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Flooding (Somerset)

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government’s recent response to the flooding in Somerset and what action the Government have taken following recent Cobra meetings.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to reply to this question. Let me begin by expressing my sympathy for the serious difficulties local residents face in Somerset as a result of the continuing widespread flooding of the moors and levels since late December, including impacts on properties, businesses, transport and farm land.

Recent Met Office figures show that Somerset received more rainfall in December and January than it would normally receive over an entire winter. The high tides experienced in early January and early February exacerbated the situation by preventing water from flowing out to sea, resulting in rivers overtopping their banks and flooding the surrounding land. Floodwater has covered more than 65 sq km on the levels and hundreds of people have been affected with about 21 properties still flooded. Some 200 people have been cut off in the villages of Muchelney, Thorney, Oath, Stathe and North Moor. I visited Somerset on Sunday 26 and Monday 27 January to witness the situation at first hand and listen to the views of local residents and experts.

On 26 January I held meetings with local MPs and the leader and chief executive of Sedgemoor district council as well as a range of local experts including farmers and representatives of the local internal drainage boards. I held further meetings on 27 January, including with the leader of the county council. We agreed to dredge the Tone and Parrett rivers and on the need for local organisations to come together on a partnership basis to fund the ongoing dredging and de-silting that would subsequently be needed.

We also discussed the potential for action to hold water back in the upper catchments and to consider a longer term project to create a River Parrett barrage. In the light of that visit I asked my officials to work with local authorities and other local partners in Somerset as well as the Environment Agency, Natural England and other Government Departments to develop an action plan over the next six weeks for the sustainable future of the moors and levels. On 29 January, the Prime Minister confirmed that dredging would take place on the moors and levels as soon as it was safe and practical to do so. This will build on the targeted dredging of the Tone and Parrett that the Environment Agency began in the autumn. It will build on what the Environment Agency already spends annually on flood risk management in Somerset and the £100,000 a week spent on pumping operations on the moors and levels.

Local authorities, residents and emergency services have been working around the clock to ensure that people are safe. The Environment Agency is carrying out the largest pumping operation ever undertaken on the levels. In addition to 40 permanent pumps, the Environment Agency has mobilised a further 22 temporary units increasing its ability to pump up by more than 150%. It is currently pumping 1 million tonnes a day.

I have chaired five meetings of Cobra since last Wednesday to ensure that the Government have fully considered how best we can meet the needs of the local communities affected while the floodwater remains. Following those meetings, the Government have taken a number of actions.

First, we have put arrangements in place to ensure that the local transport needs of the cut-off communities are met. The Environment Agency, Somerset county council and local responders under the leadership of the local gold command are working together and have a presence on the ground. I am grateful to those who have assisted with that—for example, the Red Cross provided a vehicle to deliver heavy goods and food and local fire and rescue services provided a ferry service. We have also considered how the military could be used to help on the ground and they remain on standby if needed.

Secondly, sewage and wastewater services are not available in some areas. Support has been provided to affected properties and all necessary mitigation measures have been put in place to guard against any public health risks of contaminated floodwater. As is normal practice, floodwater has been sampled by the local authority since the incident began and advice is being given regularly by the local authorities. I urge everyone in the affected area to heed the clear advice of Public Health England.

Since the beginning of last December, the UK as a whole has experienced a period of exceptionally unsettled weather and there is no sign at present of its abating. Many parts of the country have been subjected to flooding from the sea, rivers, surface water or ground water, and I am extremely grateful for the excellent response by the emergency services, the Environment Agency, and Flood Forecasting Centre staff, and the leadership shown by many local authorities in responding to the floods.

Latest estimates suggest that over 7,500 properties have been flooded since the beginning of December. However, existing defences and improvements to the way in which we respond to incidents meant that we could protect over 1.2 million properties from flooding in the same period. Some 87,500 properties are currently being protected. That reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability. I will chair a further meeting of Cobra to discuss our response to the flooding at 5 pm today.

This is an unimaginably stressful and distressing time for those in Somerset who have seen their homes and businesses ruined by floodwater, and more flooding has been reported in Devon and Cornwall this morning. The emergency services and Environment Agency staff deserve our thanks for their efforts on the ground in difficult conditions, yet despite those efforts it is clear that residents in Somerset have been badly let down. When the water first rose, it took far too long to provide the pumps, sandbags and other assistance they needed. We have seen meeting after meeting of Cobra, yet there is little coherence in the Government’s strategy for dealing with the crisis.

Will the Secretary of State set out what precise steps he took between 6 January this year, when he last reported to the House, and last weekend, when the Prime Minister was forced to intervene and tell him to get his skates on? Does he still think that calling for a report “within six weeks”, as he did when he visited Somerset last Monday, is an adequate response? The Prime Minister has said that

“dredging will start as soon as it is practical”.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is Government policy? I think I heard him say that some dredging took place on the levels this autumn. Will he confirm that my understanding of what he said in the statement is correct? Will he admit that he knew a year ago of the specific threat of serious flooding in the Somerset levels from the Association of Drainage Authorities, which warned of

“de-silting work on rivers in areas such as the Somerset Levels having all but ceased”,

and what did he do about it? Why did he remove the aim to

“prepare for and manage risk from flood and other environmental emergencies”

from his Department’s list of priorities when he got the job, replacing that with four of his own?

Is the Secretary of State still refusing to be briefed by his own chief scientific adviser on climate change and the implications for more extreme weather conditions? Will he confirm that he has had to correct previously published figures on flood prevention funding, contradicting his claims that the Government are spending more in this four-year period than in the previous four years? Will he admit that the corrected figures reveal that funding for flood protection has fallen from £670 million in 2010-11 to £576 million in the current financial year? Will he admit that £67.6 million of partnership funding has been raised since April 2011, not the £148 million that he repeatedly claims?

Finally, will the Secretary of State apologise to those affected by flooding in Somerset for the decision to use a premium rate number for the flooding helpline? Will he name the company that is making money from those who have already lost so much? The Prime Minister has now said the line will cease to be a premium rate line. When precisely will that happen?

The Prime Minister promised the Leader of the Opposition that the Secretary of State would come back to the House with a “full assessment” of levels of support for flood protection by the end of last month. He failed to do so. Does that not typify the Secretary of State’s whole response to the floods? After his botched badger cull and now his failure on flooding, it is no wonder that people are increasingly asking whether the Secretary of State is up to the job.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Cobra has met regularly since the Christmas period, and obviously the floods and levels were regularly mentioned. The first specific request was at last Wednesday’s Cobra, which was acted on immediately by Government agencies responding to Cobra.

The hon. Lady mentioned the six weeks. I described briefly the fact that I went down to Somerset the Sunday before last, had meetings on Sunday evening, meetings on Monday, and agreed, quite clearly, a plan, which had to be worked up in detail with the Environment Agency and with the internal drainage boards. That is a marked contrast with the previous Government, who sat on the Parrett catchment flood management plan way back in 2008 and did absolutely nothing about it.

We began dredging on key points. The hon. Lady goes on and on about DEFRA’s priorities. I boil DEFRA down to two simple priorities across a kaleidoscopic variety of activities: to grow the rural economy and to improve the environment. I cannot think of any activity that involves spending central Government money that better delivers those two key priorities than what we are doing on flood spending. That is why this Government will be spending £2.4 billion in the first four years of this Parliament compared with £2.2 billion in the last four years of the previous Parliament. The hon. Lady has to nod just once—just give one little nod—to confirm that Labour Members will back this Government’s growing spending plans on flood spending. For us, it is a priority; for them it is not. She has missed her chance, but there is still a chance. Will she please agree to match our increased spending plans for this Parliament?

These are sad days for the people of Somerset, but local heroes have emerged. We must not use the Environment Agency as a political football. We need to revisit the balance of spending between urban and rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend allow the internal drainage boards to retain their moneys to themselves before the maintenance of these watercourses and look for a scheme similar to that in my own constituency to store the water upstream if appropriate?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for her question. She is absolutely right that there is a balance to be struck. The lesson in Somerset is that it is an extraordinary environment. It is completely artificial. It was first dredged by the Dutch before the time of Charles I, way back in the 17th century. Our criteria are not applicable in an environment where the rivers are, in effect, canals. We need to treat it as a unique environment and therefore bring in local knowledge. At the meetings I had last Sunday and Monday, it was very clear that this had to be a combined effort of the Environment Agency doing the dredging, and then, for future years, allowing locals to take over and come to their own arrangements. There will be close involvement of local councils and colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government to work out how that will be funded and organised.

Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the measures he has announced to address the very serious problems on the Somerset levels will not delay investment in the south-west’s main priority in relation to flood defences—namely, the upgrading of the Exeter flood defence to protect the railway line and thousands of businesses and homes after last year’s floods, which caused huge economic damage and devastation not only to parts of Somerset but the whole of Devon and the whole of Cornwall?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind us of how damaging the floods were last year and the impact on the railway line, which I saw for myself. Significant work is going on on that line as we speak, as has been discussed in Cobra this week. It is absolutely our intention to deliver the very significant programmes that will soon come forward; we will announce the details shortly.

Does not the recent trouble show the problems of having unelected quangos taking decisions that favour environmentalism rather than the concerns of people and businesses? Is it not better to have democratic accountability through a Secretary of State in whom the people of Somerset can have confidence?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It shows that this is a team effort. The Environment Agency has done remarkable work around the country in protecting 1.1 million houses. I fully respect and publicly thank the chairman and the chief executive of the Environment Agency, and all those working for it. We then have the “but”. The Somerset levels is a unique environment. It is not typical—it is artificial and all below sea level—and it requires a lot more local involvement. That is why I went down there last Sunday and Monday. I think we have come up with an arrangement that will be satisfactory and, I hope, deliver security to all the people on the levels for the next 20 years once we have worked out the detail of how to deliver, first, the Environment Agency doing the dredging, and secondly, democratically elected local councils working with the IDBs to deliver long-term dredging and maintenance.

Is the Secretary of State aware of modelling done by the university of Cardiff that shows that a Severn barrage, operating on ebb flood, would significantly protect the Somerset levels from flooding and act as a barrier against storm surge, protecting 500 sq km and many properties from flooding? Is that not a reason for pressing ahead with the barrage?

I admire the right hon. Gentleman for grabbing the opportunity to promote that project, of which he is a very strong supporter. I remind the House that some are very hostile to it because of the barrage’s environmental consequences.

I can only speak as a local Somerset MP, but we have had nothing but help from the Secretary of State. Cobra has done a damned good job and I assure the House that, other than, I think, two days, the Secretary of State has spoken to me every day about what we require to help us in the area. I am very grateful to him for that.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) said, and the Environment Agency people on the ground have done a phenomenal job—they have been superb. The problem lies at the top. There is a disconnect between what goes on here in London and what is going on in the levels in Taunton Deane and Somerset and Frome. We need to sort this out and I hope the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will get those machines on the levels as fast as possible in order to get this sorted. That will not sort out everything, but it will give people confidence where there is none at the moment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) were both present at the two meetings in which we discussed the broad outline of the plan. As he knows, having represented the area for some years, it is simply not possible—[Interruption] regardless of the chuntering from the Opposition Benches—to get machines on the banks in these conditions. We are looking at technologies that could be borne from vessels as a means of getting going. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are absolutely clear—there was virtual unanimity in our meetings—that we want to get on and get the two rivers dredged at the earliest opportunity, and then hand over to the local representative of the internal drainage boards to carry out the routine maintenance. [Interruption.] To respond to the questions being asked by Opposition Members, that will happen when it is safe to do so.

May I press the Secretary of State on what he has said about the public health risk of contaminated water? Last weekend microbiologists found 60,000 to 70,000 bacteria per 100 ml; the World Health Organisation suggests that the safe level is 1,000. Other than raising public awareness of the possible risks, what can the Department do to mitigate the impact?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point, which has had some publicity. We have already had samples taken from around the levels and Public Health England has been very vocal in making it clear to all local residents that they should be extremely careful with their personal hygiene and, obviously, that they should not drink or bathe in the water. The standards set are for drinking water. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue, which we have discussed on several occasions at Cobra. It is vital, given the current difficult circumstances and the enormous amount of water on the levels, to realise that the water is going to be dirty and contaminated. People must be really careful about washing themselves and, in particular, washing wounds.

In Somerset we are getting increasingly bemused by the number of armchair experts from hundreds of miles away who seem to know more about the levels than we do. The right hon. Gentleman knows exactly what I want him to do in terms of dredging and the long-term management of the moors and levels, and I thank him, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), and the Prime Minister for listening and acting on that.

On an entirely local issue, I went down to the villages of Long Load and Long Sutton again over the weekend and they are cut off because of a collapsed bridge. They need an alternative crossing over the river or repairs to the bridge. Will the Secretary of State look into that and see whether something urgent can be done?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, until recently, ministerial colleague for his support and advice. We have of course discussed this matter frequently over the past year. He better grab me immediately after this urgent question and give me the details, so that I can raise it at Cobra, because it is exactly the sort of thing that we are trying to fix at Cobra.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) is far too courteous to interpret the Secretary of State literally. Perhaps spectators to the event will be able to testify one way or the other.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for praising the work of the emergency services. He may not be aware that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is sitting next to him, is recklessly cutting the number of firefighters: there will be 5,000 fewer in England by 2015 than there were in 2010. Will he ask the Secretary of State to stop those cuts and will he recommend that the Pitt review, which suggested that a statutory responsibility should be given to fire and rescue services, be implemented without further delay?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes to look in the mirror and reminds himself that his Government left us borrowing £400,000 a minute. I want publicly to praise all those in the fire services: they have supplied specialist vehicles that have been of great succour to those on the levels, and I really admire the work that they have done around the country. The fire services have been key during this very difficult period—over Christmas, the new year and right through January—and I am very grateful to them for the splendid job that they have done.

May I commend the Secretary of State for his consultation with local people in Somerset? Following the consultation that he—or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—had with Cornwall’s local authority in Westminster a few weeks ago, is there any way that he can report back to us about rebalancing the Bellwin formula, which disadvantages Cornwall county council?

I have many responsibilities, but the Bellwin scheme is not one of them. I will, however, make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government heard that point.

A number of homes in my constituency were flooded once the brooks stopped being cleared. What confidence can my constituents have that their homes will not be flooded again, given the scale of the cuts in spending on flood protection that have taken place under this Government?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are spending £2.4 billion, which is more than the previous Government, over this spending round. On local brooks—this picks up earlier questions—we set in train seven pilots last year to see whether some low-risk waterways could be cleared by local farmers or local landowners, with the collaboration of the Environment Agency, so that we get more work done on low-risk areas.

Will the Secretary of State call in the chairman of the Environment Agency and ask why, from a budget of £1,200 million last year, it spent only £20 million on clearing watercourses? Will he get across to the chairman that we need new budget priorities—not just in Somerset, which is the subject of the urgent question, but in places such as mine—to clear watercourses so that people do not have wet rooms?

As I have said, I have great confidence in what the Environment Agency, led by the chairman and by the chief executive, has delivered in protecting 1.1 million properties. However, as my right hon. Friend says, we can always do better. One thing I am looking at is getting more low-risk water clearance work done locally, with local councils being more involved, and with local agencies and more IDBs. This is very much a team effort.

Why were there no floods on the other side of the River Severn on the Gwent levels? They have an identical environment, share 2,000 years of drainage history, have had the same weather and tides, and have had no dredging, but have had no floods. Is not the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) right to say that the answer lies in the fact that the woods in Gwent are richly endowed with trees, and have not been denuded in the same way as on the Mendips?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am not an expert on the Gwent levels, but I have made it clear that, for the long term, there is a role for holding water further back in the catchment, as there is possibly a role for building a barrage on the Parrett. Those would be special measures for a very particular landscape, but his own landscape of the Gwent levels have their own characteristics, on which I am not an expert.

As I stood in Burrowbridge yesterday morning with the water in the River Parrett again breaching the banks, the residents expressed considerable relief that the Prime Minister had committed in this House on Wednesday to the dredging of the River Parrett and the River Tone. However, I must say to the Secretary of State that there was scepticism and even cynicism about whether that would happen, when it would take place and on what scale. I would be grateful if he would take this opportunity to reassure the residents of that village and people across the Somerset levels that dredging will take place to the level that they think is appropriate to reduce the risk of flooding next year.

I am very happy to repeat that it is our clear intention to dredge the Tone and the Parrett as soon as it is safe to do so. That will be conducted by the Environment Agency. It is looking at technologies now. Part of the plan is for routine maintenance to be carried out in future years by the internal drainage boards, which do a very good job and have many experienced local people on them. That is absolutely our intention. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the banks are not safe at the moment, so if we are to use any technologies immediately, they will have to be vessel-borne.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons that are coming out of the horror in Somerset are equally applicable across the whole country? Will he ensure that the Environment Agency starts to do the things that he has been talking about so well?

I stress again that this is a team effort. The Environment Agency has done a great job at protecting 1.1 million properties. However, it is quite clear from going around the counties of rural England, including Herefordshire and Berkshire, that there is exasperation at the lack of work on low-risk rural waterways, which stopped under the last Government. It is clear that that work is much better done by local people. It should be carried out by local landowners in co-operation with IDBs and local councils. That is why I started the seven pilots. We want to apply the lessons from those as quickly as possible across rural England.

Residents of Bradford-on-Avon have been heard to say that they have more in common with those just across the border in Somerset than in the rest of Wiltshire. Since Christmas, they have been dealing with the consequences of a 25-year flood event. Whatever action it is necessary for the Secretary of State to commit to in the Somerset levels, will he ensure that funds are available for any measures that are agreed to between the Environment Agency and local councillors to protect Bradford-on-Avon from a repeat of the recent flood damage?

I obviously cannot pre-empt the priorities that will be decided on by the Environment Agency shortly. I stress that our partnership scheme has brought in significant funds from local councils. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman’s council is involved in that partnership method of raising money.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that this is a team effort. Will he confirm today that the money that has been identified for new flood defences is still available if Cornwall council puts forward an appropriate bid for better defences to protect my constituents in Perranporth, who have suffered dreadful flooding all year?

As my hon. Friend will have noted, we have an ambitious programme of flood defence schemes that goes right through to 2021. Significantly, that has not been matched by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. If her council puts in a partnership bid, I am sure that it will slot into our programme in the coming years, although I cannot promise when.

Once the waters have subsided and the Secretary of State starts to put right the wrongs of the past, will he have an urgent review of the use of sandbags, which are an old technology and are actually quite porous, when new technologies are available? My constituent, Simon Crowther, has flood protection solutions that deliver better results than sandbags.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There may well be better alternatives to sandbags. I would be very interested to hear from him if his constituent’s solution is as easy to move around as empty sandbags, because that has proved to be invaluable in recent weeks.

The Secretary of State was right to mention the Dutch engineers who drained the levels, because they dug out the ditches and rivers and kept them clean, which was absolutely key. We have now had six weeks of flooding. I welcome what the Secretary of State has done, but we need to change the rules to ensure that farmland and environmental land is protected, because six weeks of flooding destroys not only farmland, but nature conservation and people’s lives.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I remind him that we are protecting significant areas of agricultural land as we speak, but my view of the future, as he has probably picked up, is that many of the low-risk waterways are much better cleaned out and maintained by local landowners, in co-operation with the Environment Agency. That is probably the best way to go.

I hope that the Secretary of State will applaud the fantastic work of the Somerset Community Foundation and its hardship fund, which is helping people who are suffering financial difficulties as a result of the flooding. Does he agree that the whole catchment approach should include the Rivers Axe and Brue and that it should involve dredging, repairing the Bleadon sluice gates, installing more flood gates and more pumps for local protection, and ensuring that we value productive land?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right that they are part of the whole catchment of the levels, and the relevant internal drainage board will be involved in the discussions. As she probably already knows, the River Brue is one of our pilot schemes.

The Secretary of State will obviously be aware, as we all are, that the Environment Agency, local authorities and others will be rethinking their programmes after the flood waters retreat. It appears to me that in the past the payment of funds, and certainly central funds, has gone mainly to major schemes. I am delighted to hear that he is moving towards more minor schemes. Does he agree that the collection of small schemes might be more effective in some areas than one or two large schemes, be they in Somerset or north Surrey?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that there is merit in a lot of the smaller, low-risk schemes. What we have seen in the levels—it is a completely unique environment—is that the national guidelines were not appropriate for that artificial environment, and the same might apply in other parts of rural England.

If the pastures of the Somerset levels remain inundated for much longer, considerable damage will be done. Will the Secretary of State be able to give farmers advice and help to re-establish those pastures so that they can continue in business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that comment, because several of the farmers I have talked with were emphatic that, following the very wet summer we had last year, the grass could be permanently damaged. We are absolutely prepared to work very closely with organisations such as the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association to help those famers. I also pay tribute to the agricultural charities, which have also been very helpful on the matter.

I declare an interest as one of the 7,500 people who have had their homes flooded. With Gatwick being knocked out on 24 December and with thousands of houses being planned to be developed in the flood area of the River Mole, the expenditure committed to flood defence is wholly inadequate if we are to continue with the development policy in place at the moment. There needs to be a strategic review for the balance of our priorities as a country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are absolutely clear that current planning guidance steers property development away from floodplains. In the overwhelming number of cases—over 95%, I think—in which the Environment Agency recommends that a planning application should not go ahead, that advice is accepted.

On Saturday morning I visited the North Corner pontoon at Devonport and saw at first hand bits of the sea wall falling off into the River Tamar. Will my right hon. Friend have a chat with Poole city council and the Environment Agency to ensure that some work is done fairly promptly, because otherwise it will have a significant impact not only on flooding, but on the dockyard, which is bang next door to it?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am afraid that around the coast we have seen significant damage done to our coastal defences, and we are working closely with the Environment Agency and local councils to ensure that it is repaired speedily.

We all, of course, have enormous sympathy with those in Somerset and elsewhere, including places such as Hambledon in my constituency which has been flooded by ground water for three weeks now, and expects to be flooded for at least another three weeks, or perhaps six or eight. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is at least a crumb of comfort in the fact that the recent Water Bill contains provisions for the creation of Flood Re, which should allow the continued provision of affordable flood insurance to most properties in Somerset and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Flood Re will, I hope, bring relief to 500,000 people with high-risk properties, and as he knows, the Bill is going through the other place this afternoon.

I grew up on the Somerset levels, and when I was a child, farmers were responsible for managing and carrying out drainage on their small waterways. Unfortunately, over the decades, the advice they have received has started to become more conflicting and the different priorities of Natural England and the Environment Agency have caused great confusion and inconsistency. In future, after the emergency has passed, will my right hon. Friend ensure that on dredging policy those two agencies sing from the same hymn sheet?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and I assure him that Natural England will be involved in the discussions that start tomorrow. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), will chair the first meeting to deliver the plan within six weeks.

The Environment Agency correctly identifies housing as the principal driver of where flood defences should be built, and the Secretary of State saw the scheme in Warrington that was completed three months ago and prevented the flooding of 1,500 houses. For the avoidance of doubt, will he assure the House that there will be no knee-jerk reaction to change criteria after the tragedy in Somerset?

I saw the real value of those schemes when my hon. Friend kindly invited me to his constituency, and I assure him that it is our intention to continue similar schemes around the country.

On the better use of technology, will the Secretary of State clarify and confirm that the Government have allocated £4.6 million towards the better use of space technology for weather prediction? It would mean that the United Kingdom is one of only a few countries in the world doing that.

The Government invest significant sums in forecasting, and, as someone who has received storm forecasts on a daily basis and paid close attention to them in recent weeks, I know that their accuracy is extraordinary and of huge value. I thank all those who have been active in drawing up those forecasts at short notice.

If there had been a change of wind in Suffolk, we may have suffered similar levels of flooding to that experienced by constituents in Somerset, which might explain the Gwent issue. Will the Secretary of State assure me that in future he might look again at having the Environment Agency and Natural England as two separate bodies? He is currently advertising for a chairman of the Environment Agency, so this could be an opportune moment to merge the two.

A triennial review concluded last year that it was better to leave the two organisations as independent because it would be a hugely complicated task to legislate to bring them together. However, the review made it clear—this touches on an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace)—that there needs to be more co-operation between the two organisations, and that significant efficiencies could be made by working together.