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Weather Events (South West England)

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Amber Rudd.)

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Hood. I am sure that my delight is shared by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who will be speaking in this debate rather than chairing it.

I would like to start by outlining the current situation, because although the national media and visiting politicians have moved on, we in the south-west are still feeling the impact of the recent storms and floods. The main and only railway route beyond Exeter to the rest of Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall is still severed at Dawlish; the main line providing cross-country services from our region to Bristol, south Wales, the midlands and the north is still under 18 inches of water for more than a mile of its stretch near Bridgwater in Somerset; and, of course, much of the Somerset levels still look as if they have been reclaimed by the sea.

We must also take note of the impact of the rail closures on our roads. First Great Western alone is running 166 coaches a day to replace rail services lost due to the flooding in the Somerset levels and Dawlish. The urgent priority is to get both important railway connections reopened as quickly as possible. I am sure that Network Rail is doing its best in Dawlish and on the Somerset levels, but I am also sure that both it and the Minister will be aware of the importance of the Easter holidays to our tourist industry. Everything possible must be done to ensure that both lines are reopened in time for the school holidays. We have heard encouraging words from Ministers and Network Rail about the need for an additional alternative route that avoids the vulnerable Dawlish section. We have had words in the past, but what the west country wants and expects now is action.

The Government have given the commitment that Network Rail will report back by the summer on its initial feasibility study into a Dawlish-avoiding route. Will the Minister reassure me that Network Rail will take advice from outside experts, including the Met Office, on the likely impact of rising sea levels and more extreme weather events due to climate change? When Network Rail reviewed the Dawlish line for the Labour Government in 2004, it deemed it viable for the foreseeable future and rejected the need for an alternative. That advice was hopelessly over-optimistic. In fact, Network Rail has been criticised in the past for opening its eyes too slowly to the resilience challenges posed by climate change. Will the Minister assure us that Network Rail has now opened its eyes and will not make the same mistake again?

As the four transport authorities in the south-west pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport in January—before we lost the line at Dawlish—the re-announced £31.3 million for rail flood resilience in the south-west was actually promised a year ago, after last winter’s floods when we also lost our rail connection for several weeks. The money was not delivered then—will the Minister tell us whether it has been now? If not, why not, and when will it be paid?

On the wider issue of flood defence, the Minister will be aware that several important schemes in the south-west were abandoned or delayed after his Government cut investment in flood defences on taking office. The UK Statistics Authority confirmed again today that investment in flood defences has fallen by £250 million under this Government compared with the previous one. The Environment Agency’s flood maintenance budget has fallen from more than £100 million a year in 2010 to just £60 million this year. At the time when such changes were announced, many of us warned that they would be a false economy, because, as the Minister knows, for every pound invested in flood defences, at least eight are saved in the long run. Indeed, those are the Treasury rules—the EA is not allowed to spend money on new flood defences unless it can guarantee that level of return.

When the Government took office, there was also a very good argument for sustaining or even increasing capital investment in infrastructure. For the first three years under this Government, our economy flat-lined. Organisations such as the IMF and CBI argued repeatedly for more capital investment to boost jobs and growth, but that did not happen. The Government did not listen and we are now paying the price. Will the Minister assure us that the schemes that were in the pipeline in 2010 will now go ahead on a renewed, accelerated time scale?

Two weeks ago, in response to the floods, the Prime Minister said, “Money is no object”. He also kept repeating, in his now infamous press conference, the words “we are a wealthy country”, but I cannot see that any of the announcements made in the past few weeks represent any new money or increased investment. Indeed, there is still confusion about whether the Prime Minister was talking about resources to deal with the immediate crisis or long-term investment, in spite of the fact that he seemed to say quite clearly that we need to do everything we can to improve our resilience as a country.

What is the Minister’s understanding of what the Prime Minister was talking about? For example, there has still not been a firm pledge on the investment that would be needed for the Dawlish-avoiding route. Yet, whichever route is chosen, or even if the recommendation is somehow to maintain and better defend the current route, the cost will be a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of pounds that the Government have already committed to HS2. I am not against HS2, but why are the Government incapable of committing to ensuring that we in the south-west have a 20th-century railway that functions and does not leave us cut off on an annual basis, while remaining committed to HS2?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does the current railway blip not draw attention to the fact that the dualling of the A303 and A30 is paramount so that if we get such appalling weather conditions in future, there will at least be access to the south-west? From my constituency, there is no access because the road infrastructure is terrible.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s argument, although he will be aware that the sort of dualling that some people would like would raise huge environmental challenges in the Blackdown hills. Nevertheless, he is right: we in the south-west are the poor relation when it comes to transport infrastructure. I will say a little more about that in a moment.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We in Northern Ireland obviously did not suffer as much from the floods, but we sympathise with the agri-food sector, which has been badly hit. It will take tens of thousands of pounds to help the farmers in the right hon. Gentleman’s area, and flooding will have a devastating impact on future food prices.

The hon. Gentleman is probably right. The recent weather comes after droughts and floods in previous years. I am also going to say a little about the importance of land management, because I do not think that the current approach is holistic, as it should be.

I believe that the Government will not commit the money that we need to invest in the south-west because of the Chancellor’s addiction to austerity—so short-sighted when it comes to capital investment. As has been said, current Treasury figures show that expenditure per head on transport in the wider south-west is well below that of all other English regions and the devolved Administrations. The Minister is a Cornwall MP, so I am sure he is aware that it is politically difficult for any south-west MP to vote for any more funds for HS2 until we have a firm commitment to address our rail problems first.

Will the Minister tell us the latest position on job losses at the Environment Agency? As he will know, EA staff have been working around the clock during the recent flooding. In our region, it is the second year in a row that Christmas and New Year were effectively cancelled for them. I was pleased that, in response to the call from my own party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the Government announced a temporary freeze in the EA redundancy programme. However, local staff in Devon tell me that they have already lost so many people that they not only do not have the staff to work on the new flood defence schemes that are under way, but they cannot adequately maintain current flood defences. It would be wholly irresponsible of the Government to press ahead with job cuts given what we have been through this year and last, and so soon after the even bigger floods of 2007.

When I visited the Environment Agency, with the Leader of the Opposition, in Exeter the week before last, we were told that this year is already categorised as a one-in-250-year weather event. Last year, 2000 and 2007 were categorised as one-in-100-year weather events. We seem to be having one-in-100-year or one-in-250-year weather events every other year, on average. That brings me to my next questions, which are about climate change.

It is well known that the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who sadly is still not with us, is the Government’s leading climate change denier—a position that many of us consider untenable, given his responsibilities. Will the Minister assure us as he sums up the debate, as Floods Minister, that he accepts the science on climate change? Has he, unlike his boss, met his own Department’s adviser on the issue and has he spoken to the world’s leading experts on the issue, who are based in Exeter? It is easy for him to do so on his way to and from his constituency.

I also appeal to the Minister to do what he can to ensure that his boss and some of the others who I fear are in denial understand the importance of overall land management in water management and flood avoidance. It is not all about dredging. As many have pointed out, including his Conservative predecessor in the job as Floods Minister, dredging can often make things worse.

In that context, let me draw the Minister’s attention to a study by Exeter university, in collaboration with his Department and South West Water, on land management and water management on Exmoor. That four-year project, led by Professor Richard Brazier, essentially involves blocking up ditches and other drainage courses over a 2,000-hectare area of the moor to help to restore the peatland that predates the drainage that has happened for grazing during the past 200 years or so.

The preliminary results, published last week, are dramatic. Because of the restored land’s improved ability to retain and absorb water, the project has reduced by one third the volume of water leaving Exmoor and entering the River Exe. That is the equivalent of nearly 7,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It has significantly reduced the volume of storm and therefore flood surges all along the Exe. It has had the added benefit of improving significantly the quality of the water arriving at South West Water’s treatment works, thereby reducing costs for that company and ultimately, it is hoped, for those of us who pay water rates. That work has very important lessons for land management across the uplands of south-west England and elsewhere, including, Professor Brazier believes, the high land surrounding the Somerset levels.

May I turn briefly to flood insurance? Many householders and businesses in Exeter have seen their flood insurance premiums rocket because of the combination of the cuts in investment in flood defences, the delay in the construction of upgraded flood defences for the city and the continuing failure of the Government to implement the long-awaited deal that they finally struck with the insurance industry on long-term insurance cover.

When the Leader of the Opposition was in Exeter, he met a couple whose insurance had rocketed in price from below £200 to nearly £800. He also met the chairman of Exeter chamber of commerce, who told him that businesses on Marsh Barton, one of the main industrial sites in my area and, as its name suggests, on a floodplain, had seen the excess on their flood insurance policies increase fivefold. They had also been told that they would have to move all their plant and equipment to the first floors of their buildings in the event of a flood warning, even though many of them are in single-storey buildings.

We were told that there is an ongoing disagreement between the Government and the insurance industry about whether to make it clear on everyone’s bills the premium that they are paying to help to cover people in higher-risk areas and that that is holding up the implementation of the deal. There is also the problem in relation to leaseholders, homes built since 2009 and small businesses, none of which are included in the current scheme. Is it not clear that, as it stands, Flood Re, as the scheme is called, is not adequate? Will the Minister assure us that the Government will deal with its inadequacies in the Water Bill?

In opposition, the Prime Minister famously rode huskies and said “Vote blue, go green.” People thought that he was serious about the environment and climate change, yet in recent years, intimidated by the growing band of climate change deniers in his party, he has seemed almost embarrassed to talk about the subject. He oversaw huge cuts in flood defences and the Environment Agency budgets, and work on implementing the recommendations of the Pitt report, commissioned after the major floods in 2007, stalled.

My right hon. Friend is making a passionate speech on behalf of the south-west region. Does he share my concern that preparing for and managing flood risk has been dropped as one of the priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that the Government’s national policy statement on roads and railways contains no reference to ensuring the resilience of our existing transport network?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. What she describes fits into the overall picture, which is that the joined-up, strategic, collaborative, comprehensive approach adopted following the Pitt review after the serious floods of 2007 has been picked apart. The Cabinet Committee on Flooding that was set up under the previous Government was scrapped. It has now been reintroduced, we hear.

I do not know whether the Committee has sat; I do not know whether the Minister serves on it. However, we have lost three and a half years of effective policy on flood defence, flood management and managing flood risk, and I still do not detect the “joined-up-ness” that we need. When the Prime Minister comes to the Somerset levels and repeats what he heard from the last people he spoke to about dredging, has he actually looked at the evidence? Has he looked at all the advice that is coming, including again today, from organisations that know much more about flooding than anyone in this room does? They say that we need a much more holistic and joined-up approach—in the end, an approach that would save us as a country not only a great deal of heartbreak, but a great deal of money.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is not just about dredging, but the problem with the Parrett and Tone is that the river channel is only about two thirds of the size it should be, so dredging is needed. The problem has been that dredging has not been put into the equation. The issue is about water management, but it is also about dredging.

I invite the hon. Gentleman, who serves on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which sits this afternoon, to invite Professor Brazier from Exeter university to come and give evidence to the Committee. If the Committee is to publish a report on the lessons that could be learned from what has happened in the past few months, it is very important that it listens to the views of people who have conducted such important research.

I appreciate that the concerns being discussed today are specifically about the south-west of England, but we have also had concerns in Strangford. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that this issue should be addressed in any way? There seemed to be a delay in responding, which was a big issue for many of my constituents at home, but also in the south-west of England. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Minister should set up a group to consider how the Government can react quickly when flooding starts, rather than providing a delayed response?

I did not want this debate to be about how the Government handled the immediate crisis, but about how we move forward and ensure that we have a joined-up approach to dealing with flood risk management. However, having been Minister for the South West in 2007, when we had what were more serious floods in many ways, I do have some experience of how to manage a crisis. I also dealt with bird flu at DEFRA. It is very important that when something such as this happens, it is gripped immediately from the top. When the Prime Minister finally did grip what had happened, things started moving and changed, but it is only really when the Prime Minister gets involved, starts chairing Cobra and takes control that all the agencies and Departments come together and work effectively.

However, what matters to people in the long term is not how Governments manage immediate crises—although that is important, not least for their reputation—but whether that collaboration, that “joined-up-ness”, that strategic approach is continued in the long term, because it is long-term and sustained policies and investment that will make it less likely that we will have constantly to fight these crises and fires in the future.

I hope that the recent floods and storms and their impact will have served as a wake-up call to the Government, because the long-suffering south-west of England will judge not on words, but on actions.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on an extremely valuable introduction and on getting this debate on the table. Clearly, for all of us in the south-west, the impact of the storm in the weeks from 3 February onwards was more than significant. Certainly in Dawlish in my constituency, the damage was unprecedented. According to Network Rail, the breach in the sea wall was something the like of which had never been seen before.

Not only Dawlish was damaged—there was significant erosion damage in Dawlish Warren, which depends on tourism for its livelihood. Losing four metres of sand not only reduces the defence mechanisms, but the lack of sand on the beaches impacts on tourism, and there has been a delay in the recharge project to bring the beaches up to standard.

All along the coast, from Cornwall to my hon. Friend’s constituency, we have seen unprecedented coastal damage that will affect tourist businesses. Does she agree that the message must go out that the south-west is still very much open for business?

My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point. It is clear to me from the conversations I have had with Network Rail that we will be open for business for Easter. It has been a challenging time, but from everything I have seen—I see the concrete lorries filling that wonderful hole—I am absolutely sure that we will see a successful result.

As for the damage, I will focus on Dawlish, which is where the most significant impact was. It would be wrong not to mention some of the other things that have happened, and the erosion is a part of it. We have also had significant flooding in some of our smaller villages. I have 40 villages in my constituency. I will not name each of them and list the damage that occurred, but Ringmoor and Stokeinteignhead were significantly damaged. However, Dawlish is where the most significant impact of the storm was felt.

Some 56 families had to be evacuated late at night. The police had to knock in windows to get residents out. Countless businesses lost trade and, although that was partly due to sodden buildings, it was also because the train was not running. The cafés that usually got the business from the tourist footfall simply did not do business. The district and county councils were brilliant in all that they did, doing much more than might otherwise have been expected. Volunteers were fantastic. There was a lot of action during the night. Tea was available 24 hours a day, served by a wonderful lady, and the Network Rail team, in their orange jackets, have now become almost iconic in Dawlish. The local community love them to bits and see them as local heroes. They are still giving them cups of tea and pats on the back, and whatever else it takes to keep them going.

During the crisis, First Great Western finally got up to speed and put in place the coaches that were needed, but it is fair to say—I am sure the right hon. Member for Exeter knows this—that there were severe challenges going south from Exeter, and I heard tales of queues of 200 people struggling to find places on coaches.

We need to remember that the impact of everything that has happened was not only physical, but emotional and economic. For my constituency, the impact has been devastating. That coastal railway line has stood the test of time since Brunel built it, although it has breached before. There are some wonderful pictures of previous breaches when passengers got off the train, walked over the rocks and got on another train on the other side. I am not sure we could do that today, but the pictures are interesting.

The coastal railway is an economic lifeline. The loss to the region is—conservatively—£2 million a day. It is crucial that the line is up and running for Easter. As the right hon. Member for Exeter mentioned, the line is particularly crucial in my area, not only because it is an economic lifeline, but because it is a flood defence. It protects 951 properties in Dawlish, Dawlish Warren, Starcross and Cockwood. It is absolutely mission critical for me as the Member of Parliament and for the constituents I represent that the railway line is made better and more resilient, and that it is there for the long term.

We must look seriously at what can be done to support the railway line. I hope the Minister addresses that in his remarks. There is new technology that will allow a secondary wall to be put on the external front, with wave-breaking technologies that will reduce any damage. There is also the potential for a breakwater to be put further out. I believe that has been done in Sidmouth and Plymouth. I see no reason why it should not be considered in Dawlish. Indeed, from conversations I had with Network Rail last year, I understand that it was already under review. However, I thought 2019 was too late and simply not an adequate answer.

The Dawlish station footfall, believe it or not, is 480,564 people per year. That is the 2012 figure, the most recent I could find. Over the past 10 years, the footfall through Dawlish has risen by 81%. The footfall for Teignmouth is 566,528 individuals a year—again, that is the 2012 figure—and that has seen growth of 98%. If we add the footfall in Newton Abbot, the number is similar to that in Exeter St Davids or Plymouth, so this is not a small rural area. It is a significant part of the south-west, with a significant local economy, much of which is driven by tourism, and it is absolutely crucial that the Government support it.

The Government’s help has been very welcome. The resilience review, which I gather the Army will be undertaking in five weeks, will make a big difference. My question is this: if the Army can do it in five weeks, why has it historically taken Governments years? Can we not make the process faster and have a real assessment of what can be done, with some proper open discussion about what money is needed and what money can be spent? Although the Prime Minister has said money is no object in relation to flood damage, given the budget left by the previous Government, there is not a lot of spare cash. However, this is a critical area for spending, and we must future-proof the railway.

On the best way to tackle resilience at Dawlish, it might be concluded that a new line is necessary or that substantial work is needed to strengthen the Dawlish sea wall. Is the hon. Lady concerned that the money could come from already squeezed Network Rail budgets and other projects in the south-west, rather than being funded with new money from central Government?

First, I do not think there is any question in anybody’s mind that any additional railway line or loop would be instead of the existing line—it must always be as well as the existing line, not least because any new building of railway will take a significant length of time, and whether someone lives in Plymouth, Exeter, Newton Abbot or Dawlish, they need the line and they need it for the long term. It is not a question of an alternative, but an addition.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. As for the hon. Lady’s comments about squeezing other budgets, I would request, as I am sure she would, that additional money is found elsewhere in the Government’s coffers. They have some big issues to deal with, and I am afraid I am going to be a bit controversial here. Almost without exception, constituents have come up to me and said, “Why have we got so much money in the international aid budget?” In many ways, that budget is absolutely right, but what about our own people? Does not charity begin at home? I am conscious that that budget is not big and would not cover all the flood prevention work that is needed. Although it is laudable to have a fund for international aid, there must be a balance, and the time for reviewing that balance is now.

The help offered by the Government to date has been welcome. We have had a business rates holiday for businesses, and the changes to the Bellwin scheme, which gave us 100% cover and lowered the level that had to be reached before money was forthcoming, were welcome, but I have a concern for the Minister to pass on to his Cabinet colleagues. My concern is that the Bellwin formula money did not assist district councils, but most of the expenditure in my area was incurred by the district council, not the county council.

I am equally grateful to the Government for the business support fund, which is to provide support for businesses that have lost trade as a result of this weather event. There is considerable confusion about what “flooding” means. In my constituency, yes, we have flooding and water standing in properties, but we also have storm damage and erosion. It is far from clear what that support covers, because businesses clearly have lost trade from all those things. When my constituents and the council ring the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills hotline—and, indeed, when people speak to Devon county council—they find that they do not know either. We need some clarity about exactly what the business support fund covers.

I am grateful for the £22,500 that has been earmarked for my district council, Teignbridge, but I am saddened that, even as I speak this morning, it has still not been paid. I wonder whether the Minister could raise that matter with his colleagues.

Going forward, we need a proper strategy and proper flood prevention and advice. Villagers who have been flooded are concerned because they feel that they did not have any advice about what to do to shore up their properties. Could we not talk to the fire service to see whether it could provide advice? Otherwise it will be a free-for-all for individuals who might be giving the wrong advice. Villagers were also concerned that there was no early warning and said that a siren would have helped, because this weather event was in the middle of the night. Indeed, Network Rail only discovered it was a double black rather late in the day. Perhaps something could be done about warning and notification, not just of individuals and organisations that can do something, but of residents. That would be helpful.

As the right hon. Member for Exeter said, this is no time for complacency. There is much to be done and it must be done now. That railway line along the coast is vital to the whole south-west and action is needed now. I do not think any of us would condone delay until 2019. Now means 2014 or 2015 and, at the latest, 2016.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. It is great that the Minister responding to this debate knows a great deal about the south-west of England, representing as he does North Cornwall, which is also feeling the impact of the issues that we are grappling with.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this debate, and he made a characteristically passionate speech. However, I say gently to him that his analysis appears to be that everything was great before 2010 and disastrous since 2010. That is not the real world. Other than that, I appreciate the passion and power with which he put forward his argument. He is right to say that we have to do more, both on flood risk management and on upgrading and making our infrastructure more resilient.

The greatest challenge that we in the south-west face is peripherality. People think that, when they get to Bristol, they have arrived in the south-west, but they have not; they are in the south midlands or the west country, not in the south-west. Plymouth is 110 miles from Bristol. I often thought, as I got off the train in days gone by—it seems a long time ago that I got off the train at Plymouth—that I felt sorry for people going on to Penzance in Cornwall, which is another hour and a half on the train. We are a long way from anywhere. Of course, peripherality keeps us beautiful and it is one of the great things that keeps our region from being overwhelmed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the railway has become more important since Plymouth lost its airport? It is the main link to the south-west and Cornwall now.

I agree—it is the main link, although the M5 and A38 are pretty good in terms of bringing all the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who will come to us at Easter. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who represents Dawlish so ably, that the south-west is certainly open for business.

If our big problem is peripherality, the solution to that is connectivity. This is where our rail link is so important. Yes, superfast broadband is important, as is the M5-A38 link, but as we have just heard, we do not have an airport at Plymouth any longer—there are airports at Newquay and Exeter, but not in Plymouth, which is the engine room of our sub-region—therefore our rail link is extremely important.

I remember a trip to India in 1990s with some Indian business people, just after the monsoon had struck, as it does every year in India. A frustrated Indian businessman said to me, “This is what is holding us back. Every year our physical infrastructure is overwhelmed by the weather and often is swept away and we have to start all over again.” We do not want to be in that position in the far south-west. We must have in place robust infrastructure that underpins our connectivity.

Let me mention the impact on Devon. There was, of course, flooding, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot talked about. By the way, just after the Dawlish breach, iconic pictures, now on the BBC’s “Spotlight” archive, show my hon. Friend raging against the elements, overlooking this breach, almost trying to turn back the storm and doing her utmost for her constituents in fighting for urgent action, which, of course, has followed. Those pictures will live with me for a long time. King Lear has nothing on my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot.

Of course, we have had flooding before, but the battering our coastline took was a new thing this year. In 2012, we had a lot more flooding inland, but it was the coastal attack that was so spectacular this time. There is a worthy scheme to compensate some businesses that have felt the impact of these storms and help has been announced for people in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, but no help has been announced for the people of Torbay or Plymouth. This may be an oversight. Perhaps a civil servant thinks that Devon includes Plymouth and Torbay, which, of course, geographically, it does; but legally it does not. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please look into that to ensure that those businesses on the seafront in Plymouth that were swept away by the storms are compensated in the same way as those along the Cornish or Devon coastline? My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) would make the same point for his constituency if he were here.

I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon. Of course, that is right. He will no doubt make that point in his speech, which we anticipate.

Although we are talking about weather, the main focus of our attention today is rail resilience. Network Rail has responded quickly and I pay tribute to it. On the very day of the Dawlish breach, it attended a meeting with the Secretary of State for Transport, here at Westminster, and it was obvious that it was going to grip the situation. It gave a six-week timetable, which has slightly slipped because of further storms, and is getting on with it. I understand that it has 100 people working 24/7 to fill up this wonderful hole, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot described it. Congratulations to Network Rail on such a rapid response. The Secretary of State has also responded quickly, and it was good to see the Prime Minister coming down and taking personal control.

I, too, thank First Great Western. It gets hammered and gets a lot of criticism, but it has responded. Perhaps it took a couple of days, but it has now responded well. The service that it is putting on for many of my constituents is excellent.

My hon. Friend might like to know that some constituents visited me yesterday and they were full of praise for First Great Western and asked me to mention it. Does he agree that this is now the trend, rather than people complaining about First Great Western?

I agree. It provides an increasingly impressive service to the far south-west. There is another debate to be had—it is not a matter for this Minister—about the future of the franchise and how, with only two and a half years to run, the company lacks the ability to invest in upgrading its rolling stock, and so on. That needs to be tackled, but that is for another day.

The real challenge will be not getting the Dawlish breach restored and the trains running again before Easter—I am confident that will happen—but, as my hon. Friend said, the report to the Government on alternative or additional routes that I understand will be made by July. That is when the fun will begin, because there will be myriad views on the right approach. Let me say, first, that I agree that the existing route has to be reinforced and kept open. We should consider alternative routes from Newton Abbot to Exeter that would be faster and straighter, because that would make the link from the far south-west to London much quicker and more acceptable, to business people in particular. That needs to be fully explored. However, I agree that the existing line must be kept open. All we may really need is an additional line to be used in extremis, but which can be used for freight and local traffic. Then if there should be another breach in years to come, traffic can be switched to that alternate route. It would be wise to wait until we see the report, but it will be important for those of us in the west country to try to reach a consensus on the right way forward. I am afraid that at the moment there are probably as many views as there are Members of Parliament in Devon and Cornwall, which is not helpful. We need to try to reach a consensus.

That issue is eclipsed by the far greater issue of funding. I agree with many of my constituents who ask me, “How on earth can you support HS2?” There is already tremendously impressive infrastructure from London to Birmingham and further north, while in the west country we have a Victorian line that is unfortunately looking more and more vulnerable. I have come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to answer that question, except by saying—as I have already said to Ministers—that it will be impossible for me to support the Government on the Second Reading of the hybrid High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill unless there is a firm commitment on the table for a fully funded package for an agreed alternative route. That has to be new money. There is a lot of money in the five-year budget, but a lot of things have to be done with it; it has to be new money. We are probably talking about hundreds of millions of pounds.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, were every Member of Parliament for Devon, Cornwall and Somerset of every political party to sign up to that position, it would send a powerful message not only to the Government but to my party on the future long-term commitment?

It is hard to get all Members of Parliament to sign up to something like that because different agendas are running, but I agree that, in theory, there are enough Members of Parliament for Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and further afield that we could make an impact if we were to act collectively. HS2 is a decision not just for this Government but for the next Government. This is not a party-political point, and I understand that HS2 has cross-party support on the Front Benches, so it is important that we send a message from the west country that, unless there is a commitment to fully fund an alternative or additional route, we will not support the Bill on Second Reading. Although we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds, it is crumbs off the table compared with the money anticipated for the HS2 project. I am not against HS2, but now is the time for the far south-west to have a slice of the action. We have been putting up with a second-class rail service for far too long.

That is what I came here to say today. The next nine to 12 months will be challenging for west country Members of Parliament, but there is no higher priority than restoring our connectivity. In the meantime—I finish on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot was so keen to make—as Easter approaches and despite the challenges, Devon and Cornwall are firmly open for business.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I also thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for obtaining this important debate.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who said that the Dawlish line needs to be restored. As well as connecting to Cornwall, the line is a great tourist attraction. It is a lovely railway line to travel along. Given that it is 150 years old, it is amazing that it is still there. The line is a remarkable achievement of Brunel, who was such a great engineer. Restoring it is important.

We also have to consider a complementary line that would potentially make it much faster to get from Plymouth and Cornwall up to London. We already have a second line that comes from Exeter up to Waterloo; it runs through my constituency. We have a loop at Axminster, but we need a loop at Honiton, which would help. We also ought to consider twin-tracking the railway all the way down from London to Exeter because that would give us a line to Exeter. Furthermore, we should consider whether we can go across from Exeter towards Okehampton and down to Plymouth. We could try to go across Dartmoor itself, but that might not be easy.

Those things have to be done, and I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who pointed out that billions of pounds are to be spent on HS2. Every time I have been through the Lobby to vote for HS2, I have held my nose for the simple reason that I did not want to support it. If we do not see real and meaningful investment in the west country, it is our duty to speak up and stand up for our constituents, and I believe we will. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) reinforcing that point in a minute.

We have to consider the current structure, but we also have to consider sea defences. After I said in Parliament the other day that we do not have to retreat from the sea, The Daily Telegraph poked fun at me slightly by saying that I am like King Canute. Of course King Canute actually stood in the sea to try to persuade his courtiers that he could not keep back the sea. On the Somerset levels there are now Dutch pumps. The people of the Netherlands do not retreat from the sea for the simple reason that, if they did, they would probably lose between a third and two thirds of their country, and they do not intend to do that.

We have to treat sea defences as an infrastructure project. People can rightly argue, as the Government have, that we inherited a huge £120 billion financial deficit in the day-to-day running of the country, and we are reducing that deficit, but there has never been a better time for investment in capital projects and infrastructure because we will never see lower interest rates. I lived through a period of interest rates of 12% and 15% when I was farming, and those rates were cruel and painful to say the least. We now have much better interest rates, so let us use them to our advantage. We need to protect our coastline.

The A30 and the A303 need to be dualled so that we do not only have the M5. The A30 down from Exeter is a good road, but the A30 that runs on the edge of Dorset into Wiltshire, Somerset and the south of my constituency needs to be dualled. We do not want to be held up entirely by Stonehenge. We have to sort out Stonehenge, but it should not be the sticking point against dualling the rest of the road.

On his visit to the west country, the Prime Minister said that 100% of the need will be provided under the Bellwin agreement. There are potholes all over Devon and Cornwall. The roads are horrendous, and a fortune has been spent on them. The roads have to be put right. I was driving through Seaton the other day, and I nearly drove into a pothole the size of half a car. The pothole was not quite that bad, but it was huge and would cause amazing damage.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Bellwin should be extended to allow local authorities to repair potholes properly, rather than cold-filling potholes only for them to become deeper a couple of weeks down the road?

My hon. Friend is right about the need for good repairs. The county councils naturally argue that a major repair is much more expensive than just filling a pothole, but she is right that it is a pointless exercise if all the tarmac comes out of the pothole five minutes later. An awful lot of money is available to be spent.

I also welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge of £5,000 grants to help businesses through the floods. Will the Minister give us more detail on how people can claim that money? It is always great when the Government offer money, but people would like to be able to claim and use it.

On the Somerset levels, it has been said that raising the railway line across the moors would cost £200 million. There is one solution to ensure that that railway line does not flood, and that is a sluice at the end of the river Parrett to stop the sea from coming in. At the moment, the sea comes in and drives the fresh water back, and that is what keeps the moors flooded. I cannot guarantee that the sluice would mean that the moors never flooded again, but a tidal sluice on the end of the Parrett, north of Bridgwater, could mean that the depth of water on the moors would not be enough to flood the railway line.

Doing the arithmetic, it would cost £200 million to raise the railway line and that will never happen. I reckon that a sluice across the Parrett would cost some £50 million and if hydroelectric power was put there as well, the project would start to show its worth. It would help farmers, properties and nature conservation. When there is water over the whole Somerset levels for six to eight weeks, there is nothing left when the water recedes. There will not be the lovely flora and fauna or reeds and rushes that everybody wants, because it will all have rotted. Then there is the farmland, what has happened to people’s property and the stock that has had to be moved across the moors. We have to look at the situation seriously.

The other great benefit of having a sluice across the River Parrett is that the water could be penned in during the summer and the area could be made like a mini Norfolk broads. That would bring the benefits of a huge tourist attraction. Devon and Cornwall need a railway line, but we have to cross Somerset to get there, and we need to consider that. I know that the right hon. Member for Exeter does not like dredging and all those things, but they must be part of the armoury. We can hold water in certain places and further upstream, but in the end rivers such as the Parrett and Tone silt up, and without dredging we will not get the water away fast enough.

The management of those waterways has to be much more local, and that is where inland drainage boards can do a lot more. We might need more drainage boards. Will the Minister consider that? We might, dare I say it, have to get people living in houses further up the catchment area to pay a small amount, because their water is flowing down and flooding the lowland areas. There are ways of raising money, which will help. Local management would be so much better.

I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman just said. He seems to agree with the research from Exeter university, which argued that if landowners and farmers in upland areas were paid to manage their land differently, the amount of money saved through reduced flood risk on the Somerset levels and elsewhere in low-lying areas would massively outweigh that expenditure. Is it not better to pay farmers to do that, rather than to graze the uplands intensively, which is sadly sometimes the case?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is part of the solution, and we have to look at how land is managed and how farmers are paid. At the moment, farmers are paid for loss of income. We should say, “If you are going to hold that water and that will reduce flooding, you should be paid to manage that water.” In the end, that would probably be a much cheaper option.

We must also remember—this is where I probably do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman—that we need land for food production; we should not take away too much land from food production for that type of process. It is about getting the balance right, an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman and I do not entirely agree. Land management is part of the solution.

Let us go forward and look at the infrastructure across the west country, including road and rail, and let us look at maintaining our coastline. Let us look at having, in the Somerset moors, the south-west and the country, pads and pipes where we could put in these massive mobile pumps that the Dutch have. We could have Dutch pumps in Sedgemoor and they could be moved around the country. Rather than having millions and millions of pounds invested in one pumping station, let us spend a few million pounds on portable pumps and the necessary infrastructure to connect those pumps wherever they are. We can import the pumps from Holland and have them ourselves. That is key.

We have to learn lessons. A lowland area has to be pumped fast. We should stop the tide from going up the Parrett so that we can fill it with fresh water. Then, when the tide goes down, we can let it out. There are lots of practical solutions. We have suffered and people still are suffering. We can never guarantee that flooding will never happen again, but we can reduce it. I will stop there, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset wants to speak.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this debate, which is very appropriate at this time. I thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me.

As we have heard, the south-west has borne the brunt of the weather, and nowhere has that been more impressive than in South Dorset and, in particular, on the island of Portland. It is still there, I am glad to report, but there were moments when people considered abandoning some of the homes, because the sea had risen by some 60 feet, I would guess. If one goes to the Cove House inn—the pub faces the storm—and looks at the sea when it is benign, it is hard to imagine that it can come in through the pub’s top window. The two wonderful landladies, Jackie Breakspear and Amanda Broughton-South, withstood and held firm, despite the best that the sea could throw at them.

Before I briefly speak on behalf of the fishermen and the chartered crews, who have suffered badly, I pay tribute to all those who fought heroically, and not just recently. We seem to forget that this fight has been going on since Christmas. As the right hon. Gentleman said, these men and women have been working flat out for weeks, hour after hour, in the most appalling conditions.

I pay tribute to the Environment Agency and the local authorities, which did a wonderful job, but I pay particular tribute to the Royal Engineers. The sea came over the top of Chesil beach and deposited about 16 tonnes of pebbles by the Little Ship pub. The question that every MP dreads asking when we go into these situations is, “Can I help?” The landlady, Lynda Davis, said, “Yes, Richard, you can actually. You can remove 16 tonnes of pebbles.” I had this horrific image of spending the rest of my time before the general election with a bucket and spade trying to clear them.

Using my former-Army nous, I moved across and met a young lieutenant. I said to him, “You have got all this kit. I would be most grateful if you could just pop across to the Little Ship and remove 16 tonnes of pebbles.” I am still not used to being called sir, but he said, “Sir! No problem. We will get that done.” Within two days, 16 tonnes of pebbles had been removed. What was even more astonishing was that that young officer told me that his grandfather used to run the pub. What an extraordinary story!

I must also pay tribute to the volunteers, not least the appropriately named Storm Wallace, who became an overnight star. Yes, her name is Storm Wallace. The young lady went on the internet and within days she had 300 people on a beach clean of Chesil beach. It was very impressive, and we are all back there this Sunday, because the sea dumps all the rubbish on the beach.

The fishing fleet and the charter fleet have suffered gratuitously. The concentration has been to a large extent on people and their homes, and rightly so, as well as on the farmers who have lost acres and acres under the water. The fishing fleet and the charter fleet make their living at sea. I am indebted to Andy Alcock, who is the secretary of the Weymouth and Portland Licensed Fishermen’s and Boatmen’s Association. He has armed me with a lot of the information that I will impart. Mr Alcock is a fisherman himself, with two boats and six employees in the high season. He told me that many of our fishermen in South Dorset—that includes Swanage to the east of my constituency—have been unable to put to sea for 60 days. That is two whole months.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the small boat fishermen do not have the luxury of migrating or working in unusually strong weather? They suffer a lot from the consequences of the storms, and they should get help.

I concur entirely with my hon. Friend. Many of our local fishermen, particularly in constituencies such as ours, are small boat operators, and they simply cannot cope with the enormous seas that we have been facing day after day.

Normally, at this time of year, the milder conditions in Weymouth’s microclimate might allow bass fishing to continue throughout Christmas and even new year. Netting for sole, cod and plaice continues throughout the winter months. On average, a Weymouth fisherman can count on being able to put to sea for three in every 10 days in December, January and February. This winter, since December 14, they have been able to fish for only five days. On other occasions, after spending three and a half hours getting to the fishing grounds, the appalling conditions have forced them to return. The result: no fish and no income.

On a good day, a fisherman might earn between £100 and £150. On a bad day, the take is much lower, and of course on many of the days it is nil. However, it is extremely rare that two entire months should pass without any earnings at all. Inevitably, the consequent loss of earnings has eaten into fishermen’s savings and is causing great difficulties.

The loss and destruction of expensive equipment has made recovering from such a dip in income even more difficult. Static gear such as lobster pots, crab pots, whelk pots and fixed nets have been particularly vulnerable because owners have been unable to reach them. Last week, fishermen were finally able to go out and count their losses. Gary Chard, skipper and owner of the “Gordeano Star”, has spent the six days he has been to sea since December 18 finding and repairing his equipment. He told me that of the 36 strings that he fishes, only 21 have been found. Some have moved more than a mile, and finding them has necessitated huge sweeps of possible locations. Each string is valued at £2,000, making Mr Chard’s equipment losses alone about £30,000.

Mr Alcock told me of another of his members who makes a living by tending 18 strings of lobster pots, using a small 18-foot Plymouth pilot boat in the inshore waters around Weymouth. Following the recent storms, the lobsterman found only five of his strings in place. Two more are stuck under the Lulworth ledges and need a diver to retrieve. The rest have gone. Most will be found, eventually, but that could take months, and it is likely that many of the strings will be wound around other nets and lines. Most will be unusable.

Yet, in the interim, that man must earn a living. Self-employed, the fishermen are not covered by the usual welfare safety nets. Mr Chard told me that British fishermen will soon be an endangered group. He asked whether the Government could consider loan grants, using the valuable fishing licences attached to British registered fishing boats as security—a question I pose to the Minister.

Certainly, I would urge the Minister to look kindly on applications from fishermen to the business hardship funds, which I understand are to be administered by local authorities. However, it is not clear where the money is, who is going to dish it out physically, how someone gets it—do they write or telephone in?—and how much they are going to get. I think I saw in one press release that the average amount would be £2,500, which clearly will not cover the vast costs that the people in the charter and fishing business have incurred. I would be most grateful if the Minister clarified exactly what the situation is.

I know that money is tight, but £10 million is nothing—really nothing—to cover the vast costs that the businesses have incurred. When businesses are allowed to apply for the funds, exactly who will qualify? I can see that farmers will; they have been in all the press releases. The Liberal Democrat leader, having been down to the south-west, issued a press release that included fishermen, which I was relieved to see. I have not seen charter boat crews included, but I assume—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—that they will be, because they have to go out and make a living but have not been able to. Some clarity on that important point would be most appreciated.

Finally, Swanage beach is crucial for our town. The whole of our tourism industry is to a large extent based around the beach, because it attracts hundreds of thousands of people down to a beautiful part of the world. The town council has spent £2 million to recover the beach and prepare it for the summer. Will the Government consider helping us here? That is a vast sum of money, which the town council simply cannot afford, despite the low interest rates. I would be grateful if the Minister imparted some information today.

This debate has been absolutely excellent. I pay tribute to and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing it and on posing serious questions about the Government’s handling of the floods. I echo his remarks praising the officers of the Environment Agency and the emergency services for their work in assisting people throughout the crisis. I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) about volunteers and the extraordinary generosity that they have shown, giving up their time and energy to help people out.

It is clear that the Government have failed to take the risk of flooding in the UK seriously—right from the moment they first came into office, when they cut the flood defence budget in 2010. The Labour Government had left a budget of £670 million. After the election, the coalition partners agreed to reduce the 2010-11 budget to just £573 million. The figures for each year since then have been £576 million for 2012-13 and £577 million for 2013-14. The Government have budgeted for £615 million for 2014-15. Over the four-year spending period, this Government will have spent just £2.34 billion on flood defences, compared with the £2.37 billion that the Labour Government spent in the previous spending period.

Those figures are not the ones that the Prime Minister used two weeks ago at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but they are the ones set out clearly by the independent Committee on Climate Change in its policy note. They are also the ones used by the House of Commons Library in its briefing on flood defence spending in England, and the ones set out just yesterday by the UK Statistics Authority, which says that the Government have cut £247 million in real terms from the floods budget. Those figures can be corroborated on the Department’s website in the correction that it had to put out under the Minister’s guidance after the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister both misspoke.

Of course, the Prime Minister has now said that he will spend whatever it takes, but the people of the south-west of England will think that it might have been better to spend whatever it took to prevent the tragedy, rather than to pay to mop up the mess afterwards. It is important to be clear that the additional funding is expected to be a temporary boost from the Department’s contingency reserves and will primarily be spent on repairing and reinstating defences damaged since the east coast surge in early December.

Funding allocated to emergency response and the repair and reinstatement of damaged defences will not protect more homes and businesses. Ministers must be clear on that. Those who have seen their homes and businesses flooded and cut off over the past few months deserve clarity from Ministers. It is right that additional funding should be spent on urgent repairs, but Ministers must not suggest that that alters the fact that the Government’s downgrading of flooding has created a crisis in the funding of our essential flood defences.

The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), has been clear in pointing out that it was a mistake for the Secretary of State to downgrade flooding as one of his Department’s key priorities when he came into office, which became all too evident as the flood waters arrived in people’s living rooms before sandbags arrived at their front doors.

The initial response to the floods was slow and disorganised. The Prime Minister remained disengaged from the worsening crisis for far too long, and finally took charge of Cobra only when two of his Secretaries of State had apparently clashed over the Government’s attempt to blame anyone and everyone but themselves.

The Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), challenged the Prime Minister at the last Prime Minister’s Question Time about the redundancy process currently under way at the Environment Agency. The Prime Minister said that we need to spend whatever it takes, but he was strangely reluctant to give any assurance that that included spending to save the 550 jobs that the EA has currently earmarked for redundancy in the area of flood management. Perhaps in his summing up, the Minister could update the House as to whether those redundancies will be going ahead. If he cannot, perhaps he can advise how he considers the EA may be able to give people the sort of assistance we have seen over the past two months in the future with 550 fewer staff.

What roles do the people in those posts currently perform? Are some of them the people who manage the flows of water in the waterways by monitoring and operating the sluice gates, weirs, locks and pumps? Do they include the people who survey and assess the condition of the flood defences or any of the people who have been helping with the clear-up operations? If the Minister cannot advise us in that much detail now, will he kindly agree to set out clearly to the House in a letter or a written statement precisely what skills and expertise may be lost with the redundancies and how it is proposed that there will be no corresponding loss of service and safety to the public in the future if they go ahead?

The Prime Minister also claimed that there would be a fund to pay affected home owners and businesses up to £5,000 to build in better flood protection as they repair their properties. The Minister will recall that one of the amendments that we tabled when the Water Bill was in Committee was to insert a resilient repair clause in the Government’s proposed flood reinsurance scheme, Flood Re. Given that the Prime Minister now believes that that is a good idea, is it proposed that a Government amendment similar to ours will be tabled, even at this late stage?

The House will recall that after the floods disaster of 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the then Prime Minister, set up the Pitt review. The report presents an astonishingly detailed and comprehensive series of 92 recommendations, which, taken together, represent a blueprint for the management of flood risk. However, less than 18 months after the coalition was formed in 2010, the Government stopped producing progress reports on the implementation of the recommendations, despite the fact that half of them were still not fully implemented. When challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood in her urgent question on 10 February, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave the extraordinary reply that she seemed to be “obsessed by process” and claimed that he was

“more concerned…to deal with the problem of flooding.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 565.]

Does the Minister accept that the best way to deal with the problem of flooding is to get on with the process of delivering on the 46 Pitt recommendations that are still outstanding?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter has rightly asked for confirmation that a full assessment will be made of the resilience of transport networks against future flood risk, and the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who spoke passionately about the needs of her constituency, was at one with him on those points. Everyone in the south-west who was affected by the severe travel disruption caused by the destruction of the Dawlish line will want to know that future Government plans have taken full account of the increased risk of flooding in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), the shadow Transport Secretary, has questioned why the £31 million originally allocated for rail resilience against floods, first promised to the south-west in 2013, failed to materialise in the autumn statement. More importantly, why was it subsequently re-announced this year as if it were new funding? That seems to be another example of deliberate obfuscation by the Government, who again and again put rhetoric before reality. Will the Minister update the House on what consideration the Government have given to the Opposition proposals for easing overcrowding in the south-west and ensuring that more passengers reach their destination? The Government should require all train operators to declassify first-class carriages in the event of delays or cancellations due to severe weather. When will that be done?

Perhaps the most worrying thing of all is the Government’s apparent reluctance to accept and act on climate science. The Met Office has made it clear that such extreme weather events as there have been are likely only to become more severe and more frequent. Has the Secretary of State still refused to entertain a briefing from his chief scientific adviser on climate science?

Will the Minister, who is, I know, very good on such matters, at least put his own views on the record? Does he accept the climate change risk analysis prepared by his own officials, which estimates that 1 million properties may be at serious risk of flooding by 2020? That is an increase on the current figure of 370,000. The 1 million estimate includes 800,000 homes. If he accepts it, will he tell us whether his Department’s flood insurance proposals under Flood Re take account of the additional properties? The Committee on Climate Change adaptation sub-committee has warned that they do not.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that the Environment Agency is notified of the decisions made in all planning applications where it has lodged an objection on the grounds of flood risk? At the moment, he will be aware that in one third of all such cases the local authority fails to notify the EA of the outcome. The suspicion is that local authorities that refuse an application are happy to notify the agency that they have taken its advice, but are less keen to report back to it when they have ignored it. The Minister cannot expect the EA to prepare adequate flood defences if it is not notified when properties are built in a flood risk area against its express advice. It should be necessary for the local planning authority to give notification in every case where the Environment Agency has lodged an objection on flood risk grounds.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) made detailed and pertinent remarks about the importance of the fishing industry, and what he said was appropriate. We often consider farmers’ and businesses’ needs after disruption of the kind that has happened recently, but hon. Members all too seldom speak in this Chamber about the needs of the fishing community. The hon. Gentleman spoke passionately and well.

Finally, what is the Minister doing with his colleagues in DEFRA to ensure that proper catchment management plans and shoreline management plans make better use of natural processes? Land management plays a vital role, and the retention of flood water upstream through woodland and ground cover in the uplands is every bit as important as dredging in the lower levels of the catchment. Landowners will always seek to dredge the river as it passes through their land. That is the quickest way to try to ensure that their own land is not flooded and the problem is passed downstream, but under a proper catchment management plan it may be considered better to flood agricultural land upstream than to endanger an entire village at lower levels. That integrated approach was recommended in the Pitt review under recommendation 27. When will that most important element of flood risk management be properly implemented?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter once again on introducing this important debate. I congratulate all the hon. Members who spoke. It was an exemplary debate, and I look to the Minister for some clear answers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I echo what other hon. Members have said in welcoming the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing it and on re-examining several issues that he has raised before, including the importance of connections to the south-west. The debate also ensures that we take account of recent events and reflect on them, so that we can do a better job after any subsequent similar event.

I represent a constituency in the south-west, which has experienced significant flooding in the past and been affected by the recent events, and I appreciate the severity of the impact of flooding and storms on communities in our part of the world. I sympathise with residents who face serious difficulties. As we have heard, businesses, farms and fishing have been severely affected, and so, crucially, have transport links. As the country starts to recover from a lengthy onslaught of stormy weather, I express my condolences to those who have lost family members in the extreme events, and to those who have been affected in other ways.

Since the start of December 2013, the UK has experienced a prolonged period of very bad weather. In England and Wales it was the wettest January since 1766. Met Office statistics suggest that for the south of England it has been one of the most exceptional periods for winter rainfall—if not the most exceptional—in at least 248 years. The latest estimates suggest that more than 6,800 properties have been flooded in England since the beginning of December 2013, including more than 2,000 since the most recent event began in early February. In addition, more than 48,000 hectares of farmland are thought to have been affected.

In the south-west, about 550 properties flooded and, in particular, there is continued flooding on the Somerset levels and significant damage to vital railway infrastructure. Investment by Government and improvements to the way in which we respond to incidents, however, mean that we have been able to protect about 1.3 million properties since the start of December, of which 93,000 are in the south-west. That reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability.

I want to pick up on some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Exeter in his introductory remarks. Network Rail’s review of options for improving resilience is taking into account advice from organisations such as the Flood Forecasting Centre and the Met Office. The review is a wide one. The money for the resilience projects to which he and the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred has been announced and confirmed by the Department.

Several hon. Members raised their concerns on maintenance.

The money is in place to make the urgent repairs, and that work is ongoing. We then need a scheme that we will fund. That could be smaller elements such as protection, or a bigger scheme if we want an alternative route. It is crucial to ensure that we get the repairs done and reopen the line to emphasise that the region is open for business.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important point on capital investment. As a Liberal Democrat, I am supportive of the coalition Government’s investment in infrastructure across a whole range of areas, including rail investment. I am a supporter of High Speed 2, as well as of the investment we are getting on the sleeper service in the south-west, among other things—I am always a fan of more investment of the south-west. The Government have invested huge amounts of capital in infrastructure. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), who led on such matters as Chancellor going into the previous general election, set out what would have happened if a Labour Government had been re-elected. He spoke of 50% reductions in capital investment in the following years. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) said, we should not set against what this Government have done any idea that there would have been a huge increase in spending under Labour—there simply would not have been.

On maintenance, there is an idea that the efficiencies implemented by the Environment Agency might have affected the readiness of the defences. Those defences, in which we and all Governments have invested over many years, were in a condition that enabled them to defend those properties, but obviously we need to look at where further flood defences could provide protection on a cost-benefit basis so that we can get the best value for such investment. That is why I am pleased we could announce £344 million in the coming financial year in investment in new defences, as well as the £130 million announced to ensure that we get our existing defences back up to where they need to be following recent events.

I want to ask the Minister for some clarification on spending on repairs and resilience on the rail network in the south-west. Will the money for extra resilience at Dawlish, for example, come from existing budgets, or are we talking about new money from central Government?

We need schemes before we can talk about how they will be funded. The £130 million was for flood defences and coastal defences that have been impacted by recent events.

I am happy to respond to the right hon. Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Brent North with my own views on climate change, which are on the record. I am convinced that we are seeing changes in the weather. As parliamentarians, we have all had such advice. It is difficult to draw direct links as a result of particular events, but we can look at trends and the changes that are happening, the advice from the Met Office in recent weeks about weather patterns over the Atlantic and so on, and what has driven them. That gives us cause for concern and I am personally convinced that there is a man-made element to such events, which is why the Government continue to take forward at international and national level a number of measures to decarbonise the economy and make progress on mitigation, as well as on the adaptation works in which my Department is involved.

Several hon. Members made points about land management. That is crucial, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) that we need to strike the right balance with food security and a thriving farming sector in upland areas and throughout the country. We have heard the concerns of the National Farmers Union. We do not want to hear the message that we should flood the farmland and give up on it. We can undoubtedly make a contribution through land management practices.

I am aware of the project on Exmoor and I know that South West Water is proud of its contribution. The right hon. Member for Exeter was kind enough to mention that the Department had been involved as well. Were the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, here, no doubt she would be talking about the slowing the flow project at Pickering—we have heard a great deal about that—in which the Department has also been involved.

We take seriously the huge potential to do more to retain water through land management, but, on dredging, the Somerset levels is a man-made environment. Those rivers do not function in the same way as many other catchments, because they have been raised above the level of the surrounding land, as well as redirected and rerouted. We are looking at maintenance and I am chairing the action group on the Somerset levels, which the Secretary of State has challenged to come up with the action plan. Some will be long-term issues, but others will be for the short term. We have already announced that dredging will take place this year to deal with this. The point about the barrier for the River Parrett is a good one. The barrier will allow better management for the Tone and the Parrett and that whole catchment. That work is under way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) was passionate in her defence of her constituents. She was right to say that that current rail link is crucial. There is a huge population along the south coast of Devon, so it is important to maintain those rail links. However, I represent North Cornwall, which does not have a single railway station. I am sure that if resilience could bring rail travel closer to my constituents, they and I would welcome it. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon on several of those possible outcomes as part of a resilience solution and I look forward to seeing the work on that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for the way in which he gave up his time to take me around affected parts of his constituency. We visited the very pub—the Cove House inn—to which he referred. The points he made about fishing and coastal industries are important. I have had time to visit, with the Deputy Prime Minister, fishermen down at Porthleven in the St Ives constituency and also spent time last week at Padstow with fishermen from my part of the world, particularly those lobster and crab fishermen who have lost so much gear, as my hon. Friend described, or found that their gear, if recovered, is crushed and no longer useable.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is looking at those issues to see what can be done to support such fishermen. In the meantime, the fisheries local action groups—FLAGs—have European fisheries fund money. I have talked to the project in Cornwall and there may be help under existing schemes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that FLAGs operate under strict European rules? Replacement of fishing gear would not be included in that funding.

I am being tempted into a quite local issue, but the discussions I have had suggest that help may be possible. I also draw attention to the fact that a number of banks have said that they will make interest-free loans to affected businesses. That may be part of the solution to allow people to get back up and running to trade again, not only in fishing, but across a variety of trades.

The Government have set out business recovery schemes, as well as schemes to help people make their homes more resilient. I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government on how people access those funds and we will make further announcements. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is making available an action line that businesses can contact for help and advice on how they take things forward.

This has been a terrible period of weather events throughout the country, from the east coast in early December to, as we have heard today, the south-west. The Government remain committed to spending the money we need on flood defences for the future. We will continue to monitor our response to improve on that. I very much welcome the huge efforts that all the agencies, volunteers and communities made to respond to those events. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will continue to discuss those issues with me over the coming weeks.