area. From my visit to her constituency, I remember sitting in the minibus with representatives from the Environment Agency, Natural England, the local authority, local landowners and the local community. We drove along and ensured that none of them could get out, so that we could hack out some of the problems facing landowners who just want to make a small improvement and come up against two different agencies plus the local authority. The complications of the process are, I hope, being ironed out. That was an extremely useful session. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to take a longer-term view, and internal drainage boards are absolutely crucial to many of these schemes.

There was an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—

For Stroud actually. He was talking about the scheme concerning small changes that can be made. We must have that level of flexibility.

The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) spoke with passion about the Leeds scheme and the cost of flooding to his community. I absolutely understand that and the commercial driver that his community—that great city—is to that region. If we follow that logical argument and consider the 5.2 million homes that are at risk from flooding, for every single one of those homes that can get protection from flooding, there will be a financial return. We have to make sure that the financial return is as high as possible. That is why work can be done on that scheme in particular. As the equally sensible contribution from his colleague the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) made clear, we might risk having a Rolls-Royce when a reasonably priced family car might have served some of the purpose. I cannot go into more detail about the matter now, but I will continue to look at it very closely to ensure that we get a result.

I shall quickly mention the point about the woodlands that were being built over. I cannot remember who raised the matter, but we need to understand the impact of the issue. That is why I have been totally opposed to so much of the infill development that we have seen, with building in back gardens and green spaces. The Government have a very clear policy on that which we want to take forward.

I would love to address many of the other valid points raised by, not least, the hon. Members for Copeland, for Wansbeck and others, but I see that the clock is against me. I do not want to repeat the increasingly sterile debate about where we are and whether we are comparing apples with apples or apples with pears. In the case of the hon. Member for Copeland, I suggest it is the latter.