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Winter Floods

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on the action taken in the light of the recent floods and extreme weather. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is unable to update the House today, but I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery to his usual robust health.

One of the defining characteristics of Britain is the weather, but in recent months it has been particularly savage. Part of the country has been subject to flooding by the sea, rivers, surface water and ground water. In December, we saw the highest surge on the east coast for 60 years and this January has been the wettest since George III was on the throne. We will continue to face severe weather well into next week.

I want to put on the record my utmost sympathy for those affected. I know from my constituency the effects of flooding, and once the floodwaters go down there is the smell, the sludge and the enormous time it takes to dry a building out. Flooding has devastating effects on communities. I know it has been especially difficult for those families that have been flooded for many weeks and for those that have been flooded on more than one occasion in recent months. I think we have all been struck by the stark images of the stranded residents on the Somerset levels and their brave resolve to continue their daily lives, be it by boat or tractor.

I also want to pay tribute to the hard work of councils, the Environment Agency’s staff on the ground and our emergency services, who have supported communities 24 hours a day, literally going through hell and high water. Britain’s flood defences have protected more than 1.2 million properties since 5 December and the Thames barrier has protected £200 billion-worth of property. None the less, it is evident that those defences are taking a pounding. There is damage to transport infrastructure and sea defences, including the railway line at Dawlish, as well as to power networks.

More than 5,000 properties have been flooded, including 40 in Somerset. There are two severe flood warnings in the west country, 61 flood warnings and 223 flood alerts in place. Cobra has met regularly since 29 January and has responded to every local request for assistance. The Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of Cobra later today.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, I can now report to the House the Government’s plans for further funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management. In the short term, I can announce that the Government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance, £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year. That will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained.

Emergency work on repairs started during December’s coastal surge. However, the full picture of the damage caused to flood defences has not yet emerged and the weather conditions have proved savage. The Government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

In addition, I am putting before the House today details of how my Department is enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme, which helps local authorities in England to meet the exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties. The changes I am announcing today include paying Bellwin grant at 100% above the threshold instead of the normal default 85%; allowing upper-tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim on a comparable basis to stand-alone fire authorities; reducing Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities; and extending the eligible period until the end of March 2014.

No council has yet made a formal claim under the Bellwin scheme, so no council has lost out as a result of these new announcements. Indeed, far more councils will be eligible to claim. The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their roles as first responders. However, it is clear that the Bellwin scheme needs further reform, an opportunity that was sadly missed under the last Administration. We will be undertaking a full review of the Bellwin scheme in due course, while ensuring that councils continue to have the right incentives to stop flooding happening in the first place. I can also tell the House that immediately after this statement, Ministers will be holding a teleconference with council leaders from across the west country to discuss further flood recovery measures.

Of course, flood prevention is as important as flood recovery. The additional funding that we have outlined today will allow the Government programme of capital investment to continue, fulfilling our commitment to improve defences throughout England. We have already put in place investment plans to improve the protection of at least 465,000 houses by the end of the decade. In addition, we are today announcing 42 new flood defence schemes for 2014-15. Together with other projects beginning construction in 2014-15, this will protect more than 42,000 households. This includes schemes in Salford, which will improve protection for more than 2,000 homes and businesses; Clacton, where more than 3,000 homes are currently at risk; and Willerby in the east riding of Yorkshire, where more than 8,000 properties will be better protected. There are also smaller, but no less important, schemes in Lincoln, Stockton and Todmorden.

We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, and with respect, I have to say that I do not agree with the comments of the noble Lord Smith, who implied that there was a choice between town and country.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences: £370 million in 2015-16 and then the same in real terms each year, rising to over £400 million by the end of this decade. By the autumn statement, we will have published a six-year programme of work running right up to 2021, including a new long-term investment strategy on flood defences. We will provide an assessment of the future need for flood and coastal defences, taking account of the latest risk maps and economic analysis.

We should certainly look at how councils plan and mitigate flood risk, yet I note that the level of development on flood-risk areas is now at its lowest rate since modern records began, and 99% of planning applications for new homes in flood-risk areas are in line with expert advice. But, as the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to be learned, from the way in which we help local authorities to the role of quangos and the need for their local accountability, the influence of man-made policies on dredging, the effect of tree planting on our landscape and rivers, and the resilience of our nation as a whole throughout the 21st century.

The measures that the coalition Government have announced today provide a clear commitment to reduce the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The additional funding means that, over this Parliament, this Government will be investing more than £3.1 billion, compared with £2.7 billion in the previous five years under the last Labour Government. This is more than ever before, in both cash and real terms, and we will spend it well and wisely. We cannot control the weather, but we can and will provide the security that hard-working families deserve to allow them to get on with their daily lives. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and for early sight of it. I begin by joining him in conveying, on behalf of the Opposition, our best wishes to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—we very much hope that he makes a speedy recovery. Can the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government tell us which of the Under-Secretaries of State will be dealing with DEFRA’s response in the Secretary of State’s absence?

As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government rightly said, the situation facing communities in the Somerset levels remains extremely serious. The floods have not only left homes wrecked, but have left businesses facing ruin, and severe difficulties in accessing schools, workplaces and essential services. More families have faced the trauma of being evacuated from their homes overnight. The emergency services and Environment Agency staff continue to do an excellent job on the ground and have been consistently praised by residents, despite the serious criticisms of the lack of national leadership since the crisis began.

The fact is that the Government were caught out by the floods and Ministers took far too long to recognise the seriousness of the situation. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand why the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that the Government’s response has not been slow will have been met with incredulity by the people of Somerset? The fact that DEFRA cannot answer parliamentary questions on when it first received requests for assistance from Somerset county council and Sedgemoor district council says everything about the chaos and confusion that has beset its response. There have now been 21 meetings of Cobra, but it is far from clear what all the talking has achieved. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister became so exasperated that yesterday he put himself in the chair.

The funding announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and by the Secretary of State today, is welcome, but let us be clear that that is simply restoring, and for just over one year, the reduction in annual spending on flood protection that has taken place under this Government. The Government’s own figures, published last month by DEFRA, show that they reduced the budget from £670 million in 2010-11 to £573 million in 2011-12, a cut of over £97 million. The budget has remained at a similar level for the past two years. Reversing that cut for just over a year is a complete admission by the Government that they got it wrong. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the additional resources will be added to the baseline of the flood protection budget for future years, or is the intention to cut the budget again next year?

How will the Government close the £80 million hole in the partnership funding that Ministers claim they will be able to secure from external contributions but which they have not yet been able to secure? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Prime Minister was wrong when he again claimed yesterday that more would be spent in the four years between 2011 and 2015 than in the previous four years?

DEFRA’s own figures show that £2.37 billion was spent between 2007-8 and 2010-11 and that £2.34 billion will be spent between 2011-12 and 2014-15. The Prime Minister and the Government really must stop fiddling the figures. The Secretary of State again used numbers today that are different from those that the Prime Minister used in the House yesterday. Thanks to a freedom of information request, we know that the Environment Secretary cut more than 40% from the domestic climate change budget last year. Was that really the right priority for the biggest cut to any DEFRA programme?

With regard to the immediate challenges facing people in the south-west, councils will welcome the announcement that support under the Bellwin scheme will now be paid at 100%, but why did the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government say last month that he would pay only 85% of the eligible costs, when the scale of the damage was already clear? Will he also confirm when he expects the electricity supply to be restored to the homes that have been affected by power cuts?

What specific assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give regarding the restoration of rail services west of Exeter? He will understand the disastrous consequences for the region’s economy of the loss of that service. We have all seen how serious the damage in Dawlish is and understand that this is not straightforward, but can he be clearer than the Prime Minister managed to be in his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) yesterday about what can be done in the short and long term?

After the 2007 floods, the previous Government commissioned the Pitt review, and Pitt’s report provided the blueprint for action to improve flood resilience and response. Why did the Government stop producing progress reports on the 92 recommendations in January 2012 despite 46 of them still being badged as “ongoing” and many having no planned completion date? At the time of the final update, the recommendations that had not been implemented in full included all the recommendations on knowing where and when it will flood, six on reducing the risk of flooding, 10 on being rescued and cared for during an emergency, and seven on maintaining power supplies. Why have the Government chosen not to establish either the Cabinet Committee on improving the country’s ability to deal with flooding, or the national resilience forum, both of which were recommended by the Pitt review? Will the Secretary of State make a clear commitment to publishing a further progress report on each of the recommendations in the Pitt review by the end of this month?

Yesterday the Prime Minister tweeted that there would be “no restrictions on help” for those affected by the flooding. Will the Secretary of State explain precisely what that means? Will he tell the House whether people are still being charged at a premium rate when they call the floods helpline?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The very able Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), will be dealing with these matters.

I am quite surprised that the hon. Lady is in a position to reply to the statement, because given all the chuntering that took place during my delivery of it, I did not think she was paying an awful lot of attention. I had the opportunity—this is like a double whammy for me—of listening to her on Sky this morning, when she explained to viewers that the previous Government had enhanced the amount of money that was available for flooding following the problems in 2007. She is condemned out of her own mouth, because the facts are straightforward and out there—under the last five years of the Labour Government, they spent £2.7 billion and we will be spending £3.1 billion. You cannot argue with those figures.

The hon. Lady said “What a shock” about our providing 85% of Bellwin. That is the normal course of events. Perhaps she does not understand how the system works. This is money that we use to compensate, and no claims have been made as yet. It is normal procedure to set it at 85%. Perhaps she may consider this: in the 30 years that Bellwin has been in existence, this is the very first time that the threshold has been reduced. This is a real help to local councils, and she should not be so parsimonious about it.

With regard to the railway, the hon. Lady said, “Why didn’t we know?” She just needs to look at those dramatic television pictures of the railway at Dawlish—Brunel’s great, beautiful railway. We are not in a position to make an assessment of how long this is going to take because right now, as we speak, people are working to shore up the bank and protect the damaged railway from the next surge that is coming. It is utterly ridiculous to expect anything other than that.

The hon. Lady asked why we have not updated the Pitt review. She will recall that we set up the Flood Forecasting Centre, which has been producing very straightforward predictions. Perhaps she should spend a little less time in the television studios and more time with Google.

May I convey our best wishes to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for his recovery?

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government confirm that the Prime Minister yesterday stated that he is ordering a review of all the spending, including the 2004-05 points system that we inherited, which has led, I believe, to some of the problems? Will he indicate how the allocation of spending has been divided between capital and revenue, and how maintenance spending within the revenue allocation has been divided among repairs, dredging and desilting? Will the facilities, including pumps, be returned to the drainage boards—as we hope will be the case—in order for them to pay for them to be repaired and returned to a good state?

My hon. Friend makes some reasoned and telling points. I have spoken several times this morning to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who mentioned a letter he had received from my hon. Friend. We certainly hope and are keen to update the figures given to the Select Committee. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited my hon. Friend’s constituency to look at the damage and potential problems. My hon. Friend’s experience in everything she does is of great value to the House.

In response to a question asked yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the Prime Minister said:

“Where extra investment and protections are needed, they must be put in place.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 269.]

Those good words were followed today by a £30 million pledge from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, yet the local enterprise partnerships, local authorities, local transport boards and people in the south-west simply do not believe them. Last year we were promised £31 million—more than the £30 million—for resilience work, but it has disappeared. It is not good enough.

Our discussions with local authorities in the south-west area have been far more constructive than the hon. Lady has been. It is extraordinary for her to just dismiss £130 million as though it were a mere bagatelle. This Government have shown real commitment and we will consult local government leaders on the Bellwin threshold straight after this statement.

May I indulge myself by thanking the emergency services, the Environment Agency people on the ground and everybody who is at this precise moment trying to get people out of houses in Moorland and Fordgate?

One of our problems is that Sedgemoor district council, which the Secretary of State knows well, is dipping into reserves to try to make sure it does everything it can, including evacuating cattle. Is there any chance that the Bellwin formula could be used to help Sedgemoor district council in particular to recoup the money it is now having to spend to safeguard its areas?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is exactly what Bellwin is designed to do. I can confirm that, as yet, Sedgemoor council has not made any claims. I also give my hon. Friend an undertaking that when formal claims are made—we do not require everything to be in at one time—we will do our best to ensure that the payment is made promptly. I assure him that the changes will be very helpful indeed to Sedgemoor.

My constituency and parts of Cumbria are still suffering with fresh outbreaks of flooding. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the local authority will be eligible for the extra resources he has pledged? Is he as concerned as I am by the determination of South Lakes district council to build new houses on floodplains? It is not Conservative-controlled, in case he is worried about criticising his chums.

I suspect that might concern my coalition partners. I can recognise an elephant trap when it is there.

With regard to eligibility, absolutely—the local authority will of course be eligible for the scheme. The hon. Gentleman’s council has not yet made a claim, which is not unreasonable, and that is why we have extended it to the end of March.

The amount of building on the floodplain is at an all-time low. In fact, it is the lowest—[Interruption.] I am terribly sorry, but there are noises off. As I was trying to say before I was bullied by Opposition Members, such building is at the lowest level ever. I think that about 99% of objections by experts in relation to floodplains have been successful.

I do not think that we need to worry about the Secretary of State being bullied. Any Bradford Bulls supporter well knows how to deal with being bullied.

To offer a balanced view, it is fair to say that many residents of Somerset feel that the Government were slow off the mark, but they are now grateful that the Government appear to be acting in a way that matches the enormous size of the challenge, particularly in dredging the River Tone and the River Parrett. Will the extra funding support, which the Secretary of State talked about today and the Prime Minister talked about yesterday, be made available in the long term for long-term solutions? There is now flooding right across Taunton Deane, not just on the Levels, and dealing with the problem requires a river catchment approach and a longer-term view, not only immediate responses to emergencies.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the question is one of river catchments and long-term solutions. Our priority is obviously to deal with the immediate aftermath, but we clearly need to look at dredging. The previous Government probably made a mistake in ending the dredging.

For the avoidance of doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker, when I referred to being “bullied”, I was using the term ironically.

I have just heard and read the Secretary of State’s statement on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and there was no mention of resources for emergency services. Between September and December last year, my East Cleveland constituency suffered badly from the surges and floods on the east coast of England. Instigated by the Secretary of State, there has been a cumulative cut of £4 million to Cleveland fire brigade over this Parliament, and there will be a further cumulative cut of £5.96 million to 2017-18. It is not a statutory requirement to respond to flooding, so how will emergency services deal with flooding in the future?

Before the Secretary of State stands up, may I say that we need quick questions and brevity in answers? I want to get every hon. Member in on this important statement, but there is a very important and over-subscribed debate to follow.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we should make responding to flooding a statutory requirement for our fire authorities. I am afraid that that is a rather old-fashioned view. How we respond to emergencies is well set out through local resilience forums: it relates not just to the fire authority, but goes right across local authorities, including to the health authority and the like. Frankly, those obligations are laid down in legislation and work perfectly well.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s comment that we need to protect both town and countryside. I believe that we have to force the sea back and keep it out, not retreat from it, as we have done for years. We need a tidal sluice on the end of the Parrett, and to make sure that we dredge our rivers, such as the Exe and the Axe. I really welcome today’s statement.

It is important for us to emphasise that we should not just look after people who live in towns or rural areas, but ensure that agriculture can survive and thrive in rural areas, so my hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point.

The Secretary of State said that the Government will work to defend “both town and country” and that there are lessons to be learned about the “resilience of our nation”, so I assume that he regrets the swingeing cuts to flood defence work. In view of the increased extreme weather, will he accept that it is time to implement the Pitt review in relation to the statutory responsibilities of the fire and rescue services, and to reverse the cuts that he is making to firefighters? [Interruption.] There will 5,000 fewer firefighters by 2015 than there were in 2010. They do heroic work in rescuing people—[Interruption.]

Order. I think that the Secretary of State has certainly got the message. It is not helpful for other hon. Members to join in, because I may have to ask for the question to be repeated if I cannot hear it. I want to get you all in, but please help me to do so.

Heaven forbid that the last question should be repeated! The hon. Gentleman is simply gullible if he believes everything that comes from the unions. He seems to be more interested in union rights than in the people who are suffering because of the flooding.

I met the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom I wish well, on Monday to talk about dredging. He seemed to suggest that there could be local input. By that, I think he meant input from local councils. What discussions is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government having with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency about reintroducing dredging for many of our rivers?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I recall going around Tewkesbury with him and looking at the damage that was done to a local public house. I remember the resilience of the people in that area. Dredging is particularly appropriate for man-made landscapes like the levels. It might not necessarily work terribly well elsewhere. I have fields that are flooded in Essex. That works extremely well and has protected the area. We are willing to have those discussions, but there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

On 25 November in Communities and Local Government questions, I asked the Secretary of State about the contradiction in the Government’s Help to Buy scheme being heavily promoted in areas that are at risk of flooding. He promised to get back to me, but I have not heard anything. I wonder whether he might answer that question now.

I apologise for not getting back to the hon. Lady. If she heard the statement, she will know that building on floodplains that have a high risk of flooding is at an all-time low.

This winter in Oxford West and Abingdon, flooding has led to loss of life, community chaos and property flooding. It is not only deeply distressing for residents but has brought our economy to a standstill. I am very grateful for the commitment to provide emergency funding and I hope that my council will apply. However, does the Secretary of State agree that it is long-term solutions, such as the western conveyance that we are campaigning for in Oxford, that will ensure we are not back here having the same debate every year?

My hon. Friend is a redoubtable campaigner for her constituents. I have no doubt that she will raise that issue with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when he returns. We are looking for long-term solutions.

On Christmas eve, 35 properties in my constituency were flooded, not because any flood defences were overwhelmed but because of the failure of the Environment Agency to keep a culvert clear. Its failure to accept responsibility for that has major implications for future insurance premiums for my constituents. In addition, it has altered the area of the floodplain. When my constituents renew their insurance, they are finding that it has gone up from an average of £500 a year to nearly £6,000 a year. Will the Secretary of State discuss those matters with the Environment Agency? Will he get it to accept responsibility for that event and discuss with it the implications of the floodplain for my constituents’ insurance policies?

The hon. Gentleman has a deserved reputation for dealing with his constituents’ problems assiduously. I will ensure that the specific case that he makes is raised with the agency.

Will the Secretary of State join me in offering sincere condolences to the holiday towns and villages in my constituency that have suffered from severe coastal flooding? Looe, Polperro, Seaton, Tregonhawke, Cawsand, Kingsand, Cremyll and the Wild Futures monkey sanctuary have all been affected. Will he send out the clear message that he will do everything that he can to help those places, and with half-term coming up, will he send out a message to the wider public that south-east Cornwall is still very much open for business?

Many Members of the House are familiar with my hon. Friend’s constituency and have many happy memories of it. The changes that we are making to the Bellwin scheme will benefit Cornwall directly.

Following serious flooding in England in 2007, the UK Government accessed €162 million from the European Union solidarity fund. Why have the UK Government not accessed that fund, as a member state, following the storms this year, which have hit west Wales hard? In failing to do so, are they not guilty of absolving themselves of their responsibility to help Welsh communities in times of crisis?

Matters relating to flooding are devolved—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will let me answer his question, I will remind him that that scheme also has a threshold, which I believe is €3 billion.

Order. We want brief questions, and I will cut off the debate at 12.30 pm. It is up to hon. Members to look after themselves.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the extra help for Somerset, and I recognise the expertise of the Axe Brue Internal Drainage Board and the whole catchment approach. Will the Secretary of State consider extraordinary changes to the planning laws, so that any statutory consultee that relies on a historic view of an 100-year floodplain changes that because it is no longer appropriate?

That is a bad example of being brief. Hon. Members must be brief; otherwise, they will stop colleagues getting in.

Flooding from failed sewers has a devastating effect on householders and is a health hazard. In Romsey there is a particular problem with Victorian sewers that have been overwhelmed by the ingress of surface water. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend provide that the extended Bellwin scheme will assist fiscally prudent counties such as Hampshire to help our communities?

I think Hampshire has behaved particularly well throughout the crisis, and in liaising with my Department and with DEFRA it has been exceptionally good. It is not about the type of activity; there is a threshold, and the decisions we have just made will help Hampshire with the threshold on Bellwin.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Norfolk’s sea defences held up remarkably well against a record surge? Most repairs have been carried out, but one section that has not been repaired is along Beach road at Brancaster. Will he talk to the Environment Agency about that important stretch of flood defences?

I certainly will. We tried to use that period to get a lot of emergency work done, but I suspect it might not have been possible or safe to have looked at those defences then. I will remind the Environment Agency, which I am sure will be round as soon as possible.

As well as taking on extra responsibilities, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), will chair a committee for action on the Somerset levels. Will the Secretary of State ensure that funds and resources are available immediately for the important work that needs to be done?

My hon. Friend does not need to rely on me; the Prime Minister said so loud and clear yesterday.

The floods have caused huge anxiety not only in south-west England but in some parts of Shropshire. Does the Secretary of State agree that one way to mitigate future flooding is to ensure that new home development is not excessive, and also bears in mind the physical infrastructure such as drainage in local towns and villages?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have put forward £4.6 million for better weather forecasting by using space technology, and that we are only one of three countries in the world doing that, so in future the Met Office will be able to predict these incidents better?

I have been involved with Cobra right the way through this process, and one thing that has genuinely surprised me is how frighteningly accurate the weather forecasting has been. If that is because of space technology, it is money well spent.

Many of the villages in my constituency are currently flooded, but none more so than Hambledon where 1 foot of water has been running up and down the high street for four weeks, and probably will for another four. Spending £3.5 million will sort that out for ever. Please will the Secretary of State intervene?

That is a good illustration of the effect of ground water, and we should be particularly proud of the way that community organisations have worked together, especially in looking after the vulnerable.

When hundreds of homes flooded in my constituency in December, it unfortunately coincided with the death of President Mandela and did not get the coverage we are seeing at the moment. I welcome the commitment made today, particularly in relation to Bellwin and the funding measures announced at Snaith of £3.2 million. May I commend to the Secretary of State North Lincolnshire council and Councillor Liz Redfern, who made £300 available to every flood victim within a week? The council has set up interest-free loans of £1,000 for all victims, to be paid back over five years.

Liz is a terrific leader and this is an example of how adaptable councils are. One thing has been noticeable: when we look at the television pictures of what is happening, we can always spot a local councillor, filling up the sandbags, taking care of the locality. That is what it means to be a local councillor—not just talking about politics, but offering practical help.

Parts of my constituency flooded twice over Christmas, though floods are predicted to take place only once in every 100 years. Bournemouth council and local agencies met affected residents on Monday and the big question was how Bournemouth applies for part of the £130 million emergency funding. Could the Secretary of State please write to Bournemouth borough council to explain the process?

I am looking at the schemes here and it appears that my hon. Friend has been successful. Perhaps we could have a word afterwards.

The statement today will be very reassuring to people in Cornwall. What assessment has the Secretary of State made about the money that Cornwall will get as a result of the welcome reform to the Bellwin scheme?

We will be talking carefully with local authorities about the level at which the new threshold should come in. Although we have not yet made an announcement, we are consulting informally. I can safely say that the sum will be an awful lot more than my hon. Friend would have got under the previous regime.

The announcement today on the reform of Bellwin, including thresholds, is welcomed by many of us who have been lobbying for change since the Calder Valley floods of two summers ago. Does the announcement on river dredging include rivers like the Calder in the Calder Valley, despite the fact that the Environment Agency is against dredging?

Oh my goodness, I have the schemes here. Four schemes have been approved in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which will help enormously, and of course we are willing to talk to the Environment Agency about what is needed.

Given the multimillion pound damage to communities around my constituency this very week, can the Secretary of State assure me that of the £130 million available, some will be available for the rail service, and that there will be greater evidence of collaboration between Network Rail and the Environment Agency?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the railways. We recognise that they are an important economic asset. I know that it is something that the Prime Minister personally is very concerned about, and arrangements are being made as we speak.

What discussions have been held or are planned with the insurance industry to reassure people with properties in flood-risk areas?

We regularly talk to the insurance industry. The Water Bill will go some way towards providing reassurance. Its passage through Parliament will show that we have agreed to continue to abide by the commitments under the 2008 statement of principles. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, has just whispered to me that if my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) has a particular point in mind, he would be happy to deal with it.

I welcome the statement today. Looking beyond the current situation, can my right hon. Friend tell the House what plans the Government have to speak to countries like s Denmark and the Netherlands about how we can share experience in managing flood risks in the future?

Dutch companies, not surprisingly, are already in contact with us about the levels, and as the Dutch built them, they are probably in the best position to help us out.

I welcome the proposed changes to the Bellwin scheme, which will help Suffolk councils help Suffolk families and businesses. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to think about sending the Royal Engineers to repair the railway in Dawlish, although that is not in my constituency? They did the job in Cumbria in a very short time. I think they could get Cornwall and Devon back on their feet quickly.

The Prime Minister has made it clear—I hope my hon. Friend will like this—that there is no restriction on the use of the armed services. Should local authorities require them, they will be there, but I emphasise that we do not know the level of the damage. Right now what we are trying to do is protect the track.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said today about the Government response to the floods. However, my constituent Linda Barker has contacted me to ask how people like her, in areas unaffected by flooding, can help to support people who have been affected. Charities like the British Red Cross provide support to flood victims, but will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he is ensuring that people like Linda can support charities that work with flood victims?

Churches and voluntary organisations are doing a terrific job. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has had discussions with voluntary organisations. If my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) would care to discuss this with him afterwards, we might be able to help his constituent.

There has been much debate about how we can move flood water efficiently to the sea to save areas that are being flooded, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is every bit as important to retain flood water where the rainwater falls? There is a brilliant scheme in Plynlimon in my constituency in Wales, which has a positive impact on the whole of the Severn valley in England.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I said earlier that no single solution should be applied right across the board. I have experience of a similar scheme that has been very effective, although such a scheme would obviously not work in the Somerset levels.