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Volume 556: debated on Monday 7 January 2013

The period leading up to Christmas and in to the new year has again seen flooding across the country. This was particularly unfortunate in that it impacted on people and families during the festive season and I would like to offer my sincere sympathies to those who were affected.

The recent floods which began mid way through December affected much of the country. Following on from previous flooding in November and a very wet summer, the December rainfall quickly led to further flooding. Although rain is not unusual at this time of year we have experienced a prolonged period of heavier than usual rainfall during the year. 2012 was the wettest on record in England with some areas experiencing over 131% of average levels. This heavy rain led to flooding from rivers, groundwaters and surface water.

The December floods affected many parts of the country with 532 properties flooded, most notably in the south-west with 379 properties impacted. Nearly 22,000 properties were protected from flooding and over 135,000 properties were sent a warning about the potential risk of flooding giving people essential time to protect their homes and possessions. In total over 1.1 million people are signed up to receive Environment Agency flood warnings.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Environment Agency, fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, local authorities, the voluntary sector and local communities who contributed to the flood response. This is particularly relevant for those who put aside their traditional Christmas and new year celebrations to help others and to them I offer my sincere thanks.

I saw for myself some of the magnificent work that results from this multi-agency response when I visited Upton-upon-Severn to see new flood defence schemes successfully keeping high river flows at bay. I also met some of the people who managed the response at the local incident room in Tewkesbury. Last Thursday the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) visited Dorset and Wiltshire to gain a better understanding of the continuing groundwater flooding challenges and to meet some of the people who contributed to our operational response in the region.

As river levels fall, saturated ground continues to lead to potential groundwater flooding problems. The Environment Agency’s teams will be monitoring groundwater levels across England and Wales for many weeks to come and advising local authorities who lead on groundwater flooding. As the rain eases over the coming days slower responding rivers such as the Thames, Severn, Nene and the Ouse in Yorkshire, will continue to rise in their lower reaches. The Environment Agency will be monitoring these closely.

The recent heavy rain caused major disruption to the rail network in different parts of the UK, particularly in the south-west of England. Major flooding resulted in certain sections of the network being closed and this was compounded by landslips resulting in severe damage to tracks and signalling equipment. Where possible train operating companies either re-routed services or provided alternative means of transport, although this was not always possible due to local road conditions. On the roads there was some initial minor disruption to the strategic road network but the major impact was on local roads under the responsibility of local authorities.

In addition to the impacts on homes and businesses around the country, the current floods have been keenly felt among farmers. The Somerset Levels and Moors have been inundated for a large proportion of the year and continue to be under water. The Lower Hampshire Avon has been at flood risk since early July. In the north-east, there has been extensive and prolonged flooding of agricultural land in the Vale of York. I recognise the difficulties that this situation presents to farmers and offer my sincere sympathies to those who have been affected. It is important to note that investment in flood defence schemes has protected agricultural land. For example, 59 projects completed during 2011-12 provided an improved level of flood protection to more than 74,000 hectares of agricultural land. We recognise that concerns have been raised about clearance of water channels in rural areas and that the Department is working with the Environment Agency to examine the issue. My Department and its agencies will continue to do all that we can to issue warnings and to moderate the impacts of floods. We will assess the long-term impact of the recent saturation of agricultural land.

The Government recognise the adverse impacts that flooding has had on communities, both urban and rural, across the country throughout 2012. Continued Government investment means that during 2012 we have been able to protect a total of over 200,000 properties from flooding. We now expect to exceed our goal to better protect 145,000 homes from flooding and coastal erosion by March 2015. The autumn statement announced an extra £120 million for flood defences in England during this spending period allowing us to protect up to a further 60,000 properties.

We remain committed to ongoing discussions with the Association of British Insurers (ABI), on behalf of their members, and others about what replaces the statement of principles agreement. It would not be appropriate to comment in detail on their progress. A range of options are on the table and discussions have been very constructive. No final decisions have been taken. We are keen to improve on the statement of principles. We need a solution that ensures affordable insurance bills for those at flood risk but does not place unsustainable costs on wider policyholders and the taxpayer. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is responsible for the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance to help local authoritieswith the immediate costs associated with protecting life and properties in their areas. His Department stands ready to support all councils that have suffered from the devastating floods including financial support through the Bellwin scheme and we are monitoring the situation carefully. High river levels, groundwater flooding, standing water and surface water runoff continue to make conditions difficult in different parts of England. I encourage people to continue to take care and think about their own safety and that of friends, relatives and neighbours.

These floods, coming as they have after a long series of previous floods, have been a tragedy for those affected, and I want to conclude by paying tribute to the wonderful community spirit that I, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and Members across the House have seen around the country in their local communities. I shall, of course, keep the House informed of any further significant developments.