Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I am delighted to have secured the debate, although it concerns some distressing circumstances. After a severe flood, as we saw in North Yorkshire in September, the difficulty we face with clean-up operations is the split responsibilities between two or three lead Departments. I hope that the Minister, whom I welcome and congratulate on his new appointment, will clarify where we are in that regard.
In September, a massive and unprecedented amount of rain was dumped on North Yorkshire, primarily Richmondshire, and the southern part of County Durham. I want to put on record and pay tribute to the work done by the emergency services, in particular the fire service, the Environment Agency—which is very much becoming the fourth emergency service—and especially staff at every level of North Yorkshire county council. Working around the clock, they took swift action to secure the area and make people safe. There was isolated flooding of homes and properties, which I am dealing with separately through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the hallmark of the September flood was that most of the damage was effected by fluvial escape on to roads and bridges. Notably, the A1 was closed—for approximately 24 to 36 hours—which I do not recall happening before because of flooding.
We are undergoing climate change and extreme weather conditions, such as in Scotland and in south-west England today, and our hearts go out to all those so affected, but the Government response—under successive Governments—is hampered slightly by split departmental responsibilities. Obviously, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I have the honour of chairing, holds the Department to account and scrutinises its flood-related activities. From that privileged position, I understand that DEFRA is the lead Department, closely followed by the Department for Communities and Local Government, although the Department for Transport deals with roads and bridges, to which I want to refer first.
To set out the facts, the severe weather at the end of September had a significant effect on the local and strategic road network. At the height of the flood, approximately 79 local roads and bridges were closed, including a significant stretch of the A1, as I mentioned. I am sad to say that I was one of those who ignored the warnings not to go on to the A1. I thought that it could not possibly be closed, because it had never flooded before and was a new stretch of fast, good road, but I am afraid that I missed a funeral as a result. Many people were caught unawares.
I shall first set the scene and make a little progress.
North Yorkshire county council had to pay for specialist drivers to carry out safety checks, for example, and a temporary bridge had to be installed on the B1263, near Scorton in Richmondshire. While the bridge in Tadcaster was out of action, a free bus service was provided to shuttle people across the town because, owing to its geography, the town was split in two. North Yorkshire county council is currently carrying out extensive inspections, assessments and repair works, as the severe weather affected more than half the county.
It will be a number of months before the full extent and cost of the damage incurred are known, but the latest estimate is approximately £1.8 million. That is made up of the initial clear-up, the jetting, sweeping, additional bus services, call-outs and so on, of some £250,000; repairs to infrastructure, including surveys and bridge inspections, of £405,000; temporary carriageway repairs of £5,000; temporary bridge repairs of £35,000; and staff time and design partners, costing £170,000. In addition, a capital spend of about £900,000 is expected, split between carriageway construction and bridge replacement.
I have lived in North Yorkshire more or less since my early years, having been to school there, and I represented the county through the Vale of York constituency and, currently, Thirsk, Malton and Filey. We have, I believe, the longest stretch of rural roads in the country. As was seen in our statistics last week, we have the highest figure for fatalities among young drivers, and the largest number of transit drivers through a county. I also understand that we have something in the region of 168 bridges, a far higher figure than most because of the number of rivers and waterways that we have to cross, which lend themselves to the most beautiful and stunning scenery and geography but also to some extremely testing situations with regard to flood damage.
On the Bellwin scheme, I understand that, specifically, North Yorkshire county council is required to pay the first £1.4 million and 15p out of every £1 thereafter. There is a three-month deadline to make the claim, but bridge inspections, quite apart from road inspections, are of necessity extensive, to test their current safety and to assess the level of damage.
I wrote on behalf of North Yorkshire county council and my constituents to the Department for Communities and Local Government at the end of September or in early October. We are now approaching late November. In that time, I expected the courtesy of a reply from that Department—or from the Department of Transport if my letter had been passed on, as I understand that it was—to share with the council and my constituents. Such a late response gives the House of Commons a bad name. All of us aim to take up constituency concerns at the earliest possible opportunity.
Given that it is almost two months since I wrote my letter, that the initial deadline within which an application must be made is three months, and that there has been extensive damage, I hope that the Minister can comment on a number of factors in his reply. Given the 79 bridges affected and the huge mileage of roads to be assessed, and that many of the roads suffered extensive frost damage during the two hard winters of 2010 and 2011, is the deadline moveable? My main concern is that the county council has been told that we do not qualify under the Bellwin formula for capital expenditure on roads and bridges, but I know that that is not true. The Official Report of 21 July 2008, column 770W, and of 10 June 2008, column 768W, shows that the previous Government made substantive payments to Hull in particular, and to other parts of the country for damage to roads and other capital expenditure under the emergency highways capital maintenance scheme. I understand that that came from the Department for Transport, but the clock is ticking, and time marches on. First, is the three-month deadline completely immoveable? Secondly, why has North Yorkshire county council been told that it cannot claim for capital expenditure, when clearly there is a history under the Bellwin formula of just such expenditure?
Emergency planning is directly within the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I pay tribute to the Emergency Planning College at Hawkhills near Easingwold in Thirsk, Malton and Filey, which looks at emergency planning measures for flooding. Has the Minister had the opportunity to visit the college, and to consider whether more could be done to bring all the emergency services together in such a scenario, which is becoming increasingly common, to ensure that we are in the best state of preparedness should future flooding occur?
I want briefly to touch on insurance claims and to ask what discussions the Minister has had with his colleagues in DEFRA particularly about replacing the statement of principles, which is due to expire in June 2013. What are the implications for local authorities such as North Yorkshire county council in making insurance claims for otherwise non-recoverable costs? Again, the deadline is tight, because the statement of principles will expire in some eight months.
There is great concern about planning applications on floodplains. An application was made for 300 houses to be built on Muston road in Filey, which Scarborough borough council sensibly turned down, but was overruled by the Planning Inspectorate. Planning inspectors tend to be out of town and out of the immediate vicinity where the decision is made. There seems to be a conflict at the heart of Government policy. We are told that the Localism Act 2011 enables local people to decide planning applications—in this case the local authority turned down the planning application—but the Government now want to limit the terms in which judicial review may be brought.
My argument is that there will be serious implications for Government spending on local authority flood defences from the 300 houses being built in Filey. They will affect Filey town council, which has a limited amount of money, and especially North Yorkshire county council. The field on which the 300 houses are being built acted as an area to retain excess water in times of flooding. In 2007, I witnessed how that water had spilled over into Filey school, causing extensive damage, and into another new development on the other side of the field. Where will that water go, and how will the county and the Environment Agency put in any flood defence to keep the school and the other development safe from future flooding? How can a planning decision be overruled by an out-of-town planning inspector when it will have enormous implications for flooding in Filey in the years ahead? That is just one isolated argument.
On flood resilience measures, who has the last word when a kitemarked product is used? In Pickering, a home owner spent £20,000 on installing a flood resilient product—a membrane—only to see in 2007 the water enter just as quickly as if they had not made that investment. Who has the last word in determining whether a product meets the kitemark standard and is indeed flood resilient? If such a product fails, will the Minister’s Department step in, or should the local authority or DEFRA step in when someone has, in good faith, purchased and installed such a product, only to see the water enter just as quickly as before?
I understand that the Minister’s Department also has responsibility for climate change and sustainable development. It was clear during the floods in September that no development should be built close to a watercourse that is liable to flood and could have enormous implications for existing residents. Future developments such as those I referred to in Filey should be carefully monitored. Will the Minister confirm that under the Localism Act 2011 the local planning authority should have the last say in that regard? What work has his Department done on building regulations to ensure that any houses in areas such as Muston road in Filey meet the most stringent criteria, and will he respond to my concern about the planning conflict at the heart of Government policy?
On the Bellwin scheme, will the Minister set out his specific role, and that of his Department in allocating the scheme? May I have a swift reply to enable the county council to prepare to meet a three-month deadline, or might that deadline be removed? Will he confirm that local authorities such as North Yorkshire county council, the police, the fire service, and the national park authorities are eligible for Bellwin reimbursement in the circumstances I set out?
In a written statement, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the Government would
“reimburse local authorities for 100% of their eligible costs above threshold.”— [Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 5WS.]
Will the Minister confirm that capital expenditure on roads and bridges and the general clear-up, will qualify as eligible expenditure? How stringently are the eligibility criteria to be interpreted? Hull, Gloucestershire and other authorities have received capital funding under the Bellwin formula in the past, so will he confirm that North Yorkshire county council will also qualify? His ministerial predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), said that the Bellwin scheme would help councils to clear up streets by removing debris from roads and footpaths, shore up buildings and remove dangerous trees. Has there been a policy change since that statement to the House? Will the Minister confirm that the claims that North Yorkshire country council will make in good faith will be honoured?
This debate is timely. A number of issues remain outstanding from the 2000, 2001 and 2007 floods. With climate change, a massive amount of water can fall in one place over 36 hours, causing extensive damage. My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) referred to the area we represent and live in, which we like to believe is God’s own county. We have the most extensive road network, and probably more bridges than anywhere else. We owe it to those living in North Yorkshire to make our roads and bridges safe from future floods. The Department for Communities and Local Government has a role to play in increasing flood resilience, ensuring that building regulations are in place, and ensuring that the Bellwin formula serves the purpose for which it was intended.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing what I agree is a very important and timely debate. She made a powerful case on her constituents’ behalf and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the many questions she asked.
I want to speak on behalf of my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne North, who have unfortunately experienced a dreadful time since the deluge of rain in June this year in particular, and ongoing rainfall has compounded the issues and challenges that many people face. To set that in context, it comes as local authorities are experiencing cuts to their budgets that are deeper and faster than in almost any Whitehall Department. It is right and timely that we have this debate on the implications of the recent flooding for local government spending.
Many Members may have witnessed the devastating floods that hit Newcastle north. The images of the building at Spencer court in Newburn resting only on its stilts were used by many news stations to demonstrate the impact of the downpour not only in Newcastle, but nationally. I want to pay tribute to the area’s residents who have suffered terribly from the damage that ensued from the rainfall, and also to clarify some related points that are separate from issues raised by the hon. Lady. What occurred in Newburn and Spencer court, leading to those shocking images, was caused by a culvert being damaged and the rain taking the land away with it. That, however, does not take away from the fact that, for an awful lot of families, it resulted in immense damage, suffering and hardship. Although the local authority and the emergency services had to step in and try to resolve the issue, the repair work, support and funding will have to come from the responsible parties, who are the landowners and developers. They are deciding among themselves whose insurance will need to come into play to resolve those issues. I want to recognise today not only the immediate impact and costs that Newcastle city council faced in dealing with that matter, but the broader issues that the city has experienced, for which it has received no financial support so far.
To put what happened in context, during just two hours on 28 June, Newcastle experienced 50 mm of rainfall, which was the expected total rainfall for the entire month. It caused widespread, localised flooding across Newcastle, with the city’s drainage system overwhelmed due to the unexpectedly high volumes of water that fell in such a short period. The city’s roads quickly became gridlocked and 200 homes were flooded, causing misery for many of my constituents.
Again, I must pay tribute to the heroic staff, particularly at Newcastle city council, and the emergency services—including the fire and the police services—as well as the Environment Agency, which, I agree has, certainly in my part of the world, become like the fourth emergency service. People worked throughout the evening and the night, and it is testament to their hard work and dedication that the majority of the city was ready for business the following day. However, I highlight again the part of my constituency that was not ready for business—down in Newburn and Spencer court—as well as the ensuing problems: the town below in Newburn was flooded, and it is just getting back on its feet after a traumatic few months for its residents.
Since that day, my constituents and Newcastle city council have been counting the costs. The council estimates that the flooding costs will be over £9.2 million. The majority of that—around £8 million—is due to works that have been or will need to be undertaken, such as repairing highways and pavements. Under the Bellwin scheme, the council is eligible for certain costs above an annual threshold of £853,509. Of the £9.2 million in costs incurred by the council during the flooding, only £328,000 can be reclaimed under the Bellwin scheme, and as that is under the annual threshold, the council has not received any financial support from central Government to deal with the aftermath of the devastating floods. That has been confirmed in writing in a letter to the council from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker).
The funding for dealing with the aftermath of the flooding will therefore have to come from Newcastle city council’s capital allowance and further borrowing, with that being serviced through the revenue budget thereafter. As a result, the council will have to find additional funds from the revenue to service borrowing to deal with the aftermath. That is a particular concern, given the importance of the city’s focusing all its efforts on creating jobs and boosting growth in a part of the country that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. The situation is compounded further by the unprecedented and, I would say, disproportionate cuts that the council is facing, compared with many other local authority areas in the country.
The council faces cuts of £90 million imposed by the Government from an overall revenue budget of £266 million. That represents a cut of just over one third to the council’s budget, or £164 per person. Compared with funding reductions that many Conservative-run councils are facing—more in the region of £16 per person—people can understand why residents in Newcastle and other similarly affected cities feel that there could be some political motivation for those deep cuts, the scale of which is disastrous. They will impact greatly on the services that the council can provide.
The Government gave warm words of support following the flooding, with the Prime Minister, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), stating that the Government would,
“lend a very sympathetic ear to the local councils.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 918.]
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government assured my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) that the Government would, with regards to an application from Newcastle,
“look at it most sympathetically in terms of the formula.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 582.]
Despite those warm words, Newcastle city council has not received any financial assistance to deal with the aftermath of the flooding on 28 June. Indeed, the council has had to borrow funds to do so, and again, that is happening on top of the already devastating cuts that it faces.
I hope to hear reassurances from the Minister today, particularly when he deals with the many questions asked by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said that they will look at cases sympathetically, and they have said specifically said that they will look at Newcastle sympathetically. Rather than give more such vague promises, will the Minister provide assurances that he will look again at Newcastle city council’s case, in order to ensure that the burden for the floods does not lie entirely with hard-pressed council tax payers in my constituency?
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate at a time when communities up and down the country are still reeling from the effects of the most recent flooding and face the prospect of more to come. In my constituency of West Lancashire, there are families who face months of living in short-term rented accommodation as the devastation and damage caused by the flooding are dealt with. I know that hon. Members intending to speak today have constituencies that have been left with massive clear-up costs due to the flood damage to their local infrastructure. Many hon. Members will argue the case that central Government need to provide more effective financial support in reaction to the damage caused by heavy rainfall and flooding, but in the light of the extensive cuts to local government budgets, they have left many authorities exposed to additional clean-up and repair costs once the flooding has subsided, without the necessary reserves to call upon.
In the few minutes of my contribution, I would like to focus specifically on the West Lancashire experience of flooding in September, which shows that the financial implications of flooding are increased due to operational and organisational failings and how, through more proactive management, we could minimise the clean-up costs of flooding in West Lancashire—I make no judgment on any other area of the country.
On 19 October, I held a meeting of the West Lancashire flooding forum to discuss the September flooding. The meeting brought together representatives of the Environment Agency, Electricity North West, Lancashire police, the Lancashire fire and rescue service, the National Farmers Union, United Utilities and West Lancashire borough council. Sadly, Lancashire county council, as the lead flood authority, refused at the last minute to send a representative to attend the meeting, having initially accepted the invitation. At the meeting, there was general acceptance that weather patterns are becoming more extreme and that extreme weather incidents are occurring with greater frequency. When it rains, it rains with greater intensity, and we now have a one-in-30-year downpour every few years. I have been astonished by the number of times agencies have said to me after a flooding incident, “Ah, but this happens only once every few years”—two years later, there am I, listening to the same words over and over again.
The recent flooding in West Lancashire makes it clear that there must be changes in how we deal with the flooding of homes, transport networks and food-producing farm land—much-needed food-producing farm land. We need more significant investment in flood prevention measures in homes and a more general commitment to the principle of prevention. We must deal with the ongoing maintenance of watercourses and sewer systems, which has been cut back due to the squeeze on Environment Agency and local authority budgets. Although we have lead flood authorities, the emphasis of their role and responsibility is of course on post-flooding activity.
In West Lancashire, residents at risk of flooding could be eligible for grants to enable them to install flood prevention measures in their homes. That is easily said but very difficult to do because very few people know that that support exists and even fewer know how to apply for it. That includes the local authority, with which the bid to the EA needs to be made. I am weeks into it and I still do not have a clear pathway or a local authority that knows what it should do to get these bids made and the preventive measures installed in homes. Instead, we have been leaving people’s homes and streets to flood.
I ask the Government to encourage the Environment Agency and local authorities to make the schemes a priority and simple to apply for. That will prevent the misery of dealing with the aftermath of flooding. I have read all 76 pages of the Lancashire “Multi Agency Flood Plan”. It is supposed to set out how agencies respond to flooding incidents, yet the feedback from local residents was that they felt as though they had been abandoned. Residents rang agencies for help before their home was flooded, but were told that they could do something only when the water had breached their property.
West Lancashire borough council has a policy of not providing sandbags except for their own council properties. The council switchboard, when answering residents who were desperate because water was getting close to their homes, very helpfully listed all the local authorities nearby that do provide sandbags, but said that no, it did not do that. My local residents asked me on many occasions what they were paying their council tax for because help was not there when they needed it. Residents found themselves being passed from pillar to post in trying to find the right agency to help them. When the floodwaters were rising, we needed the agencies to spend far less time deciding who was responsible and where the source of the flooding was—and a lot less “Not us, guv.”
I absolutely accept that the environment agencies did what they could in very difficult circumstances. They reacted to the homes that were already flooded as a priority. I acknowledge their work in visiting those homes and in having an information and advice day afterwards. However, residents did not want that to happen; they wanted help before it all happened. The police and fire services emerged with great credit because they acted beyond their remit.
We must also deal with insurance. I asked the Deputy Prime Minister a question about this a couple of weeks ago; it might even have been last week. The Government had promised to address the question of how people retain insurance after they have been flooded, but worried residents are still waiting to hear the results of the Government action. Perhaps the Minister can update us this morning.
We also have outstanding issues in the local plan. The future building of houses in certain areas of my constituency will only increase the huge flooding risks; indeed, some say that it is the equivalent of building homes on a floodplain. Who will protect the residents and taxpayers of West Lancashire from those horrific risks if they are not protected by the proper processes and the Government’s ensuring that people are acting responsibly? In West Lancashire, there has been a failure to react effectively and efficiently in these situations. Surely, in the 21st century, that is not beyond the wit of man.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on a very passionate and well-argued speech, which set out admirably the difficulties that her constituents have faced as a consequence of the flooding earlier this year. She is right to refer to the impact of climate change, because we are seeing more and more freak weather patterns, which are affecting constituencies all over the country. It is just the luck of the draw whether her constituents or my constituents happen to be the ones facing this extreme and localised flooding. That needs to be set in the context of a Government decision to reduce significantly—by some 27%—the funding for flood defence work. This is work that had been envisaged up until 2010, but will now no longer go ahead. Indeed, 294 flood defence schemes around the country are still awaiting a start date. It is money well spent if the Government invest in flood defence work. According to the figures I have seen, for every pound the Government invest in flood defence work, they save £1. That seems to be extremely good value for money, so it is a mistake for the Government to cut flood defence work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) spoke passionately about the devastating floods to which her constituents were subject. She is right to highlight the consequences for her local authority of the unprecedented funding reductions by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Of all sectors, local government has seen by far and away the biggest share of funding reductions, even though it plays a vital role in people’s everyday lives; dealing with the consequences of devastating floods is just one case in point.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the difficult situation in which her local authority is being placed. Not only is Newcastle subject to significant funding cuts but the level of cuts that it has to absorb is far greater than that in other parts of the country. How can that be fair? Of course, it is not the only local authority affected in that way. Newcastle faces, in a sense, double jeopardy; the unprecedented funding cuts are far greater than those in many other parts of the country and it is faced with such huge expenditure. How is it supposed to cope? Many other local authorities could face the same dilemma that Newcastle faces as a result of the floods and unfair funding reductions.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made some excellent points, which I hope the Minister will respond to, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said that some of her constituents understandably felt abandoned in the situation that they found themselves in. How can that possibly be acceptable in the 21st century in one of the richest nations on the planet? Constituents faced with such extreme circumstances feel abandoned, and that cannot be right, and cannot be justified. Their plight has been exacerbated by funding cuts.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the heroic work of the fire and rescue services, and I pay tribute to them and the water rescue and flood relief work that they do. I hope to hear from the Minister today how he intends to enable the fire and rescue service to respond to water rescue work this winter and beyond, in view of the likelihood of more severe weather and flooding in different parts of the country. It is not only local councils that are subject to swingeing and unprecedented funding reductions and uneven funding cuts; the fire and rescue service is similarly affected.
Metropolitan chief fire officers have pointed out that, unless the Government make more funds available or do not proceed with the further cuts, which are planned in years three and four of the budget cycle, a number of those metropolitan fire and rescue authorities will be unable to fulfil their statutory obligations. It is interesting to note that the role of the fire and rescue service in dealing with flood relief and water rescue work is not a statutory one. As a result of the funding cuts imposed on the fire and rescue service, some fire and rescue authorities might not be able to respond to severe flooding events this year and in future years. I hope that the Minister can reassure us and tell us how he intends to resource fire and rescue services appropriately to enable them to respond in the event of further extreme weather patterns later this year, this winter and in the years to come.
In a sense, local authorities and local people have had insult added to injury. As hon. Members have mentioned, the former Local Government Minister is on record as saying that local authorities would receive a 100% reimbursement for dealing with the impact of the floods:
“I know that many households and businesses have been disrupted by the floods that have affected parts of the country. That is why we have announced that we will reimburse councils 100 per cent of their costs under the Bellwin scheme”.
The activation of the scheme was reaffirmed in a written ministerial statement by the then Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman):
“The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is activating the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance to help local authorities with their immediate costs associated with protecting life and property in their areas. Exceptionally, the scheme will reimburse local authorities for 100% of their eligible costs above threshold.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 5WS.]
And yet, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned, North Yorkshire county council somehow seems to have been bypassed by the Bellwin scheme. As I understand it, it has not received any money through the scheme as yet.
I do not understand what is happening. How can that possibly be? We had a ministerial statement. The Minister went on record to say that local authorities would receive 100% reimbursement, and North Yorkshire, which has had devastating floods, has not received anything. Gary Fielding, the authority’s corporate director for strategic resources, said:
“We wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government…asking that they activate the Bellwin scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is restrictive and does not help to meet the costs of capital…which includes infrastructure work…roads…, so the bridge which was swept away at Scawton and which will cost us £600,000 is not eligible. The CLG has declined any flexibility and has not activated Bellwin in any case.”
Local authorities are in an impossible position: the most extreme funding cuts are being inflicted on them and severe weather patterns result in extreme localised flooding. Local authorities and local people are left with an enormous clean-up bill, and local government is too enfeebled to respond to the needs of constituents. I do not envy any local councillor, or indeed MP, in that situation, when their constituents come to them for support and assistance, but no funding is available and the funding that was supposed to be available, and has been promised, has not been forthcoming.
I sincerely hope that, when the Minister responds, he will reassure hon. Members who have spoken today, those outside the Chamber this morning and, more importantly, the members of the public who have been subjected to floods. As we head towards the winter months—due to climate change, we see extreme weather and flooding in the summer months as well—people will be concerned about what assistance will be available should they be unfortunate enough to experience extreme flooding in their neighbourhoods. I hope that he will give reassurance that this shambolic state of affairs will be rectified, that the promised funding will be forthcoming and that the DCLG will look to assist local government flexibly, particularly because, as hon. Members have mentioned, it faces unprecedented cuts, so cannot respond as it would wish. Local government relies on central Government, and on the Minister, to give that reassurance and ensure that the funding will be forthcoming, so that we can protect the general public appropriately.
May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate, not least because it gives me an opportunity to put on the record, as hon. Members have already commented, the effective way in which emergency responders and local authorities reacted to flooding events across England this year. They did a fantastic job.
On behalf of the Government, I want to say how sorry we are for all the people who have had their homes or businesses flooded, sometimes more than once this year alone. As has been said, the effects of flooding are felt not just in the loss of family heirlooms or of a favourite armchair, but in the wait for one’s home to dry out before one can move back and live in it again. For the owners of businesses, it is equally devastating. It is a horrible time for all those affected.
I will touch on some general points about the Government’s response to flooding, before dealing with the specific issues that have been raised. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the lead Department for flood prevention and for responding to emergencies that are beyond the capacity of local responders. The Department for Communities and Local Government leads on the recovery from high-impact, wide-area flooding emergencies. Other Departments, such as the Department for Transport in relation to highways, also contribute to that response.
Of course, we cannot prevent flooding completely. When the weather deteriorates, there are well-practised approaches to warning and informing emergency responders and the general public about what is likely to happen. The Flood Forecasting Centre issues flood guidance statements and alert levels, and weather forecasts give information to the public. On the ground, emergency responders forewarn such particularly vulnerable places as mobile home parks and camping sites about what is expected, enabling them to take sensible precautions. There are also local resilience forums—one for each police force area—that are responsible for identifying risks faced at the local level and drawing up plans to respond to them if they materialise.
If local responders are overwhelmed or an emergency affects multiple areas, the Government can support the response. As with all emergencies, the lead Department—in this case, DEFRA—is responsible for monitoring the situation on the ground, assessing what Government support, if any, is needed in the immediate aftermath, and ensuring that the Government as a whole respond as necessary. In the case of this summer’s flooding, the Department did exactly that, convening daily, and often twice-daily, to achieve it.
I want to be clear about what this Government have done to help communities recover from this summer’s floods. We have been there to warn people, through the Met Office and the Environment Agency, about the rain to come, and to inform them how to protect themselves and their property from flooding. We are continuing that effort by providing local emergency responders, through the local resilience forum, with a forward-look at the risk of severe weather.
We have been there when the rain came down and the rivers rose to ensure, through the Environment Agency, that water could flow freely through culverts and ditches to escape. We were also there in the aftermath, not simply to activate the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance—I will come back to that scheme—but to increase the rate of assistance to 100% of eligible expenditure above the threshold for the June and July Bellwin schemes. We are also considering Bellwin support for the more recent flooding.
We have continued to work with local authorities in their transition from response to recovery, and my officials have called the chief executive of every local authority affected by the flooding, so that we can be clear about local impacts. The former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) has visited Gateshead and Ottery St Mary, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has visited Calderdale, one of the areas affected several times by flooding.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton about the letter she mentioned. It is unacceptable to take too long to respond to any letter, and we will chase it up. The only one we have on record is dated October and had been passed to the Department for Transport, which we will chase up for a reply.
As I have mentioned, we put in place a Bellwin scheme to support the areas affected in June and July, but let me say more about such schemes. As most local authorities are aware, they are the means by which the Government can reimburse a local authority for the immediate, uninsurable clear-up costs following an emergency or disaster in its area. Named after the former DEFRA Minister Lord Bellwin, the scheme provides reimbursement for local authorities in relation to its costs incurred in, or in connection with, immediate action to safeguard life and property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience. The Bellwin funding scheme is well recognised, long-used and respected. Local authorities have one month from the end of an incident to notify my Department that they intend to apply for the activation of a Bellwin scheme. The scheme’s standard terms usually allow the Department to reimburse the authority for 85% of eligible costs above a threshold, which is 0.2% of the authority’s calculated net revenue budget.
I can tell my hon. Friend that North Yorkshire county council has registered for Bellwin support. In such circumstances, there is no three-month cut-off for the receipt of an application. We are still willing to consider its Bellwin application, and we await its response to our questions.
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. The chief executive and the leader of the council have been told, for reasons I cannot understand—perhaps it is a misunderstanding that we can clarify today—that it will not qualify for capital expenditure. Earlier, I referred to parliamentary answers showing that other local authorities have qualified for the type of claim that it is making. The Minister has responded on the three-month deadline, but will he clarify whether this business about their being told that the council’s claim is not eligible is a misunderstanding?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I was about to turn to the difference between Bellwin schemes and capital expenditure. As I said, a Bellwin scheme covers only the costs of immediate action to safeguard life and property. Payments made under the last Administration—for example, in 2008—with which I think her local authority is making comparisons, were not Bellwin grants; they were to cover cost recovery from an exceptional event. I will turn to that in a moment.
A Bellwin scheme typically covers the costs of evacuating people from dangerous structures, and works to make them safe following a disaster; temporary re-housing; and initial repairs to, and the clearing of debris from, highways, pavements and footpaths. Let me make it clear—this may provide clarification for my hon. Friend—that it does not usually cover capital expenditure; the normal wages and salaries of an authority’s regular employees, whether diverted from their usual work or otherwise; and the standing costs of an authority’s plant and equipment.
Although a Bellwin scheme is discretionary, it has a statutory basis. As a Department, we must therefore ensure that the terms of each scheme and the eligible costs comply with the legislation. In particular, the statute sets out that expenditure must have been incurred on, or in connection with, immediate action to safeguard life and property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience. The idea of a Bellwin scheme is to put local authorities in a position to take speedy emergency action, to protect people during and immediately after an incident and to deal with the immediate catastrophic consequences.
Clearly, the statutory basis of the schemes means that longer-term works of repair or restoration will be ruled out, because they fall into the recovery stage rather than into that of immediate action. Although Ministers have previously used their discretion to enhance some of the Bellwin scheme terms—indeed, we have done so in relation to these incidents by extending the percentage of grant payable above the threshold, as others have said—we must continue to have regard to the legislation. Permanent repairs to roads and bridges would not therefore be eligible, but initial repairs and patching up works are fine.
Will the Minister comment on the fact that, as he has conceded, the last Administration funded local authorities over and above the Bellwin formula? Given the parlous state of local government finance as a result of reductions in funding, does he not agree that it is even more imperative for his Administration to look sympathetically on local authorities facing such exceptional costs? They simply do not have the resources to meet such expenditure under their funding regime.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense that it is a shame that we inherited the parlous economic state in this country, and have therefore had to make decisions about how to sort out the debt and deficit problems left by the last Labour Government. I will turn to the capital situation in a moment. We have sometimes faced calls for Bellwin schemes to be amended or refreshed, but we remain committed to the terms outlined in statute. The scheme has the necessary flexibility, and it continues to be well-known and well used by local authorities.
Let me turn now to North Yorkshire. I am aware that the colleagues of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton from North Yorkshire county council registered a possible intention to apply for Bellwin support in September. My officials have requested further information to support a possible activation of the scheme and we await the council’s response. I understand that the council now considers that it will not be eligible for the scheme because the costs will not be above the Bellwin threshold. However, as allowed under the Bellwin rules, we will record costs for any future claims if further flooding occurs later in the financial year.
I know that hon. Members are keen to understand why the Department has not considered launching a recovery grant scheme, which has occasionally happened in previous years, most notably following the significant and widespread flooding events of 2007. Let me be clear—I appreciate that this is not an easy message to relay to constituents—while the flooding incidents of this summer were locally significant, we did not witness the devastating effects of previous years. Despite the individual stories of loss that we have heard, and our sympathy for those affected, the flooding this year has been on a much smaller scale overall.
Let me put the matter in context. In 2007, 55,000 properties, both houses and businesses, were flooded compared with only 4,000 this summer. The events on those two occasions are not comparable and the response, therefore, must be proportionate. Although we have activated a Bellwin scheme, we have not considered the need for a wider recovery grant. None the less, I will, in a moment, touch on the capital expenditure for roads and highways.
Successive Governments have used the Bellwin scheme as a benchmark, and we are doing the same. If we were to experience flooding on a larger scale, we would doubtless consider further Government support. For now, the balance has been appropriately struck between our Bellwin scheme, boosted to 100% of costs above the threshold to reflect the particular circumstances of the June and July flooding, and local support.
Thanks to the Government’s continued investment in flood defences, some 19,000 properties have been protected from flooding. In places such as Carlisle, the local authority has told us that the defences have saved some 2,000 homes from the summer flooding events. Despite the financial situation that we inherited, the Government have continued to invest substantially in flood defence, spending £470 million a year. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that that has undoubtedly protected people’s homes and kept businesses operating when, in the past, they would have been under water.
I am surprised that the Minister is eulogising the Government’s continued investment in flood defence work when there has been a significant reduction in such work, as I pointed out in my opening remarks. Will he concede that there has been a 27% reduction in flood defence work?
I was not eulogising the Government, but making the point that we are spending £470 million a year which, considering the economic mess that we inherited from the previous Labour Administration, is something that we should all know about.
Let me turn now to the role of local authorities. As ever, local authorities have been on the front line of the response to the flooding this summer. Of course, once flooding has subsided, recovery begins. Local authorities support such work from their reserves, which are there to help to meet the costs of emergencies, such as flooding. Of course, Bellwin is also in place.
I am sure that local authorities will look sympathetically at requests for hardship relief from business rates for businesses affected by the flooding. They were urged to do that quickly in the immediate aftermath of the event. If they grant such relief, Government will fund 75% of the cost.
I said that I was sure that local authorities will look sympathetically at requests for hardship relief from business rates for businesses affected by flooding. They were urged to do that immediately after the event. If they grant such relief, Government will fund 75% of the cost.
Aside from hardship relief, I am sure that local authorities will have taken advantage of the changes introduced by the Local Government Finance Bill to fund discounts for ratepayers as they see fit. Flooding would seem to be one of the circumstances for which the new power was designed.
Let me deal with transport. My ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport recognise that many parts of the country have seen high levels of rainfall and significant local flooding incidents, which have impacted on residents, businesses and transport infrastructure. Like me, they pay tribute to the excellent multi-agency response and the ongoing work by local highway authorities to help those who have been affected.
However, local authorities have responsibility for the local roads in their areas and are best placed to determine their own priorities for funding, which include putting in place reasonable resilience measures and contingencies to deal with any incidents, such as flooding, that may occur from time to time.
The Department for Transport is providing more than £91.7 million to North Yorkshire for highways maintenance funding over the spending review period. For this financial year, we are providing more than £24 million. The Department allocated North Yorkshire a further £6.6 million in March 2011 for damage to its highways network caused by the severe winter of 2010.
Despite the current economic situation that we inherited, the Government will continue to provide £3 billion to councils for road maintenance over the next four years to 2015. The Department for Transport also provided a further £200 million in March last year as an exceptional payment to help with much-needed road repairs following the severe weather at the end of 2010.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton commented on the Emergency Planning College. The college is a Cabinet Office-sponsored facility. Given my responsibility for the Fire Service College, I warmly welcome it and look forward to paying a visit in due course. A great deal of work on interoperability is going on across Government at the moment, to which both colleges are contributing. The joint emergency services interoperability programme aims to deliver significant benefits in future emergency responses. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Over the past few weeks, I, too, have been talking about the facilities at the Fire Service College. The more that we can get our emergency services working and training together in such environments, the better it will be for everybody on the ground.
On the planning case in Filey, I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases. None the less, the Government have ensured, through the national planning policy framework, that new homes and other buildings will not be built in areas of high flood risk.
As for the comments made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), the climate change risk assessment identifies increased risk of flooding for the years ahead and informs flood defence investment. We cannot prevent all flooding, so the need to plan well locally is important. The hon. Lady’s constituents who may feel abandoned need to make their councillors aware of their feelings and to demand improvements.
Will the Minister comment on grants for individual prevention schemes, such as air brick blocking and the various other aids that can enable householders to prevent their homes from being flooded? Will he also give us some detail on how people can apply for such grants? The truth is that, after three weeks’ work, including with the Environment Agency and the local authority, I still do not have a plan for how to apply for such grants that I can show my local residents. If the Minister does not have those details, will he write to me, setting out the steps, so that we can make some progress? Householders do not want to have to face the misery of their homes being flooded over and over again, especially if there are grants available.
Either I or my colleagues at DEFRA will write to the hon. Lady with those details. If it is a local scheme through the local authority or Environment Agency, it will be a matter for them, but we will certainly have a look at the matter and give her some feedback.
As I said at the outset, flooding is devastating for those whom it affects. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing.
The Minister has given some full responses, but before he concludes, will he explain something he has just said? He told us that in future, no building will be allowed in areas of high flood risk. Muston road is an area of high flood risk. The buildings have gone ahead. There will be future flooding, which will have an impact on flood spending. Moreover, will he also comment on flood resilience products—who has the final word if they fail—insurance claims, the statement of principles and the implications for local authorities?
I am sorry that I have not commented on those issues. As I said, I obviously cannot comment on particular planning cases. My comment about the national planning policy framework was to give my hon. Friend and her residents some confidence about where we are now and about the applications for the future. Regarding any particular product, again that is not something I can comment on here today.
However, with regard to the statement of principles, there are continuing discussions between the Government and the Association of British Insurers, and negotiations are going on at this time. The Department for Communities and Local Government is part of those negotiations. My hon. Friend will therefore have to bear with us before I can come back and give her a definitive position on that issue. As I say, the discussions and negotiations are ongoing, with all the parties very aware of the time scale that they are working to.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing, through local authorities, to support those who are affected by flooding. We continue to invest in flood defence measures. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate.