Skip to main content

Waveney (Coastal Flooding)

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate as I believe that the coastal flooding that took place on 5 December should be considered on the Floor of the House. The storm surge has had a devastating impact on many coastal communities, and there is a strong sense in those communities that Parliament has not properly considered what was a narrowly averted national crisis. Many have seen their homes destroyed, while other homes have been seriously damaged and people will not be able to return home for many months. People have lost possessions that were built up over a lifetime, and many small businesses—some of which had difficulty securing full insurance cover—have been seriously hit.

On small business Saturday when MPs were out promoting small businesses, many firms in coastal communities were busy trying to salvage what was left of their livelihoods. Many of those communities face significant economic challenges, and I am concerned that such events might make it more difficult to attract the inward investment needed to create new jobs.

Although Waveney and Lowestoft are the focus of my remarks, I am aware that these events affected many communities along the North sea coast and that colleagues will have their own specific concerns, some of which I hope I shall be able to address on their behalf. I am conscious that my colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), have been particularly active in support of communities affected in their constituencies, but they are unable to participate in this debate due to their ministerial responsibilities.

Although no one lost their life as a result of the flooding, my constituent Robert Dellow died in the course of his work as a lorry driver as a result of the high winds. I offer my condolences to his family, friends and work colleagues. Although geographically small areas in Lowestoft and Oulton Broad were affected, the impact has been dramatic. Levington Court is a complex that provides housing and care for vulnerable older people. The residents of the 19 flats on the ground floor have been evacuated, their possessions have been destroyed and they will not be able to return to their homes for some months. The Fyffe Centre provides accommodation for the homeless. Twenty-seven people have been flooded out. It will take some months to refurbish and repair the building before they can return. Other residential areas, including St John’s road and Marine parade, have been hard-hit. Many of the homes are in the rental sector, and people have seen all their possessions destroyed.

Businesses have been hard-hit, including Lings car showroom, the East Coast cinema, Britain’s most easterly cinema, and Buyaparcel. The traders in Bevan Street East, which runs parallel to the street where my office is located, were dealt a particularly savage blow.

Infrastructure was damaged. The A12 from Ipswich was closed for 36 hours, and both train lines—to Norwich and Ipswich—were out of action. A full service on the latter has resumed only today. There was structural damage to coastal defences, and infrastructure at the port of Lowestoft was damaged. The doctor’s surgery at Marine parade has had to move and will probably not return from its new location.

To the south, at Kessingland, the flood defences around the Anglian Water pumping station that serves the community have been badly eroded. There is an urgent need to produce a new flood defence scheme. Until two weeks ago, it was envisaged that that would not be necessary for some years.

The scene is a sad one, but good things come out of adversity. It is important to point out that, owing to the investment in flood defences in the past few years and the way in which coastal flooding is managed, many properties were protected that otherwise would have been flooded. The various statutory authorities, including the Environment Agency, the Met Office, the police and fire services, the Flood Forecasting Centre, Suffolk county council and Waveney district council, were prepared for the event.

Flood warnings were issued in good time, the evacuation generally went smoothly and rest centres were open several hours before high tide. During the evening and the night, they and voluntary organisations such as St John Ambulance and the churches rose to the challenge, co-ordinated their efforts and worked around the clock to support and assist people. Many gave their time voluntarily without being asked to do so. Special thanks are due to them. Thanks should also go to Radio Suffolk and Radio Norfolk, which ensured that vital information went out throughout the night.

The clear-up work began the next day and will take several months to complete. Community champions are emerging. People are giving their time, money, goods and services free of charge to those who have been hard-hit. Malcolm Gibbs, a self-employed painter and decorator, is working for free redecorating properties; Danielle Bailey has launched a Facebook appeal for clothes, carpets, furniture and other goods; and customers of the Oddfellows pub have cleared up Pakefield beach.

It is appropriate to thank the Eastern Daily Press, its editor, Nigel Pickover, its staff and its readers for setting up and giving so generously to the Norfolk and Lowestoft flood appeal, which has raised more than £100,000. The House goes into recess tomorrow. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all colleagues a happy and restful Christmas, but we must not forget that many people, not only in Lowestoft but all along the east coast, will not be as fortunate as ourselves.

In the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement of 10 December, he stated:

“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.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 26WS.]

I would welcome an update from the Minister on how those discussions have gone and what further help is being provided. I would also welcome an assurance that all clean-up costs will be recovered.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on putting the case for his constituency. Barrow Haven, a village in my constituency, was badly hit. The residents are grateful to North Lincolnshire council for the work it is doing. The council is somewhat reassured about reclaiming money through the Bellwin formula and so on, but a lot of the work is dependent on the Environment Agency. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would like assurance from the Minister that additional funding, if necessary, will be available to the agency?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is important that additional funding goes to local authorities for the costs they incur—I will come on to talk about the Bellwin formula—and to the Environment Agency, for capital works. I pay tribute to the EA, in particular, for the warning it gave leading up to this tragedy.

It is important that the Government review the policies and strategies they have in place to deal with such events. Concerns have been expressed to me that they were not devised with serious coastal flooding in mind. The Pitt review, which was set up by the previous Government after the storms in autumn 2007, appears to have some deficiencies in that it does not address coastal flooding and erosion properly. Its recognition of the need to protect the economy is too limited. Similar criticisms can be made of the new flood and coastal erosion risk management plan that was introduced in 2011. It, too, places insufficient weight on the need to protect the economy or recognise fully the differences between inland flooding, which is temporary, and coastal flooding and erosion, which can be terminal for affected properties and assets.

I would be grateful if the Minister advised on whether the Government have reviewed or plan to review Flood Re, the flood insurance scheme, which is being taken forward at present. Does it fully take into account, and provide for, the events that took place on 5 December? If not, will the Government make amendments so that it does?

The Bellwin scheme is the main vehicle through which the Government will deliver financial support to local communities by reimbursing local authorities for immediate costs incurred in the storm surge. Based on the feedback I have received there is a concern that the scheme, which was originally established in 1983, is no longer fit for purpose. I would be interested to learn what feedback the Government have had in that regard, but I will draw various conclusions to the Minister’s attention.

As a result of recent changes in the localisation of business rates, any rate relief granted by councils to affected businesses will in part be met by them rather than entirely by the Government, as was the case in the past. The scheme is too time-limited and restrictive. It does not cover the costs incurred in repairing sea defences that have been weakened by the event, and is not generally supportive of capital expenditure, which is necessary to repair sea defences. In Waveney, that is estimated at £120,000, while I am advised that in North Norfolk it could be £1 million.

My hon. Friend is my neighbour and we share Waveney district council. We were both astounded by the level of the surge and I agree that we need extra capital funding. My understanding is that in Southwold alone an extra £2 million is needed. I join my hon. Friend in praising the Environment Agency—in particular, Dr Charlie Beardall and his team—and the councils for ensuring that people were aware in advance and could prepare as much as possible. They definitely need the resources to fix the problem again.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

A further problem with the Bellwin scheme is that the two-month limitation that applies to expenditure means that extensive capital works are excluded if they cannot be completed in that time scale, which in the current circumstances could be very difficult to achieve. The costs of employing additional temporary staff or contractors are also not covered.

In the light of those and other concerns, there is a worry that Bellwin on its own will not be able to achieve the Secretary of State’s objective of getting places back on their feet quickly. In the short term, there is a need for communities to look at a variety of measures that manage flood risk. They include the provision of flood boards and valves in air bricks and in WCs, and liaison with the insurance industry to ensure that, where such protection measures are in place, it provides cover on realistic terms. It is also necessary to plan for the future. I believe that owing to rises in sea levels such events will occur with increased frequency, and I am conscious that in Lowestoft there have now been two such events in the past six years.

I concur with a lot of what my hon. Friend has said, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. As the Minister knows from our debates on the Water Bill last week, hundreds of properties and many villages in my constituency were flooded. My hon. Friend has talked about the future. Does he agree that we urgently need a review and reassessment of all our flood strategy management plans, including the Humber flood risk management strategy plan, so that we can bring forward the works already identified in such plans as necessary to deal with rising sea levels? We need that to happen quickly and we need the funding in place to support whatever works are necessary.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree wholeheartedly that we need to address this issue as soon as practicable. One will lead on from the other.

We have had two such storm surges in the past six years, and arguably in both 2007 and 2013 we escaped by the skin of our teeth. In 2007, the wind dropped in the nick of time, while two weeks ago we were fortunate that the wind was blowing in a northerly direction and that there was no heavy rainfall, which would have exacerbated the surge up the rivers. It would be foolish to assume that we will be lucky a third time.

The challenges of rising sea levels and climate change mean that such events will take place with greater frequency. It is important to remember that sea levels along the Suffolk coast have been rising by 2.4 mm per annum since the 1950s. In Lowestoft, research carried out by Halcrow and Bam Nuttall concludes that a 1953-type flood, which was previously considered to be a one-in-1,000-year event, could well now take place every 20 years. There is thus a need for new and improved sea defences, and it is important that these be put in place as soon as practicable.

Preparatory work on a Lowestoft flood defence scheme is nearing completion. It should be submitted to the Government shortly, and I hope it will receive favourable consideration. It is important to the town’s future that work on the scheme starts as soon as practicable. There is the opportunity to attract considerable investment into the town, particularly in the oil and gas and offshore renewables sectors, and the inclusion of this part of Lowestoft in the draft assisted area map will help in this respect. However, businesses will think very carefully before making such commitments unless adequate flood defences are in place.

I have raised a number of issues, but I return to the most important, which is obtaining an assurance from the Minister that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that local communities affected by the storm surge get back on their feet as quickly as possible. In what is the season of good will, we owe it to those many people whose lives have been turned upside down this Christmas to provide an undertaking that they will not be forgotten.

On that note, Mr Deputy Speaker, happy Christmas to you, to the staff of the House and to all colleagues on both sides of the House. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to respond to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) not only on securing it, but on how he opened it and the measured way in which he raised issues that are important to his constituents and others across the country who either were affected by the surge or, as he pointed out, escaped being affected this time but are concerned that we prepare for future events.

The coastal surge that struck the eastern coast of England on the night of 5 and 6 December was a significant flood event. It was the largest surge since 1953, and in several places the water height exceeded that experienced 60 years ago. It caused flooding to about 1,400 properties and some damage to infrastructure. I know all our thoughts are with those whose homes and businesses were 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 countrywide that might otherwise have been flooded.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney pointed out, there was a multi-agency response to this event, with all relevant authorities pulling together to protect people and their property. I am grateful for the excellent response from our front-line emergency services, including the police, the fire services, the Environment Agency and, of course, local authorities, as well as all the volunteers who assisted. They all worked tirelessly to respond to the surge, both as it happened as well as in the ensuing recovery effort.

In Essex, we all acknowledge how well Tendring district council and Essex police did—they did a fantastic job in organising the evacuation of Brooklands and Jaywick. Thousands of people were moved; it is to the great credit of people in Jaywick and Brooklands that thousands of people were moved with such minimal fuss. Does my hon. Friend accept that absolutely key to the whole process was the fact that the Environment Agency put the information out in the public domain early? By mid-afternoon, it was available through mainstream media and, in particular, social media, which allowed people to take responsibility and act responsibly. Often, they did not need the authorities to do things for them because they were able to make arrangements themselves. That shows a key way to move large numbers of people quickly and safely in future.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I visited his constituency on the Sunday after the events, as he knows, and I was very impressed with the feedback I received from local residents about how the evacuation had proceeded and how reassuring it was for them, with everything well handled. I spent some time with Dr Charlie Beardall, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned, and with officials from Tendring council, who talked about not only the response to the events, but how they were engaging with our programme for partnership funding to ensure that further defences in that part of the coast can be brought forward. I shall say more about that.

As well as the agencies I have mentioned, I would like to praise the work of the Flood Forecasting Centre, run by the Met Office and the Environment Agency. More than 160,000 homes and businesses received a flood warning, as my hon. Friend illustrated from his own constituency, and they received advice in advance to enable them to put the flood plans into action.

Nationally, the Environment Agency issued 71 severe flood warnings, five of which were for the Waveney district. Emergency service partners were aware of the event 36 hours in advance of the tide, and strategic goal controls were established in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex on Wednesday 4 December. Those remained in place throughout the event. The combination of accurate forecasting and extensive planning and preparation allowed us to co-ordinate the response to ensure the focus was on protecting communities at risk and the key infrastructure that supports them.

The extremely severe conditions were caused by a rare combination of factors: very low atmospheric pressure over the North sea, causing the sea level to rise, which, 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. The extreme conditions put sea defences to their greatest test in 60 years, with record tidal surge levels experienced at many locations along the entire length of the east coast. In Lowestoft, the record high tide, or the recorded high tide, was the same as in 1953, and over half a metre higher than the more recent surge of November 2007.

With the changing climate, there is more of a risk of extreme weather events. According to the climate change risk assessment, the probability of coastal flooding is projected to increase as the climate changes. I assure the House that the Government, in this and all their policies, take full account of the potential impact of climate change on our flood defence strategy.

Let me refer to a number of important local aspects that my hon. Friend has raised. Our thoughts are, of course, with the family and friends of Mr Robert Dellow, who tragically lost his life as a result of the high winds. I pay tribute, too, to Malcolm Gibbs, Danielle Bailey and, indeed, the customers of the Oddfellows pub and the Eastern Daily Press for all they did to help the community recover.

As for the local impact, the latest Environment Agency estimate suggests that 87 properties were flooded in the low-lying centre of the commercial heart of Lowestoft. The area of Oulton Broad, which lies at the western end of Lake Lothing in Lowestoft, also suffered a second inundation by flooding from the River Waveney, some two hours after the initial tidal surge. The road crossings at the bascule bridge and Mutford lock crossing were both closed, effectively cutting Lowestoft in half. Flooding also resulted in the closure of the A12 at Blythburgh. Rail services between Lowestoft and Norwich and between Lowestoft and Ipswich were disrupted as a result of flooding at Lowestoft Central station and damage to the signalling network. The Lowestoft to Ipswich line remained closed some 11 days after the tidal surge.

Further south in the constituency, there was limited flooding at a number of locations in the Blyth estuary. Recent defences protected the vast majority of properties in Southwold. It was confirmed that seven commercial and three residential properties had been flooded in Southwold and the surrounding marshes, while 133 properties in the town had been protected from flooding. My thoughts go out to all who have been affected by the floods: it is especially difficult for them in the run-up to the season that we are about to celebrate. The internationally important designated coastal habitats between Lowestoft and Southwold were all subject to breaching of the fragile sand and shingle barriers that offer them limited protection, but the Environment Agency has inspected the sites and expects the barriers to repair themselves naturally over the next few tides.

The principal coast protection authority in the Lowestoft area is Waveney district council, while other defences are maintained by Associated British Ports, the harbour authority. The Environment Agency has worked closely with the council’s engineering staff throughout the event and its aftermath. The damage to defences has been assessed and appears to be relatively minor except on Lowestoft south beach, where more detailed engineering assessments are still taking place. Separately, Suffolk county council has been preparing a flood alleviation scheme for sections of the A12 that were flooded at Blythburgh. The scheme is expected to become operational in 2014. There are 550 properties that lie outside Lowestoft in the Waveney valley. The Environment Agency has spent approximately £12 million on strengthening flood defences along the valley over the past 10 years under the Broadland flood alleviation project.

During the event itself, a number of people were temporarily re-homed, and advice has been offered to businesses and householders. A multi-agency information centre has been established in the worst-affected area. The district council has removed damaged goods and possessions free of charge, and has granted rate and council tax relief to affected properties. The multi-agency response to the surge is now focusing on recovery, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has set up a Bellwin scheme to reimburse local authorities for their immediate costs caused by the storm surge. My hon. Friend asked about the configuration of the scheme. As he will appreciate, such matters are for the Department for Communities and Local Government, but his comments are on the record, and I shall ensure that they are conveyed to those at the Department so that they can respond to him.

The Government have begun the process of discussing with all local authority areas affected by the flooding what further help they need to ensure that they can get back on their feet quickly, and we stand ready to assist where we can do so. Waveney district council has already notified the Department for Communities and Local Government that it has in mind a potential claim under the Bellwin scheme.

Can the Minister reassure Waveney district council, North Lincolnshire council and other councils that they will not be out of pocket as a result of having supported their communities following this natural disaster?

As has been made clear, measures in the Bellwin formula enable the Government to reimburse councils. As one who represents an area that has been flooded, I have seen how the system operates. For example, there are always different implications for two-tier and single-tier local government areas. The Department for Communities and Local Government takes those issues very seriously in its interaction with councils, and it will be discussing with councils what is necessary in this instance.

Local resilience forums and the various front-line responders all along the east coast have been planning and preparing for an event such as this for some time. A prime example is the east coast flood framework document that was published in January this year, which sets out local response arrangements. It was prepared by a wide range of local authorities and other front-line responders, including those in the Waveney constituency, working with central Government to ensure alignment with wider national resilience planning. It is testimony to their efforts that the impacts, although, as we have heard, devastating for those directly affected, are on a much smaller scale than those of the comparable coastal flooding event in 1953. However, there are always lessons to be learnt from our response to events such as this. I assure the House that the Government will review their approach, and that we will improve our planning and preparedness accordingly.

Flood management is a top priority for the Government. It has a vital role to play in protecting people and property from the damage caused by flooding and in delivering economic growth and supporting a strong economy. I was particularly impressed, when I visited Clacton, to hear about its plans to use the flood defences to restore the sandy beach, which should also have economic benefits. There is a clear case for investing in flood defences not only because of the economic risks attached to flooding but because of what they can bring to the local economy. That is an excellent project. I know that the situation in Lowestoft is being considered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has outlined, and I look forward to hearing about the proposals for its flood defences. Commitments have been made by local partners to invest in them, and that will no doubt make the case for investment in the scheme even better.

I thank the Minister for his response so far. Will he also lobby the Department for Communities and Local Government on the use of the coastal communities fund, which exists to promote jobs and growth, to see whether funds could be made available to improve flood defences, which could protect existing jobs as well?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the pots of money that are available for local communities. Sometimes a case can be made for linking them to various projects. I have learned about a case in the past week for investment in economic growth to be joined with work on flood prevention. It is an excellent example—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).