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Environmental Challenges (Somerset)

Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2014

I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am grateful to have another chance to debate the situation in Somerset and some of the environmental challenges we face. Given the catch-all title of this debate, several Departments may be interested in what I have to say.

My county, and my constituency in particular, have faced extraordinary environmental challenges during the past year. If there was an award for facing down environmental challenges, the Somerset levels would win hands down. This time last year, no public body in Britain was prepared to take the idea of severe flooding seriously. We were told that it could not possibly happen, and anyone who said otherwise was branded a doom-monger.

However, local people and farmers who had looked after the land for generations voiced concern about how little had been done in recent years to dredge the rivers and prevent them from silting up. Those people knew what could happen if it rained too hard and too long. They had witnessed the decline of regular maintenance of the pumps and pumping stations, and they had watched the withdrawal of equipment. For anyone who lives at or near sea level, such observations are second nature. Farmers on the Somerset levels well understand the delicate balance of nature. Unfortunately, severe rain and unprecedented flooding were required for the world to wake up to what had not been done—to the clogged up river beds that could not take the flow, the inadequate pumps that could not move the water and the penny-pinching, ostrich-like mentality of the Environment Agency.

I am not here to seek recrimination. I have come to know and admire many of the Environment Agency’s people on the ground, who have done wonders since the crisis began. I also believe that there is a new attitude at the top, led by the Prime Minister, since the appointment of a new and completely non-political chairman. So much has happened since the waters began to rise, and so many lives have been affected. There are so many tales of courage and fortitude, and so many millions of pounds have been spent on putting the mess right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) knows, we have all grown a little bit wiser because of these events. What a terrible shame that wisdom arrived after the event. I believe that the biggest environmental challenge is to ensure that such disasters do not happen again.

I intend to concentrate my remarks on those essentials. One of the most positive lessons from the whole experience has been the way in which local authorities have worked rapidly and in co-operation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency to produce a 20-year flood plan. I can assure hon. Members that obtaining that agreement was no picnic, but the urgency and importance of the task concentrated everybody’s minds. The plan forms the basis for what is now being done and what remains to be done to safeguard the whole area for the future.

The Prime Minister donned his wellies and came with me across the levels on three occasions, not only to show solidarity but to make a promise. He said that whatever it cost, we had to fix the problem. We all knew that it would not be cheap, and with hindsight we realise that there is no such thing as a blank cheque; we live in the real world. The Prime Minister’s intervention set the wheels turning an awful lot faster, however. Slowly but surely, the dredging programme has been agreed on as part of the 20-year flood plan, and it is being implemented. Somerset is getting there at last.

Not everything has been plain sailing. Six months after the launch of a £10 million compensation scheme for farmers, only £4 million of payments have been approved and less than £1 million has been paid out. That may be partly because some of the farmers have been far too busy looking after their animals and land to do all the paperwork, but the process of making applications is riddled with red tape.

For example, my constituent Mr James Winslade, a farmer whose cows famously had to be rescued from the floodwater, should finally receive a cheque this week for £5,000. That is part of a payment for grass seed to replant his fields at Moorland, which is right in the heart of the flood zone. The vast majority of Mr Winslade’s farm—810 acres of land—was completely waterlogged for weeks. Like other applicants, he had to send DEFRA detailed maps showing the precise fields involved, which he did, but DEFRA wanted more imagery, in the form of aerial photographs, to prove that his fields were actually flooded.

I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—I am delighted to see her in her place—to do some research, because she will find that there are hundreds of aerial photographs of the exact area taken throughout the time of the flooding. The area resembles a huge lake that stretches for miles. The only safe way to travel was by boat—I have actually paddled across parts of Moorland in a canoe. When DEFRA officials were finally satisfied with the pictures, they demanded additional proof that my constituent had planted the grass seed. Is it any wonder that many farmers are still waiting and are extremely peeved about that penny-pinching process?

During a recent visit to the area, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made it abundantly clear that much of that frustration was caused by bureaucracy imposed by EU rules—no surprise there. It is high time that we extended our list of things to renegotiate with Brussels to include loony farming regulations. I pay tribute to the new Secretary of State, who came into her post at a difficult time. She has been to Somerset twice since her appointment, and she has quickly grasped the problems and challenges that we face. She knows full well that there are concerns about the speed of the Whitehall decision process.

The Secretary of State also knows that an essential part of the flood action plan is the creation of a viable Somerset rivers board, which should involve all the local councils in affected areas. The new body would call the shots when it comes to dredging and maintenance. It would be funded partly by the Environment Agency, from which it will take a lead on what it should do. That could be slightly awkward, but I believe that any such difficulties can be overcome.

I warned at the outset that my remarks might involve several different Departments, and now it is the turn of the Department for Communities and Local Government to prick up its ears. That branch of Whitehall seems to be saying that a rivers board for Somerset, run by councils, is a good idea provided councils pay for it. That was not what the Prime Minister had in mind when he offered to pay whatever it cost to fix things. The Department’s attitude has an element of logic, because if Somerset were to get preferential treatment from Whitehall, every other local authority that ever had a flood would want exactly the same. That is understandable; it is human nature.

It is, however, unrealistic to believe that Somerset councils can afford to do everything that they need to do from the word go. The obvious way to pay for everything would be to raise council tax. According to some estimates, council tax could go up 20%, which would be the kiss of death. We simply could not get that through anywhere in the country.

There is, however, a sensible solution. If the councils were given a few years’ breathing space to allow them to save money for the rivers board, and if the law was tweaked to permit them to levy a special tax to pay for future flood prevention, the only thing missing would be a grant to tide them over during the transition. That is more or less the argument being made by most of the councils involved. We are, as anyone would expect, anxiously awaiting some signal to indicate what is in Whitehall’s mind. The answer may involve intervention from the Treasury, which is yet another Department that I should have put on standby for this little debate. Any indication that the Minister can give will be helpful, given the complexity of the situation.

I do not want the valuable work on the formation of a Somerset rivers board to go to waste for a lack of answers, and I am worried that we may struggle to keep all the councils on board unless we get a clear sense of direction soon. In my view, it would be extremely short-sighted of, say, Taunton Deane borough council to consider opting out of membership of the new rivers board simply because it cannot yet see a viable plan to pay for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows, Taunton was flooded badly in November 2012. I do not see how, in the name of common sense, the council can contemplate quitting the rivers board now. If the River Tone overflows again, local people will never forgive the council. I hope that councils will stick together, but there is a growing sense of urgency about the matter.

It is also critical to get a clear thumbs-up from the Government about the most important element of the flood plan, which is the construction of a barrage at Bridgwater to stop silt being washed back inland by the tides. The need for the barrage has been accepted, but it involves a lot of money. Here we are, fast approaching what promises to be yet hard winter, without the answers in place.

Like it or not, we are all subject to the ravages of the weather, but are we the hapless victims of climate change, and is the Climate Change Act 2008 the right way to deal with it? Those questions have been topically highlighted recently by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who wants the 2008 Act to be scrapped. His recent experience as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during the flood crisis makes that all the more relevant, as he came down many times to visit and help us.

My constituency already has far too many applications for ugly, useless and oversized wind turbines, and Somerset is in danger of being overrun by, dare I say it, solar panel farms. Their collective contribution to reducing carbon emissions is, I am afraid, small, and their collective cost, in terms of subsidies and European grants, is large. Their ability to keep the lights on, depending on the sun or the wind, is probably a no-no in the long term.

I am delighted to learn that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs intends to scrap EU payments to landowners who use solar panels on productive areas of land. Let us grow food and stop paying for panels. I am delighted that the tide is beginning to turn against such stupidities in many areas of our political lives. If we spent less time slavishly following the flawed edicts of Brussels, we would have ample funds to finance the common-sense solutions that we all know we need in order to fix our flooding problems. We still have environmental challenges in Somerset, and the solution has to be found now; it does not need to be so elusive. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I sense that he is drawing to the end of his remarks, so I invite him to develop the theme of the barrage. The Chancellor will soon be making his autumn statement—autumn gets later and later, but it still happens before Christmas, so the autumn statement is imminent, happening just over a month from now. Would it not be ideal if he were in a position to announce the Government’s intention to go ahead with the building of the barrage?

I gratefully thank my hon. Friend, who has helped immeasurably, because the barrage is in fact in Bridgwater, not Taunton Deane. His point is exactly right. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, and the present Secretary of State have made it clear to the Environment Agency that plans for the funding need to be in place to make absolutely sure that they go into the autumn statement—which I believe will be on 3 December 2014—so that we can get the money to get this done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows this far too well—a lot of his constituency was also flooded—but if we did not build the barrage, we would never be forgiven for creating the problems and the mess again. The barrage will be a surge barrier that stops 60% of the mud that comes all the way up the river to Taunton Deane, which is a distance in the region of 10 miles. The barrage would therefore reduce the silting and the need to dredge, which means that we could continue pumping. We were not able to pump in his constituency or in most of the levels because our water levels were too high. The barrage would give us an opportunity not only to combat climate change, which the Minister will tell us about in a minute, but to address the practicalities of everyone’s daily lives. I look forward to hearing her remarks.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate on the environmental challenges in Somerset, and I thank him for his speech. Having a home or business flooded is a devastating experience, and I know everyone here extends their sympathy to all those who have been affected.

As has been pointed out, this topic involves a number of Departments, particularly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but also the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury. As this is the week for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to reply to Westminster Hall debates, I am responding for the Government. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have consulted colleagues in other Departments in preparing this reply.

I pay tribute to all those in the Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services, in Somerset and elsewhere, who work tirelessly during flood events. The response to last winter’s floods was tremendous. In response to that exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repairs at many sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and continued throughout the summer. The Environment Agency is on track to complete permanent repairs to 96% of its critical defences by the end of October. Recovery from last winter’s flooding continues and is going well. The Government have committed more than £565 million in flood recovery support funding. DEFRA has managed to secure a £2.3 billion capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure over six years from April 2015. That investment will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households, on top of the 165,000 protected during the current spending period.

At the end of January, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked local leaders to produce a long-term action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset levels and moors. Following intensive work by Somerset local authorities, local farming and business representatives and NGOs supported by central Government and agencies, and of course by their MP, the plan was published on 6 March. The plan is wide-ranging, covering specific flood risk management projects, farming and land management interventions, transport infrastructure, planning and community resilience issues.

The Government have committed just over £20 million specifically for Somerset, which includes £10 million from DEFRA for dredging 8 km of the Rivers Parrett and Tone and other flood management work. The Department for Transport has provided £10 million to support the action plan, and DCLG has provided £500,000 to Somerset under the severe weather recovery scheme. I can report that progress against actions in the plan is good. The 8 km dredging of the rivers is due to be completed by the end of October.

One of the key actions in the Somerset action plan is the formation of a Somerset rivers board to take more responsibility for water management on the levels. Local leaders in Somerset are agreeing the board’s responsibilities and functions. DEFRA Ministers are working closely with local partners to ensure that Somerset is better protected in future. Local leaders will need to find a sustainable, long-term funding mechanism for an effective local organisation that has the support of local residents. As my hon. Friend has said, Somerset is not the only place where people wish to raise additional funding for flood risk management, and we are continuing to explore options for local fundraising.

My hon. Friend mentioned the farming recovery fund, which was made available to help farm businesses to restore flooded agricultural land and bring it back into production as quickly as possible. We made £10 million available to help farmers get their land back into production after the flooding. Under EU rules, as he understands, payments from the rural development programme budget must be paid to farmers once the work has been carried out and all necessary evidence submitted. All claims submitted by Mr Winslade have now been paid—we have looked into that. We will assess any new claims as they come in.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset and for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) for raising the matter of the Bridgwater barrier. I am delighted that Somerset partners will be making use of some of the money that they are receiving through the local growth fund to develop and appraise options for the barrier.

Severe storms and flooding have always affected the UK and will continue to do so, even without climate change. However, we know that human-caused climate change is influencing both the likelihood and severity of such extreme events. The complicated nature of the UK’s weather makes it difficult to say definitively that human influences caused single weather events such as last winter’s storm. However, it is possible to make scientific statements about how human influence on the climate may have changed the odds of an event happening. For example, a recent study of the floods experienced by the UK in autumn 2000 found that they were made about twice as likely due to the influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

On a global scale, the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that extreme rainfall events across the world are becoming heavier and that, without action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the trend will very likely continue. Undoubtedly, the damaging weather that we experienced last winter is consistent with a warming world.

The events of last winter highlight this country’s vulnerability to extreme weather and the need for us to take action to limit climate change and the impact it will have. Internationally, we are pushing for an ambitious global deal in Paris in 2015, whereas action at home is driven by the Climate Change Act 2008. The Government remain committed to the Act and meeting the targets it contains. The Act was the first of its kind and demonstrates UK leadership—almost 500 climate laws have now been passed in 66 of the countries with the largest emissions across the world. Businesses and investors welcome the certainty provided by the long-term target and the five-year budgets.

Setting carbon budgets as part of the Act has driven action that saves people money and makes people warmer. Our achievements in reducing emissions also demonstrate that the Climate Change Act is working. The Act has helped to drive the UK to reduce emissions by almost a quarter since 1990.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one part of how the UK is responding to climate change; the other is building resilience to climate change and associated severe weather events such as flooding, heat waves and drought. This helps to safeguard growth and minimise the damage and disruption to economic activity from such impacts. The earlier we plan for adaptation, the less it will cost, and we will be better equipped to cope with potential changes.

Under the Climate Change Act, the Government published the first climate change risk assessment in January 2012, which identified the key risks—and opportunities—to the UK. This informed the first national adaptation programme report, published by DEFRA in July last year, which sets out a wide range of actions for government, businesses, councils, civil society and communities to address the most pressing climate risks we face as a country. Both the CCRA and NAP are reviewed every five years as required by the Climate Change Act.

At the end of last year, DEFRA also invited more than 100 organisations from key sectors to provide voluntary reports to Government on how they plan to build their own resilience to the impacts of climate change and associated severe weather events. Most have agreed to do this, which will add significantly to our understanding of how resilient we are as a society. The next major milestones will be publication of the second climate change risk assessment early in 2017, for which the process is under way, and the second national adaptation programme that will follow on from that.

Despite the exceptional weather conditions experienced last winter, the impacts were significantly less than in previous similar events. Our existing flood defences protected around 1.4 million properties and more than 2,500 square kilometres of farmland from flooding. This reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability. We will never be able to stop flooding entirely, but we have acted on the lessons learned from last winter.

In the UK, climate change is a serious risk. We are vulnerable to extreme weather, including severe winters, heat waves, storms, gales and flooding from rivers and the sea.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want briefly to raise two points. First, it is in the nature of parliamentary debate that the Minister is always criticised by MPs who want to make points on behalf of their constituents. By way of contrast, let me thank the Government for the speedy work that has been done on dredging. A lot of people in the Somerset levels despaired of ever seeing any dredging. They may want more and they may want it done differently, but I was in Burrowbridge, which was at the centre of the flooding area, last week, and a significant amount of dredging has been done. It is fair to put on the record that a lot of people in the levels are grateful to have seen such commitment from the Government following visits by the Prime Minister and others earlier this year.

Secondly, on a related point, when we talk about resilience to climate change and flooding, I hope the Government will not lose sight of mundane matters. Resilience does not have to be about big projects and flood barriers. It is also, for example, about ensuring that when new housing is built, it does not have an effect on flood areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for his kind words of support for the action that the Government were able to take after assiduous lobbying—of course, by local MPs as well. I take his point entirely about the need for local action on the ground to reduce the effects of climate change, and the need to work generally with the local community to ensure that they appreciate the need for action and the urgency.

If I may, I will take the opportunity to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset in his speech earlier about solar, which is a great success and is appreciated by many residents. We now have more than 500,000 houses with their own solar panels on them. It is a marvellous way of people taking the initiative and delivering themselves warmer homes for less, and at the same time making their own contribution to reducing climate change.

Climate change is a serious risk in the UK. We are vulnerable to all sorts of changes in the weather that affect our economy, our livelihoods and our health. That is why the UK is leading from the front on action against climate change. We are investing in low carbon and energy efficiency technologies, with an increased focus on home-grown renewables, to reduce our reliance on foreign imports and create a sustainable supply of affordable energy for consumers and businesses alike, always with the intent of improving the lives of our constituents throughout the country and ensuring we are more resilient to changes in the climate.

Sitting suspended.