Thursday 8 January 2015
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Winter Floods 2013-14
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session 2014-15: Winter floods 2013-14, HC 240 2014-15, and the Government Response, HC 701 2014-15.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gavin Barwell.)
Sir Edward, I welcome you to the Chair and wish you a very happy new year. I welcome the Minister and other colleagues as well.
I am delighted to have this opportunity, on behalf of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to debate our report on the winter floods 2013-14 and the Government response to it. In the major event of 2013-14, we can see indications of how the climate is changing. Extreme weather events, such as those in 2012-13 in Yorkshire and the Humber region, and other places, were followed even more dramatically by the events of 2013-14.
We have had a number of significant contributions to the question of reducing the impact of climate change on these flood events. Notably, Sir Michael Pitt, in his 2007 review, looked to achieve a one-stop shop to respond to flood events and considered how to end the automatic right to connect. He recognised that surface water flooding was perhaps the most dramatic new form of flooding in that year alone. We then had the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
I want to focus on the Committee’s key conclusions and recommendations. First, I recognise the damage done by the widespread flooding last year, particularly in southern England, which cost small businesses alone an estimated £1 billion, not to mention the adverse effects, which took their toll on local residents and rural communities. Certainly, the Committee commends the widespread help and the immediate relief effort provided by the emergency services and others, particularly in the Somerset levels and across the southern half of the country, in response to these floods.
Our key recommendations are as follows. We must be seen to work—particularly the Environment Agency and other the partners involved, including local authorities—with local knowledge. We recognise the role of riparian owners in making good the damage that is done and preventing flood events, and the role of internal drainage boards. It is important that I say at this stage that I am an honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I pay great tribute to its work in low-lying flood areas such as my own in north Yorkshire, and in East Anglia, the Somerset levels and elsewhere. I commend the work of the coalition Government in seeking to introduce internal drainage boards where they do not currently exist.
In a key recommendation, the Committee firmly believes that we should end the arbitrary split between capital and revenue expenditure and move to a total expenditure. I recognise that this would mean amending Treasury accounting rules, and as most of the recommendations in our report demonstrate, and as reflected in the Government’s response, we are perhaps looking to the next five-year strategic spending review. However, we would like to put down a marker now.
Ofwat and Ofgem have recognised that utility companies such as water companies have moved to a total expenditure approach. It was unacceptable and most frustrating that, as the waters were rising and causing increasing damage in Somerset—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) agrees—there was an argument about the size of a pump from Holland to be used to keep the water at bay. Was the pump sufficiently large that the expenditure would constitute capital expenditure or was it deemed to be smaller, therefore falling under what we call revenue or maintenance expenditure? We would like to see an end to that type of argument.
We highly recommend that we revert to a programme of regular maintenance and dredging. A stitch in time saves nine. The most frequently used figures show that for every £1 spent on maintenance and dredging, £8-worth of savings are made in future.
We would also like funding to be more closely matched between maintenance and capital—I will explore that in a little more detail—and the amount in the maintenance and revenue budget in the next spending review should be announced more than one year ahead. The Committee welcomes the Government’s six-year spending forecast, but we believe that, as far as possible, that should also be reflected in the revenue and maintenance spending.
One fact to record is that not one flood defence failed in the winter floods of 2013-14. It cannot be in the interest of any future Government, or in the public interest, for any existing flood defence to fail. That is why it is so important that the maintenance of these capital pieces of kit, not just the regular maintenance and dredging, is protected.
We have said in previous reports that we should not rely on public partners alone, and that is reflected in this report. I personally applaud the Government’s approach to partnership funding. We entirely accept, looking critically and constructively at flood expenditure, that it is a little bit like the health service: there will never be enough money to go round. I note that there are several flood warnings today, particularly for the East Anglia region: Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. There will always be areas vulnerable to flooding. It is a matter of debate how many houses will be protected under present plans. It is important that we open up to partnership funding and private partners. I welcome and applaud the investment through United Utilities and other water companies in this regard. If we can encourage water companies to invest in upstream flood defences, that will be excellent.
This is the moment to recognise the Pickering “Slowing the Flow” project, which is largely a public partnership approach. Slowing the flow by planting trees upstream, soaking up the excess water, creating bunds and having a softer, more natural flood defence, as set out in the Government’s own natural environment White Paper, shows that there is a lot more we can do. The money will go much further on those projects than on very expensive, hard, physical flood defences, which are capital intensive. Obviously, we will need a number of those, but we need to consider more imaginative processes as well.
The Government have committed £2.3 billion of capital spending up to 2021, but as I have mentioned we must not be seen to neglect the maintenance of flood defences and watercourses if homes, businesses and farmland are to gain better protection against future flooding risk.
The Association of British Insurers has said that, over the last four years, revenue expenditure is down 18% and maintenance expenditure down 40%. That 40% figure relates to dredging and repairing existing walls. We join it in urging the Government to seek a closer match between revenue and maintenance budgets and capital expenditure. The Committee has repeatedly urged the Government, and do so again today, to increase revenue funding in line with funding for new capital schemes so that the necessary maintenance, including dredging and watercourse maintenance, can be carried out to minimise flood risk.
Our understanding is that funding for maintenance remains absolutely at a bare minimum, and that has to be addressed in the next spending review. As I said, it is important to announce maintenance funding more than one year ahead so that everyone knows what the programme is. We must not neglect the costly one-off capital investment that is needed to repair existing flood defence walls. In June last year, the Committee advised Ministers that more fully funded plans are needed to address the backlog of maintenance and to maintain the growing number of man-made flood defences. Regular work to dredge and keep rivers clear can be an essential flood maintenance measure, yet we heard from the Environment Agency in taking evidence for the report that that is exactly what gets squeezed when flood defence budgets are tight. The outgoing chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, told the Committee that the main lesson he had learned from the winter floods while at the Environment Agency was
“to push as hard as we possibly can for keeping and increasing maintenance expenditure alongside capital expenditure, and making sure that Government is aware of the degree of priority that has to be given to that.”
That is the message I think he would like to bring to the House’s attention this afternoon. In the Association of Drainage Authorities’ evidence, it said:
“Fully funded plans should be drawn up to address the backlog of maintenance needed across the country.”
It said that measures to prevent flooding, such as regular maintenance, are less costly and more predictable in the long run.
I will focus on the work of riparian owners. When the pilot schemes have been completed, we would like to see them rolled out nationally. We applaud the public sector agreements the Government have negotiated with the internal drainage boards. The Committee is keen to see internal drainage boards maintain more flood defences. It is important to recognise that internal drainage boards, including the one in my area of the vale of Pickering—I met with it two or three years ago—raise thousands of pounds through a precept. It passes the money on in large measure to the Environment Agency, and it goes into a central pot for regular maintenance. That money never comes back to the vale of Pickering to do the essential maintenance that is required.
The pilot schemes are absolutely essential in ensuring that where the money exists and is being raised locally, such as in the vale of Pickering and other internal drainage board areas, it can be kept and used, utilising local knowledge and the engineering skills that they can buy in. We recognise that local knowledge is the key and that flood risk management priorities must reflect local circumstances. We urge the Government to end, as far as possible, any confusion over maintenance responsibilities—as we conclude in our report—through a widespread education campaign, so that maintenance activity is carried out by internal drainage boards and local landowners, particularly where they are riparian landowners as well.
I repeat that we need to rely more on natural flood defences, the planting of trees and other softer flood defences. We need urgently to ask the Treasury to look favourably on ending the arbitrary division between maintenance and revenue expenditure and capital expenditure. If we can urge the Treasury to amend the accounting rules for areas such as yours, Sir Edward, and mine that are prone to all forms of flooding—coastal, fluvial, river, surface water and groundwater flooding—that one change alone would revolutionise flood defence spending.
I end with a couple of questions to the Minister. The Government are looking to secure £600 million of partnership funding and external funding while achieving 10% efficiency savings over the next six years. It would be interesting to hear how that matches up. It is important that, after the Committee’s debates and the evidence we took, the staffing in the Environment Agency on flood defences has been protected, which is a welcome development. Those staff—many of them were not wearing Environment Agency jackets or uniforms, so local people did not know they were there—and the emergency services played a crucial role in cleaning up in the immediate aftermath of the winter floods. Will the Minister explain what the impact on the six-year investment programme will be if the conditions of partnership funding and external funding and the 10% efficiency savings are not met?
Will the Government look favourably on allocating revenue funding in future for more than one year at a time? Revenue funding has only been allocated to 2015, but we have a six-year commitment on capital funding. That is not helpful to those in the firing line for maintaining flood defences. The Committee recognises that there are only finite funds and that there is a need to balance competing demands on a finite budget, but the avoidance of flood through defences should, as far as possible, take priority over cost-cutting.
The natural environment White Paper was an excellent document, and the Government and the Department could do a lot of work to build on it, looking at softer flood defences and other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), if I may call him that—we served on the Committee together—has done a lot of work on the natural capital aspects of the White Paper. The Government are committed to a green, low-carbon economy, and the planting of trees and other softer flood defence options are all part of that strategy.
We commend the report and its recommendations in totality. We recognise that the Government have finite funds and that we should look to other partners as well. As an MP representing one of the most rural communities, I recommend that agricultural land be recognised as worthy of flood defences, and we press the Government further on that. The National Farmers Union gave us the staggering figure of the amount of farming and food production land lost each year through flooding. When I was an Essex MEP, there was a rather alarming proposal on managed retreat that sent the heebie-jeebies through the farming community, so I do not know that we necessarily want to go there. If our food security is coming under increasing pressure, we should protect farmland as far as possible. We set great store on regular dredging and maintenance. The fundamental arguments on merging maintenance and revenue funding, announcing maintenance funding further in advance and removing the arbitrary division between capital and revenue expenditure by going, if Ofwat and Ofgem allow it, to a total expenditure budget would go some way towards protecting farmland. Local farmers and local landowners who, through council tax, are contributing to the funds raised by district councils, county councils and the precept to the internal drainage boards probably feel they are contributing more than anyone else to flood defence. It is important to recognise the contributions being made locally.
The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 is pretty much up and running in my area. I applaud North Yorkshire county council’s work in setting out its flood management risk assessment and for having the foresight to get somebody who used to work for Yorkshire Water to set it up. I hope that can be replicated by other local authorities.
I commend our conclusions to the House. We are grateful for the opportunity to debate them, and I look forward to the debate and the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I apologise for the fact that I may have to leave early. I am on the Infrastructure Bill Committee, which sits at 2 o’clock, although I have a little leeway from the Whip.
My constituency was flooded in the winters of 2012 and 2013. In 2012, more than 500 houses were flooded in St Asaph by a combination of three days of heavy rain, river flooding and a high tide. In the winter of 2013, the community of east Rhyl was flooded after 50-foot waves landed in an impoundment area, which subsequently burst and flooded 140 houses. Over the past two or three years, my constituency has had the second highest number of homes flooded in the UK.
This issue is of particular concern to me as the MP, Assembly Member Alun Jones, my local councillors and, most importantly, the residents and constituents of the Vale of Clwyd. I have taken a great interest in this issue since those floods. I have campaigned on it, spoken in Parliament, questioned Ministers through written and oral questions and had productive meetings with the Minister—I thank him for his comprehensive responses. I have had meetings with Welsh Government Ministers, Natural Resources Wales, the local authority and local emergency services about the flooding in my constituency.
I congratulate the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on its report, and I thank the Government for their response. I will touch on a few of the issues raised by the Committee’s report and the Government’s response. Riparian ownership is a key issue. Knowing who owns what and who is responsible for what can be complex. In the coastal area of my constituency, the railway line runs only metres from the coast, so Network Rail, which cleans the ditches, Natural Resources Wales, Welsh Water, the local authority and local land owners are all involved. It can get complicated and there is often a lot of finger-pointing—people say, “This isn’t our responsibility; it’s their responsibility.” There is a lot of confusion. I welcome the Committee’s recommendations concerning the clarification of riparian ownership and who does what about cleaning and maintaining ditches.
Recommendations 10, 11 and 12 address the allocation of funding, which is a critical issue. As has been said, for every pound invested, £8 will be saved. If somebody said, “If you give me a pound, I’ll give you £8 back”, who in their right mind would not accept such a good deal? In coastal and low-lying communities, that issue is of absolute importance. Investment is crucial for protecting our properties, homes and communities.
To be critical of the Government, they have tried to cloud this issue in a number of ways. The graph of investment for the past 15 years shows a massive increase until 2010, as investment went up to £500 million or £600 million from about £30 million or £40 million. In 2010, a deliberate decision was made to cut back the funding. When questions were asked about the cut-back, the actual inflation rates were not used—I will not call it false accounting—so the Government were painted in a better light than they should have been. The Committee said that the additional funding was not actually additional but reallocated funding—money taken from here to there by sleight of hand. We need more openness and honesty about the funding of flood defences in the UK.
Investment should be increased and, as the Committee said, it should be transparent and open. Predictions should be made so that local authorities, Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency in England can rely on the funding and plan for expenditure on flood improvements because they take a long time to come to fruition. A lot of research must be done about the topography, geology and geography of the area and about displacement. If an improvement is made to one area of a coast, we must look at what will happen further down the coast. It takes a lot of time to get the resources and funding together, so long-term financial planning is crucial, and it needs to be improved.
The replacement of the statement of principles—the Flood Re scheme—should have been finished in July 2013. Labour introduced the scheme in 2007 because after the Gloucestershire floods we realised that people needed help. The Government came to power in 2010, and they had three years to replace it. They went right to the wire, and beyond, as the deadline was extended from July 2013 to August 2013.
The hon. Gentleman has made a number of points, and I will address as many of them as I can later, but the issue of Flood Re is particularly important. It is a very different system to the statement of principles, which it replaces—and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that the previous Government put it in place. But there was nothing in train when the Government came to power to bring forward the Flood Re system, which will be established this year. We have moved a huge distance, and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is painting it in a negative light.
It is not just me who is upset about it, but my constituents. After the 2012 floods in my constituency, I spoke to a young mother in St Asaph, whose insurance increased from £269 to £1,269 per year and whose excess increased from about £500 per incident to about £10,000 per incident. Hopefully, the issue will be settled by next summer. A cap on the flood element of household insurance of approximately £200 for the lowest band will be introduced, and we are grateful for that. However, in the two years since 2012, my constituents have had to pay enormous excesses and they have had enormous increases in their premiums. They are ordinary people—it is not a rich community. In fact, east Rhyl has an elderly population on fixed incomes, who do not have the privilege of being able to reach into their back pockets and stump up the additional amounts that the insurance companies require. The issue should have been settled two years ago and it has not been, although I welcome the fact that it will be.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about people being unable to cope with the large excesses that they have been charged, my constituency has had two successive floods and a lot of my residents who were flooded last summer did not make a claim. They paid for it themselves and kept quiet about it because they were concerned that it would affect not only their insurance premiums but the potential sale of their houses in the future.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That might be possible if the flood waters just lap over the person’s front garden or run just underneath their floorboards, but it is not possible when they have five feet of water in their house. The floods in my constituency were serious. In St Asaph, a 92-year-old lady died in five and a half feet of water. These are serious issues that require the Government’s serious consideration.
The communities in east Rhyl and St Asaph responded tremendously. One of the few good things to come out of the floods was the community spirit that was engendered. Some individuals were heroes, such as John Wyn Jones. His own property was threatened, but instead of securing his valuables, he was out there on the flood bank warning everyone to get out of their homes. He was washed off the edge of the flood bank into his own estate—thank God it was that way and not into the river—by a one-metre wave.
Among other local residents involved in the aftermath, Colin Marriott has been a fantastic researcher and has challenged the local authority, Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh Government and me with facts and figures, bringing his evidence to bear to ensure that when remedial measures are taken to improve the flood banks in St Asaph, they will be taken correctly. I pay tribute not only to John Wyn Jones and Colin Marriott, but to dozens of other local people in St Asaph who helped during the floods and to the community as a whole, which came together and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The same was true in Rhyl. The town council opened a flood fund and, if I may put it like this, funds came flooding in, to be distributed among people affected. I pay tribute to the mayor of Rhyl, Andy Rutherford, who organised the fund, and to local residents who, again, have been at my heels and at the heels of the local authority, the Welsh Government, the Assembly Member and the councillors. For example, I spoke to Charles Moore on Monday, and he and other residents have been ensuring that we do our jobs. That is why I am in the Chamber today, to do my job representing their views in the Houses of Parliament. What they want to see, however, is not my hot air, or that of Ministers or whoever, but action. The key to that is investment.
Moving on to the points made in recommendations 3, 15 and 16 of the report, which concern river maintenance and natural environmental land management, that is a key to improving flood prevention in an environmentally sensitive and, dare I say, cheap way. I was switched on to this by George Monbiot, in a fantastic article from The Guardian or The Observer. I know that he is not the farmers’ best friend, but what he said in the article about contour planting made sense.
Contour planting is the planting of trees along a contour line of a vale or valley so that when the water falls on a mountainside or hillside and rushes down the slope, it does not go into the river, rivulet or stream and on into the sea, but hits the contour planting of trees or bushes and is then vired underground. George Monbiot, in his article, said that such planting is 67 times more effective in viring water underground than a meadow is. The beauty of such a scheme is that the whole mountainside does not have to be planted; only 5% planting will result in a 30% drop in flooding and in rainwater hitting the rivers further down the valley. Planting the whole mountainside would reduce flooding by 50%, but only 5% planting along a specific contour can achieve massive reductions in flooding in our vales and valleys, such as the Vale of Clwyd.
Contour planting was pioneered by farmers in south Wales, although they were not planning for flooding. The farmers wanted a barrier of trees, shrubs or bushes behind either side of which their sheep or cattle could hide during storms or high winds. They noticed incidentally, however, that flooding was reduced. The idea was therefore pioneered in Wales and we should learn from it. It is a Welsh solution to a UK or even international problem.
I met with the Welsh Minister responsible for flood defences, Carl Sargeant, on Monday, when he visited east and west Rhyl. I mentioned contour planting at a meeting I had secured with him and the Assembly Member, Ann Jones, to discuss the issue in Wales, but it is too important an issue not to have any cross-border co-operation possible between the Minister present in the Chamber and Welsh Ministers. We also need the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales to co-operate on such schemes, because many Welsh rivers run through England and many English rivers run through Wales. We need a degree of co-operation.
Contour planting definitely needs to be looked at and schemes piloted. There would be an additional benefit for seaside towns with estuaries and rivers in their hinterland. Towns such as Rhyl have failed to achieve the higher European standard for water bathing quality because of the impact of agriculture in the hinterland. I do not want to be too rude, but when horses, cattle and sheep defecate and urinate or whatever, that gets washed down into the river and is smeared along the coast, possibly altering the readings for bathing water quality. If contour planting took place, some of that water would be vired underground and naturally filtered, so that there would be a better chance of seaside towns, many of which are struggling, having better water quality. Many of those towns are there only because of the quality of their water; they were established between the 1850s and 1950s because of the popularity of bathing. If they do not reach the higher standards, the towns will be penalised in economic and tourism terms. Contour planting is a win-win situation and we should at least start to pilot such schemes.
I pay tribute to the Welsh Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, who visited my constituency on Monday. He announced £1.9 million of additional Welsh Government funding for the extension of coastal sea defences in Rhyl. The Welsh Government have already spent £7 million on raising the harbour wall by more than 1 metre. They now hope to extend that by 450 yards towards the town centre. They have also spent £4 million on raising the banks of the River Clwyd. All that is welcome.
Order. I am getting concerned about the time, with other Members trying to get in and the hon. Gentleman wanting to leave early. He has been speaking for 16 minutes so perhaps, I gently suggest, he could think about drawing his remarks to a close.
I apologise, Sir Edward, I thought we were short of speakers, but I will conclude my remarks.
I was paying tribute to the Welsh Government, to flood defences Minister Carl Sargeant, his predecessor Alun Davies and their boss Edwina Hart. They are co-operating well with Natural Resources Wales and Denbighshire county council to improve the flooding situation in my constituency. The Minister in the UK Government should make an assessment of what has gone on there and perhaps learn from Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.
I will not say that it is delightful to come back to the subject of flooding, because I feel that I have spoken about it at rather frequent intervals over the past year, but it is extremely good to be having a reasoned and, I hope, informed debate. I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for introducing it and for the work that her Committee did on the report.
I welcome the report, which was done when we were under the greatest pressure in Somerset, but it might be instructive for a future Committee to look back on the consequences in areas such as Somerset—what was done later, what worked and did not work—to look, with the benefit of perhaps a year’s experience or so, at whether what was done was effective in reducing flooding, and to take evidence from local people. I know that there was not the opportunity to do that at the time.
In the main Chamber earlier, in business questions, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), said that the Government were unaware for a long time of what was happening in Somerset. I have to say that that was absolutely, categorically not the case. Looking back at the record, I first raised the issue in the House on 6 January, which I think was the first sitting day of last year. Furthermore, the issues on the Somerset levels have been known for many years. Again, without claiming any clairvoyance on my part, but simply because I speak for my constituents, I have repeatedly drawn attention to the need to do more to protect the levels, including in a clear statement in 2009 on what dredging was needed.
It is reasonable to say that nothing would have removed completely the hazard last winter, when we had unprecedented levels of rainfall, but things could have been done that would have mitigated the effects, got the water away more quickly and reduced the impact on local communities. There were three basic reasons why those things were not done.
The first is the basic neglect of an artificial landscape. To me it is obvious that we need to maintain the structures that drain the Somerset levels if we want to retain the current form of its unique landscape, but that was not obvious to those who thought it was somehow possible to reduce maintenance while still preserving that unique environment.
The second reason is the malign effects of cost-benefit analysis and Treasury rules. We understand why they are in place, but they do not help when a small, dispersed population faces a massive problem. They are designed to protect cities and urban areas, and do not protect rural areas. I am glad that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton drew attention to the need to look at the importance of not only agricultural land but rural communities in flood protection zones.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the importance of maintaining the landscape. Does he agree that certain changes in land management practice have been a real contributory factor to the problems in Somerset? In particular, there is the pursuit of maize as a crop, which leaves soil bare over winter, allowing it to flow into rivers and be washed away, and the increased subsidy for removing vegetation from the uplands. Changes to the landscape as a result of that changed land management practice have had a really important impact.
It is undoubtedly true that changes in land management have an effect. Land compaction and the growing of different crops on more upland areas affect the rate of flow into what is effectively a large sponge. I have lived in Somerset all my life, and the landscape is still pretty recognisable as what it was when I was a boy. We could not really say that there has been a revolution in agronomy in the area; it is still principally a livestock area, and crops are grown there as forage rather than as commercial crops. Although the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I will come back to later, it is possible to overstate land management as part of the cause and effect.
The third reason for the lack of action I mentioned was in my view an environmental heresy, namely the decision, for some reason, that the watercourses in Somerset were the centre of ecological interest, rather than the land in between them. That is, I am afraid, nonsense. The watercourses are artificial drainage channels. It was ridiculous to “save” the flora and fauna of the drainage channels but lose the irreplaceable flora and fauna living on the land in between them; that has been the effect.
I will deal quickly with what has happened since. The Government have done an awful lot of the things we asked them to, and I am grateful to Ministers for that. We were lucky: we had the attention of the national and, indeed, the world media for a short period of time. If the Thames valley had flooded before the Somerset levels, we might not have attracted the same attention. We secured visits from very senior members of the Government: the Prime Minister made a number of visits, as did the Deputy Prime Minister and more than one Secretary of State, as well as the Minister with responsibility for floods. We were very grateful that they came to see for themselves what needed to be done.
I am very sorry to hear that. In the previous year the Prime Minister did not put in an appearance in Somerset, so perhaps it was a case of hitting the right moment and of the strength with which representations were made. Certainly we had the Government’s attention, which had an effect.
To deal first with the immediate response, before I move on to the Government’s response I have to pay tribute again to the huge voluntary effort. People behaved quite extraordinarily in helping their neighbours, and people from further away helped those whom they did not know. There were enormous numbers of charity donations. I spend a day at the Somerset Community Foundation opening letters that were quite heartbreaking, with donations from people who could ill afford them but were giving them because they felt it was necessary to help those in distress. As many people will know, there were donations of forage for animals from farmers in other parts of the country, which were hugely welcome. That has led to the setting up of what I hope will be a permanent exchange, which will be of value.
I hope the hon. Lady will accept my grateful thanks on behalf of my constituents, because that was literally a life-saver for people and livestock in my area.
There was, I have to say, a belated response from the military, an issue that might need to be looked at. Perhaps the principal local authority did not ask for help sufficiently promptly, but until the Prime Minister intervened there was also a difficulty with the cost of involving the military. That should not happen. The Royal Marines are on our doorstep, so we do not expect that they will not be able to help when we are underwater. They are well placed to assist and would have been happy to have done so, had they been able to. When they were introduced, they were very valuable.
Local authorities worked extremely well to ensure that people were safe and had alternative housing. Enormous pumps were introduced—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton drew attention to them in her remarks, and they were quite the biggest I have ever seen. A great benefit of what happened is that we now have proper hard standing, so that those pumps can be deployed at short notice in future. However, that raises questions about some of the rather elderly pumping stations on the levels. Those stations saw their best years possibly 50 or 60 to 100 years ago. How much longer they can continue to do their unsung work I do not know.
After the immediate issues were dealt with, next came the new protections, key among which was dredging. There was a great deal of scepticism in my constituency that the Environment Agency would carry out the dredging it had promised. Such was the suspicion that it was felt that the agency would waft a dredger in the direction of the River Parrett and the River Tone and that would be about all that was done. But it was not; the dredging was done with dispatch and real urgency. The initial dredging has been completed and there is now a study looking at other areas of the river system that will need action. I hope that will go ahead in the very near future.
Where necessary, individual communities were protected. For instance, the ring barriers around Thorney and Muchelney pottery will make a real difference. They are not quite finished yet and we look at the skies with some trepidation, but they are well in hand. The Environment Agency has undertaken asset repairs on a wide scale, including at Beer Wall, and many other parts of the system are now improved.
One of the issues that grabbed the media’s attention was access problems, such as those to the village—then an island—of Muchelney. Although there was not as much water ingress into properties there as there was at Thorney, it was cut off for a long time and people found it hugely difficult to cope with that. The county council is attending to that by raising one of the road accesses to Muchelney. Unfortunately, that work has not been finished in the time scale that we hoped would apply, but we can look forward to that happening soon. We have also had a major resilience study on the greater south-west and access issues.
I turn to the big money issues, including the establishment of the Somerset rivers authority. Crucial to the Committee’s report is how we get local expertise, together with external professional expertise, to work on the entire water system. At one point I despaired that we would never reach the conclusion that we should create a Somerset rivers authority, simply because the Department for Communities and Local Government—there is no Minister from that Department here today, so I can say what I think—said that it could not be done, as the creation of such an authority would set a precedent and the funding mechanism was too difficult. I found that frustrating, so I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs managed to find the immediate funding required, but that prompts the question of where such funding will come from in the future. We can get it going, at least, but it is essential that a sustainable funding system is put in place.
There is the question of how we use the Sowy and Kings Sedgemoor drain complex as a major extension to the drainage system. Again, that involves big engineering issues, but feasibility studies have been done, and I hope that we will make progress on that in the near future.
The biggest project of all is the Parrett sluice—or barrage, depending on what people choose to call it—which will keep the sea out at high tide and ensure continuous flow in the right direction rather than the wrong one. That will help us to keep the water levels lower. So, what is not done? Apart from—
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman comes on to what is not done, may I remind him that two of his colleagues are yet to speak? Could he keep an eye on the time and perhaps bring his remarks to a conclusion, so that his colleagues can get a decent innings?
I am most grateful, Sir Edward. Having been encouraged to go on for as long as I like, I probably will not, now. I am sorry to have reminded you of that, but I did feel that an hour was probably sufficient to allow hon. Members to say what they wanted.
I come to the issues that still need to be dealt with. One of them is insurance, which was mentioned, although I think in slightly the wrong way, by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). Flood Re is coming along and, even though I did not have personal experience of working on it in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I know how much hard work was put in by Ministers at DEFRA and the Treasury and everyone else over a long period to try to secure agreement with the insurance industry to get it in place. However, until it is operational, there is a difficulty, in that people’s insurance premiums are increasing substantially.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), went to my constituency and met local authority members and others recently to discuss insurance; I am grateful to him for that. It particularly irks people to see their premiums going up just as protections have been built. They are therefore paying much higher premiums even though their risk has reduced substantially since last year owing to the work and investment put in by the Government. That cannot be right, but that is, I am afraid, something that has been reported to me too many times. I hope that that will be dealt with.
On the second issue, the Government and their agencies get a partial tick. The Environment Agency has very much improved its relationship and information flow with local communities. It was not good; indeed, most people felt that the management did not really understand their issues. I must say that that was no reflection on local officers, who did an extraordinary job and were recognised for having done so, but there was a “them and us” feeling, which has not entirely vanished.
I will give two examples from a recent visit I made to Aller. First, there was a degree of falling out between the Environment Agency and landowners about appropriate compensation for work done on their land. It would appear that the Environment Agency had a rather high-handed attitude to such work, though that probably came from its lawyers rather than the officers directly involved.
Secondly—this worried me even more—while the floods were still in progress, ballast was put in place, at short notice, to help protect the sides of a watercourse. However, the ballast had just been dumped. The landowner had said, “If you put that there like that, it won’t be there come next winter,” and they were right; it all washed away. That is just silly and a waste of money. The message to be taken from that is to listen to the people who really know the countryside and understand what happens on land that they own and see every day of the week. I hope that the Somerset rivers authority will help to that end.
We then have the upstream issues, which, again, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned. I do not think we yet have a comprehensive and sustainable view on how we mitigate flooding by river catchment planning and by, for instance, using pillar two money to encourage planting on higher ground and changes in agricultural practice where appropriate—all the things that will help farmers on slightly higher ground to farm water to a point at which they reduce the flow and, therefore, slow the ingress of water into what used to be the great mere, the Somerset moors and levels, so that it can be removed in an orderly way. I would like to see much more attention given to that.
Indeed, on urban drainage, we have the sustainable drainage systems, but I am not yet convinced that planning is based on real understanding of concepts of water management. That goes both ways.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning SUDS. Does he not think that if we stopped building in inappropriate places and ensured that planning permission for future developments was given only once SUDS were in place, that would go some way towards creating greater resilience to future floods?
I do. We need a much more aggressive statement of concern from the Environment Agency and, where appropriate, the water companies, that says that there is an issue that the planning authority must address, and the planning authorities would need to respond to that.
The problem is really not that difficult to understand. When the floods were at their worst, I went down a flooded road, Aller Drove, and the one thing that really struck me was that a lot of the houses there were bungalows that had been built in the past 30 or 40 years on what is more than a floodplain—it is an inland sea, on reclaimed land that is below the level of the river that runs alongside them. The same thing can be seen in Moorland village in the neighbouring constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset. That is nonsense. Even our iron-age predecessors knew how to do that properly. There are archaeological remains in Somerset, in the village of Meare. It is very famous—the Glastonbury lake village. The lake village was completely built on stilts, because people there knew what would happen every winter, and knew that building on the ground was rather futile.
I am enjoying and agree with the interesting points that the hon. Gentleman makes. He is absolutely spot on. He spoke about the need for the organisations and agencies to take more account of what people who know the land have to say. Does he agree that sometimes the Environment Agency or the water companies do not object to a local plan for housing on what all the local people know is a floodplain? It is often completely baffling to local people that their better knowledge of such issues does not seem to be taken into account.
I am still a great believer in folk memory. People who have been around for a few years can point to where the water level reached in their grandad’s day, because we remember that sort of thing. We can say, “You build there, and it may not be this year or next year, but some time, you will be underwater. You either need to find a different site, need to construct your building in a different way, or need a mitigating factor that provides the protection that is needed. It is not for the Government eventually to come and bail you out when you have built a stupid building in a stupid place and it is underwater, so get it right in the first place.” The other side of the coin applies in terms of lack of water, and I hope that the Minister may accept the representations made by the water companies for more of a statutory interest in planning when they feel that there is a danger to their water supplies from various forms of construction or utilisation of land resources.
If we get these things right, we will be moving in the right direction. I turn to my biggest concern. So far this year, I have not had to put on more than my wellies—on my feet at least—in order to visit constituents. Wellies have been sufficient, but last year, they were not; I needed a boat. That may all change this weekend—who knows? The Somerset levels will always flood, and anyone who thinks that what has been done will prevent them from flooding does not, I am afraid, recognise the nature of the landscape and the environment. However, as I have said so many times, there is a world of difference between 3 feet deep for three weeks and 10 feet deep for 10 weeks, and that is what we are asking the Government to deal with.
The Government have done a very good job in recognising the concerns that I and my neighbours in Somerset have been raising over the last year. Having spoken on this subject 18 times, I think, in the last year, I would love to think that this may be the last time I will have to. However, the Minister can be absolutely assured that if the race against time to get the remaining things in place is lost, and if we have major flooding again in Somerset and people are forced out of their homes and trapped on islands created between the villages for the third year running, I will be making a lot of noise about it, as will my constituents, and we will want to know why.
Absolutely, Sir Edward—as you well know, Lincolnshire is the greatest of our counties. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for the work they have done in producing this timely report. It is also good to see the Minister in his place yet again. I think this is the fifth time that he has responded to a flooding debate in which I have spoken. He will be pleased to know that tempting though it was to have an action replay of one of my previous speeches, I spent time this morning producing a different one.
Despite what we have heard about Somerset and the levels and so on, I think I am right in saying that in terms of the number of properties flooded, the Humber region suffered worst following the December 2013 tidal surge. As I have pointed out in previous debates, the Humber ports, in particular, are vital for maintaining supplies to industry. Thirty per cent. of the coal that supplies our power stations passes through the port of Immingham in my constituency. Had the port been out of action for weeks, rather than days, it would certainly have meant a major disruption to power supplies throughout the country.
I mentioned that in the floods of late 2013 and early 2014, the Humber was the most affected area. I think I am right in saying that more homes were flooded in my neighbour constituency of Brigg and Goole than in any other constituency in the country at the time of the surge—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) asked me to pass on his apologies; he wanted to speak in this debate, but he had a prior, long-standing engagement in his constituency.
I note that in the introduction to the report, paragraph 3 states:
“Nevertheless, last winter showed that there are lessons still to learn about: the capability of the country’s flood defences; the suitability of the Government’s flood risk management priorities; and whether sufficient funding is available in the face of increasingly frequent weather events”.
Despite all the work that has been done over the last 12 months—I acknowledge that that is the case—there remains, in my constituency and elsewhere, I am sure, considerable concern not just among residents who know that their properties remain at risk, but within local authorities, drainage boards and the farming community, all of whom have considerable expertise in such matters. Their concerns are understandable, particularly when we read paragraphs 11 and 12 of the report. Paragraph 11 states:
“The Environment Agency has permissive powers (but not a duty) to carry out flood and coastal risk management work and to regulate the actions of other flood risk management authorities on main rivers and the coast. Local councils have powers to carry out work on other watercourses and coastal erosion protection assets, except for watercourses within Internal Drainage Board (IDB) Districts and public sewers (which are the responsibility of IDBs and water companies respectively).
Paragraph 12 goes on to state:
“We heard evidence that there is confusion over the division of responsibility for maintenance activities, particularly in relation to the maintenance of watercourses. Regardless of the legal division of responsibilities, many people perceive maintenance to be solely the responsibility of the Environment Agency. The Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University (FHRC) is concerned that: ‘responsibilities are unclear, confused and fragmented…in the case of maintenance of watercourses, it is increasingly assumed that the Environment Agency will undertake those maintenance activities including those for which there is a legal duty on riparian owners to perform.’”
Members throughout the House will bear witness to the fact that when we have cases involving water, there is always confusion about whether it is rain water, sea water, or surface water. The reality, of course, is that if someone’s home or business is flooded, they do not care where the water came from. They only want it sorted out and reassurance that action will be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.
If I may quote the report again, paragraph 14 states:
“Defra must work with the Environment Agency to improve public awareness and understanding of the division of maintenance powers and duties, particularly in relation to”—
yet again it comes up—
“watercourse maintenance, and to ensure that riparian owners discharge their watercourse maintenance duties.”
Rather than improving public awareness, would it not be better to consolidate the various responsibilities into, if not one, at least a smaller number of agencies?
In respect of riparian owners, I rather suspect that many of them are like those living close to an ancient parish church who suddenly find that they are responsible for the maintenance of the church tower, which needs thousands of pounds spending on it to keep it standing. The fact is that most of them do not know. If they do, they try to avoid it, and more often than not, even if they accept it, they find that they do not have the resources to carry out the work. That leads to long legal battles and no resolution to the problem.
In my Adjournment debate about flooding in my constituency last January, I referred to the knowledge of farmers, local councils and others who serve on internal drainage boards. We have heard from previous speakers today how important it is that local knowledge is used. At that time, I was pleased with the Minister’s response, and I am pleased that at paragraph 38, this report states:
“Where responsibility for maintenance work is devolved to make the best use of local knowledge and expertise, the allocation of Defra funding should reflect this to support the organisation undertaking the work.”
I also urge that local expertise has some input into the allocation of resources. We must make better use of local knowledge. Despite all the warm words, I am still not sure that that is happening sufficiently.
Sir Edward, you will recall the floods in 2007, when I was working as your constituency agent. After those floods, we toured the Gainsborough constituency. We saw homes, farms and businesses that had been flooded, and the message that we got was, “We knew this was going to happen.” The local people said, “We told the planners and the Environment Agency this was going to happen.” The local knowledge knew better, but seven years later, we still have exactly the same issue. I am sure that, during that time, work has been done to try to bring in local people and all the various types of local expertise, but the fact is that seven years on from the 2007 floods, the same message was coming through to me and, as we have heard, to other hon. Members.
I very much support the recommendations in paragraphs 28 and 29 of the report that greater recognition be given to the importance of agriculture as a “major industry” and that funding allocations
“recognise the economic and social value of agricultural land.”
Now we come to dredging. The public remain unconvinced by official reassurances that it is of limited value. At paragraph 32, the report states:
“Historically, rivers were dredged more frequently to remove silt to improve land drainage and support agricultural production. Over the past seven years Government policy has established the Environment Agency’s priority as managing flood risk and not land drainage.”
It is not clear to me from the Government response whether the Environment Agency’s priorities remain unchanged in that respect. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that in his reply.
The Minister will be aware of the work done by the Humber local enterprise partnership, local authorities and other agencies in producing a report that has been submitted to his Department. The report calls for a 17-year programme costing £1.28 billion. That, of course, is a huge amount of money—or is it? It would be used over 17 years to protect the whole of the Humber estuary, which is of great strategic importance. I suggest that that is a serious proposition and affordable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and I have met not just DEFRA Ministers but the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and all the Humber MPs met the Prime Minister, to press our case. It is clear from their response that they recognise the importance of the matter not just for residents, but for the strategic case in respect of industry. The £80 million announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement was widely welcomed by my constituents and, indeed, throughout the region and it will allow preliminary work to be done, but I hope that the Minister will be able—if not today, in the very near future—to provide the reassurance that is urgently needed that a longer-term commitment to fund the proposals will be forthcoming not just for the residents, but because of the massive investment coming into the Humber region and the great potential that it has to bring prosperity not just to the area itself, but to the UK as a whole.
I acknowledge, of course, that there has been limited time since the proposal was put forward five or six months ago. It would be unreasonable to expect DEFRA to be able to make announcements now. Obviously, before a commitment can be made to spend £1 billion, a lot of work will have to be done, but I hope that the Minister will agree to provide some reassurance, particularly to industry and investors, through a meeting between key stakeholders such as Associated British Ports and Network Rail, which have key assets in the area, and the local authorities, which have put together the proposal. If he or, indeed, the Secretary of State herself would agree to a meeting in the near future, that would be helpful. I think that it would give some reassurance to all concerned.
It has been a very traumatic period for many of my constituents since December 2013, when their homes and businesses were flooded. We have made some progress. We are extremely grateful for the £80 million that is already on its way, but I hope that the Minister can provide, as I said, the reassurance that is needed for the future.
I would like to reiterate what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to add my congratulations to the Select Committee on this report. My constituency did not suffer in the particular winter that it refers to. We survived the tidal surge because we have the best tidal defences in the country. However, we have had serious problems with surface water flooding. There was a small, very localised amount of flooding last winter, but it was a particular issue in August 2013 and again in July 2014. We believe that well over 600 properties were affected. It is impossible to get the correct figure as a result of the enormous reluctance of people to admit that they were flooded, because of the fear of the impact that that would have on both their insurance and the value of their homes, but we have had two very significant flooding events. Much in this report is of considerable relevance to the experience that we have had in my constituency. After those dramatic events, it became clear to all my residents that not enough maintenance had taken place in previous years and, in their view, the various organisations responsible were not working together in the way in which they should.
I place on the record again my great gratitude to the Department, both for its own review of my flooding event and for allowing the chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, to do an independent review of what had happened. That was critical to restoring the confidence of my residents and, I think, had quite an impact in terms of ensuring that the various agencies stepped up to the plate on this occasion. I have to say that they have done that. There is still work to do, but a huge amount of work has been going on regarding the maintenance of watercourses around my borough. That has brought to light a lot of problems and inadequacies underground. There is the problem of appalling connections; there are people whose drains are not connected to anything at all.
The issue raised in the report about awareness of responsibility and confusion over maintenance responsibility was writ large in Castle Point. Shockingly, we discovered that quite a lot of the organisations—the county council, the Environment Agency and the water company—were not aware who owned which part of the stock. If someone is not sure whether they own a particular bit of stock, it is probably quite unlikely that they have been maintaining it properly. Some of my residents’ suspicions have certainly been found to be right and we are getting, I am pleased to say, to the bottom of it.
It was likewise with private landowners who have a riparian responsibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) mentioned, it was quite a shock to some of them to discover that they had responsibilities; they did not realise that. I am very grateful to my local county council, which has put in some gratings and grilles to try to protect parts of the watercourses to ensure that debris is not flushing through to people’s private properties. It is sometimes very difficult for them to deal with the problem.
We definitely need greater understanding not just among organisations and agencies but among the public of the importance of watercourses and whose responsibility it is to keep them clear. Frankly, I suspect that gangs come from London and fly-tip in Castle Point, and they have absolutely no regard for the fact that dumping an old sofa in what looks like a dodgy old ditch is quite likely to cause someone to flood down the line in a couple of days. We have lost touch with our understanding of the land and the importance of watercourses, and we need to bring that back. I know that the Environment Agency has great difficulty in trying to deal with the culprits who do fly-tipping, but they need to be educated about the damage that they could be causing to people.
There is now much more partnership working in my borough, I am delighted to say. The organisations are talking to one another. They are doing their gully cleaning and what have you in consultation with one another, and a lot of progress is being made.
We now have the Canvey urban drainage survey, which is a comprehensive survey of all the problems—largely underground—on Canvey Island. An unusual feature of Canvey Island is that it is below sea level, in effect, at high tide, surrounded by a fantastic flood defence wall. There are 45,000 people living there, which causes particular issues for water management. The physics make it quite important that we get things right, so the programme is an important one. I am in the strange position of being quite enthusiastic when I see it raining, because although I worry about my residents flooding, I know that the more rain we have, the sooner we will get the answers to our queries from the testing and telemetry that is going on underground to work out what is happening with our watercourses. I suspect that we will be able to come cap in hand to the Department with a bid for funding when we have the results of that survey later this year.
I am enormously grateful for the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn statement of more than £20 million for flood defences in Castle Point. I find myself in agreement with the Committee when they talk about loosening the rules governing what is maintenance and what is capital spend. That money is notionally capital spend, although there are some capital projects that one can undertake that lead to better maintenance, such as automatic dredge clearing and telemetry. The Environment Agency could be quite clever about that. It is sometimes hard to say what is capital and what is maintenance, but we need ongoing maintenance.
I make the observation from my years of leading a county council that sometimes a certain fuzziness in that definition is helpful. Being able to wrap up some revenue expenditure as capital or capital expenditure as revenue, depending on the rules applied by the Treasury that year, is extraordinarily helpful in making sure that whatever needs to be done is done.
From the point of view of my residents, whatever needs doing should be done, and as much fuzziness as possible would be appreciated. I have seen evidence of some fuzziness, which I am grateful for, from the various agencies already. We are, none the less, grateful for the money.
A DEFRA report mentioned the need for tree planting to mitigate the situation. That is not, strictly speaking, relevant in my area but, in some cases, the removal of large numbers of trees to build housing developments has clearly altered the water table. In my constituency, a housing development in Kiln Road, Thundersley seems to have altered the water table greatly. That was not anticipated during the planning process and therefore not taken into account. That reinforces the need for a firm statement from Government, the Environment Agency and other agencies to the effect that before housing is put in, the flooding capacity must be looked at carefully. Such consideration must cover both the urban drainage capacity and the network that it will be looped into—which may be totally inadequate, however good the standards are on a new estate—and whether the development will change the water table. In too many of the numerous housing developments in Castle Point, such things have not been taken into account, much to the cost of my residents.
I hope that the Minister will make a statement on the progress with Flood Re, because it is critical. Residents have told me, as we have already heard, that even though a considerable amount of flood alleviation work has been done in their area, and even though they have been grateful recipients of the protect and renew grant—because they flooded last summer as well—and have made considerable improvements to the flood-worthiness of their property, they are still being told that they have to pay enormous premiums and increased insurance costs. One constituent told me that her insurer had withdrawn from the ABI over Flood Re and would not be part of the scheme. That is an enormous concern to me, and it will be a major problem in an area such as Castle Point. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us an update on the progress of negotiations over Flood Re, and tell us whether he is aware of the issue that I have raised.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I conclude by saying that I am very encouraged, oddly, by how much progress has been made by the Department and the Environment Agency in their understanding of the importance of flood risk as a result of the devastating and horrendous events that have occurred, which have really upped everyone’s game and focused attention on the issue. We have been talking about climate change for years, but we are increasingly addressing the other side of the question, namely that if we are going to get climate change, we need to adapt so that it does not damage our residents’ lives and security. I am delighted that we are looking at that as a major issue for the country. I warn that I will keep pressing my local authority, my local council and my water company, as marvellous a job as they are doing, to keep doing more and working harder, because the job is not done yet.
I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Walker, and thanking you for your guidance in the remainder of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Select Committee, on an interesting report. I echo the tribute that several hon. Members have paid to the volunteers who helped others during the floods, and to those who worked around the clock to save life and property.
The risk of flooding has increased and is increasing. The Government abandoned our focus on reducing flood risk, and they abandoned the commitment they made before the 2010 election to deliver on the findings of the Pitt review, which would have reduced the cost of flooding to well-being and the economy. In that, the Government failed the country last winter. In addition to gradual changes in patterns of rainfall and a rise in sea level, climate change is likely to result in an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as the floods and storms of last winter. The risk of catastrophic flooding happening in England within the next two decades, causing in excess of £10 billion in damage, now stands at one in 10—a 10% risk. That is the risk of a flood 10 times more damaging than the 2013-14 floods and three to four times more damaging than the widespread flooding of 2007. The Minister will know better than anyone that we are completely unprepared for such a flood, which would be four times greater than the largest civil emergency since the end of the second world war.
I am keen to hear the hon. Gentleman develop his argument on the way forward, looking at the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s response. He seems to be suggesting, however, that actions taken or not taken by this Government over our period of office led to the flooding of properties during the winter floods of 2013-14. I should be grateful if he let me know specifically which of those properties flooded as a result of a change in policy. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) about some policies that had been changed over a number of years, and there are schemes that have been in development in other parts of the country, which may have a problem. I am concerned to clarify whether the hon. Gentleman was alleging that there were properties that were flooded through the fault of the Government, rather than as a result of the extreme weather. The future is a different matter, and we can debate that at some length, but I am specifically concerned about the winter of 2013-14.
It is quite clear that the Government abandoned the focus on reducing flood risk. They took it out of the Department’s priorities. That was one of the first things done in 2010. They abandoned that focus and reduced the budget dramatically, and as a result the Environment Agency was much less well prepared, financed and resourced to cope with the floods. The Minister knows perfectly well that hundreds of posts were taken out of the Environment Agency, not only back-room posts but front-line ones.
It is absolutely true that we delivered efficiencies right the way across Government. The hon. Gentleman knows the financial position that the Government were left when we came into office. The point that I sought to make was not about the available resources and so on, but about the results. I am sure he would agree that it is possible to be more efficient and still have guaranteed outcomes. There have been problems, and it is devastating for anybody to experience flooding. I will have the opportunity to talk about that and to respond to some other points later on—
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Walker. I am happy to engage with the Minister— we have engaged in many debates on such issues—but he has to acknowledge that, after coming into office in 2010, his Government specifically removed flooding from the Department’s priorities. He can only accept that that meant that the country was less well prepared for last year’s floods and is now critically less well prepared for the future. I am interested to see whether the Minister will pick this up in his remarks, but we now have a 10% risk of a flood that is 10 times greater than the flooding of 2013-14 and four times more damaging than the widespread flooding of 2007. The Minister knows that that issue must be addressed, and unfortunately the Government have not even begun to address it. Last year’s floods have passed, and the broken promises to flooded communities have been forgotten. The Government think they have got away with it.
I will briefly address the Government’s responsibility for the impact of the 2013 floods, but my comments will focus on how policy should have changed since the floods and how policy has not changed. Among the Government’s blunders, the 2013-14 floods stand out as an example of the real pain that incompetent Governments can cause to communities and businesses—I acknowledge that the Minister touched on that. For the communities and businesses affected, the floods were not simply a natural disaster. The Government slashed investment in flood protection when they entered office, and with that they broke the promise they made before the election to deliver on the findings of the Pitt review of the 2007 floods.
I am happy to advise the hon. Lady that I am basing my conclusion on the reports and work of the adaptation sub-committee and the Committee on Climate Change. If she is interested, I will happily send her the references.
The Government not only cut the budget for new defences; they decided to stop maintaining existing defences properly, and they cut the budget by 20%. Why? Because they cannot cut a ribbon on an essential maintenance project—they need new projects for that. The decision to remove flooding from the Department’s list of priorities was never just about the previous Secretary of State’s illiterate theories on climate change; the larger issue is the Government’s rejection of the responsibility to protect people from risks that are beyond their control. It was interesting to hear comments earlier in the debate about the need for the Government to step in and about Flood Re, which I echo. Both coalition parties supported the Pitt review strategy that the previous Labour Government were delivering before 2010, but both parties abandoned it straight after the election because they felt they could get away with it. They crossed their fingers and hoped that no one would notice the unbuilt defences, the collapsing sea walls, the eroded riverbanks and the clogged up culverts. Forty-six of the Pitt review’s 92 recommendations have not been implemented.
Before the hon. Gentleman gets too carried away with the idea that, somehow, the flooding in Somerset was all the result of the current Government’s misguided decisions, I remind him that the rivers in Somerset, the Parrett and the Tone, have not been dredged not for four years but for 25 years. We drew attention to that throughout the period of the Labour Government. In 2009 I told the House:
“I am convinced that if we had proper dredging of some of our rivers and proper clearing of debris and strengthening of banks on some of the smaller tributary streams, it would make a substantial difference to the way in which we deal with these matters.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 553.]
It was not done by his Government, so let us stop the nonsense of pretending that the 2013 floods were the result of this Government’s actions. They were the result of long-term neglect.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is getting so exercised. He was the responsible Minister in the Department at the time, and I understand that he wishes to protect his record but, equally, he must accept—I am sure he knows this—that after the 2007 floods the previous Government made huge efforts both to ramp up the funding—[Interruption.] He does not disagree with that.
The hon. Gentleman has a very selective memory, because the floods were not only in Somerset. In fact, more houses were flooded on the Thames estuary than in Somerset, so he must be selective in his memory. My point is that, after 2007, the previous Government undertook a huge programme and established the Pitt review. Both the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Conservative party said they would continue to implement the review, but neither did so when they got into government. He cannot say other than that because it is the truth, as he knows. I would be happy to give way to him once again if he wants to deny it on the record, but it is the truth, and I am afraid he really has to accept that.
Flooding not only destroys property, it makes homes unliveable for months and sometimes years. Flooding ruins businesses and destroys crops and livestock. We learned from the 2007 floods that those affected by flooding display between a twofold and a fivefold increase in stress and depression. The effect of flooding on people’s lives is enormous and long lasting, which is why prevention is so important, but the Government chose to cancel new flood defences, slash maintenance and sack front-line flooding staff.
The Government like to talk about competence, but we all remember the chaotic infighting between the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when so much of the country was under water. We all remember the failure to recognise the emergency until it hit the south-east. The Chair of the Select Committee alluded to the argument over the size of the pump and the capital expenditure and revenue dispute, which delayed action at the time. I agree with her call to consider this in terms of total expenditure, and I hope that change will eventually come. Her Committee makes an important point on that in its report.
We all remember the Prime Minister’s cruelly disingenuous promise that money is no object, and it is difficult to decide whether the original statement or the retraction of it in November marked a lower point. Will the Minister confirm how much of the flood support package for home owners and businesses has been received by those affected? Thankfully, many people were protected because, as the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out, the previous Government implemented 46 of the Pitt review’s key findings to increase our resilience to flood emergencies. We established the flood forecasting centre in 2008 as a joint venture between the Environment Agency and the Met Office. As the December 2013 tidal surge hit, the Environment Agency issued 160,000 flood warnings, and an estimated 18,000 people were evacuated from homes in coastal areas. At one stage during the surge, 64 areas had the highest warning level in place, reflecting a danger to life.
What lessons were learned? What has changed since the floods of last year? Many thousands of people were forced to leave their homes last winter. Transport was disrupted for weeks, in some cases months. Businesses were wrecked, and many closed and never reopened. After the flood, the Government promised that they had reviewed their approach to flooding and that the autumn statement would contain a proper long-term flood risk strategy. Well, the National Audit Office and the Committee on Climate Change reviewed that investment programme and found that nothing has changed. Three quarters of flood defences in England have not been maintained according to their identified needs in 2014-15. The Government’s investment plans will see the number of properties at significant risk rise by 80,000 every five years.
The budget for the ongoing maintenance of flood defences was cut by 20% in the 2010 spending review and has not been restored. The failure to maintain flood defences to the required standard has increased the risk of high-consequence flood defences, such as sea walls, failing. The failure of such defences would put lives as well as livelihoods at risk. I need to impress on the Minister that that is not simply my view but that of the National Audit Office and the Committee on Climate Change, and he really needs to take notice of it.
The failure to maintain flood defences to the required standard has led to a huge increase in flood risk. The Government have put the headline first. Of the
“over 1,400 schemes going ahead across the country”
announced by the Chancellor, only 310 are fully funded, and only 97 of those 310 are new. Some 1,119 of the 1,400 schemes may never receive full funding, because they are eligible for only 20% grant in aid funding—the rest has to be made up by partnership funding. The black hole in the Government’s funding announcements could be as large as £830 million.
The Government say their plans will reduce flood risk by 5%—true, but disingenuous, and the Minister knows that very well. The Government have put a cheap headline ahead of reducing risk for the most vulnerable. Instead of focusing on reducing risk for high and medium-risk households, they have focused on moving households at low risk into the lowest risk category. That is completely irresponsible. Limited capital investment should be protecting homes at high risk, which is a one in 30 risk, or at medium risk, which is a one in 75 to a one in 100 risk, rather than being used to provide additional protection to those at low risk, which is a risk of one in 1,000 or more. That is how the Minister gets his 5%, but it is meaningless—it is wrong.
This decision will put more homes, lives and livelihoods at significant risk. In a sign of just how far the Government are willing to go to get their headline, they chose to exclude consideration of risk to life from their analysis. If the Minister wants to deny that, let him challenge me now, but the evidence is there in the impact assessment: the Government have left out of it any assessment of risk to life. How could a Minister ask their civil servants to prepare such an assessment for them?
Does the Minister agree with the Committee on Climate Change and the National Audit Office that the number of properties at risk of flooding is increasing? If not, will he give us his figure for the predicted net change in the number of properties at high and medium risk over the next five to 10 years? Will he confirm that although his 5% net reduction figure is true, it is also true that the number of properties at high and medium risk has increased? Will he have the good grace at least to blush when he acknowledges that?
Will the Minister confirm that the long-term investment strategy assumes, against the evidence, that development on the floodplain will stop after 2014-15? The Committee on Climate Change says that 20,000 new properties are built on the floodplain each year, including 4,000 a year in areas of significant flood risk. Does the Minister disagree?
The Government’s strategy says:
“We have tested our findings against a range of possible climate change projections using the latest scenarios.”
However, if we read further, we find that the strategy assumes minimal climate change. The assumptions section on page 18—I challenge the Minister to read it—states:
“The main assumptions in this ‘baseline’ result are that the climate will change in line with the medium rate of change in UKCP09”—
UK Climate Projections 2009—
“and that no allowance is made for development in the flood plain.”
The hon. Lady and I have worked in partnership for many years, but I did not expect her to be my straight man in quite that wonderful fashion—I was just coming to that point, so I thank her very much.
The point I want to press is that, instead of planning for the worst, the Government are ignoring the inconvenient truth: they are ignoring the risks and abandoning the most vulnerable.
The Chair of the Select Committee asks what the Labour alternative is. The Government scrapped our approach to flooding and climate change, which was based on the findings of the Pitt review into the 2007 floods. They abandoned our focus on reducing flood risk. They abandoned our commitment to invest to protect the most vulnerable and to reduce the cost of flooding to well-being and the economy. We will deliver on the findings of the Pitt review—the other 46 recommendations, which have still not been implemented. However, a Labour Government will go further. We will introduce a new national adaptation plan based on the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations, because that is the only way to ensure that all sectors of the economy and all communities are prepared for climate change. We will end the confusion and chaos in flood investment by establishing a national infrastructure commission to identify our long-term infrastructure needs and get cross-party support to meet them.
I conclude as I began: the risk of flooding has increased, and the risk of a catastrophic flood is increasing. The Government failed the country last winter. Now, they have tied themselves to a plan that risks catastrophic failure in the future. The Prime Minister was tested in last year’s floods, and he failed that test. Shortly, the electors of our country will have the opportunity to ensure that, when the next floods come, he is no longer in charge and in a position to fail again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I apologise if I tested your patience a little with my interventions. I now have the opportunity to respond to and probe the arguments of my hon. Friend of sorts—the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). Your predecessor in the Chair, Sir Edward, was so keen to hear the remaining speeches that he hoped we would conclude before he left. As it turns out, however, we have now had the benefit of your chairmanship, for which I am grateful, as well as that of Sir Edward, who presided in such great style earlier.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for all the work she and the Committee have done. I might be seen as a little biased, having served on the Committee in the past. So, too, has the hon. Member for Brent North, and other members of the Committee are also present. The Committee has done the House and the country great service on many topics, and its contribution to this debate is very helpful. It is always a matter of great excitement for Ministers to be called before it, and I enjoy that as much as I am sure my predecessors did. I congratulate the Chairman on securing time for the debate through the Liaison Committee.
I want to start by setting some of the issues in context. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said, we have had a number of these debates—some have covered issues relating to his constituency—and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said the same. None the less, it is important that we remind ourselves of the extreme levels of rainfall and the impact of the weather during the winter of 2013-14. There were record levels of rainfall, and it was the stormiest period for at least 20 years. There were record river flows, sea levels, wave heights and groundwater levels in many locations, and that led to the flooding of more than 8,300 homes, and caused damage or disruption to businesses, infrastructure, transport and utilities. Like other hon. Members, I have seen the damage caused by last winter’s flooding, and its devastating impact on people’s day-to-day lives. My sympathies go out to all those affected, especially those who still cannot go home.
There has been a major Government recovery effort to help people to get back on their feet, which included committing more than £560 million in recovery support funding. Many organisations were involved in responding to the exceptional weather, including the Government and their agencies, the emergency services and the military, and many voluntary organisations, as well as transport and utility companies. As the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is no longer in his place, said, individuals stepped forward to help neighbours and vulnerable people as part of the response effort. Also, people elsewhere who had seen what was happening wanted to help in some way and send assistance, which was gratefully received in areas such as the Somerset levels.
We have reviewed what happened and made improvements, which mean that we are now better prepared for flooding. In England alone, 844 flood defence assets were damaged last winter, including those managed by the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards. In response to the exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repair work at many of those sites started as soon as weather conditions allowed and, thanks to the tremendous effort by all involved, all areas will have at least the same standard of protection as they did before that winter. In discussions earlier with Environment Agency colleagues, I heard that their counterparts in the Netherlands, who watched the efforts here with interest and offered some input as to what they do in their jurisdiction, were incredibly impressed with the speed with which the repairs were done. It is good to hear praise for the excellent work done by the Environment Agency, its contractors and the local authorities it works with; they put tremendous effort into restoring the defences, given the investment.
Permanent defences were restored to more than 200,000 properties on schedule, by the end of October, and, for a small number of sites where repairs are continuing, contingency measures such as mobile pumps and temporary flood defences have been put in place to ensure that communities are protected until completion. More than 99% of permanent repairs should be completed by March, assuming that there is no further damage over the next few months—something that we need to keep a close eye on. For the remaining three sites, permanent repairs are not expected to be completed until March 2016. Interim contingencies are in place for all three sites. We are investing £3.2 billion in flood management in the current Parliament. That is a real-terms increase, and £500 million more than was spent in the previous Parliament. It includes both capital and resource funding. We are also making a record £2.3 billion capital commitment to improving defences, which is a further 9% real-terms average increase.
On 2 December we published a flood defence improvement project pipeline. We will be investing in more than 1,400 projects across the country over the next six years. That investment will protect more than 300,000 properties, in addition to the 230,000 households already protected so far this Parliament, keeping families safe from the misery that flooding can cause. It will also protect more than 420,000 acres of agricultural land, 205 miles of railway and 340 miles of roads. That investment is not just about protecting people’s lives and property now and in future. Throughout the country, businesses, infrastructure and farmland will also benefit. We estimate that our record investment will help to prevent about £30 billion of economic damage, including giving a £1.5 billion boost to the farming sector. That is an average of at least £8 in benefit for every £1 invested. There was some discussion earlier of the impact on the Somerset levels. Although quite a low number of properties suffered inundation, the economic impact lasted a long time. Rural and some urban communities had additional transport needs, and daily life was interrupted, and we must take account of that wider effect in what we do.
Tackling the risk of flooding can also help economic development and growth, unlocking opportunities for inward investment and helping to create and sustain jobs. We estimate that the benefits to the local economy are worth an additional £4 to £9 per £1 invested. Local enterprise partnerships, along with local authorities and other private sector partners, have increasingly been taking account of such issues in local growth bids when deciding where to invest for communities. That gives us confidence that the partnership model is the best approach. We can attract extra investment alongside Government investment through grant in aid.
What I have outlined demonstrates the Government’s commitment to reducing flood risk. However, that is not a task for the Government alone. Our partnership funding approach, which was introduced in 2011, has already exceeded our expectations in enabling others to contribute. We expect that the investment programme that we announced last month will attract more than £600 million pounds in local contributions, to expand on the work that could be done by Government alone. The Government will legislate to ensure that businesses’ contributions to flood and coastal erosion risk management schemes are tax deductible, as a way of incentivising their investment.
The hon. Gentleman was keen to point out that many of the schemes in the pipeline will require partnership funding. We have never sought to hide that fact: it is out there. It means that record investment can go even further. We also want to continue to secure efficiencies in delivery. The hon. Gentleman has talked about the resources available and the number of staff in the Environment Agency, but it is outputs that are important.
I pay tribute to the Environment Agency for the way in which it, like many other public sector organisations, has had to adjust to the reality of the deficit that we were left, and the need to tackle it. The shadow Chancellor has been keen to get out and persuade everyone that he gets it now, and understands the importance of dealing with it; and we have all had to tackle it. The Environment Agency has done particularly well in generating efficiencies—for example, taking out the regional tier, which is difficult in any organisation. It did it, and has been able to spend the resources made available by the Government more efficiently than ever, so that we can proceed with the investments. Because of the Government’s £3.2 billion investment in flood risk management during the current Parliament and the record levels of investment announced in the autumn statement, we will over the next six years reduce by 5% the risk that flooding poses to communities and businesses across the country.
There were several discussions during the debate about the effectiveness of dredging. Dredging and contour planting are tools that can help to reduce flood risk. Each catchment is different. It would in many cases be wrong to dredge where there is a fast-responding catchment. I am not an expert, but it seems to make sense that speeding the water to the next pinch point will cause problems further along the catchment. In landscapes such as those I saw in Somerset where the rate of flow is not the swiftest in the world—landscapes that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out, are man-made—what is needed when there is a huge volume of water is to try to help it to get out to sea.
It is the understatement of the year to say that the Parrett is not the swiftest-flowing river. It is probably the slowest, and has a gradient of 1 foot every mile, which makes it all the more nonsensical that so-called experts told us that had we dredged it, an unstoppable torrent of water would have descended on Bridgwater. Some hope.
I have heard other Members of this House seek to debate that fact with my hon. Friend, so I am convinced of his expert knowledge of the area in which he grew up, and which he now represents so effectively.
We had many visits from right hon. and hon. Friends to the area in Somerset. As my hon. Friend knows, I was appointed in October, and the first east coast surge came a few weeks later, in early December. I went with him to Somerset early in the new year to see the impacts for myself, and came back with him and other hon. Friends to make the case for dredging work, which I am pleased to say has now taken place, as he pointed out. We hope that it will make a difference—not, as he said, by making the Somerset moors and levels bone-dry for the foreseeable future, but by helping with the management of that important landscape.
The effectiveness of dredging in managing flood risk varies from place to place. In some areas, dredging is the most cost-effective approach; in others, it would divert resources away from other flood risk management activities that are far more beneficial to local communities, such as maintaining pumps, sluice gates and raised embankments. It is right, therefore, that the Environment Agency should assess its value carefully, taking account of the other options available on a location-by-location basis, while working in very close consultation with local communities and organisations, a point made repeatedly and rightly by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes.
Approximately £10 million of the extra £70 million allocated by DEFRA to maintenance this financial year and the next is being invested in dredging. That is in addition to the dredging recently completed in Somerset. Maintenance and other flood risk management work is not just about what the Government can do; we want to enable others to undertake maintenance, including in partnership with the agency. The Government recognise and support the important work undertaken by internal drainage boards to manage water levels, reduce flood risk, support local growth and protect critical infrastructure.
There are excellent examples of partnership working between the Environment Agency and IDBs; my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton was keen to make that point, and she was absolutely right. That includes sharing work programmes and agreeing to work together, for example by completing work on one another’s behalf through public sector co-operation agreements. There are now 28 public sector co-operation agreements in place and a further 30 agreed in principle, and the Environment Agency has already undertaken some work on behalf of IDBs. Such agreements can create efficiencies, and we want many more agreed over the next year. Recent work by IDBs on main rivers has included grass cutting, weed control, tree work, dredging, obstruction removal, operation of sluices and incident response.
During the summer of 2014, the Environment Agency held meetings across the country to explain the agency’s maintenance plans and give local stakeholders an opportunity to contribute to them and influence the maintenance programme for the year ahead. Maintenance plans for 2015-16 will be shared with IDBs and other risk management authorities early this year. We are grateful to IDBs for their help in the exercise to identify potential areas for dredging, as it is helping to build our evidence base on where dredging can be beneficial in managing flood risk. The evidence gathered is being assessed by the Environment Agency. Alongside evidence on other flood management options, it will help to ensure that the available funding is prioritised as effectively as possible.
The issue of agricultural land has been raised. As stated in the Government’s response to the report, we very much agree with the Committee on the importance of agriculture to the rural economy. The Environment Agency prioritises flood risk management asset maintenance according to the highest benefit, helping protect approximately 50% of the agricultural land at flood risk in England, including the majority of the most productive grade 1 and 2 land. As I have explained, we will spend more than £3.2 billion over the course of this Parliament on flood and erosion risk management, and much of the 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land at flood risk will benefit from that investment.
Capital investment also helps. Projects in the last three years have provided an improved standard of flood protection to more than 235,000 hectares of farmland. We made changes in 2011 to introduce financial contributions for worthwhile schemes to increase flood risk management work through the partnership funding we discussed earlier. Rural areas are benefiting from that approach; about 25% more schemes are proceeding with DEFRA grant in aid than would have been possible under the old rules.
Flood insurance was mentioned by a number of hon. Friends, and by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, who is no longer in his place. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, given his experience in the Department prior to mine, for setting out the huge amount of work going on to deliver the Flood Re scheme. It is a very detailed form of negotiation, and we must ensure that it works effectively and does the job that it is designed to do.
I was a little disappointed that the hon. Gentleman opposite—I am not pointing at the shadow Minister, but over his shoulder to where the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd was sitting, although he has, sadly, been called to business elsewhere—felt that the scheme was failing in some way. Actually, although it is an involved negotiation, we are delivering on it, and I pay tribute to all those across Government who have been involved in ensuring that we get it right, as well as to colleagues in the Association of British Insurers. We have been negotiating, which sometimes leads one organisation to face another across a table, but there is a spirit of co-operation on delivering Flood Re, which I think will make a difference.
I say to colleagues whose constituents have had problems obtaining insurance that I understand those frustrations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, I recently attended a meeting in Somerset with constituents and representatives of others about some of those problems. Flood Re will help, which is why it is important that we move forward on delivery. I look forward to the opportunity to do something similar in his constituency, so that we can talk about some of the problems.
I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification of the remarks made on Flood Re. Can he expand on how he envisages Flood Re will work, over the next 25 years, to move the consumer towards risk-reflective pricing, as it is supposed to? Although Flood Re certainly postpones that question, it is not clear how the transition to risk-reflective pricing will be made.
Clearly, the Government’s responsibility across that period—the hon. Gentleman has alluded to the importance of considering the issue, modelling based on our changing climate and so on—is to continue investing in defences, but also to be clear in planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out that earlier in the last century, perhaps it was not quite as clear that development should take place in areas that will not add to problems for the future. That is not to say that there should never be development in areas that are technically floodplains; as a London MP, the hon. Member for Brent North will know that a great deal of this wonderful city is in that situation, which is why we have the Thames barrier and other schemes moving forward. We want that economic development and investment. There are other towns, cities and villages in the same situation, but we must take account of the risk and deal with it as part of any development.
That raises a point of contention that I put to the Minister. He has acknowledged, and I accept—indeed, I made this point—that there still is, and will continue to be, development on the floodplain, so why, in the main assumptions in the baseline result, is that precisely excluded from the Government’s own projections when they assess risk?
We are clear that we should not develop on floodplains in a way that will leave the new properties at risk. We are talking about areas that are currently protected, or that will be protected as part of development. There are ongoing local growth scheme investment programmes aimed at economic regeneration that involve flood protection as part of development. That money comes from a different source from flood defence grant in aid, allowing those communities to continue to grow and enabling us to see that investment. However, we want to ensure that we continue to invest in flood defences in order to keep people and communities safe. By using partnership funding, we can make that money go even further.
The hon. Gentleman sought to set out particular groups, saying that he felt that some might benefit more than others in the categories that he mentioned. I hear on a daily and weekly basis from hon. Members throughout the House on their concerns about areas in their constituencies. The pipeline of projects announced in December sets out for hon. Members a great deal of ambition on how we can protect their communities and keep them safer. It has been welcomed by local authorities and those communities, and they can now seek to put those funding packages together.
I was involved in a debate—not a debate, but a reflective piece—on a local radio station this week, looking back to the period we are considering today, considering what has changed since then and talking about how the partnership funding is coming together from the different local authorities in the area and the private sector to deliver a project. In that local community, they do not expect the Government to fund the whole project through grant aid. They understand the principle of partnership funding and they are participating in delivering that solution.
The point I am making is a good deal simpler than that, and it does not involve partnership funding. It is simply that the Committee on Climate Change says that 20,000 new properties are being built on flood plains each year, 4,000 of which are being built in areas of significant flood risk, and yet the long-term investment strategy that the Government have in place assumes that there will be no further building on flood plains. Why?
As always, I welcome the work of the Committee on Climate Change, but the basis upon which it has made its calculations is a 2009 report by the Environment Agency, which will be updated this year. We look forward to seeing what the Committee makes of the updated calculations, which reflect the position now. Our mapping and understanding of flood risk is improving and growing all the time.
I want to turn to the issue of response.
Before he moves off the issue of insurance, can I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he is continuing a dialogue with the insurance companies about the two things that I see as being difficult? One is the lack of recognition of mitigation work that has been put in place, which reduces flood risk but is not recognised in the premium. The second is a phenomenon that I personally have experienced. When I tried to renew the insurance on my house recently, I found that at least half the insurance companies I contacted would not offer me a quotation because I happen to live in a house that was built in the 17th century or early 18th century, and I happen to have a river at the end of my garden. I do not believe that I am in significant danger of flood risk, but those companies would not even offer me a quotation, based on those two facts.
When one is dealing with a market such as insurance, there is a complicated picture. There are brokers that can help with those discussions, helping to find the right policy in those locations and working with those companies that are prepared to take account of mitigating factors. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that that is an incentive for those companies; they will get that business. Also, Flood Re, by giving some confidence to insurers that the flood element of the policy can be supported and underwritten, will mean that those insurers can compete on the other aspects of the policy as well, and that will help a great deal in this situation. I very much welcome the support that we have had from across the House in moving towards the introduction of that policy.
I turn now to the issue of response. Following the events of last winter, action has been taken at all levels of Government to improve the country’s resilience and response capability. The floods highlighted the valuable contribution that our armed forces can make to the response to domestic emergencies. New arrangements have been put in place to strengthen military involvement in local emergency planning and preparedness, and to make it easier for responders to access support from the armed forces in an emergency if they need it. Perhaps the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome was pointing to in discussing local experience was about when the armed forces are called. Certainly, we made it absolutely clear from the centre that that resource was available. Perhaps the problem was about perception, not reality, and what the impact might be on a local situation if that support was called on. Ultimately, the armed forces were deployed and they made a real contribution, so we are just making it clear that as they are involved in the planning process, all those relationships are much clearer, and local communities can have confidence that if there is any need to draw down that support at an early stage, it is available.
Last winter also saw disruption to our transport, energy and water supply networks. Extensive work has taken place to make sure that we are better placed to deal with any similar events in future, with action being led by both the Government and service providers. I have already mentioned the work undertaken by the Environment Agency to improve engagement with local communities, but we have also been encouraging local authorities to plan for flood risk. Bringing all their activity together in a local flood risk management strategy is an important way for local authorities to communicate with and reassure local people that they are well prepared to respond to flooding, and we will continue to encourage action at the local level. We have resourced local authorities to bring together their local strategies, and I have taken the opportunity on a number of occasions to remind in writing those local authorities that perhaps have not quite gone through that process yet that it is important that they do so as soon as is possible.
Recovery from the flooding of last year has gone well and is continuing. The Government have committed more than £560 million in flood recovery support funding. We are currently reviewing the position with regards to recovery funding, identifying lessons learned from 2013-14 and considering how Government can be better prepared to provide support during a long-term recovery programme. My officials are working across Whitehall to consider new arrangements that will ensure that future recovery schemes will be part of a clear, co-ordinated, flexible package of support, which will be easily and readily accessible by people, businesses and places.
As lead Department for recovery, the Department for Communities and Local Government is also undertaking a review of the Bellwin scheme, which allows local authorities to reclaim emergency response costs incurred to protect lives and properties. A number of changes to the scheme have been considered in light of last winter’s experiences, and DCLG consulted on those late last year. That consultation closed on 1 January and DCLG will be announcing the next steps in due course.
As far as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recovery schemes are concerned, so far around 4,200 applications have been received by local authorities for the repair and renew grant. Local authorities have approved RRG applications to the value of £8.7 million; that was one of the points that the hon. Member for Brent North was keen to have an update on.
We are aware that a number of local authorities have expressed concerns about meeting the 31 March 2015 deadline for RRG claims, and we are doing everything we can to resolve the situation and to provide some flexibility for them. As we speak, discussions are still ongoing about extending this deadline, and we expect to notify local authorities imminently. We are keen that as many eligible people as possible benefit from that grant. All applications for the farming recovery fund were processed last year, with a total value of £5.14 million.
I hope I have reassured hon. Members about the implementation of Flood Re and the question of flood insurance. I understand the aspiration across the House to explore how to make best use of revenue and capital funding to deliver better outcomes for communities, people and their property, and those discussions will continue. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, some of those questions will have to remain for the next spending review period, but as she rightly said, the Committee has put down a marker and I am certainly keen to explore ways in which we can respond. Important principles exist to ensure that we have capital invested in infrastructure and that we maintain those necessary fiscal controls on revenue spending; nevertheless, I understand the point the Committee made.
Reference was made to the importance of agricultural schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes talked about support for partners coming together. That is a process to be led at local level—as he said, those partnerships are emerging—but I am happy to explore with him the support we might be able to offer and what the best approach might be.
Despite the exceptional weather experienced last winter, the impacts were significantly less than previous events of similar magnitude. For example, our existing flood defences protected some 1.4 million properties and more than 2,500 sq km of farmland from flooding. That reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability.
The hon. Member for Brent North talked about the Pitt review. Some of its recommendations are for Government, but others are for agencies and bodies such as local authorities. Some are ongoing—they are not the sort of thing we can just deliver on and then tick off; they have to be constantly examined and updated. However, the Government have moved forward on those recommendations. Had we been debating this subject at this point last year, the hon. Gentleman could rightly have raised the question of sustainable drainage systems, but we have now moved forward on SUDS, as he is aware, and we are working with our colleagues at DCLG on a regime to implement that scheme. That was therefore an important recommendation.
Some of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues have raised in previous debates the question of the statutory responsibility for fire and rescue services, an issue of particular concern to them. The advice of the chief adviser at DCLG, which we have taken, is that the suggested approach is not appropriate. However, the Pitt review recommended that we consider that suggestion in detail, and we did.
It is good that there has been progress on some of the other 46 recommendations of the review that had not been addressed before. Will the Minister agree to report back on that progress? One problem with knowing what has been going on is that in 2012, the Government announced that they would not provide further updates on progress with the Pitt review. It would help if that progress report was updated.
Before he closes, will the Minister simply answer my question about the increase in the number of properties at significant and high risk? Does he think that the reduction of 5%, which the Government have talked about, in respect of the lowest-risk properties is a proper use of capital expenditure?
As I have sought to set out, our pipeline of projects, which is informed by calculations of the sort the hon. Gentleman mentions, will go a long way to helping communities, people and businesses around the country, and to meeting the demands and appropriate needs of local authorities, Members and individuals in their areas. I am happy, as always, to look at and review both the projects and the underlying assumptions.
We have also said that the pipeline gives an indication of which projects have met the test for funding so far. Some projects may change during the six-year period as other information emerges or local circumstances change, and as other sources of partnership funding come forward that people might want to integrate into such a scheme. Other projects that have not yet provided the level of detail needed to be in a scheme may move into that six-year programme. In setting out that programme, we have done more than any previous Government to give people confidence that we are serious about investing to keep them safe for the future.
Alongside that, we have one of the best forecasting and warning systems in the world and we are investing more in such computing power. Although we cannot control the weather and cannot stop flooding altogether, we are determined to reduce the risk further and to provide better protection for people’s homes and for farms and businesses across the country. We have acted on the lessons learned from last winter and have put in place numerous measures to improve response capability at all levels. With local partners at the helm of flood preparedness, coupled with the Government’s record level of investment in flood defences, we will be better equipped to deal with the risk of flooding this winter and beyond.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Walker, and congratulate you on your richly deserved honour in the new year’s list.
It has been an excellent and, for the most part, good-natured debate, although my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome almost lost his usual good humour. There were common strands throughout the debate, including the need for greater transparency regarding flood defences. We have made a good case for merging the capital and revenue expenditure into a total budget. A Library note, which I am sure the hon. Member for Brent North could access, shows that nearly every aspect of Pitt has been covered, although as hon. Friends said we still do not know exactly who is responsible for the drains and for maintaining them. In addition, ending the automatic right to connect is not yet in place.
The loss and invasion felt by flood victims is very real, but it does invoke the very best community spirit in response. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use his good offices to ensure that the Bellwin formula applies in cases such as that of north Yorkshire. For example, 100% of costs should be recovered in respect of bridges and roads and the properties flooded in Yorkshire and the Humber during the previous year.
On Flood Re, we should look closely at leaseholders and urge the Competition and Markets Authority review to cover affordability of all leaseholder properties.
I welcome today’s debate, and I am sure the Government and the Opposition will keep the matter under review. Future financing is for the next Parliament and the next Government to determine, but this has been a particularly appropriate, timely and positive contribution to the discussion.
Question put and agreed to.