On Thursday and Friday last week, we experienced an exceptional coastal surge along the east and parts of the west coast of the UK. This caused flooding to around 1,400 properties and damage to infrastructure.
Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by high winds and whose homes and businesses have been damaged during these powerful storms. However, through investment by Government and improvements to the way we manage this type of flooding, we were able to protect up to 800,000 properties which would otherwise have been flooded.
The extremely severe conditions were caused by a rare combination of factors. Very low atmospheric pressure over the North sea caused the sea level to rise. This, combined with the high astronomic tides and gale force winds, resulted in a tidal surge of unprecedented sea levels on some parts of the coast.
It is worthwhile comparing the events of last week with the storm surge of January 1953. The latter claimed the lives of over 300 people; 24,500 homes were damaged or destroyed and there was considerable damage to national infrastructure.
Two people lost their lives as a result of last week’s high winds and I offer my sincere condolences to their families. However no lives were lost as a result of flooding, and the numbers of homes, businesses and infrastructure affected were small in comparison to 1953. This serves to reinforce the importance of the recent and continuing investment that we have made in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability.
Response and impacts
The Government are grateful for the excellent response from our front-line emergency services. I pay tribute to the community spirit of ordinary people who have rallied round to help their neighbours in difficult times. I want to particularly praise the work of the Environment Agency, Met Office and Flood Forecasting Centre. There were also many local authorities which worked tirelessly to prepare for and respond to the surge as it happened.
We were organised and prepared. From the earliest signs of a possible surge threat, Government Departments and agencies, local resilience fora and local authorities were making preparations. I myself chaired three meetings of COBR on Thursday and a further COBR meeting on Friday. We were able to plan and co-ordinate the response to ensure the focus was on protecting communities at risk and the key infrastructure that supports them.
Over 160,000 homes and businesses received a flood warning and advice in advance to enable them to put their flood plans into action. Approximately 18,000 properties were evacuated in the afternoon and evening of Thursday 5 December along the coast from towns and villages including Great Yarmouth, Boston, Clacton-on-Sea and Sandwich.
Over 100 specialist flood rescue teams and their equipment were on standby across the country as part of the national asset register managed by the fire and rescue service national co-ordination centre. A number of strategic holding areas for these flood rescue teams and equipment were established in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, utilising vital equipment which had been mobilised from across the country.
The extreme conditions of last week put sea defences to their greatest test in 60 years. Record tidal surge levels were experienced at many locations, including at North Shields, Whitby, Hull, Immingham and Dover. In Wales, Rhyl was badly hit with 250 properties affected. Some parts of the east coast experience such circumstances only once every 500 years.
Numerous assets and barriers were deployed along the coast, including at Goole, Great Yarmouth and Colne in Essex. Tidal barriers were operated at several locations including at Hull, which I have seen for myself and I understand worked well. Over £200 billion worth of property was safeguarded in London by the Thames barrier which was raised against the highest level it had faced since it started operating in October 1982.
Impacts were not confined to the east coast however, with the £23 million Warrington flood defence scheme being operated for the first time to reduce the flood risk to 1,500 properties from the River Mersey.
In addition to the coastal flooding, extremely high winds—primarily across northern England and Scotland—resulted in 370,000 homes being disconnected from power supplies on Thursday. Almost all of these had power restored before the weekend.
As well as damaging homes, businesses and infrastructure, these storms also resulted in the flooding of agricultural land and sites of special scientific interest. A full assessment of these impacts will take place over the coming weeks.
The multi-agency response to the surge event is now focusing on recovery. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has set up the Bellwin scheme to reimburse local authorities for their immediate costs caused by the storm surge.
In the next few days, the Government will be discussing with every local authority area affected by the flooding what further help they need to ensure places can quickly get back on their feet.
People who have had their home damaged or destroyed should contact their local authority for help with emergency re-housing. We have also asked the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to ensure its member firms stand ready to settle insurance claims promptly.
Flood management is a top priority for Government. It has a vital role to play in protecting people and property from the damage caused by flooding and delivering economic growth and supporting a strong economy.
That is why we are making record levels of investment in improvement projects. Between 2015-16 and 2020-21 we are on track to spend £2.3 billion on protecting people and property from flooding and coastal erosion. This long-term settlement will enable the Environment Agency and other risk management authorities to reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households between April 2015 and March 2021, on top of the 165,000 protected during the current spending period.
Our continued commitment to improving flood defences will help us to manage effectively any future incidents of this magnitude.