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Flooding (Staines-upon-Thames)

Volume 580: debated on Monday 12 May 2014

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

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss on the Floor of the House the matter of flooding and the River Ash in Staines-upon-Thames. The incident, which took place this February, was a significant development that caused a great deal of discomfort and inconvenience to my constituents.

I want to discuss why parts of Spelthorne were flooded during the winter and to examine why particular events happened in the way that they did. I also want to consider a question relating to the local statutory water undertaker, Thames Water. I must forcefully express that it is not my intention to apportion blame. I simply want to air the concern for the public record and to attempt to get more public scrutiny of a very important issue. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for making time to respond to the debate and I hope that he will help to elucidate the Government’s position about the situation and the regulation of our water companies more generally.

The River Thames, as many people know, runs the entire length of my constituency and is fed by a number of tributaries that dissect the area. It is a great blessing and a matter of great pride, and it affords recreation and enjoyment, but unfortunately when flooding occurs it can be very inconvenient. Such inconvenience does not happen every year or even every five years. It is rare, but when it does happen it is particularly frustrating and often dangerous.

The Thames burst its banks in places this year as water levels reached heights not seen since the great floods of 1947. Although record rainfall contributed to those events, as we all know, there are certain more specific questions about why some places were more affected by flooding than others. Residents express a variety of opinions about the nature of the flooding, but there are suspicions in particular about the maintenance of the infrastructure and whether the failure to close a particular sluice gate, for whatever reason—I am not blaming anyone—might have exacerbated the flooding of the River Ash over the weekend of 8 February through to Wednesday of the next week, when the sluice gate was shut.

In order to try to get to the bottom of this, we need to look back at what happened in 2003, because, as people will appreciate, a protocol was established by the Environment Agency to prevent the River Ash from flooding; when there is a threat that water in the Thames Water aqueduct will overflow into it there has to be a plan, and a protocol has been put in place to deal with that eventuality. When the River Thames reaches a certain level, water backs up in the River Colne and then spills over into the Staines aqueduct at locations some distance from Staines. The water is then channelled by the aqueduct towards the town. If the aqueduct is full, water can spill over into the River Ash. The 2003 protocol says clearly that Thames Water—the regulated company—should pump water out of the aqueduct at the Crooked Billet pumping station when that threat exists and if that does not work, sluice gate 8 at Moor lane should be shut. That arrangement has been expressly put in place to prevent water from spilling over and putting between 50 and 500 homes at risk of flooding. The protocol was clear but in February, for whatever reason, it was not adhered to. As I understand it, Thames Water had legitimate concerns about shutting the sluice gate—so it says—and that should be investigated. I am keen to stress that I am not here to apportion any blame; I simply want to raise the matter so that the Minister can respond to legitimate concerns expressed to me by my constituents.

On Saturday 8 February, the pumping of water out of the Staines aqueduct was operating at full capacity but that failed to stop water overflowing into the River Ash. The flood incident duty officer’s log, which was released as a result of a freedom of information request, shows clearly that the Environment Agency invoked the 2003 protocol at 6.25 pm that day. On Sunday 9 February, the Environment Agency repeatedly asked Thames Water to lower sluice gate 8 to prevent water from flowing from the Staines aqueduct into the River Ash. This information has all been obtained through an FOI request by residents who are rightly concerned and have come together to form an action group to find out more about what happened. That request on the Sunday to lower the sluice gate was not adhered to; Thames Water had its own reasons for not complying with it. After 5 pm on Sunday, residents in Leacroft in Staines noticed that their street was starting to flood, and Environment Agency telemetry data show that water levels rapidly rose after 11 pm that day.

Early on Monday morning, at 1 am, the Environment Agency learned that sluice gate 8 was not operating. We are led to believe that a bit later—at 7.35 am—the Environment Agency raised the prospect of calling in the Army to shut the gate. At 10 pm, Surrey police informed residents in Greenlands road and Leacroft to evacuate their homes. The idea that in this day and age the police should be telling residents of Staines, a highly residential area, that they should evacuate their homes does not do us proud as a nation—people should not have to experience this. Clearly, by 10 pm on Monday, the situation was very serious. On Tuesday, Thames Water sent contractors with heavy equipment to the sluice gate, which, as I understand it, was not working. In the early hours of Wednesday, Thames Water finally closed the gate by 1 metre—it did not close it entirely. As soon as that happened, residents observed that water levels began to recede rapidly. On the morning of Thursday 13 February, the floodwater had disappeared.

Over the course of four days, from Sunday through to Wednesday, the floodwaters had entered approximately 50 homes, and damaged hundreds more properties. At the time, workmen complained about the growth of vegetation on the machinery of the sluice gate. Residents are rightly infuriated by events, and it is their concern and anger that has led me to raise the matter in this public way on the Floor of the House. It is quite right that residents should feel aggrieved. They have been forced to leave their homes for six months to allow repair work to be done. It is difficult now, even three months afterwards, to work out where responsibility lies. Clearly, quite difficult and traumatic events took place, but the reasons for why they happened and how blame should be apportioned remain obscure, which is why it was incumbent on me to raise them as a matter of public concern.

We understand that flooding is being deemed a natural event by the insurance companies, which are already putting up people’s home insurance premiums. A direct financial penalty is being put on people as a consequence of this flooding. The reasons why the sluice gate was not shut remain unclear. As I have said, I have no wish to apportion blame, but we must investigate the matter and understand why the sluice gate did not operate in the way that it should have done so that we can answer the question about whether or not the flooding was a natural event. If it could be found that there was some human error, or that something or someone prevented the sluice gate from being shut, then the flooding was not a natural act, but a human one.

Other parts of my constituency were badly affected not just by water flooding but by sewage flooding, which is related to flooding infrastructure and the roles of the regulator, Ofwat, and the water supplier, Thames Water, and those are other issues that we need to look into. As I have said, I am not trying to apportion blame; I am just saying that this is something that we, as parliamentary representatives, should be seriously investigating.

Areas of my constituency that were affected include Wheatsheaf lane, Garrick close and Laleham road in Staines, and Old Charlton road and Charlton road in Shepperton. Sewage flooding can happen for lots of reasons. It happens when the sewerage systems are very old or poorly maintained. As soon as we have any flooding, the water gets into the sewerage system and pumps are not able to remove foul water from people’s houses. There is no reason why people should have to put up with that in 2014. Our drainage and sewerage systems should be able to cope under immense strain and really adverse weather conditions. No one in this country should have to endure the difficulties and health risks that people in my constituency endured in the early months of this year.

We have to look at the investment that Thames Water and other companies have put in to maintain the infrastructure. Our ability to hold these private bodies to account is at the centre of the issues that I am raising. People know that I believe—probably more passionately than any other Member—that privatisation can be a very good thing. The privatisation of the water companies was broadly successful, but even those of us who supported the privatisation of utility companies have to recognise the crucial role for regulation, because of the monopoly that such companies have—people have little choice about who supplies their water. I have always supported and argued passionately for free enterprise, but I have always believed that if we are to have regulated industries, they should be regulated properly. Ofwat and other such bodies should be given sufficient teeth to regulate and discipline those companies.

I am sure that the nature of Ofwat’s relationship with the water companies will be the subject of many debates, but in September 2013 Thames Water submitted an application to Ofwat to hike its prices by 8% in 2014-15. That application was blocked in November last year because the regulator felt that the company had made substantial savings and should be able to use those savings for reinvestment. In the event, in a compromise, Thames Water put up its prices by 4.1%. The average household water bill was £357 in 2013-14. This year, 2014-15, it will be £370. That is the broader question about the regulation of monopoly industries that I wanted to raise briefly.

I have my own view of what happened in Spelthorne earlier this year. I am firmly of the view that the impact of the floods—even though they were a natural event—was exacerbated by a degree of underinvestment in key infrastructure. I am open to evidence, advice and discussion, but I share my constituents’ opinion. The water companies have a duty to local residents and it is vital that they deliver a good service. Most importantly, it is vital that they earn the trust of their customers, and the only way to do that is to look more closely at the role of the regulators and perhaps give them more enforcement powers to regulate the industries that they have so far capably regulated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing this debate. Sadly, it is an issue that we have had to discuss in relation to several areas, given the severity of the recent floods. I shall begin by setting some of these events in context and then turn to the more local impacts in his constituency.

First, I should like to place on record once again my thanks to the many people who worked tirelessly in response to the recent flooding events, including the staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector, and local communities who helped friends, neighbours and families in difficult circumstances.

Unprecedented weather events caused the flooding that we witnessed across the UK. We experienced an extraordinary period of very unsettled weather from early December, with flooding on the east coast and around to Wales, and then many weather fronts coming in from the west and causing flooding across the country in various river systems and in groundwater. It was the wettest January since 1766 for England and Wales. Central and south-east England received over 250% of average rainfall. Met Office statistics suggest that for south England this was one of the most exceptional periods for winter rainfall in at least 248 years.

In addition, tidal surges caused by low pressure, strong winds and high tides led to record sea levels along many parts of the east coast. High spring tides brought coastal flooding to parts of the south and west coasts. River, surface water and groundwater flooding occurred in many areas. Towards March, flooding was mostly confined to the Thames valley, Wiltshire and the Somerset levels, the latter in particular seeing unprecedented water levels, while groundwater levels remained high across many southern counties.

Recent events impacted on the homes, businesses and farms of people across the country. Latest estimates suggest that over 7,000 properties have been flooded in England since the beginning of December 2013. This includes 2,316 properties since the most recent flood event began in early February. In addition, more than 48,000 hectares of farmland is thought to have been affected. There was significant damage to sea and flood defences and transport infrastructure in some areas. Urgent work is under way to repair the damage to rail links, with many lines back to full operation by 3 March. The House is aware that the extreme weather also affected power supplies to homes. It is estimated that power supplies to more than a million customers were restored over the course of the disruption. I am pleased to note that power supplies disrupted as a result of the high winds were also restored to all customers.

The Environment Agency is aware that the river system in the Staines-upon-Thames area is complex and consists of various connected channels which drain into the Thames, as my hon. Friend set out. All these rivers, at some point, cross the Thames Water aqueduct. As levels on the River Thames were so high, these rivers were not able to discharge into it as they normally would, causing them to back up and spill into the aqueduct at various points. Following months of persistent rain, there were also high groundwater levels so water could not drain away. Initial reviews indicate that it was a combination of saturated ground, high rainfall and high levels on the River Thames causing its tributaries to back up that caused the flooding experienced in the Staines-upon-Thames area.

The response was a magnificent effort. In the face of such unprecedented weather, countless people and organisations worked together round the clock to help those affected. The level of response, and the spirit of it, was staggering. I appreciate how hard everyone has worked and just how hard it is for those people whose homes and businesses have been affected. All levels of Government and the emergency services were fully engaged in dealing with the floods and extreme weather. The Government’s response was led by the Cobra emergencies committee. Through these meetings, we were able to ensure that all relevant agencies, organisations and local authorities were fully prepared and were doing everything possible to support households that had been affected. We ensured that local emergency plans and out-of-hours help were in place to give immediate assistance, wherever necessary.

The Environment Agency was at the forefront of the local response. In Somerset, for example, this included one of the biggest pumping operations the country has ever seen. Military personnel from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force provided flood relief in affected parts of the UK. More than 5,000 personnel were committed to help with flood relief operations. Thousands more troops remained available if required. At a local level, tactical co-ordinating briefs took place for the local responders in areas at risk.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues in relation to the water infrastructure in his constituency. I pay tribute to him for the way that he set out his position, not seeking to apportion blame, but in the spirit of seeking to learn from what happened to ensure that similar events are not repeated if, heaven forbid, similar extreme weather events occur in the near future or in the medium term.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the residents’ relationship with the river is usually harmonious. It is part of the culture of the area and what makes it special, but when things change, impacts can be great and severe. He referred in particular to the operation of the sluice gate on the aqueduct. During discussions with those involved prior to the debate I sought to cover a range of options that I thought my hon. Friend might raise, such as the future safety of the area through the lower Thames flood relief scheme, which is being brought forward and developed, which I welcome. We touched briefly on the operation of the sluice gate. It is important to point out that the aqueduct operates as a mechanism for the supply of water into reservoirs, which then feed into the wider water system, so it is not meant to operate as a flood defence. However, it can be used to divert river water, and as my hon. Friend said, pumping enables that to happen, keeping water away from communities that are under threat.

Clearly, the operation of the sluice is an important part of the response when river levels and the level of water in the aqueduct are high, so we need to look at what happened in this instance. If local lessons can be drawn from it, I am keen to hear more about that. Having heard my hon. Friend’s contentions and the concerns that he has raised on behalf of his constituents, I am happy to raise some of those specific points with the agencies involved. I know that my hon. Friend will be doing that locally, but I am happy to support him in seeking the answers that his constituents understandably want in response to their queries.

My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of evacuation, and it is important to point out that it is a proposal of last resort. If people are at risk, people come first. We seek to protect property, but if people are at threat of injury, we need to remove them safely from the situation. That was repeated around the coast, for example, during the extreme weather conditions. Sometimes it is difficult to convince people that the threat is immediate, so it is a tough call for people to make locally, but it is important that we have that as a last resort. However, before that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is far preferable to ensure that the infrastructure is working as effectively as possible to make sure that that is unnecessary.

My hon. Friend also referred to the situation with regard to sewage, and a number of other hon. Members have raised that in recent debates since the flooding events. Flood water contaminated with sewage is incredibly unpleasant. Systems should be in place to cope with the normal flow of sewage, and they are. We have a resilient system, but the sewerage system is not designed to cope with extreme events and large amounts of water. It would be possible, in theory, to design sewers that were able to cope with much higher volumes of water, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, a large cost would be attached to that. In all these matters we need a balanced approach between what is deliverable and what is achievable. Ultimately, the investment cost has to be funded through the privatised water industry, as my hon. Friend set out, where bill-payers foot the cost. With regard to problems of sewage contamination, as with the operation of the sluice gate, if there are specific local instances where infrastructure was not up to the task, we can learn from that, and I can raise those issues with the water company.

We have recently seen the passage of the Water Bill, which has yet to receive Royal Assent, in which the Government set out their desire to see resilience at the heart of the industry—that is, resilience in terms of water supply, making sure that we have enough water to deliver the growth that we want, and resilience to climate change and to ensure that we have that great environmental quality in our water bodies around the country. Resilience could also be considered in terms of response to extreme events, so the regulator will now have to take that into account far more, as it has a primary duty of resilience.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues. I would be happy to take forward the points on the local circumstances that he raised, perhaps by correspondence, to make sure that he and his constituents get the answers that they seek.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.