I beg to move,
That this House extends its sympathy to all those affected by recent floods and its gratitude to the emergency services, armed forces and volunteers who rallied round to help afflicted communities over the holiday period; notes the damage the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s cuts, which the National Audit Office estimates amounted to 10 per cent over the course of the last Parliament, excluding emergency funding, have caused to these communities; notes that by delaying or cutting new flood defence projects or neglecting maintenance of existing flood defences, the Government has failed to protect these communities; notes with concern the recent decision by the Scottish Government to impose a six per cent cut on funding to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency; believes that there has been a dismal lack of action by the Cabinet Committee set up after the floods of 2013-14 and questions the effectiveness of the newly-created Cabinet Committee under the same leadership; further believes that the UK needs a long-term plan which includes a complete rethink of flood defences, as proposed by the Environment Agency, measures to make homes, communities and infrastructure more flood resilient and a greater focus on flood prevention, particularly through uplands and water catchment management; and calls on the Government to commit to the figure that the Environment Agency said in 2014 was required to protect communities of £800 million per year on maintenance and strengthening of flood defences and to carry out an urgent, independent, public review of flood policy.
I know that very many Back-Bench speakers want to take part in this debate. I will therefore try to limit the number of interventions because it is important that, above all, we hear from people whose constituents have been affected by flooding over the Christmas period.
Unfortunately, this is the second Opposition day in less than a month when we have had to call a debate on flooding. We were grateful for the statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday, but there were too many unanswered questions for the communities that have been devastated by the floods. I hope that today we will hear more answers.
At the outset, I put on the record again our thanks for the outstanding work of the emergency services, the armed forces and the very many volunteers who responded to the floods over the holiday period. [Interruption.]
Order. There are a lot of private conversations going on and it is quite difficult to hear the shadow Secretary of State. Perhaps we could listen because this is a serious subject that has affected many of our constituents.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State chaired Cobra and sought to ensure that there was a swift response to the crisis over Christmas, but we cannot keep relying on emergency responses and on communities going above and beyond to help each other. There is a worrying air of complacency about the Government. Ministers have failed to prioritise flood prevention, despite the national security risk assessment citing flood risk as a tier 1 priority. We would not ignore experts’ warnings on terrorism or cyber-attacks, so why have the Government repeatedly disregarded expert advice on flooding?
The Committee on Climate Change gave flood adaptation a double-red warning and urged the Government to develop a strategy to protect the increasing number of homes that are at risk of flooding—sound advice that the Government inexplicably rejected. People who have been forced out of their homes need to know why.
My area floods repeatedly. Frankly, people are weary of it—we are sick of it. It has been happening for a very long time. Is it not the case that all Governments have disregarded advice? After the 2000 floods, which also devastated my constituency, the Labour Government were warned that to keep up they needed to spend £700 million a year—I think that was the figure—but they never did. The record is of increased flood spend after an event, followed by reductions. All Governments have been guilty of that and we need to break the cycle.
As I will go on to mention, the Pitt review, which was initiated in 2007 by the last Labour Government, recommended year-on-year above inflation increases in spending. That is exactly what the Labour Government did. It was only when the coalition Government got in in 2010 that that spending was reversed.
I was talking about the warnings that the Government have ignored, such as the warning from the Committee on Climate Change.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
If I may, I will make a little progress.
People in Yorkshire deserve to know why the Secretary of State did not feel compelled to act when Professor Colin Mellors, who was appointed by the Government to chair the Yorkshire regional flood and coastal committee, warned that “ever tighter budgets” would mean that they would have
“to consider sites where maintenance might be formally discontinued”.
What about the Association of Drainage Authorities? It told Ministers that their neglect of our flood defences could double the number of households at significant risk of flooding within 20 years, with too many assets maintained to only minimal level. The Government were warned repeatedly about the damage caused by spending cuts and Environment Agency redundancies. They were warned that too many households and businesses could not afford flood insurance. They were warned that their neglect of our natural environment was exacerbating the flood risk, and that heavy rains and flooding would only become more frequent.
The Environment Secretary will no doubt tell us again that the Government are spending more than the coalition Government and more than the previous Labour Government. If only this Government put as much effort into defending people’s homes and businesses as they do their own record. The fact is that the Secretary of State is talking about capital expenditure only. They did not intend to spend more, but thanks to the emergency funding after the Somerset floods spending did increase by 0.8% in real terms. In today’s prices, that is £15 million over five years. The Government’s own advisers told them that flood spending would have to increase by £20 million plus inflation each year. Does the Environment Secretary really think that £15 million over five years was something to be proud of?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
If I could just finish on the figures, because otherwise we will lose track of the point I am trying to make.
The National Audit Office confirmed that were it not for the panicked reaction to the Somerset floods, total funding would have fallen by 10% in real terms during the previous Parliament. In 2011-12 alone, capital funding fell in real terms by £118 million. The following year, the Environment Agency published a list of 387 flood projects that would be delayed or cancelled due to a lack of funding—schemes in Leeds, Croston in Lancashire and Kendal in Cumbria, all of which have since been hit by floods.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) is right? It does not matter who is in government, the pressure for flood defence goes away when there has not been flooding for a while and there is competition with schools and hospitals for funding. Water was privatised not because it created a market—that could not be done—but because it got the funding in place to deliver an agreed standard at the most affordable price. Is it not time for a radical change so that instead of fighting the Treasury for funding we put it on to water bills or some other form of levy, as Dieter Helm suggested in the paper he produced this week?
I will come on to Dieter Helm’s recommendations, which I agree make a really important contribution, and to the general issue of upstream management. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents would perhaps be concerned by the thought that they would be paying more in their water bills in order to address this situation.
The motion asks the Government whether they would be prepared to meet the £800 million a year of spending that the Environment Agency recommended. I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State’s response. On the point about water bills, people already struggle to pay very high insurance premiums. In many cases, they have to make up for losses not covered by insurance. They have to meet excesses of up to £10,000 themselves. They would really struggle if they were hit by rising water bills on top of that.
Many people are angered by the Prime Minister’s claims today. A six-year programme of investment is welcome, but we need to know it will address the lasting legacy of the coalition’s cuts and that the money will be available given the reliance on external contributions. With the slow progress that has been made on infrastructure projects, we need to know when the schemes will be built. Communities cannot wait another six years for work even to start. We know how slow the progress has been on some on the schemes supposedly already in the pipeline.
We need the Environment Secretary to realise that any benefit from new schemes will be diminished if the Government allow existing schemes to deteriorate. In 2013-14, it was estimated that almost three quarters of flood defence asset systems would not be sufficiently maintained. Maintenance spending fell by 6% in real terms under the coalition.
As well as the point my hon. Friend is making, we need an Environment Secretary who understands, particularly in urban areas, the value of floodplains, such as those around Denton and Reddish Vale. They were completely submerged over the Christmas period, doing precisely what they are supposed to do: take the excess water away from further up the Tame valley, where flooding could have been much worse. Those areas are set to be reviewed as part of the Greater Manchester green-belt review. They are at risk of being taken out of the green belt for development.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is partly an issue about house building on floodplains, but there is also an issue, which stems from this piecemeal approach to the problem, of people looking after their own patch, preventing their own land from flooding, only to exacerbate the problem further downstream. We need a coherent overall approach that protects everybody.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does she advocate pressing the Government for a complete review of the guidance to local authorities, because at the moment they can say, “Oh well, the Environment Agency hasn’t designated it a floodplain”? Clearly, their thinking is out of date, given the changes in climate conditions in recent years.
The Secretary of State will say that it is ultimately a decision for local people, but we need to look at the broader picture. For one local authority to say, “It’s okay to build on a floodplain”, perhaps ignores the impact on communities in the surrounding areas. We need an overarching approach.
As the hon. Lady is well aware, being from Bristol, the Somerset Rivers Authority, which we have set up, is working well. We have the money we need for flood defences. We have had everything we require. This is a county-wide development receiving money directly from the Government to do the necessary work. I am pretty sure she understands that, but I just wanted to make sure.
I am well aware of the work being done on the Somerset levels, but it is a slightly different picture there because of its basin geography, which perhaps makes it more isolated from surrounding areas. Elsewhere, as we have seen in the north of England, one community after another can be hit.
The SNP really wanted to support Labour’s motion today, but it included unnecessary criticism of the SNP, which is not even accurate: flood spending in Scotland is actually going up. Does the hon. Lady not think it would have been better to have united the Opposition on this issue by getting the SNP to agree with Labour? Is the motion not therefore a little bit unfortunate ?
It is a fact that the funding of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has been cut, as I understand it. We have seen devastating pictures of flooding in Scotland.
I need to make some progress. As this is a devolved matter, we cannot debate it in the detail we would like today, but it is important that the motion recognises the problems with how flooding is being dealt with and the seriousness with which it is being taken in Scotland. That needs to be addressed, which is why we put it in the motion.
I want to make some progress. As I have said, there are about 27 Back-Bench contributions to get through, plus the winding-up speeches, and we also need to hear from the Environment Secretary, so we really need to make some progress.
DEFRA and the Treasury still refuse to provide any long-term certainty on maintenance. All the Environment Secretary could tell us yesterday was that the maintenance budget this year was £171 million. She is ignoring the EA’s advice that flood protection requires £800 million per year, which, with the amount spent on capital, would mean an average annual maintenance expenditure of £417 million.
We cannot continue with DEFRA’s panicked, piecemeal approach. The coalition abandoned the cross-party consensus on sustained investment following the Pitt review, and after the 2014 floods, the Prime Minister chose to put all his trust in the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) and his Cabinet Committee—a Committee that was quietly disbanded once the floodwaters receded and the media attention subsided. The promised annual review of national resilience never materialised. I ask the Environment Secretary again, as I did yesterday: how are we to have confidence in yet another review led by the right hon. Gentleman? I notice he is not here this afternoon, just as he was not here yesterday. Will the Environment Secretary tell us whether he is currently in Yorkshire or Lancashire, visiting flood victims, or perhaps he has more pressing matters to attend to?
There is no sense that the Government truly understand how people have been affected or the challenge they face in rebuilding their lives and businesses. Members across the House spoke eloquently yesterday about how their constituents had suffered and how their fears had not gone away, so why could the Secretary of State yesterday only give vague assurances about considering the Leeds defence scheme? The Prime Minister today dodged the same questions. Why did the Environment Secretary not review earlier whether her predecessors made the wrong decision?
I am going to make progress, without taking interventions. I am sure the hon. Gentleman can intervene on somebody else later—perhaps the Secretary of State can answer his question.
Why did the Secretary of State not review earlier whether her predecessors made the wrong decision to scrap the planned scheme in 2011? Why, with Members of all parties urging the Government to apply to the European solidarity fund could the Secretary of State say only that the Government were considering it? She claimed that they had not yet applied because it could take months for the funds to come through, so why is she dithering and adding to the delay? Why does she not just get on with it?
Why are the Government refusing to implement the Pitt review recommendation on the fire service? The service has lost thousands of firefighters since the 2007 floods. Does the Secretary of State not think that the pressures on the service and the extraordinary professionalism it displays merit including flood response as a statutory duty? Should not our fire and rescue service be fully supported?
Everyone anxiously watching the flood alerts needs to know that everything is being done to protect communities from the floods and to reduce the risk. As the Environment Agency has said, the UK needs a complete rethink of flood defences. This must include better management of river catchments from land use in our upstream areas to estuaries and lower land areas.
The last Labour Government developed some really innovative thinking, agreed to all the recommendations of the Pitt review and had started the process of implementing them. We also passed the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, but the coalition then wasted the next five years. Labour’s Acts gave the Government powers to require land managers to protect assets for flood protection, for example, so why have this Government not made better use of those powers? Will the Secretary of State tell us why the Government delayed and weakened requirements in the Act for sustainable drainage in new and existing developments?
Yesterday, the Environment Secretary welcomed Dieter Helm’s excellent paper, “Flood defence: time for a radical rethink”, which highlights the critical role played by land use in both causing and helping to alleviate flooding, especially the protection of natural capital in upstream areas. Pickering in North Yorkshire has attracted some attention this week, highlighting how efforts to slow the flow of water from the hills prevented the town from flooding this time. I know that that is not the only example. The Environment Secretary has said that she wants the results from Pickering to be used more widely, so how is she going to make that happen?
Dieter Helm also highlighted the thorny issue of how some agricultural policies and associated subsidies pay little or no attention to flood risk dimensions. The examples he gave included greater exposure to rapid run-off from the planting of maize; the burning of heather to improve grouse moors, as it reduces the land’s retention of water; and farming practices in the upper reaches of river catchments. Helm sets out how adaptation measures in these areas, such as the planting of trees, could have some of the greatest potential benefits for reducing flood risk.
In response to a question from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) yesterday, the Environment Secretary talked about getting better value for money for DEFRA funding on the environment and countryside stewardship schemes. Will she clarify those comments today? Does she think that some of these financial incentives are not fully aligned to achieving flood resilience objectives? As the National Farmers Union says, services provided by farmers that protect urban areas downstream are at present “unrewarded and often unplanned”.
In urban and developed areas, sustainable drainage systems could make a positive difference, but progress has been slow and the scope for local authorities to make progress on flood risk management strategies seems limited. As the Climate Change Committee reported, many are yet to finalise their strategies, despite that having been a legal requirement for the past five years.
We need a cross-departmental approach to flood prevention and adaptation. Some 1,500 new homes a year are built in areas of high flood risk. We have seen how road networks, hospitals, schools and tele- communications cannot withstand the flooding. Will the Secretary of State ensure that infrastructure planning takes into account the increasing flood risk?
Just as the Government cannot neglect English regions, we need to work across the UK on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Welsh Government have this week provided £2.3 million for flood-hit communities in Wales, and we know that flooding has caused havoc across Scotland, yet there are fears about significant cuts to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
People are not interested in more excuses or empty promises. Put simply, they want to know that this Government are doing everything they can to prevent such flooding from happening to them again. We cannot stop the rain, but we can stop at least some of the devastation it causes. People are living in fear of floods and they need reassurance; I hope that they will hear precisely that from the Environment Secretary.
I am grateful to the Opposition for securing this important debate today. We have seen extreme weather over the last month, including the highest-ever rainfall in the north-west, record river levels across Lancashire, and Yorkshire rivers such as the Aire a metre higher than they have ever been before. I have every sympathy for all those affected throughout the United Kingdom. To be flooded is a devastating experience at any time, but it is truly terrible at Christmas.
I pay tribute to the emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency, and the other responders and volunteers from across the country who worked around the clock to help. Many of them gave up their Christmases. Through daily Cobra meetings, we ensured that all the necessary resources were deployed early and ahead of the flooding. That meant that the military, the emergency services and the Environment Agency were on the ground and able to provide immediate help. We moved temporary flood barriers to the region, and we moved pumps across the country to support the response effort.
Funding to support the communities, businesses and farmers who were flooded has been provided in record time, within three days of the flooding occurring. Money is now with the local authorities so that they can help people as soon as possible. The Government are determined to do what it takes to put people back on their feet.
My right hon. Friend is right in saying that money has been distributed very quickly, but there is still some concern among local authorities about exactly what it can be spent on. Will she clarify, for their benefit, what the Bellwin funds can and cannot be spent on?
As my hon. Friend says, there is Bellwin funding which councils can claim, but there is also the money that we have given them to fund resilience measures for homes and businesses. The money is there to cover the costs that councils have incurred, but it is also there to cover immediate support for residents and businesses. I urge affected residents to contact their councils so that they can receive that support.
Repairs to the Foss barrier in York have been completed, and it is fully operational again. It will now be upgraded with new pumps to ensure that it can cope with higher volumes of water. The flood recovery envoy for Yorkshire, who is with me today, will be producing a plan to repair Tadcaster bridge early next week and will be meeting local residents. That is a national priority.
Does the Secretary of State not accept what is happening with climate change? Once-in-200-year events have now become once-in-100-years events, and it was accepted at the Paris conference that another 2 degrees would probably be added to world temperatures. There is surely no excuse for not investing more and more—even more than we planned to invest following the 2007 Pitt review. Will the Secretary of State urge the Government to invest even more than is proposed under the current agreement?
In response to weather events that we have not seen before, we are reviewing our national resilience and looking at our climate change models. Climate change is currently baked into our six-year plan, but we clearly need to look at that again in the light of recent events, and we are committed to doing so.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about our plans for flood investment, and said that we needed a long-term strategy. The fact is that this Government have introduced the first ever six-year plan for flood defence spending, unlike the Labour party, which ran a year-to-year budget when it was in office. In the run-up to the general election, the hon. Lady’s predecessor refused to match our pledge to increase flood defence spending in real terms. We are spending more, in real terms, than the Labour Government spent between 2005 and 2010, and we are increasing our spending again, in real terms, in this Parliament. The hon. Lady asked about flood maintenance spending. We are spending £171 million on flood maintenance, and, as the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement—before the floods took place—we said that we would protect that too, in real terms. Both those bits of money are protected.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to respond to what the hon. Lady has said, but after that I will give way to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
The hon. Lady asked about the £800 million figure from the Environment Agency, which is part of its long-term investment scenario. That analysis is based on total investment, not just central Government spending. It is based on both capital and maintenance spending. If she read the entirety of that report, she would see that it concluded that current spending plans are in line with the optimum levels of investment over the next 10 years. She needs to read the entire report, not just cherry-pick sections of it.
The Secretary of State is right: we have to invest for the future. I am grateful she has acknowledged that climate change plays a significant part in the problems we are experiencing. So why are the Government stopping the investment in renewable technologies? Will they review the catastrophic decision to stop the support for onshore wind, a technology that will help us and that we desperately need in Scotland?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is doing an excellent job in achieving affordability for consumers at the same time as hitting the carbon budget targets. She also helped to negotiate a fantastic deal in Paris.
There has been a rather tedious backwards and forwards about the money. The fundamentals are that this Government are spending more on flood defence. Once we get over that attempt at point scoring, which sadly comes relentlessly from the Labour party, we can move on to the more important question, which is how the money is spent. Dieter Helm suggests that the thinking behind the spending has not been sufficiently aligned with economic reality. Regardless of who is in power, how do we ensure that we spend the limited money we have on the most effective defence for the maximum number of people and corporate interests, rather than perhaps as now spending it on areas where it cannot be justified?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is exactly why, in December, I reappointed Dieter Helm as chair of the Natural Capital Committee. I did so precisely so that he could look at that issue and ensure that we are spending money holistically across catchments. That is working hand in hand with our 25-year environment plan. Shortly, we will announce the framework for that. That will require a lot of work. There are a lot of people involved: the water companies, the Environment Agency, local communities, farmers and landowners. We can get better value for money. That is why we are moving in that direction and carrying out that work. However, there is a famous Chinese proverb: the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago and the next best time is today. We do need to plan for the long term but it takes time to ensure that we get everything in order.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that chapter 5 of the Paris agreement is about the need to protect forests and to have more trees in the world if we are to tackle some of the problems related to carbon. Does that not also have a relevance for flooding? Does she agree that, as part of the work that she has described, it is important to look at whether we need more tree planting in this country? The House has taken initiatives such as the Westminster wood and the National forest to try to encourage tree planting but perhaps we need more.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his point. I want to make all Members aware that we have a tree-planting scheme for schools at the moment. We are collaborating with the Woodland Trust on that and schools can apply; we are close to the deadline, so people should look that up as soon as possible. It is part of our pledge to plant 11 million trees over this Parliament. Of course, however, we can do more. Dieter Helm will certainly look at that as part of the work of the Natural Capital Committee.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to finish the point on the Natural Capital Committee. Members have mentioned the Somerset Rivers Authority. That is a good model for how we get better local engagement, how we get more decisions taken on the ground by people who understand the landscape, and how we look at wider catchment issues. The Floods Minister is developing the Cumbrian flood partnership to do that. We are interested to hear from local areas that want to develop such a scheme.
We need to move to a catchment basis. That is the basis on which our environment plan for 25 years is being developed. We are working on that and we are due to announce the framework towards the middle of the year, with a view to finalising the 25-year plan later on this year. That works closely in conjunction with our 25-year plan for food and farming.
In the same way as the Secretary of State is looking at a strategic approach to flood defences, could she not make the case for a strategic approach to planning within the floodplains? As I said after the statement and earlier in an intervention, the issue in relation to floodplains often goes beyond one local authority, and planning decisions in one local authority area can affect flooding in several local authorities.
As I made clear yesterday, it is clear in the national planning policy framework that that needs to be taken into account. Houses should not be built where there is such a flood risk. That is clear in the NPPF.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who has been generous in giving way. She said that in real terms the Government were spending more. Perhaps she could explain to me and to the House her own Department’s “Funding trends” paper of December last year, which shows the total real-terms spending from 2005 right the way through to 2015-16. In the last year of the Labour Government spending was £724 million in total in real terms—that is, in 2015-16 prices. In no single year since then have this Government matched that funding, except in 2014-15, when an extra boost of £140 million emergency funding was given to repair the defences that had been destroyed in the floods. The figures are £608.5 million—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is down on my list to speak. I suggest he does not make his speech now.
As I have already said, if we compare the two Parliaments, the Labour Government spent £1.5 billion and the coalition Government spent £1.7 billion. It is clear to me which of those two numbers is higher.
Several hon. Members rose—
I have given way on a number of occasions. I now need to make progress to give people an opportunity to speak.
Before my right hon. Friend does so, will she give way one more time?
I give way to my hon. Friend.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has given way, given that 20% of England drains through my constituency on the four tidal rivers that meet the Humber estuary. She confirmed yesterday that the £80 million funding that we already have for the next six years is safe and secure. She was asked yesterday about the £1.2 billion bid which, contrary to what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) said, was rejected not by the Government but by the Environment Agency because it would increase flood risk in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend commit today from the Dispatch Box to working with Humber MPs cross-estuary so that we can get a revised Humber flood plan together to ensure that we get the defences that we desperately need in the most flood-prone area of England?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We do not want schemes that protect part of an area and increase flood risk in other areas. That is the importance of the catchment-wide management system that we are developing. I understand that the Floods Minister is due to meet Humber MPs and I will take a close interest in that matter.
We have set out our programme for the next six years. We are investing £2.3 billion in flood defences. This is a real-terms increase on the £1.7 billion we invested in the last Parliament and an increase on the £1.5 billion spent by Labour. We have made the first-ever commitment to protect maintenance spending as well at £171 million per year, adjusted for real terms. Let us remember why we have the money to invest in these flood defences. Let us remember what happened when Labour left office in 2010. The then Chief Secretary left a note saying, “I’m afraid there is no money.” Labour would not have had the money to invest in flood defences, as we have. At the 2015 general election the Labour party refused to match our pledge of a six-year programme protected in real terms. It is only with a strong economy that we can afford these flood defences. It is only with a long-term plan the we will make our country resilient and give communities the protection they deserve.
As the Member of Parliament for Dumfries and Galloway, a constituency badly affected by storms Desmond and Frank, I am honoured to be able to give my constituents a voice in this place today, but before I speak about the flooding impact in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s response, the incredible work of the emergency services and the unbelievable resilience of local communities, I wish to deal with the wording of the motion put before the House today.
As a new Member of this place—and new to politics, thankfully—I have been astounded at the procession of ideologically based legislation from the Conservative Government. I have searched long and hard for an evidence base to much of what they suggested, and have searched in vain. I have also been completely dismayed at the amount of misinformed mud-slinging that goes on with these motions devised by the Labour party—in particular the needless pops at the Scottish Government in circumstances where they are actually performing marginally better. We thought Labour would have learned a lesson from the disastrous police debate motion a few weeks ago.
The mud slung at my party and the Scottish Government in this motion is to criticise the 6% cut to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency budget for next year. I will deal with that head-on in a moment, but first I want to make one thing explicitly clear. It relates to the tone of this debate: my constituents deserve better; your constituents, Madam Deputy Speaker, deserve better; all of our constituents deserve better. They do not care, when they are clearing up the sewage and debris from the front room, about the mud-slinging and political points-scoring in this Chamber. They want to know what we can do to help, they want to know that we care about their plight, and they want to know we are on top of the processes and plans, to ensure we can minimise the risk of severe flooding in the future. But there is a recognition, in light of factors such as global warming, that we may never be able to devise defences and plans capable of completely eliminating flood damage when mother nature decides to sneeze as heavily as she did this month.
What the hon. Gentleman says about his constituents is clearly heartfelt, but they are surely concerned—I speak for my mother, who is one of them—about the 6% cut that the Scottish Government are imposing on flood defences. Is he really going to defend that? [Interruption.] Is he going to defend the cut to SEPA, or is he going to—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not seem to be able to continue as SNP Members are chuntering so much. I am trying to speak over them, but they are so noisy that I cannot seem to get a word in edgeways. [Interruption.]
Order. Although I am enjoying the intervention, a lot of Members wish to speak. I would be very grateful if we could keep interventions as brief as possible, otherwise we will not get everybody in to speak.
Why is the hon. Gentleman defending the 6% cut to SEPA?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will, as I just intimated—if he had opened his ears, he may have heard—deal with that point head-on in a few moments. In relation to his mother, if she is a constituent of mine, please offer her our services to help her in any way we possibly can.
What did the hon. Gentleman say about my mother?
I was politely offering the hon. Gentleman my office’s assistance if his mother has been affected by the floods, and I do so with the utmost sincerity.
The wording of the motion in relation to Scotland is as follows: it states that the House
“notes with concern the recent decision…to impose a six per cent cut on funding to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency”,
yet in the last three calendar years culminating in this year there has actually been a cash increase in SEPA funding from £36.4 million in 2012-13 to £39 million in 2015-16. The 6% cut pertains to next year—to the future—and has not affected in any way Scotland’s ability to deal with the travesty of the last week or two. May I remind all colleagues that all budgets across the UK have had to stomach a cut at some level?
I am interested to hear that the cut is for next year. Is that because the hon. Gentleman believes that there is less risk of a flood next year?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, our budget is set by Westminster, not by us. If he bears with me, perhaps I will enlighten him a little bit more.
I am sure that all colleagues will understand that all Departments have had to take a cut of some description since the current UK Government have had a say. The Scottish Government have attempted to protect the SEPA budget in the fairest way possible, while still endeavouring to offer immediate assistance and permanent solutions to all those who have been affected by flooding.
A further point that I should make clear is that SEPA is not responsible for flood prevention in Scotland, which is the responsibility of local authorities with the support of the Scottish Government. We believe in Scotland that local authorities are best placed to devise flood protection, and the Scottish Government will support them in any way they possibly can. Indeed, the Scottish Environment Minister told me recently that our Government have never refused funding for a flood defence on the basis of cost. Other elements of flood spending, such as on the Scottish flood forecasting service, are protected in their entirety until 2020 and will not be subject to any cuts. Good flood defence is not only about how much is spent but about how we choose to spend it.
As a victim of the floods in 2013 in west Kent, I am extremely aware of the money that has been spent on flood defences by the British Government and around the whole UK. I am astonished to hear the hon. Gentleman claim, somewhat bizarrely, that nothing has been refused to anywhere in Scotland on the grounds of funding. Is there an enormous sack of cash into which the Scottish people can dip for money when the British people in the rest of these islands are struggling to pay for what they need?
Again, had I been given some forbearance and patience, an answer to that question might have come up soon. I beg the hon. Gentleman to stay patient.
The cuts to SEPA’s budget planned for next year have to be seen in their full and proper context. The Scottish Government’s top priority is the reduction of flooding across risk areas, which was why the Scottish Parliament passed the Flood Risk Management Act 2009. One of its main requirements was the production of a flood risk management strategy for the whole of Scotland, and we now have 14 local strategies. They are all about forward planning, with the end aim of minimising flood damage. As a result of the Act, we now have 42 proposed flood defence protection schemes to cover the period 2016 to 2021. They will cost an estimated £235 million, which the Scottish Government have agreed to finance.
Under the Act, flood prevention schemes can proceed to approval without the rubber stamp of Scottish Ministers, giving local authorities full responsibility and authority to implement them under a streamlined process. We believe that those decisions should be taken locally, not least because a flood defence scheme requires significant construction in and around riverbanks, which are often the focal point of a community. Not only do engineering solutions have to be found, but buy-in from local communities is essential. Communities care about their riverbanks, and plans must take account of that. In Dumfries, there are many objections to the local council’s plan for an earth bund, which would remove car parking and views at the river. The council is now under severe pressure to ensure that the voices of local people are heard in the debate.
As part of our flood preparation in Scotland, the Scottish flood forecasting service has done an excellent job of providing reliable information to relevant authorities in good time. In actioning the Bellwin scheme, the Deputy First Minister has committed the Scottish Government to covering any additional local authority costs. As the House will understand, the scheme sets a threshold beyond which the Scottish Government guarantee to cover the costs of emergencies. Following Storm Desmond in December, the Scottish Government provided £3.94 million to the most affected local authority areas, including in my constituency, to help them support flood-hit households and businesses. That funding will go to affected local authorities as a specific grant in this financial year, and they will be able to provide each flood-affected household or business with a grant of up to £1,500, which is under review. That grant is available to reimburse people for the cost of not receiving the full benefit of services that they pay for through council tax or rates while they are absent from their home or their business cannot trade. It can also be used to protect homes and businesses against future floods by installing new flood barriers or by carrying out flood-resilient repairs.
The Scottish Government have recently legislated to give councils the power to reduce and remit bills, which can be used to target support to businesses in areas affected by flooding. The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, announced in the Scottish Parliament yesterday that Scottish councils have a new power to relieve households devastated in the flooding from council tax and small business rates. They are considering what further help they can give.
A few days before Christmas, Dumfries and Galloway held its breath as weather experts indicated that the region would be the next one hit by severe flooding as a result of Storm Frank. We had witnessed the devastation caused by Storm Desmond to our neighbours and friends in Cumbria and the borders. In the first wave of flooding, Dumfries was flooded but the rest of Dumfries and Galloway managed to escape largely unscathed. We watched as Hawick, Appleby, Penrith, Carlisle, Keswick and Cockermouth, to name but a few, battled against the flow of water that was sadly insurmountable.
The predictions for Storm Frank made for worse reading and, as it approached, we prepared. SEPA and the Met Office co-ordinated information about expected rainfall in risk areas and issued details of areas and addresses to be evacuated.
Once Storm Frank had been to Dumfries and Galloway, it came further north-eastwards to Perthshire. In my constituency, I have the biggest and most extensive river system in the whole UK—the biggest flow of water in any community of the UK flows through the heart of Perth. I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend would like to pay tribute to the local authority staff and the emergency services who ensured that cities such as mine were adequately protected and that the flood defences held up. They did a remarkable job and I am sure my hon. Friend would like to congratulate them too.
Seeing the work and dedication of the emergency services was probably one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life. I will touch on that before I close my remarks.
The local authorities and emergency services swung into action. Properties were knocked and evacuated, with the focus on moving the elderly and the vulnerable. Warnings of what was to come were everywhere. In particular, social media played an enormously valuable part. Posts and tweets from SEPA, the local authority, the police, the emergency services and elected Members meant that people were highly informed. In the time I spent visiting those affected, I did not hear one complaint about the warning system or the plans put in place. That co-ordinated approach meant we could all prepare as best we could.
I was incredibly impressed by the actions of all engaged in that co-ordinated response. Particular thanks go to Dumfries and Galloway Council, SEPA and all the emergency services, as well as to volunteers both on the ground and stationed at the respite centres that were set up. Without them, that co-ordinated effort and warning system, things would have been immeasurably worse.
On 30 December, we awoke to the news of the devastation. I was very concerned to hear that the high street in Newton Stewart was under more than a foot of water and that cars were submerged in car parks on the banks of the River Cree. High tide was expected at 2 pm, so I put my wellies on and drove to see it for myself. I can assure Members that there a few more surreal moments than walking up a deserted main street of a small town they know so well and seeing sandbags piled at shop entrances, wading through over a foot of water. It was bizarre.
I met a chap called Paul Da Prato from Cunningham’s in Newton Stewart. He was fighting back tears as he showed me the flooding in his properties. It was very moving. All that we could do was wait for the water to recede so the damage could be assessed. Thankfully, nobody was hurt and nobody was left stranded.
The next day, as the water receded and shop owners began to clear their premises, I was delighted that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined me in Newton Stewart. She spent almost three hours going from shop to shop to offer her support. I did likewise, to offer the support of my office in any way we could provide it.
Although Newton Stewart—for once, ironically—grabbed the headlines, many more towns and villages in Dumfries and Galloway were affected by the flooding.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The third party spokesman—I highlight that the Scottish National party is the third party—has now been speaking for as long as the Minister chose to speak. What guidance was given to the third party on the length of speech it should give in a limited-time debate on an Opposition day?
I believe that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) was coming to the conclusion of his speech anyway but, as the third party, no time limit is imposed, so he is perfectly at liberty to speak for as long as he wants. Many interventions were accepted, which lengthens speeches. I will allow him to finish his speech.
In a sense, I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). This is a very energised debate—[Interruption.] And I am coming to the end of my speech, so the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) should not have to wait too much longer.
What we have in Dumfries and Galloway—I imagine that this is replicated UK-wide—is the resilience of our people. I was struck that café owners trawled the streets, trying to give people food—but no one was hungry. I was amazed that residents affected were in competition with each other to say, “Och wur fine, Richard,” when really they were not. We should never take that resilience for granted and it should never diminish our responsibility to deal with what I think is a new problem for a new generation. The weather is not going to get any better, so we must up the ante to ensure that our communities are protected in the future.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I want to get everyone in, because I understand that we all have major problems and that flooding is a big issue. I am going to impose a four-minute limit, but I suggest that we try not to intervene so that everybody gets equal time.
The flooding between Christmas and new year could not have come at a worse time for many residents and businesses, as people were relaxing away from the pressures of work and several householders and business owners used the break to get away, leaving their properties unattended. They were therefore unable to defend their homes and possessions from the rainfall.
We are no strangers to flooding in Selby district. We had serious floods in 1947, 1981 and 2000 and on plenty of occasions between and since. On this occasion, I am relieved that the flood defences protected the town of Selby where, to my knowledge, not a single property was flooded. The historical village of Cawood was also spared, as its floodwalls kept the River Ouse at bay. Flood defences in Selby were not overtopped and I can only say that the way in which all the agencies responded was superb, ensuring that evacuation measures were in place should the worst happen. Residents who potentially would have to be evacuated were notified and rest centres were prepared. It is clear that plenty has been learned from previous flooding incidents.
Unfortunately, the town of Tadcaster and the villages of Ulleskelf, Kirkby Wharfe, Church Fenton, Newton Kyme, Acaster Selby and Bolton Percy were not so fortunate. In Tadcaster, 16 residential properties, 41 commercial premises and three public buildings, including the church, succumbed to flooding. Ulleskelf, where I used to live, saw 16 properties flooded, largely in the west end of the village. I thank all the volunteers there, led by Councillor Carl Clayton, whose efforts, early action and diligence without doubt prevented further homes from being flooded.
I am sorry to intervene, but I think that this is important. I congratulate my hon. Friend for what he did for his constituents. I got sick of seeing him on “Look North”—he did such a good job. Parish councils are important. In my village, when the warning came it was the volunteer emergency plan team in the village that swung into action. Do we not need to learn from that so that in future flooding incidents we encourage every village and parish to have an emergency plan in place? They can do much more than the county councillors can.
Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to get on the record, but if he wants to make a speech he should put his name in— [Interruption.] No, do not argue. I want to treat everybody fairly and equally and that was quite a lengthy intervention.
I totally agree with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). What some of the flood wardens have done is exemplary. Many are parish councillors and we should take our hat off to them.
Church Fenton had three homes underwater adjacent to the former RAF base, and I thank the Prime Minister for joining me in visiting families affected in the village, without media coverage and the accompanying journalists. I know that that approach meant a lot to families in Church Fenton. Nearby Kirkby Wharfe saw a dozen homes affected, ironically just before a flood defence solution was about to be implemented. Even if it had been in place, however, homes would still have suffered given the sheer levels of flood water.
The town of Tadcaster, famous for its brewing heritage, its viaduct and its 300-year-old bridge has now attracted worldwide media attention. I want to take a moment to comment on the response to the flooding in Tadcaster.
I, along with more than 100 residents, attended a public meeting the day after Boxing day at which volunteers signed up to help the relief effort. Alongside the flood group, residents were fortunate to have the assistance of Team Rubicon and Serve On, a team of volunteers assisting the people of Tadcaster and the surrounding villages following the devastating impact of the flooding. Following the partial collapse of the bridge, Team Rubicon volunteers who had travelled from all over the UK assisted the Army with the evacuation of homes until the risk of gas leaks had been lifted. I should like to single out Dougie Clark, Team Rubicon’s incident commander, and his colleague David Wiseman for the leadership they provided during the response and the recovery stages. Their volunteers, working in conjunction with the town’s flood group under Nicola Eades and the town council staff, did an incredible job and their support will not be forgotten.
It is fair to say that the response to the flooding was almost exemplary. It involved the emergency services, local councils, environment agencies, charities, utilities—and yes, Government Ministers—but above all, the residents and the business community of Tadcaster and those from the wider area who came to the town’s aid. I want to mention a recent review by the North Yorkshire fire authority on the changes to fire services in Tadcaster. Perhaps this crisis will provide an opportunity for the fire authority to revisit its decision to downgrade fire services there.
As the local MP, I have seen with my own eyes acts of kindness and selflessness since the flooding that will stay with me for a long time. In fact, all the affected communities have shown incredible resilience and a community spirit that demonstrates the best of Yorkshire and the best of British. I want to take this opportunity to welcome a longer-term approach to flood defence spending and the national flood resilience review. Parts of my constituency, including Tadcaster, have a long and potentially arduous road ahead as they recover from Storm Eva, and it is crucial that we stand by their people and their businesses, and by the town, district and county councils. The Government have made a good start with their response, but this problem requires not only a short-term response but medium and long-term solutions—
Order. I call Rachel Reeves.
For many people in my constituency, Christmas was ruined by the floods that devastated homes and businesses there. On Boxing day night, the River Aire showed its tremendous force and burst its banks following days of heavy rain. Small businesses were forced to close, as was the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley, and the Rodley Nature Reserve was badly damaged. Businesses of all sizes lost machinery, premises and stock, and workers have been laid off.
I have been deeply moved by the solidarity of local people, public service workers, civic leaders and community volunteers as they have pulled together to help those in the most urgent need and to begin the work of clearing up the damage. I want to pay particular tribute to Leeds City Council leader, Judith Blake, and to the council staff who came out during their holidays to collect waste, clean the streets and help those who were most affected. I also want to pay particular tribute to the work of Councillor Lucinda Yeadon in Kirkstall, as well as to John Liversedge and Phil Marken of Open Source Arts. There were nearly 1,000 volunteers in Kirkstall alone over the past 10 days. Their countless acts of everyday heroism can never be individually itemised, but they made a huge difference that will be felt for years and decades to come. It is often in times of adversity that we see communities at their strongest, and I have never been so proud to be the Member of Parliament for Leeds West.
Today, I want to focus on two specific issues for the longer term: flood insurance and flood defences. Flood insurance is essential for businesses. Small businesses struggling as a result of costs and loss of revenue as they deal with the immediate aftermath of floods should not then be hit by huge unaffordable premiums in the months that follow. Flood Re will come into force in April this year and it is hugely welcome, but it will not help small businesses. It will help only people in residential properties. We must look at this again, and I urge the Government to do so. We must help those affected to get affordable insurance, and the Government should take that action.
It is also important that adequate funds are made available for resilience repair, including flood doors, air-brick seals, waterproof coatings and other measures that can help businesses to deal with future floods. Such funding must be on top of the £50 million already allocated, which should be used for immediate support such as reductions in council tax and business rates for those affected.
The second issue I want to raise is that of flood defences. The 2012 climate change risk assessment identified flooding as the top risk to the UK from climate change. The Government must wake up to the fact that extreme weather events are now an increasing feature of British weather and must reassess the cuts to flood defences.
The Prime Minister said at today’s Prime Minister’s questions that no flood defence scheme had been cancelled since he became Prime Minister. I ask the Secretary of State to correct the record, as in 2011 phases 2 and 3 of the Leeds flood defence scheme were cancelled. Phase 2, which would have covered the stretch of the Aire to the west of the city, including Kirkstall, to provide a one-in-75-year standard of protection was cancelled. Phase 3, which would have extended from Kirkstall to Newlay bridge in Horsforth, providing a one-in-200-year standard of protection, was also cancelled. More than £100-worth of flood defence schemes in Leeds alone have no funding, and only a full flood defence scheme for Leeds would protect the businesses in Kirkstall that were hit so badly on Boxing day. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has now agreed to meet me and other Leeds MPs, but I ask her and the Government to ensure that that money is available so that the tragedy we saw on Boxing day can never be allowed to occur in my city of Leeds again.
I do not think any of us will forget Christmas 2015 in a hurry. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) talked about the selfless humanity she witnessed in her constituency, and each and every one of us saw the same thing in areas where flooding took place. I have never seen anything like it in the 23 years I have been a Member of Parliament.
A four-minute limit will not allow us to name all the people we would love to mention and thank publicly, so we will have to do it in another way. Let me just mention Gillian Darbyshire of the Whalley Lions and her entire team, who have given up 10 days of their Christmas holidays to man the emergency centre in Whalley. They were absolutely superb. I also wish to mention Marshal Scott, the chief executive of Ribble Valley Borough Council, who also gave up 10 days, coming into the emergency centre every day and working incredibly long hours with an amazing team. The day after Boxing day, the bin men came out to remove the sofas and furniture from the streets, which looked like a warzone at times. I would love to thank them and the emergency services, but, as I say, I shall thank others in a different way.
Four lads who were coming up the M6 from Watford heard about the floods, pulled off at the Clitheroe junction, went into Whalley, helped clear a lady’s house of all the debris, and then got back into the car and drove on to Scotland to spend the rest of their Christmas there—it was absolutely amazing. The Whalley Lions have helped to bring in cookers, washing machines, fridges and microwaves; they have handled more than £1 million-worth of goods. More than 1,000 volunteers have been involved. I know that you have spent some of your Christmas dealing with the floods in Chorley, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am sure you will want to thank the people who have given so much support.
I, too, have some big asks to make of the Government in the limited time I have left. Clearly, we do need a review of the flood defences, and Sir James Bevan has said that that will happen. We do need a review of the drainage, gully and culvert cleaning around our constituencies to make sure that it is done properly. In pubs there is signage saying when the toilets were last cleaned, so what about having public provision for information as to when the gullies were last cleaned and when they are next going to be cleaned? That would allow the people to hold local authorities to account if they did not do this work.
Building on floodplains is absolutely bonkers. There was a famous scene on Facebook of one of the fields in my constituency, where permission had been given for 39 houses to be built—it was well underwater. We have to look for the sponges that exist throughout our constituencies so that they can take the flood waters. The extra building that is going on is insane and we need to examine that, as well as the use of woodland, which has been mentioned. The new insurance company, Flood Re, is great, but it will not cover houses built post-2009, and lots of houses have been built since then. We have to examine that, and I think the Prime Minister gave an indication that the Government are going to look at what is happening in respect of businesses, too. We have to look at the unadopted roads issue and that of dredging. For goodness’ sake, it cannot be beyond their wit to come to a conclusion as to whether dredging does or does not work, and, if it does work, to do it.
It does not work.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we are spending £20 million over the next two years, and if dredging does clear away some of the grit and debris and means that the water can flow through, let us do it. There is lots more that I will ask the Minister to examine in the period I have got left, but in the meantime I just wish to say to everybody who has shown selfless humanity over the past 10 days, thank you so much.
I will be as brief as I can to allow other Members into the debate. The impact of the floods on Cumbria cannot be overstated: homes and businesses face significant damage; schools have been closed; and roads have disintegrated, as the Minister knows only too well. The estimated cost of the damage to Cumbria has been put at £600 million, but the truth is that it is likely to be higher. The A591 from Grasmere to Keswick has become completely impassable. Parts of the carriageway have crumbled under the force of the flooding. It is a key route for many people, including those travelling to schools. The damage caused to this road has put a 35-mile additional journey on people, which is having a profound impact in terms of time, cost and everyday life.
The support announced so far by the Government is welcome, but until it translates into a new road surface it is simply not enough. The highways authority, Cumbria County Council and my constituents need the Government to be more proactive in repairing key roads and infrastructure. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport to put a timeline on the remedial work required for the A591, and his response was that it was not a matter for Government. When local government is being cut to the bone, such shrugging of the shoulders simply will not wash. It is time to show some real leadership. As I said in the Chamber yesterday, the road needs to be open before Easter, as that is a critical time for the tourist economy, particularly for Keswick and the surrounding areas.
Another result of the floods was the profound impact on healthcare services in the county. A flooding emergency should never become a health emergency, with people unable to access the services on which they rely. Cobra should not be convened every time there is significant rainfall.
The West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven was not directly affected by flood waters, but the impact of the flooding on the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle had profound effects on the services available to my constituents. Patients were not able to travel from the West Cumberland to Carlisle; doctors and nurses were not able to get to work; and the hospital in Carlisle was running on back-up generators, without staff, bedsheets and more. That proved, once and for all, the sheer folly of transferring services from the West Cumberland hospital to the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle. Heavy rain in the Lake District should not mean that patients cannot access health services, and it should not lead international news bulletins.
In the wake of the flooding at the beginning of December, I called on the Government to create a dedicated Cumbrian infrastructure and resilience commission so that we could learn from the floods and put in place practical measures to improve defences, resilience and local infrastructure and the Government’s response to any future flooding, of which there will be more. I appreciate that since I made that call, many more communities across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been affected by flooding, but I would be grateful to the Minister if he undertook to write to me on this matter, because only by properly understanding, on a practical level, how and why the flooding occurred can we hope to defend ourselves better in the future.
The key issue at the heart of this debate is resources—the resources we need for flood defences, for improving community resilience and for rebuilding. It is unfathomable, therefore, that the Government are reluctant to apply for funding from the EU solidarity fund to help flood-stricken communities. International partners have contributed to an EU-wide fund to help communities hit by severe weather. The Government should commit to seeking these valuable resources from the EU fund, which was specifically set up to help flooded communities. The Government’s objective should be to help communities recover and to provide the resources they need as quickly as possible, and not to sacrifice those communities in order to save the Prime Minister’s face or assist with the internal management of the Conservative party.
Any support must reach those who need it quickly. It is all well and good announcing support, but until repairs actually start it is not much use. I hope the Minister will explain how the Government intend to get support to those who badly need it as soon as possible. My constituents have now experienced three “once in a lifetime” flooding events in the past 10 years. It will happen again, so complacency is not an option.
In Keswick and the surrounding areas, we need to look at dredging, fell-water management, bridge relocations, support for businesses, the Thirlmere reservoir and so much more. Nationally, we need comprehensively to change our approach towards flood defences, water management and community resilience.
My constituency is probably one of the highest constituencies in the city of Leeds, and on two sides of the valley we would probably not expect to see too much flooding. That said, on Boxing day I foolishly agreed to do the Chevin chase, which is a 7-mile run up the Chevin and along footpaths that starts near my home. We had had constant rainfall over the preceding weeks, but as we got on to Carlton Lane I was surprised to see the levels of water. Usually there is a little trickle down Carlton Lane, but this time the full width of the road was running like a river, and on top of the Chevin it was even worse. I have never seen anything like it. I knew at that point that it was going to be bad further downstream and particularly towards the city centre.
We have had localised flooding in my area. At Guiseley retail park some shops were affected. In Horsforth, lanes were closed and the River Aire burst its banks, as it did at Rodley. Even though the localised flooding was bad, it was much worse further downriver in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). As we know, the River Aire was at 3.3 metres. The retail parks were affected and flooded, as were the services that my constituents use along the busy A65, and all the trains going into Leeds and Bradford were cancelled.
There has been much talk recently of the Leeds flood defence scheme, and it is clear that we must get this right and look at it properly. I was pleased to join my fellow MPs from the city, cross-party, in asking for a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I was grateful yesterday to hear her commitment that we will have defences and that she will meet us. However, we must make sure that we get it right. We cannot afford for a major economic driver in Yorkshire to be at risk and for these poor people to go through such things again.
It is also important to ensure that we get it right further downstream. In communities further down the line, such as Elmet and Rothwell and Brigg and Goole, we need to make sure that there are no unintended consequences. Upstream, what we do in areas like mine will have a knock-on effect. I have raised on many occasions my concern about plans to build on the green belt. The council is planning to build more than 70,000 homes, which means that we need to find the sites for them. In my constituency, we have built on the brownfield sites and now we have only the green belt to look at, and some of those sites are flooding now. The Ings Lane site, where 300 houses are proposed to be built, looked like a lake. In the Wills Gill gate area, where hundreds of houses are proposed, it was exactly the same picture. In Horsford, over 700 houses are being built on the field between the A65 and the River Aire. If we are going to build there, we need to be sure that we know where that water is going to go.
As Jennifer Kirkby, the chair of the neighbourhood forum said, the council needs to think about how the whole city works, not build on floodplains, and we need to listen to the experience of local people. Another constituent said to me that we need to be a lot smarter about the concept of mitigation of run-on from these developments, because it is not just about rates of run-off but volume. Otherwise people further down the river will be severely affected. I hope that we will learn from the experiences that we have suffered in Leeds, across Yorkshire, and across the country.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to all the people at Leeds City Council, to the volunteers, to the businesses, and indeed to Ministers, who took the time to contact us all, and to Leeds Community Foundation for setting up an appeal that I hope people will support to help people in Leeds.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). I am very grateful that this debate is taking place, not least because my constituency suffered heavily from the floods, which inflicted much pain on many people throughout Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow.
As alarming as the floods have been, I have never been more proud to represent Rochdale after I witnessed the response to them. The people of Rochdale have done an absolutely incredible job in very difficult circumstances. I pay tribute to the outstanding compassion and commitment of volunteers and council staff. To name but a few examples, St Barnabas church at Shore did an excellent job as a hub where people could come together; the landlord at The Wheatsheaf pub in Littleborough was absolutely amazing; and I even pay tribute to the Conservative club in Littleborough, which acted as a great hub within the village to which many people came on many occasions. The Asian Muslim community and the mosques, in particular, right across Rochdale, did a sterling job in helping and assisting people. We even had a team of Syrian refugees out there filling sandbags to help the community, particularly in Littleborough.
I want to make a few brief points. The £50 million that the Chancellor made available is very welcome, but there are questions about how quickly it was given to local authorities. Richard Farnell, the leader of Rochdale Borough Council, did a sterling job in directing the local authority to help people, but he raised concerns that the Treasury might have delayed the Department for Communities and Local Government getting the money out there. I want the Minister to consider that. There are also questions about what that money can be used for. Can it be used for any purpose or only for certain purposes? Some clarity would be welcome.
Rochdale Borough Council did an excellent job in making £500 payments available to local residents and in cancelling council tax and business rates for businesses where appropriate, but I am still concerned about support for business. The idea of grants of £5,000 is fine for very small businesses, but the costs incurred by larger employers—such as Better Dreams Ltd in my constituency, which employs 80 people—run not into the thousands, but into the hundreds of thousands, and they are unable to get insurance. The Government and local authorities need to think again about how we help larger employers when they are adversely affected.
I want the Minister to consider one final point that has been raised with me: what support is available for councils to put right the damage to infrastructure, including roads, bridges and parks?
First, may I reiterate my thanks to not only the emergency services, but the families, friends, neighbours and communities who did so much during the floods to help the people of my constituency who were directly and, indeed, indirectly affected? I was also very pleased that the Prime Minister came to Carlisle immediately after the initial floods to see the issues for himself. That certainly set the tone within Government, and I fully recognise that Ministers have been up to Cumbria on a regular basis and have been very supportive, helpful and proactive in their response. I want to give particular mention to the floods Minister, my parliamentary neighbour the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has been extremely busy both as a Minister and in his own constituency.
I can only speak from my own experience of what the Government have done. I wrote to the Prime Minister immediately after the event, asking for support for the Cumbria Community Foundation. The Chancellor announced that the Government would give matched funding of £1 million, which has subsequently been increased to £2 million. I am very pleased that the foundation has also managed to raise £2 million itself, so we will have at least £4 million to help many families and individuals who have experienced great difficulties.
The Government have also introduced the Bellwin scheme, which is at 100%, not 85%, and announced £50 million to improve properties for future flood resilience and prevention; £5 million to support affected businesses; £40 million for transport infrastructure; and, of course, rate relief for both residential and business properties.
My office is already actively dealing with a number of queries from constituents as a result of the floods, which have had three principal effects on Carlisle. First, more than 2,000 residential properties have been affected—many, sadly, for the second time—but people have proved remarkably resilient and determined, and they are committed to getting back into their homes as quickly as possible. Secondly, it is vital that businesses recover as quickly as they can and get back up and trading, and that economic confidence returns to our city as soon as possible. Thirdly, education is often the forgotten sector, but three secondary schools and 3,000 pupils were affected, with one of those schools facing long-term issues. I am therefore very pleased that the Secretary of State for Education will visit, and I am grateful for her Department’s proactive support in responding to my calls for assistance.
A more long-term approach needs to be taken to the issue of flooding. The impact of flooding policy will affect many future Parliaments and Governments of different political colours. We should therefore consider long-term solutions, policies and initiatives to help our communities. The Government have already started that work with a six-year budget, and I welcome the announcement of a new Cumbrian floods partnership, which will consider all possible improvements to flood defences and flood prevention in Cumbria. Clearly, we need to look at all aspects—flood defences, prevention and resilience—and accept that there is no one solution for the whole country. Each area needs to be considered on an individual basis.
As for today’s motion, I have to say that I am disappointed with the Opposition’s approach. It would have been far better had they been more constructive and recognised that no policy or flood scheme is perfect and that there is a limit to the amount of resource that can be spent. Cumbria is a prime example of that. Under the last Labour Government, £50 million was spent on flood defences. Some of the defences worked and some did not. Was that the fault of the Labour Government? Let us have a constructive debate about the future of floods policy and do the right thing for our constituents.
On Boxing day, my constituency of Halifax and the neighbouring Calder Valley constituency were devastated by Storm Eva. I echo the sentiments that we have heard expressed around the Chamber and thank the council officers, emergency services and armies of volunteers who committed their time and effort over the Christmas period and selflessly came to help with the clean-up. Most of the volunteers were local, but some came from much further afield to play their part. Their staggering generosity and compassion allowed us to make a great deal of progress in the hours and days immediately after the floods. We are eternally grateful to them.
Early on in the crisis, Calderdale Council established community hubs in the affected areas from which the efforts could be co-ordinated. Christ church in Sowerby Bridge, which is run by Angela, the reverend canon, and her wardens, served the community with distinction. My staff gave up part of their Christmas break to help me open a temporary parliamentary office out of Christ church to liaise with the relevant agencies and offer support and advice to victims where we could. I thank them for their time.
The hubs served as a point where donations could be dropped off. Had it not been for the efforts of the volunteers at Christ church in organising and distributing the donations, the church would literally have been overwhelmed with the cleaning products, food, toiletries and clothes donated by individuals and businesses to assist the flood victims. Because there was such a huge response to the call for donations of clothes, the local authority has opened a pop-up charity shop in Halifax town centre, where the excess clothes donations are being sold. The money raised is going to the community foundation fund for the flood victims, which the Government have agreed to match.
I turn to the impact on residential properties. There are a number of old mills and factories along the River Calder, which are a reminder of our days as a textile powerhouse. Many of those buildings have been converted into apartments. I met residents who lived in some of the ground-floor apartments, where every room was flooded. They lost everything from the white goods in their kitchen to the clothes in their wardrobe. I spoke to one resident who had been informed only days before the flood that his insurance would not be renewed because of his proximity to the river. He had been unable to resolve the situation before the floods wiped him out on Boxing day.
I visited businesses, some of which are big employers in my constituency, that had never been flooded before. The cost and devastation that have been caused by being flooded just once mean that they are thinking long and hard about whether they want to rebuild in the same premises. The shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs joined me on a visit to Pulman Steel, which was visited twice by the Chancellor in the run-up to the 2010 and 2015 general elections. It is faced with having to refit its factory completely and is battling hard to be up and trading again at full strength as soon as possible.
Today, I have written to the Chancellor, inviting him to make a return visit to Pulman Steel. From his previous visits, he will know that it is a supplier to a number of key northern powerhouse infrastructure projects, so it is of strategic importance to the north and beyond that it operates at full strength as quickly as possible. I ask for his support in getting it there. It is essential for the local economy that we remain an attractive place for businesses to operate. We need to ensure that they have the specialist support they require to get back on their feet as soon as possible.
With regard to the damage to infrastructure in our area, I thank the Secretary of State for her comments yesterday about Elland bridge and its national significance. I am keen not to reduce this debate to one exclusively about funding because a comprehensive strategy to combat the effects of floods needs to be about changing attitudes towards the environment and climate change, as much as anything else. Having said that, I am mindful that a change in attitudes alone will not rebuild our damaged bridge or repair our highways in the short term.
Let us be clear that the floods that hit Yorkshire on Boxing day have brought untold misery and suffering to a record number of people, not to mention the devastation to homes, businesses, communities and, of course, infrastructure. In the Calder valley, almost 2,100 homes have been flooded, 1,500 businesses have been flooded, four schools have been closed, three bridges have been lost and there has been record damage to roads and infrastructure. An initial estimate of the cost to the borough of Calderdale is about £16 million.
For all the misery and suffering, the community spirit has been absolutely amazing: neighbours helping neighbours, communities from all over the country coming to the Calder valley in their hundreds to try to make the pain and suffering a little more palatable. A special mention has to go to the Calder Valley flood support group, the Hebden Bridge community association, the Todmorden town hall group, the Mytholmroyd community group and the Community Foundation for Calderdale. In conjunction with Calderdale Borough Council, which did a sterling job, they organised volunteers, clean-ups, food, drink, household clear-outs, plumbers, gas men, cellar pumping, roofers and just about any task one could imagine. There are too many individual stars to mention, but they know who they are. Let us not forget the flood wardens. One in particular I will mention is Keith Crabtree. He worked solidly for 48 hours, went home and had three hours’ sleep, and then came back straight to it. The model we have in the Calder valley—we have been flooded before—is one that can be used as a good beacon model around the country.
I also have to mention the Secretary of State and her whole team. Their response has been rapid and absolutely spot on. There were visits by the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. They were followed by a visit by the Floods Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who I must praise. He must have seen an incredible number of communities—I think nearly 60—over the course of the whole Christmas period. Well done that man.
On the back of those visits and the constant phone calls, we got an emergency relief package of £12 million for Calderdale. The Chancellor, as has been said, is matching up to £2 million in donations and providing an immediate £40 million for flood defence repairs in Yorkshire. As the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) mentioned, Elland bridge has been classified as a national priority by the Secretary of State. That is a great package to start, delivered in record time, which will help to make the pain and suffering a little more palatable going forward. However, it must not stop there. In the Calder valley we saw the completion in 2015 of the £30 million three-phase flood defences in Todmorden, but we need a much quicker turnaround from the Environment Agency. Three-and-a-half years after the last floods, we are still waiting for a flood defence model for both Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd. It says it will have a £15 million shortfall in funding, even with the partnership model.
I would like to ask four very quick questions. The Secretary of State has said several times that the schemes for Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge are in the pipeline, but there is the £15 million shortfall. Will she tell us where the money will come from? The pledge to rebuild Elland bridge is a national priority. May we have an assurance that this will be fully funded? Of the £40 million pledged for flood defences and repairs, we know that £10 million is going to the River Foss in York. How do other areas tap into that fund? That is not clear at all. Finally, we need money for our schools. In particular, Todmorden High School did not receive the money pledged last time. Can we please have a look at that, too?
Three key areas of concern have been raised repeatedly by my constituents with regard to the recent flooding. I would like to consider each one briefly in turn.
First is the controversial issue of dredging our rivers, and the damage to the farmland that lies next to riverbanks and to the riverbanks themselves. In Cumbria, we have huge quantities of gravel that wash down from the fells. In former times, parishes and landowners were expected to keep the watercourses clear of gravel and silt. Since this regular management has stopped, local residents and farmers tell me that not only has this raised the height of the rivers but that bridges have huge deposits of gravel around them. This restricts the flow of the rivers. There are also huge deposits of gravel on the farmland next to the rivers. I recently visited a farmer in Papcastle, near Cockermouth, who after the previous floods had spent £35,000 clearing his fields. He now faces exactly the same situation. He is faced again with the same tasks, but with increased costs.
Secondly, on planning and development, we have to stop building on floodplains and consider the potential impact of all proposed developments on other properties. In Dearham, I visited properties that had never flooded before, and across the beck at the back of them was a new housing development, while in Cockermouth, a development at Strawberry How is strongly opposed by local people, in part because it would straddle a zone 2 flood area, the Tom Rudd beck.
The third and most important issue has been raised already: insurance. I welcome Flood Re, which is designed to improve the availability and affordability of insurance for home owners, but it does not include businesses or leasehold properties. We must consider urgently how to provide adequate cover in these areas, especially the lack of support for businesses, particularly small businesses. Business flood claims tend to be for loss of trade, which can be significant, and the consequences for small businesses, some of which might not be able to get insurance after the latest floods, can be catastrophic. The number of bankruptcies will increase and businesses will close. If we do not do something to support small businesses with flood insurance, we risk losing beautiful, independent high streets, such as Cockermouth main street, forever, because only large national chains will be able to afford to trade there. We cannot allow this to happen. The Association of British Insurers has made some interesting suggestions for supporting small businesses with flood insurance, and I urge the Minister to consider them seriously.
Finally, I want to make one small point. Many businesses in Cockermouth were only allowed to make an insurance claim if they chucked away all their stock, whether it was damaged or not, which is completely crazy. Will the Minister look at whether that is necessary, and if it is not, will he contact the insurance companies?
I commend the Floods Minister for his magnificent work during the flood crisis over the Christmas period: he was accessible and responsive at all times. The same applies to the Secretary of State, who was magnificent, and to Ministers and the Department for Communities and Local Government. I cannot praise them enough for how responsive they were at a very difficult time. The same applies to the emergency services and Army, which provided magnificent support, and Bradford local authority, which got off to a shaky start, but then got going. In particular, the dedication of Mike Powell, in the emergency planning department, who dealt with queries I put to him at all hours of the day and night, was much appreciated.
The amazing work of the volunteers was beyond belief. The Bingley flood support group, based in the scout headquarters in Bingley, and the Baildon Shipley flood support group, based at the Salvation Army premises in Shipley, were magnificent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) said, so many people helped, but, in particular, I would like to mention the magnificent work of Michelle Chapman at Bingley. I cannot praise the volunteers enough. The number of people who have contacted me to say they would not have coped without them is amazing. Our thanks go out to all of them.
I am grateful to the Government for the speed with which financial assistance was given to local authorities such as Bradford—£600,000 went into its bank account in record time—but I echo the point from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk): I hope the Government will keep that figure under review, because I suspect that much more will be needed in the longer term to help people back on to their feet. The immediate flooding is over, but for many people the effects continue, as they clear up the mess and get back on their feet. I hope the Minister will make a longer-term commitment to residents and local businesses to make sure we hold their hands and get them back up and running again as soon as possible and give them all the support they need.
On flood defences, there are short-term and long-term concerns. I hope the Minister will reflect on the fact that river levels are still very high in many of our communities, so extra rainfall in the short term could cause flooding all over again. I wondered what short-term measures were going to be put in place to make sure that some of those defences were put together very quickly to prevent that from happening. I also wonder what longer-term measures are in place.
We have heard the spat between the Government and the Opposition about who spent what, who spent more and so forth. That is all very interesting, but I suspect that most of my constituents could not care less about who spent more or less. What my constituents in Shipley want to know is how much is going to be spent now in the Shipley constituency to stop what happened happening again, what will be done with that money and when it will all take place. If the Minister provided some clarity on those points, I am sure my constituents would be very grateful for it, rather than for a party political spat about who spent what and when and what was cancelled and when. It is what we do from now on that seems to me to be the most important thing.
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) that we cannot carry on building houses on floodplains and then complain when they all get flooded.
Finally, let me reiterate the point I put to the Prime Minister earlier today about the overseas aid budget. There seems to be a limitless amount of money going in overseas aid to help communities abroad when they suffer great tragic events such as flooding. Well, our communities suffered in just the same way as the communities in other countries did, and they expect the same level of financial support. Some £500,000 was spent on a flood alleviation scheme in the Caribbean that helped one person. We want some of that money spent here to help our people—and I make no apology for requesting it.
Let me start by sending out our sympathy and empathy with the people affected by these devastating floods in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Scotland. I had the experience in my own constituency of seeing about 50 homes flooded in Otley, and farmland along lower Wharfedale between Otley Pool and Arthington was flooded, leading to the very sad sight of sheep being washed down the stream, unable to escape the floods.
I want to pay my own and my party’s tribute to the police, fire and rescue services, the ambulance service, mountain rescue, the armed forces and council workers who have helped, and I particularly want to join those paying tribute to the amazing community spirit shown by the many volunteers who came out in my area and other areas around the country to assist by offering shelter when the flooding happened and subsequently with the clear-up.
We saw a magnificent response in Otley from a huge number of people. Mel Metcalfe organised clear-ups and was helped by the Featherstone brothers. Ben Featherstone worked with me and a fantastic team of retained firefighters from Otley fire station to pump out water from under homes. Niki Taylor and the Wharfe Valley appeal fund raised more than £4,300, with £1,000 of that coming from the Otley Lions. The team at B&TS Building Supplies provided free sandbags and offered free home carpets to people who were not insured for flooding, while electricians and gas workers, including Chris Higgins, Brian Wise and Jon Kilmartin, were helping residents for nothing. It was an absolutely amazing response.
The damage has been huge, with an estimate by KPMG of £5.8 billion across the UK, while for the north of England, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest it could breach £1.5 billion. We need to look back to the decision to cancel the £180 million or £190 million Leeds flood alleviation scheme in 2011—something that I, as a Leeds MP, strongly opposed. The then DEFRA Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) who I see in his place, said that it was “a Rolls-Royce” scheme
“where a reasonably priced family car might serve some of the purpose”.
Sadly, he was wrong at the time; we needed a better scheme, and now we are paying the price. The damage done to Leeds by not having a scheme is considerably more than it would have cost.
There were extraordinary front pages and editorials in both the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post. The damning editorial in the former on 27 December said:
“Mr Cameron needs to remember that Yorkshire and the North will not become an economic powerhouse if left to the mercy of ‘unprecedented’ weather events because past and present governments failed to invest in adequate flood defences and contingency planning. The Prime Minister should be aware that the cost of inaction is greater expense in the long-term, and even more heartache for those families on the flooding frontline. It’s time for the political tide to turn, starting now.”
I hope that will happen.
Let me echo a point that was made earlier. The plans to build on floodplains, green fields and green-belt sites, in Leeds and in other areas, suggest that we need a rethink of the planning deregulation that the Government are backing, and Leeds City Council’s plan to build in such areas. Ultimately, of course, we also need to do more about flood alleviation, on the River Wear and also on the River Wharfe, in my constituency. I look forward to speaking to Ministers about both those issues. We must also tackle climate change, but some of the Government’s decisions have moved in the opposite direction.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Flooding events are miserable experiences for householders, and for businessmen and women. Many other Members have, like me, waded through the stench of a flooded home. In 2007, 3,000 homes in my constituency were flooded, and there have been many flooding events since. When I had the current Minister’s job, I had the miserable experience of witnessing events similar to those that have occurred recently.
When flooding events happen, many good things happen as well. As we heard earlier today, communities come together and there is great heroism. Flood defences work, and properties are protected. Emergency services are brave and stoic, save lives and do great work. However, there is also a tradition of stupid things being said and, occasionally, stupid things being done. We must be careful not to take a short-term view when flooding events occur.
One of the great knee-jerk reactions among many commentators—including, I am afraid, some Members of Parliament—is to say that the panacea for all flooding events is dredging. Admittedly, on some rare occasions it works. For instance, I have visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), and I know that improving river beds in such areas may well be the right thing to do. However, we could spend all the budgets that any Government would ever have on dredging rivers such as the Thames, and within two years they would be back where they were because of the way the silt moves down them.
If we want to improve the rivers, we must consider wider catchment issues such as land use management. We should bear in mind the extent to which farming has changed in recent years. If we look at a map of the Bristol channel two years ago, when all the excitement was going on around the Somerset levels, we see a large proportion of Somerset being washed into the channel in a plume of silt. That was caused by farming practices higher up, not in the area where the flooding was taking place.
There is an enormous amount of historical revisionism. I want to say a little about the Leeds scheme, because, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), I was the Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the time. That was an over-engineered scheme. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and a number of other local politicians from all parties, came to DEFRA when I was there, and we discussed the scheme at great length. If my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) were here, he would say that it would have been a disaster if it had been built at that stage, because it would have jetted water through Leeds into communities in his constituency.
We managed to convince people that a smaller scheme could work, and I gather that it is now being constructed and will protect a large number of properties. The other scheme, however, would have eaten into the budget of whoever was in government, and taken flood defences away from other communities which are represented in the Chamber today. Other Members’ constituencies would have been flooded. It is important for us to prioritise flood spending very carefully.
I believe that there is now a good opportunity for us to consider how we should address flooding in the very long term. Integrated catchment management schemes need to be thought through, involving agriculture, forestry, planning, water framework directive implementation, and the way in which we manage our uplands. We need to look again at the funding and investment models that we have used in the past, and at the economic assumptions that have been made. We need to ensure that the 5 million homes that are at risk in this country are represented here as well.
Last month was the wettest December on record in Wales, where we suffered the greatest amount of rain anywhere in the UK. In Pen Llyn it has rained, and this is not anecdotal, every day since the end of October, and homes and businesses across my constituency have suffered flooding.
I note the announcement by the Labour First Minister that funding of £3.3 million has been identified to help communities in Wales to recover from the effects of flooding. That comes, however, against the backdrop of the Welsh Government’s decision to cut the funding to Natural Resources Wales by almost 7%—something that the motion neglects to mention, interestingly enough. Although capital spending on flood defences is welcome, that cannot make good in itself for the long-term attrition in revenue funding. Have the Government considered whether the £2.3 billion announced for flood defences at the spending review can in any way justify 15% day- to-day departmental budget cuts?
When the culverts are blocked by detritus swept down by unprecedented rainfall, what is needed is someone on call at short notice to clear them out. What will it take for the Government to appreciate that such public sector jobs are necessary in a functioning society that safeguards its citizens?
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has called for farmers in Wales and the north to be paid to plant trees and maintain areas to soak up water.
Upland farmers and farmers in general have a great knowledge of the land, the weather and what happens. Is it not time that the DEFRA Minister took on board the experience and knowledge of farmers to ensure that some of the ideas they have to solve the flooding problems actually happen? They are ignored because they are not engineers, but they should be taken on board because they have the knowledge.
Indeed. As we have heard, there is an expectation on upland farmers and communities to play their part. They are ideally placed so to do and they are willing to help to address the flooding threat. None the less, planting trees needs to be a tailored response as befits a catchment-specific solution. It should not be just another capital project, a quick-fix panacea, which negates the need for environmentally sensitive dredging and other measures where they are seen to be appropriate. It is impossible in Wales to forget the environmental and social damage caused to our uplands by past initiatives to plant trees, initiatives that often resulted in vast monocultures of conifer plantations.
According to Gwenallt in his poem “Rhydcymerau”,
“Coed lle y bu cymdogaeth,
Fforest lle bu ffermydd”
“Trees where was once a neighbourhood
A forest where there were farms.”
Although slowing the upstream flow of water is a critical part of flood management into the future, environmental planning needs to be sensitive to the natural and working habitats of upland Wales and other upland areas. I also propose that safeguarding green areas and additional tree planting in towns and cities would help to soak up heavy rainfall.
Furthermore, I urge the Government to reconsider their continued reluctance to access EU solidarity funds in relation to flooding. If they are content to carry on doing so in England, so be it, although I note that many people here would like them to change their opinion. In relation to Wales, if they do not reconsider, they should at least allow the Welsh Government to access the funds, or consult and apply on behalf of the Welsh Government, as this Government is the member state. That would alleviate problems in Wales.
Lastly, I point out that the UK Government are able to mobilise the Army, yet devolved Governments cannot mobilise the Army and its help, except in extreme circumstances, as it is a reserved matter. The UK Government should revisit that matter and implement a function whereby devolved Governments can mobilise the Army to assist in such circumstances. I also note that basing Welsh regiments in Wales might be a good starting point to be able to do that.
I am obliged to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in the debate. Two years ago, my constituency saw some of the worst flooding witnessed in that area since 1947. I regret to say that there was a fatality. A seven-year-old boy, Zane Gbangbola, was killed as a consequence of the flooding. The inquest into his death is going to be held next week. For two years, his parents have barely managed to get over that appalling loss.
My experience and that of my constituents was that Ministers were responsive. There was a commitment to spend money on flood defences, and generally there was a feeling that Government and governmental bodies— the ambulance service, the fire service, the police— responded reasonably well. Luckily, in the past few weeks, we have not been affected by the flooding that has ravaged so many parts of the country, particularly in the north, but we are always alert. We are always watching in case the rivers rise to a level at which homes are endangered.
Reflecting what others have said about flooding, I have seen many homes that have been flooded. I went to one in my constituency with the Prime Minister. There is nothing more inconveniencing or more depressing than being flooded out of one’s own home. In many cases, even now, two years after the appalling floods of 2014, people still have not returned to their homes.
I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way. Does he agree that in his constituency, like mine, we know that the response to flooding may be good, but constituents in our areas are concerned about prevention and action on prevention?
My hon. Friend is right. The steps that the Government have taken towards preventing flooding in our areas in the Thames valley have been impressive. There has been a commitment to a flood defence scheme. Obviously, more could be done. Discussions are being held about funding and about the balance—how much should be contributed by central Government and how much by local government. That is a legitimate debate.
I am glad about the spirit in which much of this debate has taken place. It is not a good arena for a party political slanging match, which was set up by the motion. I am pleased to see that the course of the debate has not reflected the partisan and highly opportunistic nature of the motion.
One of the other things we have to bear in mind as legislators and as representatives of constituents right through this county is the long-term plan to try and deal with the phenomenon. For whatever reason, we have seen much more flooding in the past 10 or 15 years than was the case in the preceding 50 years. The Government owe it to everyone in this House and to our constituents to have a robust plan to deal with flooding and with a range of natural occurrences on a much more strategic basis, with much more long-term planning. We do not want to be in a situation where, whenever flooding occurs, we rush to have a debate, to recriminate and to urge the Government to spend more money.
It is easy for politicians to say that we should spend more money. I totally understand that that is a human thing to want to do, to make sure that our defences are adequately resourced and that we are spending money effectively to meet a problem, but we have to recognise that we are still borrowing £1.4 billion a week. It is good that the Secretary of state is mindful of her obligation to balance the books as well as to provide relief.
May I begin by paying tribute to the council workers, police, fire officers, Environment Agency staff and the Army who sacrificed Christmas with their families to protect other people’s families in the grip of flooding? May I pay particular tribute to the Penny Appeal, a charity based in my constituency which, with boxer Amir Khan, brought much needed biryani to Cumbria and the lake district before Christmas?
We know flooding is the greatest risk that climate change poses to our country. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Committee on Climate Change. The 2015 national security risk assessment says that flood risk is a tier 1 priority risk alongside terrorism and cyber-attacks, so I want to look at the Government’s record on flood defence spending, outline the impact of flooding in my constituency and look to future resilience.
The 2007 floods were the largest civil emergency since world war two. Tragically, 13 people lost their lives and 40,000 homes were flooded, 1,000 in Wakefield. The Labour Government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt to ensure the lessons of those floods were learned, and his key recommendation was that flood defence spending should rise by more than inflation each year. We acted on that recommendation, and in three years flood defence spending rose from £500 million in 2007 to £670 million in 2010. As Labour’s shadow Environment Secretary from 2010 to 2013, I watched in horror as the coalition Government cut flood defence spending by nearly £100 million in 2010—a 27% cut in capital funding.
I asked the House of Commons Library to research what the impact of that decision was over the last five years. It calculated that, had spending continued as Pitt recommended from that 2010 baseline, flood defence spending should have been £3.468 billion over the last 5 years, but under the coalition Government it has been just £3.228 billion. That is a flood defence funding gap over those five years of £240 million.
Despite what colleagues on the Conservative Benches are saying, the consequences of that funding gap are stark. In Leeds, the UK’s third largest city, a planned flood defence scheme was cancelled in 2011. That scheme covered the Kirkstall area of the city, which was under water two weeks ago. We have a smaller scheme that will be ready in 2017 and will only protect against a one-in-75-year flood, not the one-in-200-year event under the original plan. So when the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions today that no flood defence schemes were cancelled, he was wrong.
There is a north-south divide when it comes to funding to deal with flooding. The annual budgets of northern metropolitan councils have been disproportionately cut. Cuts to Wakefield council alone between 2011 and 2016 are predicted to reach £149 million. Maintenance of highways and bridges and drain and gully clearance have all had to be cut—invisible cuts but very visible when the waters rise.
I am very pleased that after the 2007 floods I got £15 million for flood defences in Wakefield. Thanks to that investment we were not impacted by these recent floods, but flooding did hit a number of houses and businesses in Calder Vale and Horbury Bridge. When I visited them on Saturday, people told me they were concerned about the availability and affordability of flood insurance, and they were not claiming on their insurance because they were worried they would not be able to get insurance in the future—and some were simply uninsured.
The deal, or statement of principles, we had with the insurance industry was based on flood defence spending rising by more than inflation each year, as recommended by Sir Michael Pitt. The new scheme does not cover businesses or homes built after 2009. This needs to be looked at urgently.
If flooding is a part of a national security risk, we need to see the resilience review the Minister is going to undertake, reporting to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
When I stood up to my knees in flooding back in 2007, it never dawned on me to try to make politics out of the flood victims in my area; it never dawned on me to make reference to the cuts in flood defence budgets by the then Labour Government; it never dawned on me to make reference to the advice they were given in 2000, after the floods that also devastated my area, on what they should spend, which they roundly ignored. I always thought of the flooding primarily as a human issue rather than a political one, so the wording of today’s motion is disappointing.
As somebody who was born and bred in my area and who is very proud of my area, it is also disappointing constantly to be told by Opposition Members, most of whom only appeared in Yorkshire when they won the nomination for a Labour constituency, that there is a north-south divide and we are in some way being badly done by. That is not helpful; it is all about creating bitterness and division, when really we should be trying to have a sensible debate.
I was disappointed, too, by the comments of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) with regard to the flood scheme in Leeds. I do not know the details, but I live further down the River Aire, just 15 feet from the river at the point where it meets the River Ouse. In the lower catchment, we are aware that many of the flood defence schemes that have been put forward in the past would have pushed the water further down on to other communities. There has been a strategy of getting water from the upper catchment to the lower catchment as quickly as possible.
A number of tidal rivers—the Aire, the Ouse and the Trent, and the Dutch river, as we call it, which is known as the River Don elsewhere—meet in my area at the point where they hit the Humber. The strategy of moving water from the upper catchment to the lower catchment as quickly as possible is a real danger to people in our area, and also to some of those further along in the middle and upper catchments. I welcome what the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have said about the need for wholesale catchment reviews. We must not look at schemes in isolation but must consider the impact that they will have further down.
My area was very badly affected by the tidal surge in 2013. More people were flooded out in my constituency than in the whole of Somerset, and I believe more than in the whole of southern England. We were hit by floods in Goole in 2010 and 2011, and we were hit in 2007 and 2008 and were on flood warnings again this time. Thanks to investment, the river defences fortunately held, but we are repeatedly hit in my area. As I said in interventions, we must change the whole way in which we address flood defence funding in this country.
Under the last Government, as under the current one, flood defence funding peaked after an event and then fell. The Labour Government cut flood defence funding before the massive 2007 floods, which devastated more homes in Yorkshire than the flooding we have just had. It then went up again, then was reduced, then spiked to a record high post-2013. All Governments have been guilty of that, and we have to change it.
I again make the pitch I have made on numerous occasions. In our area, we drain 20% of all England and we are at extreme risk of flooding. We flood repeatedly, and it has got to end. We need the special strategy for the Humber that the Secretary of State has committed to, which I welcome, but what people in my area really need—I say this as somebody who was born and bred there and is proud of it—is not politics but cross-party consensus to be made out of flood victims so that we do not have the devastation we have seen too many times in my area.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am going to reduce the time limit to three minutes to give everybody equal time.
Many communities, families and businesses in my constituency have been affected by the recent flooding caused by Storm Frank and the persistent rain in the days following it. The worst of the flooding has been in Deeside. In Ballater, many residents had to be evacuated from their homes, and cars and other possessions were washed away. The 16th-century Abergeldie castle, not far from Balmoral, now teeters on the edge of the River Dee after land between it and the river was swept away, and work to save that historic building is going on as I speak.
Braemar was also badly affected, and for a while was completely cut off from the east, with no accessible roads, no phone lines and no internet. In Aboyne this has already been the wettest January on record, and it is only 6 January. Further down the Dee, Corbie hall, which is used by a number of groups including the Maryculter Rainbows, Brownies and Guides, was completely overcome by water, and the shed in which equipment was kept was swept downriver. Farmers have also been badly affected, and the suddenness of some of the flooding meant that some lost large numbers of livestock.
Unfortunately it is still raining, so residents across Deeside are bracing themselves for further flooding. I am sure Members will join me in sending our thoughts and sympathies to my constituents at this time.
At this difficult time, I must also pay tribute to the emergency services, Braemar mountain rescue, the community off-road transport action group and the coastguard, which all worked tirelessly over Hogmanay and into the new year to assist those in immediate danger. Tribute must also been paid to Aberdeenshire Council and SSE engineers, who have been working hard to co-ordinate clean-up efforts and restore power to homes that have been flooded.
The greatest tribute, however, must be paid to the volunteers. Among all the loss and devastation, we have seen the very best in people, with communities across Deeside and in Aberdeenshire more widely coming together to assist those affected by flooding. Whether that has been through donations of food, essentials, dehumidifiers and heaters, through offers of free services or through driving many miles to get sandbags, it has been fantastic to see. The Hope Floats Facebook page has more than 5,000 members, many of whom have been actively involved in volunteering or giving donations. Furthermore, the Ballater Charitable Chiels JustGiving page has raised more than £20,000.
The Scottish Government are providing money for flood-hit communities to allow local authorities to help businesses with their business rates and to relieve council tax payers of their council tax bills, but those affected by floods will want to know all the assistance available. That is why I again urge the Government to make an application to the EU solidarity fund. When I asked the Secretary of State about that yesterday, she said that it could take more than seven months to get the money. For communities facing the impact of the flooding, that money will still be useful seven months down the road. It is worth noting that the EU solidarity fund website states:
“Emergency measures may be financed retroactively from day one of the disaster.”
I am fortunate that my Newark constituency has not been seriously flooded in this winter’s flooding, but it has been among the worst-flooded of any constituency in the country over the past few years. Forty towns and villages in my constituency have been flooded in the past three years alone, including the beautiful cathedral town of Southwell, which was devastated in 2013. More homes were flooded in that small town than were flooded in all the Somerset levels in 2014. Some residents are still not home.
As other hon. Members have said, being flooded is not only a terrible inconvenience, but can be an individual tragedy. Some of those tragedies do not become apparent until sometime later. I have met constituents whose elderly parents were rescued from their homes by the emergency services and taken elsewhere, very confused and scared, and died in temporary accommodation or nursing homes, having never returned to their own homes. Essentially, their lives were washed away by the floods.
Some good things have undoubtedly come out of the floods, particularly in Southwell, which I hope gives a glimmer of hope to other communities. That community was brought together wonderfully by those events. A very important and award-winning flood forum was founded.
In the short time I have, may I make three observations drawn from our experiences in Nottinghamshire? As this is an Opposition day debate, inevitably a blame game crops up, but the Secretary of State and more recently the Minister could not have been more helpful to my communities. They have had the greatest and most helpful can-do attitude. Together, we have begun to achieve quite a lot for those communities.
My first point is that we need a more local approach to prevention and maintenance, as well as to the implementation of new flood protection schemes. In communities such as Southwell where there are superb flood forums, I ask the Secretary of State please to make use of them in her flood review and gain the benefit of their experiences. I ask her to make small amounts of money available to them. They need that money immediately to create websites and fliers and so on. Those are invaluable. Where we have those groups and they do such a good job, I ask her to use them and not simply to rely on the Environment Agency and such large, often excruciatingly slow, organisations. We should use those forums and the internal drainage boards. I heard from someone or other in the Labour party over the winter that IDBs are hopeless and out of touch, and that they are dominated by biased landowners. The opposite is true in my area: the Trent valley IDB is superb.
Secondly, I ask the Secretary of State please to use local people so that we can use public money better. This debate should be about getting value for money for the taxpayer, rather than simply about the quantities.
My last point in the dying seconds that I have available is this: we need to explain to the public that many people will be flooded—
The hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) said that we should not play a blame game. The floods were unprecedented, but they were not unpredicted. It is the job of the official Opposition to hold the Government to account. We have listened to hon. Members backslapping in the Chamber this afternoon, saying, “We have learnt the lessons. We were quick in the response,” but that is not the point. The point is that this is a national tragedy that, according to KPMG, is likely to cost the country £5 billion, £2 billion of which will simply repair the existing defences and restore them to their pre-flood inadequate level. Twelve years of the entire 2014 maintenance budget of £171 million will be squandered. So, follow the money. In the last full year of the Labour Government we spent £633.1 million in cash, £703.4 million at 2015-16 prices.
Will the hon. Gentleman please expand on where this £2 billion figure for repairing flood defences comes from? I have no recognition of the figure whatsoever.
It comes from KPMG.
In 2010-11, we spent £670.1 million in cash, £724.4 million in today’s prices. In no year since then did this Government exceed that in either cash or real terms until last year, when they put in emergency funding of £140 million to repair the damage done by the 2013-14 floods. Without that emergency money, the budgeted figure was only £662.6 million. Again, that figure is lower. If the Minister wants to check where it comes from, I can tell him that it comes from his own DEFRA figures on his own website. That emergency money cannot be equated with normal maintenance. We are talking of wholesale repairs, rebuilding bridges and floodwalls after they have been destroyed. Most people would say that when someone repaints the windows of their house or repoints the chimney stack that that is maintenance, but when a bulldozer slams into their living room that is a disaster. Only this Government appear to count the rebuilding of the living room as normal maintenance. It is not. That is the con trick—the smoke and mirrors that the Government are using. Instead of congratulating themselves on spending that money in the first and only year in which they spent more than we did in 2010-11, the Government should be apologising for cutting the programme so badly.
In 2014, the Government’s long-term investment scenarios report recommended an optimum overall investment—the Secretary of State was right to point out that it was an overall investment—of £750 million to £800 million a year. If that were to be achieved, the Government would need to spend £417 million a year on maintenance, which is also in her report. That adds up to a £2.5 billion gap in flood defence spending between 2015 and 2021, exactly as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said.
Grouse moors and sheep farming lead water to run straight off hills into populated valleys. Burning back heather reduces areas of peat and the ground’s ability to retain water. Climate change affects how much rain falls and how much water ends up in our towns and cities. That is our problem. We need catchment management and we absolutely need to see what the Natural Capital Committee will do and what it will advise the Government, but we must take on board the fact that land can no longer ignore the public good that it must provide. The grouse moor economy brings £100 million a year into this country, but its cost is incalculable. The Minister must take note and sort this out.
I praise people across York for the generosity that they have shown over this Christmas period, as well as the businesses that have given so much to help with the clear-up operation and the recovery. However, it would be a dereliction of my duty if I did not ask the difficult questions that result from the crisis. I have pages upon pages of concerns from constituents to which I am trying to seek answers.
We have been able to establish that the risk that the Foss barrier would fail was known. It was understood through successive reports over many years that the capacity of the pumps at the barrier could not match the challenges of climate change and the volume of water coming down the River Foss. That has now been established as fact through the Environment Agency and reports from the local authority, but questions remain. Why was the barrier not upgraded sooner when that was known for more than 12 years? Why were there only two mechanisms to operate the pump and why have no steps been taken to raise the level of the electrics in the nearly 30 years since the barrier was established? York needs answers to those questions and I trust that we will hear them later.
Today, I also want to focus on the additional help needed now by families and businesses who have experienced devastation this Christmas. As I have gone door to door, I have seen the damage and smelt the rancid waters, but £500 barely touches the initial costs that families face now. Many will not be able to claim the £5,000, but the £500 for people without insurance barely buys them anything. Many people in my constituency have only the clothes that they stand up in, and £500 will not go far enough. They are too poor to buy insurance. What additional resources will the Minister make available to the poorest people in my community? To do nothing is not acceptable, and they cannot rely on charity.
The Traveller community in my constituency lost everything, including their homes. The rescue operation did not happen among that community, and I want to know what additional support will be provided for Travellers. Victims of poverty and flooding should have a Government who will not abandon them in their time of need or leave them to rely on charity. They need a Government who will take action. I also want to know how the Government will support businesses more. I want a guarantee that the Government will seek to prevent businesses from going into administration, as many in my constituency are likely to do. Finally, the local authority plans in York did not work well on the ground, and I would like an external audit of those plans to ensure that they will be efficient and effective when the need arises.
Just a few weeks ago, on 15 December 2015, we spoke in this Chamber about the devastating effects of Storm Desmond in Cumbria. Sadly, we are now here again debating the aftermath of Storms Eva and Frank and the devastation that has been wrought in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Scotland, along with many other areas in the north. During that debate on Storm Desmond, I welcomed the announcement of a national flood resilience review to assess our infrastructure, with particular reference to electricity substations. I mentioned that because many areas of Lancaster, including the hospitals, many homes and businesses and the university, suffered from long power cuts caused by unforeseen flood damage at a substation in Lancaster. I made the case for electricity substations to be better protected from flooding, to avoid disruption to our healthcare, education and business institutions.
Unfortunately, on Boxing day, my constituency was battered by Storm Eva. Roads were flooded, people’s homes were damaged and a 20-foot sinkhole opened up on the M62, causing massive disruption to travellers on Boxing day. Rochdale town centre was also hit extremely badly by the unprecedented rainfall. One major issue affecting my constituency was a prolonged loss of power, again caused by flood damage to an electricity substation. Around 20,000 homes in the borough of Rochdale lost power, and Electricity North West worked day and night to try to restore services. Again, this has emphasised the importance of adequate defences for our power stations and of a properly funded flood defence policy, with the north getting its fair share.
I would like to use my final minute to pay tribute to our emergency services, whose response over the holiday period was incredible. Two days before Christmas, I visited Heywood firefighters to wish them well for the festive season, not quite anticipating what was in store for them. Heywood fire station is one of only two Greater Manchester fire service stations that has a water rescue unit and firefighters who are fully trained in its use. The water rescue unit was deployed to help with the widespread flooding in areas of Greater Manchester, and its response was magnificent. However, those same firefighters are extremely concerned about further cuts to their services. They are worried that there may come a point when they simply do not have the workforce to be able to deploy their specialist vehicles. It is all very well having the latest kit, but without sufficient numbers of firefighters to operate it, that kit becomes redundant. Finally, it will come as no surprise to the Secretary of State that I again call for the creation of a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service to respond to flooding.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) spoke earlier of a fatality in his constituency two years ago. I had a fatality in my constituency last month, when Mr Ivan Vaughan’s car was trapped in a flood. It appears that he got out of the car and was washed away. Sadly, he died.
Questions have been asked today about whether dredging works or not. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said that the flood prevention programme following the devastating flooding in Somerset in 2013-14 was working and that dredging was proving effective. I know that the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) indicated earlier that he was less enthusiastic about dredging, but certainly in my constituency in Northern Ireland we need further dredging, and I have been campaigning for that in Lough Erne. I know the Secretary of State and the Minister will say that that is a devolved issue, and I accept that, but the Electricity Supply Board and the Republic of Ireland Government have a role, and therefore so, too, do the UK Government; this is a four-party agreement. There are aspects that this Government need to look at.
We have had a dispute here today about finances, and about who is right and who is wrong, some of it between the Opposition and the Government, and some of it between the Labour party and the Scottish National party. I do not want to get into that argument, but I do know that there is a serious difference between the compensation or the money available to homeowners who have been affected in Northern Ireland compared with the money available here in England. Here, it is up to £5,000 for businesses and homeowners, whereas in Northern Ireland it is only up to £1,000, and that is limited to homeowners.
I asked yesterday about the Barnett consequentials. I know that the Secretary of State said that it was a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, but if additional money is going into flood defences and repairs in England, surely the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are entitled to the Barnett consequentials of that. I would like a specific answer on that aspect, just to see whether that can boost the support and help that we and the devolved institutions receive.
More than 2,000 homes and up to 400 businesses in Leeds were hit by the floods, but what a fantastic, heroic job the emergency services, public sector workers and local volunteers did in Leeds, as they did around the country. Locally, we still await estimates of the financial cost of the flooding, but we know that in human terms it has hit people and businesses hard. We need to ensure that Leeds residents and businesses are properly protected, and we need an urgent review to put in place changes that prevent it from happening again.
Five years ago, the Environment Agency estimated that 3,000 properties in Leeds were at risk and that a major flood of the River Aire could cause £500 million of damage in Leeds city centre alone. Five years ago, given the estimates of the scale of the potential cost of flooding in Leeds, it proposed a £180 million flood defence plan, designed to deliver protection against a one-in-200-year flood event—the Government rejected it. Why? It was because of spending cuts. My Leeds East predecessor, George Mudie, raised concerns about the risk of flooding at that time—half a decade ago—as did Councillor Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s executive member for development, who condemned the Government as “short-sighted”.
We are now halfway through the construction of the smaller Leeds flood alleviation scheme, which is designed to deliver flood protection against a one-in-75-year event. That itself will now undoubtedly need repair work, and the Government review, working with Leeds City Council, must consider the following: whether the scheme, if it had been completed, would have been sufficient to prevent flooding in the city centre; whether it would have helped in any way in Kirkstall; whether it will be sufficient to protect against future floods; and whether that one-in-75-year figure is still appropriate and, if not, what further funding is needed for improved defences.
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) is seeking a meeting for Leeds MPs and council representatives with the Minister, and I hope we can have that soon. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister three times today whether he would commit to funding fully plans to give the whole of Leeds the protection that we need, and three times the Prime Minister failed to give a clear answer. People in Leeds and people across the country deserve better.
Very briefly, Mr Neil Parish.
May I thank the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the floods Minister for all the work they have done on the flooding in the north of England? We now need a fundamental review on floods, as they are occurring more often. In the past, there may have been a flood every 25 years or 50 years, but now there is one every five years or 10 years. The frequency may be down to climate change or it could be part of a pattern, but something is fundamentally wrong.
We must ensure that internal drainage boards have more powers, so that more can be done locally and that more dredging can be done. We must also learn the lessons from Somerset, where large pumps were brought in from the Netherlands. If we need pumps, let us move them around the country and ensure that we can pump out all the water. Rivers close to the sea and inland rivers are very flat and silty and tend to need dredging. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) was quite right to say that chalk streams and rivers do not need the same amount of dredging.
We must also look at land management. At the moment, farmers are given compensation only when there is a loss of earnings. We need to look at that land and say, “Why don’t you farm that land in a way that allows you to have an income from it?” I am talking about planting trees or retaining water in the peat. Farmers might then view managing flood protection in a much more positive way. If we can put all these things in place, we could slow down the amount of flooding that is happening, but if we have 13 inches of rain in 36 hours, it is very difficult for any flood protection scheme to protect everybody.
What the people of Cumbria were absolutely certain about today when they attended an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was that they have all worked so well together and that their communities and their emergency services have performed well. They were delighted that Ministers had turned out to support their local communities. It is essential that we work together to change what is happening and to put enough money in place.
I plead with the Chancellor to view flood protection as very much part of our infrastructure. If we are to build infrastructure, we need to protect it from inland floods and the sea. We need look only at the Netherlands to see that if we want to protect the country, we need sea and coastal protection. These floods have been a wake-up call.
My very final point is that if we look at the amount of spending on flood protection, we will see that it began very slowly during the last Labour Government, but then it started to rain and the flood money went up, and the same happened under the previous Government. Now we are seeing a bit of tit for tat between the Government and the Opposition, but what this Government need to do is put together a package that will ensure that we have the right funds in place to protect us.
We have heard already that David Rooke, deputy chief executive of the Environment Agency, recently called for a “complete rethink” in our approach to flooding. I could not agree more. More than an entire month’s rainfall fell in a single day on one Saturday in early December, resulting in many of the main rivers across Cumbria exceeding their highest levels ever recorded. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, the Government appear to have been caught short by the changing weather.
The extensive flooding that followed at the end of December and into the new year across Cumbria as well as in Lancashire, Yorkshire, north-east England and throughout much of Scotland confirmed that building higher walls will not, on its own, provide the protection that our towns and cities need. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people in the north of the country and in Scotland who have seen with their own eyes the evidence that the Government have not done enough. We should not overlook how sick they are of the Government’s excuses. Let us not forget that areas of Cumbria assessed as having a one-in-100 years’ chance of such flooding have experienced these events three times in the past decade.
Similarly, people are tired of the frantic efforts to persuade the public that spending is greater now than it was under the previous coalition and Labour Governments that went before them. As my hon friend highlighted, the Government are constantly chirping about their £2.3 billion of capital spending over six years, but their attempts to defend their record over the previous Parliament will not wash. Analysis from the National Audit Office has confirmed that, between 2010 and 2011 and 2013 and 2014, capital funding fell by 18% in cash terms. Were it not for the emergency funding after the floods hit, total funding would have fallen by 10% in real terms during the previous Parliament.
In 2007, the Labour Government announced an ambitious target of £800 million per year in flood defence spending by 2011, and spending actually increased by 27% between 2007 and 2008 and 2009 and 2010, reaching £633 million, with £766 million budgeted for in 2010-11. What was the Prime Minister’s first action on flood defences when he came to power in 2010? Yes, he handed out a £96 million cut in the budget, leaving the Government lagging behind thereafter and struggling to keep pace. According to the House of Commons Library, subsequent years’ spending was hundreds of millions below what the Environment Agency said it needed, even when the extra millions in response to the tragic floods in Somerset are considered. The Secretary of State said earlier that others have contributed to make up the difference. I ask the Minister who has made these contributions and how much have they contributed to the overall budget.
While money was no object for the Prime Minister a couple of years ago, it does seem to be an object now. As we have heard from hon. Friends, on three separate occasions today he refused to confirm that he will fund the full Leeds flood defence scheme. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) told us that that project had been over-engineered, but we still need action, and we need it now. The Prime Minister has no excuse for the failure to act on the upgrading of the Foss barrier several years ago, yet he seemed pleased with himself today when he said that the work is now being tendered—little consolation for those who saw the waters invade their homes.
The Government are even less enthusiastic about revealing precisely how much of the capital spending is simply maintaining existing flood defences at their current level without providing increased protection. As the Committee on Climate Change has identified and the events of recent weeks have confirmed, the impacts of a changing climate will see defences that might otherwise provide protection against a one-in-100-year flood provide a much lower level of protection, risking their being overtopped more frequently.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken on a number of different issues. There has been much praise for volunteers, local authority workers, the military, and the Environment Agency. A great example came from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who talked about the pop-up charity shop providing goods but also raising cash for victims. All this is Britain at its best.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) talked about the small communities affected, because many of them feel abandoned. I am looking forward to my meeting with the Minister, I believe next week, to talk about the proposals to help smaller communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) talked about the River Aire and spoke of businesses ruined. Sometimes we forget that jobs are lost as a direct result of these things, with machinery ruined and insurance protection not really in existence.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) spoke of a field under flood where planning permission has already been granted for more housing development. I wonder what mitigation is in place for the houses that are going to be built there and on the other floodplains where housing has permission to be built. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) also spoke about floodplain development, as well as insurance, which was covered by other Members.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) talk about the threat to health services in Cumbria—we know how remote places there can be. He also mentioned the potential damage to the oncoming tourist season. It is not just people’s holidays that are going to be lost, but people’s livelihoods as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to Members saying how great the response had been, and it was, but the spending on that response has been counted as maintenance whereas in fact it was repairing damage.
As I argued in the House during the debate on the Housing and Planning Bill only yesterday, we need measures aimed at prevention as well as at defence. The havoc and devastation that have engulfed vast swathes of the northern regions is testament to that, underlining the need for in-built resilience when new developments are planned and constructed. The Minister for Housing and Planning said that sufficient legislation is in place, yet we continue to see planning permissions for floodplain development and no real requirement on developers to build into their schemes the measures needed in the immediate and longer term.
The commitment from the Secretary of State to revisit the modelling used by the Environment Agency and to review its fitness for purpose off the back of these repeated unprecedented weather events, as well as to a national flood resilience review that will update worst-case-scenario planning, is welcome, if not overdue. What are the timescales for this review? When we can we expect some outcomes and some news?
Well, this summer is better than next year.
I offer this challenge: what happened to the innovative thinking of the previous Labour Government who left office in 2010 and who had accepted the recommendations of the Pitt review that would have seen much greater resilience of this kind? Let us take, for instance, the catchment management plans within the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Despite giving the Environment Agency responsibility for building an understanding of current and future flooding risk, and informing policies for managing this risk within the catchment area, those plans were axed post-2010 as the agency’s funding was cut. The Secretary of State spoke about this, and I hope the Minister will tell us a little more. What thought has been given to changing the incentives for farmers and landowners in river catchment areas, particularly in the upper reaches of river catchments, which play a key role in determining flood risk?
I need to wind up now. It is time to recognise that our rivers, streams and watercourses are natural infrastructure assets, and the Treasury and others have to treat them in the same way as motorways, trunk roads and other infrastructure if we are going to build resilience into the future.
May I begin by paying tribute to the debate, which has been very detailed and serious and has properly reflected the fact that this has been a very unusual and very complex situation? The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) talked about the unprecedented nature of the rainfall. As has been said repeatedly, every kind of record has been broken, including those for rainfall in 24 and 48 hours and that for rainfall in a month.
As right hon. and hon. Members across the House have emphasised, it has been the most extraordinary and horrendous experience for people. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for highlighting the impact on the Traveller community in York Central, who are among thousands of people affected—we now know that more than 12,000 separate homes were affected by this extraordinary experience.
The emergency services have been astonishing. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has paid tribute to the fire and rescue service. We should also pay tribute to the police gold commanders and the sergeants and policemen standing on the streets, in the rain, day in, day out, securing the safety of communities, and to the Army, from the company sergeant-major standing in the streets of Appleby and the 100 men clearing out houses, to the commanding officer of the Light Dragoons working his way up and down the Calder valley. We also note the work of the Environment Agency and people such as Adrian and Phil, who struggled with the problems with electricity to the Foss barrier, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has said, the actions of councils up and down the country. The council response has been fantastic
The hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) paid tribute to the Muslim communities, which in their different way have contributed, as have the Sikh and Hindu communities. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), I saw church representatives out with hot cross buns at 4.30 in the morning. We also note the sea cadets standing up to their waists in rain water, as well as mountain rescue, the boats and Team Rubicon, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) has pointed out, we also note the thousands of anonymous members of the public who got out of their cars and then continued on their journeys.
I also want to take a small moment to pay tribute to Members of Parliament themselves. On that first evening, I saw the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) out on the streets of Cockermouth. I saw the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) working with the Methodist Church, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle working from dawn to dusk. I also saw the hon. Member for York Central and my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty and for Shipley, as well as colleagues in St Michael’s and at Hebden Bridge—and they are just the Members of Parliament I happened to see as I worked my way around the country.
I also pay tribute to the Flood Forecasting Centre and the work done by the Met Office, which gave us the important warning. That was also central for our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. The floods in 1953-54 killed 450 people, and one of the reasons we have been more fortunate this time is that we have the warning systems in place.
In the short time available to me, I want to touch on some of the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members in relation to recovery. Elland bridge was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I reassure them that we are working very hard, particularly on the telecoms challenges in relation to that bridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty raised the issue of Tadcaster bridge. I reassure him that we have been able to get Balfour Beatty to work for the next three days. We have located a temporary footbridge, which will be put in place.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) raised the issue of the A591. For the first time ever, Highways England has agreed to take over, from beginning to end, the project management of a county council road, and it will deliver that in the quickest time possible.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) mentioned the challenges with regard to electricity. My hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle and for Calder Valley raised the challenges for schools. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Education will be there to deal with those issues herself. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned household grants and the hon. Member for Rochdale raised some of the challenges for businesses. I am pleased that the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, who is in her place, is addressing that problem directly. The hon. Member for Workington raised the issues in respect of insurance, which we are dealing with along with the Association of British Insurers.
I want to set all the other issues in context in the very limited time available. Whether, like the many right hon. and hon. Members from Leeds, we are talking about specific defences; fairness in other parts of the country, as was raised by the hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) and my hon. Friends the Members for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon); the unintended consequences raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy); building on floodplains, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and the hon. Member for Workington; the challenges of culverts, which were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley; the disagreements about dredging, which were evident in the conflict between my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley and for Newbury; farmland, which was raised by the hon. Member for Workington; upstream alleviation, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury; forestry, which was raised by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts); or the overall strategy, which has been pushed hard by the hon. Member for Copeland, we come again and again to the importance of having an independent objective judgment by the Flood Forecasting Centre and the Environment Agency that is respected by this House.
These decisions cannot be made through party politics. The resources must be allocated on the basis of flood risk, the number of households that will be protected, the position of those households on the deprivation index, the businesses that will be affected, the agriculture that will be affected, and the impacts on productivity, infrastructure and electricity. Those issues of cost and complexity will be central to the debate.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I have only a minute and a half to go, but I am happy to continue the discussion with well-informed Members such as the hon. Gentleman.
Perhaps a hundred different arguments have been raised in the House today, but to come to a close, there seem to be four main conclusions to be drawn from this debate. The first is that in an emergency situation, we must, above all, act decisively. We must think big and we must think early. It was very important that the Environment Agency moved 85% of its assets up immediately. The Cobra meeting was held on 23 December, even when there was uncertainty about the floods, to deal with an issue that would come up on Boxing day. The military deployed immediately.
The second thing to be taken from the debate is the importance of understanding and compassion. This can become a technocratic debate about numbers, but it is really about the horror that is experienced in individual households. Our ability to listen to those households will be central to our ability to go forward.
The third lesson from this debate is one of humility. We are dealing with extraordinary issues of climate and uncertainty. We are breaking records in a way that has never been seen before in this country. There needs to be a joint cross-party response that is not limited to this House, but that reaches out to the very best scientists, commentators, experts and members of the Environment Agency who are available to deal with the challenge.
Finally, this debate is about localism. It is about local knowledge. Every scheme and every response needs to respond to local knowledge. In one community it might be about dredging, in another it might be about a pump, in another community it will be about the clearing of trees and in another it will be about upland storage. We need to look at what we are doing with forestry and what we are doing with peatland restoration. We need to understand that some schemes take 25 or 50 years to succeed, but that they should be undertaken nevertheless. As the Secretary of State said, we need to start the 25-year planning now.
Whatever our other disagreements, this country has responded very well to the emergency nature of the floods. There has been a good emergency response in Scotland, a good emergency response in Wales, a good emergency response in Northern Ireland and, I believe, a good emergency response in England. The only way in which we can go forward is with the utmost seriousness—seriousness about science, seriousness about evidence and seriousness about the formulas we use to allocate the funding in a way that is fair to the entire United Kingdom. If we get that determination correct, I believe that we can move forward with the humility and attention to local detail that will allow us to deal with perhaps one of the most serious crises of our generation.
6 January 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details