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Storm Eva: Local Authority Support

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for local authorities after Storm Eva.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, even if it is later than scheduled. The first challenge of debating the flooding that devastated parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire over the Christmas period is that just one Department can respond. In considering what support local authorities will require as they seek to emerge from these difficult times, nothing short of co-operation from almost every single Department will be sufficient. In calling on the Department for Communities and Local Government to hear the challenges that we face, I hope the Minister will be working with his colleagues across Government to respond as comprehensively as possible.

For the purpose of today’s debate, I am representing Calderdale Council, which includes both my constituency of Halifax and the neighbouring Calder Valley constituency. Areas around the Dean Clough Mills complex in Halifax town centre, and particularly Sowerby Bridge and Copley in my patch, were devastated by the floods on Boxing day in weather that had not been seen in living memory. However, the devastation further down the valley in Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge, with further damage in Elland, Todmorden and Brighouse, has put Calderdale Council under unprecedented pressure of a primarily financial nature.

I attended a transport working group meeting at Halifax town hall on Friday with my friend, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). The chief officer for highways and engineering, John Lamb, who is doing a fantastic job, described the River Calder as having become “weaponised” over Boxing day, picking up everything in its path and using it to smash its way through the valley, taking on the bridges, roads, homes and businesses in its path.

To give Members a quick overview and to demonstrate the breadth of the range of problems, 2,781 residential properties and 1,635 businesses have been affected by Storm Eva in Calderdale. Nine electrical substations were flooded, resulting in widespread power outages, with some properties without electricity for four days. Eight schools across the district were damaged, and at least two of them will be closed for a prolonged period. The police station in Sowerby Bridge and the fire station in Mytholmroyd were flooded, and general practitioners’ surgeries, Sowerby Bridge leisure centre, libraries and Sure Start centres along the river all sustained damage.

With that in mind, I hope the Chair and the hon. Member for Calder Valley will grant me the freedom to speak about the needs of the local authority as a whole, taking into account the challenges facing our constituents, who will traverse both constituencies on an almost daily basis. I start by thanking the Government for their announcement earlier this week that £5.5 million will be made available for the rebuilding of Elland bridge. Having to rewrite this speech in the wake of that good news was a welcome inconvenience. The floods envoy, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), hit the nail on the head when he said during the announcement:

“A good local transport system is the lifeblood of the region, and key to a thriving economy.”

As the Minister may already know, the communications network that crosses Elland bridge is essential to businesses in the area, so discussion now moves from funding to the speed with which we can get it back up and running. Partly due to the bridge’s status as a grade II listed building, it is estimated that a replacement bridge will not be in place until December 2016.

Elland bridge will not be the only damaged structure with listed building status. Although, as a history graduate, I appreciate the significance of listed buildings in principle, where a listed structure is no longer fit for its intended purpose and, conversely, presents a danger to the public, what power do the Government have to work with Historic England to consider lifting that status, thereby giving local authorities, or in this instance, the Canal and River Trust, the greatest range of options for reconnecting communities as quickly as possible? I hope the Minister will consider looking into that.

Although the £5.5 million for Elland bridge is extremely welcome, new problems resulting from the flooding are arising on an almost daily basis, which is increasingly worrying. New landslips are compounding the existing damage. The combined cost of damage to infrastructure as a result of that weaponised river and the broader impact of Storm Eva—just to be clear, this excludes the money allocated for Elland bridge—is now in the region of £18.5 million. I am not saying that for impact or effect, and I am not rounding up. That is what we are facing in the cost of highways alone, and it is financially terrifying. I hope the Minister recognises that Calderdale Council will need support to cope with the scale of damage to infrastructure and that constructive dialogue on how to do that will follow today’s debate.

On where some of that money might come from, like many of my colleagues and constituents, I am confused as to why the Government have not yet applied to the EU solidarity fund for financial support. The Prime Minister said that he had looked carefully at the question of EU funding but decided that it was “quicker and better” to give the people the help they need from our own resources. Although it is a relief that we must have the resources to meet the financial challenges that I have just outlined, I ask the Government to think again and apply for the solidarity fund. There may be strings attached to that funding, but the Government have failed so far to give a credible answer as to why they have sent that opportunity begging. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to think again for the benefit of all those who stand to gain from tapping into that fund?

I visited several businesses in Sowerby Bridge immediately after the floods. Some are big employers in my constituency that have never flooded before, but the cost and devastation caused by flooding just once means that they are thinking long and hard about whether they want to rebuild in the same premises or to leave the valley altogether. I met small and medium-sized enterprises that had struggled to find affordable insurance due to their proximity to the river. At least one of the bigger businesses that I visited had business interruption insurance, but it is anxious about whether that same protection would still be available at an affordable price if it were to rebuild in the same location.

I mentioned in the recent floods debate in the main Chamber that Pulman Steel, a business in Sowerby Bridge that was visited by the Chancellor twice in the run-up to the 2010 and 2015 general elections, is faced with completely refitting its factory, and it is battling to be up and trading at full strength as soon as possible. I have written to the Chancellor inviting him on a return visit to Pulman Steel. He will be aware that Pulman Steel 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 is up and running. I ask the Chancellor to put his high-vis and his hard hat back on and to come and discuss with Pulman Steel how its situation has changed and what his team could be doing to support it as a key player in our local economy.

A shot-blasting company at Lee Bridge in Halifax and its neighbours were flooded three times in four weeks over the Christmas period due to a complicated culvert system that runs underneath the small industrial estate. Calderdale Council has identified that 800 businesses, which employ 4,588 people, will need financial support following the floods. The grants of £2,500 from Government funding are going out to businesses and are making a difference, but businesses such as the ones I have mentioned need specialist business support—they need not only cash but expertise. They face dilemmas around how to hold on to customers while they deal with the impact of the floods, or around how to remain competitive when they are faced with increased insurance bills, or quite simply around how to keep trading when the back wall of their premises and half their stock have ended up in the River Calder, as was sadly the case at some of the businesses that I saw at Tenterfields business park.

The local authority can provide some of that support, but I am here to echo Calderdale Council’s request to the Government that staff from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills get out to flood-affected areas and work with the local enterprise partnerships to bolster the specialist business support that could make such a big difference. I hope the Minister is in a position to give us assurances today that he will work with his colleagues in DBIS to send those delegations out from our central offices and to get experts’ boots on the ground, where they are most needed.

Everyone in this room will also appreciate that we cannot talk about business support without pressing for affordable insurance. The Federation of Small Businesses has carried out research that suggests that 75,000 smaller businesses at risk of flooding had found it difficult to find flood insurance, and that 50,000 had been refused cover.

Later this year, Flood Re is set to provide access to affordable insurance for around 350,000 households. Whether it is through an extension of Flood Re or through an alternative scheme, we must look long and hard at how we can offer the same protections to businesses that we have been able to offer to residents. The Association of British Insurers does not believe that extending Flood Re to businesses would be the answer. However we do it, we must find a way of delivering affordable protection, and I hope the Minister might be able to update hon. Members about any progress that has been made in that regard.

I appreciate that the issue of flood defences has one foot firmly in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but in this instance I believe that the other foot is firmly in the Department for Communities and Local Government. In an article written by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that was published in the Yorkshire Post on 30 December, she suggested that £280 million in Government funds will allow flood prevention schemes to go ahead in a number of areas, including Calderdale. Calderdale Council and the Environment Agency have worked closely together to identify which schemes would be required and where. Under the current funding formula, however, once the maximum Government contribution has met the maximum possible funds available from the local authority and any other funding streams, there is still a £15 million shortfall in delivering those projects.

Of course, the flood defence formula that we are dealing with is the one that was changed just before 2010, and it causes particular problems for many people in our area across Yorkshire and the Humber, and particularly for a number of houses. I make that point not to be political—both Governments have operated under it. Does she agree that we need a root-and-branch review of the whole formula because it does not work in the way that people hoped it would, and are now ending up with situations in which schemes will not be funded because they do not have match funding?

The hon. Gentleman might be right. Actually, what we have got to look at is those schemes that were in place and how much they were going to cost. Will they work? Will they be effective in the light of the new models and the damage that we have seen this time? What would the cost of those schemes be, and how do we consider meeting that cost from Government and local authority funding?

I know that at least one scheme in particular would benefit the shot-blasting business that I mentioned, which sits directly above the culvert at Lee Bridge, and so I plead with the Minister to speak to his colleagues at DEFRA to seek clarity on behalf of the local authority, so that work can begin on those schemes—where they are now appropriate—without delay.

On a very pragmatic note, a proposal that I do not believe would cost a great deal at all is a national floods conference. It would be a meeting for all the affected local authorities to come together to discuss their experiences with the Government, but more importantly with one another. They could share best practice, and examine what worked and what did not work in terms of both flood defences and the emergency response to the flooding.

I genuinely believe that Calderdale Council responded as quickly and efficiently as was possible, but I hear from other hon. Members that they did not necessarily have the same experience with their local authorities. Further down the valley from Halifax in Hebden Bridge, there is a volunteer flood warden scheme, for example. Flood wardens have not been necessary in my constituency before now, but I am keen to explore this possibility, which may also be useful to other areas. What training have those wardens in Hebden Bridge had and how did the local authority mobilise them over the Christmas period? Would Calderdale benefit from more emergency planning? Do other local authorities, in Cumbria for example, already have emergency plans in place?

If there are examples of best practice that can be shared and lessons that can be learned following Storm Eva—and following Storms Desmond and Frank, for that matter—will DCLG consider organising such a national conference sooner rather than later, so that we can all learn from these recent experiences as we start to plan for the future?

I thank the hon. Member for giving way again, precisely because my area floods so consistently. Does she agree that one thing we should consider is organising from the bottom up rather than from the top down, through local parish councils where they exist? In my area, many of the parish councils now have emergency plans—they have been provided with funding from the local authorities to develop those plans. Actually, it was the people on those councils who, after every flooding incident we had, were the people out there on the ground. They have the connections into the local authority and the Environment Agency. That model exists already and we need to spread it across the country. That bottom-up approach, through parish councils, emergency plans and emergency committees, can be really effective.

I completely appreciate that intervention and those local schemes are very effective. For example, in my constituency—I am not aware of what the hon. Gentleman is doing in his constituency—such schemes might be effective, and that is why some oversight and some co-ordination might be helpful to get them off the ground. That is all I will say on that.

Finally, I return to the issue of volunteers and the at-times heroic efforts of local council officers and the emergency services. It was overwhelming to see the number of volunteers who came out to help following the worst of the rains on Boxing day. Ordinary people—most of them from the local area, but some from much further afield—came to play their part in the clean-up. The staggering generosity and compassion of those volunteers, who gave up time over the Christmas period that would otherwise have been spent with family and friends, allowed us to make a great deal of progress in the hours and days immediately after the floods. Volunteers took the lead on cleaning up the streets, and on helping homeowners and businesses with the removal of ruined and contaminated goods and furniture, which freed up council officers to deal with the most serious incidents. The depth of the community spirit that got us through the worst was staggering.

There were also acts of outstanding bravery from our emergency services, who worked around the clock to remove people from harm’s way. A local authority cabinet member told me this week that she had taken car keys from a council officer who had worked for almost four days straight with barely any sleep and called him a taxi, because she was worried that he was too exhausted to drive himself home. That is not an exceptional case. Council officers and staff came in to work over the Christmas period without a moment’s hesitation.

Will the Minister consider recognising outstanding contributions where local authority staff went over and above and served with distinction? Will he ask his colleagues at the Home Office to extend the same recognition to the emergency services and the volunteers who gave so much to their communities in what were desperate times? I appreciate that more could be done locally to recognise key individuals and key contributions.

I could go on, but I am aware that several hon. Members want to put their “asks” to the Minister. I will leave it there and I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and the Minister’s response.

Order. Before we proceed, I advise Members that we will have Back-Bench Members’ contributions until about 5.48 pm. We can continue to 6.12 pm because of the delays that preceded this debate, and I intend to call the Front-Benchers to make their winding-up speeches from about 5.48 pm. You can all do the mathematics in that, and could you please try to be succinct to give proper leeway to the mover of the motion at the end of the debate, so that she can have a minute just to speak about how the debate has gone?

Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak. As always it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship.

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate on a subject that has affected both of our constituencies on a horrendous scale. In total, 2,700 homes and 1,635 businesses were flooded; three bridges are down; four schools were affected; there was a landslide that affected 17 homes, and a school was closed as a result; and there was major damage to vital roads and other infrastructure all over Calder Valley and indeed all over Calderdale. So far, the bill for the infrastructure damage alone is in excess of £20 million, which is massive, and that is not to mention the pain and misery suffered by many of our constituents.

The Government response to date has been rapid and welcome: a £12 million package for households and businesses to help with initial costs; Bellwin at 100%; and, as has already been mentioned, £5.5 million for Elland bridge, which is in Calder Valley. We have also had £2 million in match funding, which I know has been welcomed by a lot of people locally.

As my neighbour, the hon. Member for Halifax, has already said, we need further help, but I will not go over the ground that has already been covered. Instead, I will raise two main points on relieving pressure on local authorities. First, insurance is a problem for most people in businesses. We know Flood Re takes effect from April. Sadly, it will not help homes that could not get insurance this time before the floods, but it will in future. The major issue is that Flood Re does not include businesses. So many of my well established businesses, despite paying for flood insurance, in some cases for decades, are now finding that they have not been covered for flooding. The results are catastrophic for many. It will mean many businesses in Calder Valley will not reopen, and many jobs and much expertise will be lost.

In reply to a question a couple of weeks ago during Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the insurance industry says all businesses will be offered insurance. That may be the case in some instances, but it is not the case for many.

Those that were offered insurance saw phenomenal premiums with equally high excesses. A local sandwich shop was offered insurance for £10,000 with a £10,000 excess. A local factory owner was offered insurance, but with a £30,000 excess for flooding. A world-renowned British furniture manufacturer in Mytholmroyd was insured for stock but not equipment, and lost more than £600,000. Christmas orders were massive, but there were no facilities to fulfil those orders.

A destination retailer lost £650,000. A fireplace manufacturer and retailer, offered no option of insurance, is facing ruin. A major supplier of coir mats to supermarkets and hardware stores all over Europe lost all its stock. It had no insurance; no stock to supply ongoing; penalty charges for non-delivery; and it is tied into its current lease for three years. If those businesses manage to get up and running again, they face no prospect of being able to get insurance and no prospect of getting out of leases to relocate. If they do relocate, our local valley bottom towns will die: places such as Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Elland. We need our businesses to stay to feed our local economies and keep the skill set that has grown up with these businesses over decades and generations.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. He is absolutely right to focus on business insurance and the problems that local businesses face. However, is it not also true that many businesses have not been flooded, but are hugely affected because the wider regional economy is affected? Is it not right that we send out a clear message that Yorkshire is open for business? My area and that of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) are certainly open for business, and I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency is definitely open for business.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I had a call only this morning from a local farm business—Porcus—that supplies pork sausages far and wide, not only in Calder Valley but in many of the flood areas as well. The business is down 75%, even though it has not been hit by the floods.

We are supporting private homes with Flood Re, but to not support businesses with insurance is criminal. Will the Minister consider urgent talks with the insurance industry and look again at Flood Re—if not Flood Re, something else—to include businesses as well? If no urgent progress can be made, will he look at introducing secondary legislation to force insurers to insure companies for floods at a level that is affordable and fair to all?

As I have said, the pain and suffering of Calder Valley residents over Christmas has been horrendous. To have the possibility of losing their jobs as well as their homes and businesses is a bridge too far—if you can find a bridge in Calder Valley still standing. The situation is dire, and the Government could help in a way that would help far more than a simple cash injection. On behalf of Calder Valley business owners, please, please, please can we sort out their plight with insurance? That would also alleviate many pressures that the local authority is currently picking up on.

My second point—I will be brief—concerns planning and co-ordination. The floods happening on Boxing day meant that many people were at home, and help among communities and neighbours was humbling and incredible to see in action. A multitude of agencies and Government Departments were very difficult to contact and get hold of because they were not working, because it was Christmas, or they were on holiday.

Local farmers were saying in November that the moors and hilltops were saturated with water after record rainfalls in November. Some were warning that if we had severe rainfall in December, we would be in trouble, as the only place for water to go when the land up above is saturated is downhill. That is exactly what happened.

It took several days for the recovery to get fully under way because of the lack of agency co-ordination among Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, the National Grid, utility companies, including mobile phone providers —we had areas with no phone coverage at all—Calderdale Council, the Canal and River Trust, Network Rail, highways, police, fire, ambulance, the Army, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am sure there are many more.

In areas such as Calder Valley, where we suffer from flooding on a fairly regular basis and where the floods are getting far more frequent and severe—we had floods in 2000, 2007, 2012, and of course recently in 2015—we need one individual or one individual agency to take responsibility on behalf of all agencies, not just to mobilise all agencies as a co-ordinated response, but to flag areas where flooding can be reduced. For example, if Yorkshire Water had released some capacity from reservoirs in November, the flow downhill could have been slowed. The Canal and River Trust could have opened locks at strategic points. The Environment Agency could have warned residents to move cars, for example, in multiple parking areas that were flooded. All that needs co-ordinating through one person or one body. Although it would not have prevented all the flooding, it would have prevented some of it and would have saved millions of pounds’ worth of damage to infrastructure and personal possessions.

To sum up, may we have a serious look at having one person or one body that will be responsible in areas such as Calder Valley for co-ordinating a rapid response from all agencies during disasters like the one we have just experienced, and that will also hopefully help to prevent them on the scale that Calder Valley has just experienced?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing today’s debate. There have been different experiences, but we are hearing very much from Yorkshire today. Many aspects of the operations in York are to be highly praised—the mountain rescue team, the Army, the public sector workers who gave up their Christmases, and the awesome response from volunteers across the city, mainly co-ordinated through one person, Chelle Holmes, and her Facebook page, “York Floods 2015: Help for the affected”, with its 14,000 members, which put together the operation. That, together with BBC Radio York, became the mainstay of communications.

Other parts of the operation have been heavily criticised by people on the ground. Much of this has boiled down to communication and co-ordination during the flood period. It has now become clear from a meeting in the city last Friday that the local authority had no plan for the Foss catchment should flooding occur, despite the council’s strategic flood risk assessment highlighting a greater than one-in-10-year risk of the capacity of the River Foss exceeding the capacity of the pumps at the barrier. To give some context, the River Foss is protected from the far larger river, the Ouse, by a sixteen-and-a-half-tonne steel barrier. When flows of the Ouse rise, the barrier is closed to protect the Foss catchment, and eight pumps are switched on to pump up to 30.4 tonnes a second.

The capacity of the water was 35 tonnes a second over Christmas. The pumps could not cope, and water surged up into the pump house, where the power for the pumps and operations for the barrier were. The decision was therefore to switch off the power supply and lift the barrier in the belief that this was the least worst option and could save 1,000 homes. Reports from the Environment Agency going back to 2004 show that there was a risk of this happening. In the 30 years of the barrier, there has been no attempt to raise the level of the electrics, which are at a low level. There was a plan to lift them higher, but planning permission was denied to the agency at the time.

The revelation that there was no plan should the barrier fail and not be able to cope is quite astounding, and it has left people in York angered, upset and certainly with a host of questions that still need answers. I have been inundated with correspondence. I have been going door to door, and I have held a series of community meetings with residents and with business to ensure that we drill down on the issues and raise them, as we now are, with the various agencies.

I want to raise various points about action for the future. The first and perhaps most vital is that I want to see all local authorities having flood plans externally audited. This will ensure that we will have the right support in place at the right time and that local authorities are not left with the burden of marking their own homework. We know that there were certainly some serious flaws in York during the flooding. Vulnerable people, particularly those in an elderly residential complex and an area where Travellers live, saw no one at all from the council. People self-evacuated when the waters rose. There were also difficulties with the sandbag operation—not only were there problems filling them, not enough shovels and not enough personnel to fill them, but there was no distribution plan. That must be addressed.

There were problems with phones even before 45,000 phones went down—an issue that is the subject of a different inquiry. If someone whose home was being flooded called the number that the Environment Agency gave to the council, they got an answer machine message saying that the council was returning to work on the Tuesday morning. That is not good enough. When the phones at the council came back into operation, just four people were answering calls. We need proper plans in place.

I am listening with interest to what my hon. Friend is saying about the response of her local council. In my city, Leeds, the council responded to the floods amazingly. Nevertheless, the council is worried about the future and what the additional cuts to its budgets will mean, not only for its day-to-day capacity for things such as keeping gullies clean, but for how it will respond in emergency situations. Does my hon. Friend share those concerns?

Absolutely. Part of the inquiry I am carrying out is about how much cuts to date have affected the resources available to the plethora of agencies involved and how that will be addressed in future, what with further cuts planned, including to the fire and rescue service, which was overstretched over the Christmas period.

People gave up their Christmases, but there was no one to direct them to where they should volunteer. Again, that was a serious problem. I could discuss other issues, such as electrics being switched on in residential council accommodation without sockets being checked and people being denied their £500 despite their properties being flooded. The list is enormous—it is six pages long—but the Minister probably gets the gist: things must be improved. The council has said that it will carry out its own independent investigation. It is incredibly important that it truly is independent, that all questions are asked and that no stone is left unturned.

I want to share some of the other questions and issues that people have raised. We must recognise that the agencies came together and ensured that nobody died, but important questions have been raised. First, the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that we hold a conference to try to share best practice was excellent. We are learning a lot at the moment, so it is important that we share best practice in a structured way to ensure that local authorities draw on it to respond to communities.

Secondly, I ask the Government to hold an inquiry into the communications failure. Elderly residents who depend on their Lifeline personal alarms were left without any communications at all. I explained earlier the situation with the phones. When phones go down in an emergency, we should be able to switch systems. Even the ambulance service did not have a system to call on. We should be able to switch call centres to enable a continuous response. We must even look at the basics on the ground. Someone with a loud hailer or a siren could have made such a difference to people’s lives.

Thirdly, I very much support the point made by the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about expediency in responding. We have a local barracks, but we had to wait for a process to be gone through before soldiers were mobilised. It could have been done a lot quicker. I am going to meet Brigadier Strickland to discuss future military involvement.

Fourthly, we have heard about the success of the flood wardens on the ground who were able to bring things together. There is now a real appetite among the community to ensure that flood wardens are part of the future strategy. It is really important to draw on that experience.

Fifthly, there is concern about drainage, which relates back to the point about local authority resourcing. Gullies, drains and ditches must be cleared. Surface water was a factor in the flooding in parts of the city, so we need to ensure that the right resources are in place to address it. We must also ensure that drainage and sewage are dealt with appropriately, because Yorkshire Water suffered a breach when its pumps failed and sewage went into the mainstream water supply.

Sixthly, we must ensure that there is better flood literacy. There is an assumption that people know how to address issues appertaining to floods and how to build resilience for the future. We cannot make assumptions in these situations, so it is vital that we ensure that there is proper education around floods—what people need to do, how they should respond and how they can protect themselves for the future.

On that point, because volunteers were so enthusiastic—so keen to get involved and help people where they could—there were issues with education and keeping safe volunteers who were almost too keen and were potentially exposing themselves to risk. That is part of the education that might be required for the future.

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that is true not only for during the flooding, when people are trying to save lives and protect the public, but for the clean-up operation. Clearly, when people are dealing with sewage, they are also dealing with risk. People need to be made aware of the risks and how best to protect themselves.

Seventhly, we have heard very clearly that businesses really do require support. Last Friday I brought together the local chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the local enterprise partnership to discuss how we can support business better at times of flood. It is clear that our city centre, like so many towns and cities, is experiencing a downturn in trade, so it is important that we get more support to local authorities to help with plans to build capacity back into the city.

My hon. Friend mentions the impact on businesses. In my constituency, around 250 small businesses have been affected by the floods, but those businesses employ 2,500 people, most of whom have not been working since Boxing day. That is a real worry. As well as talking about the businesses, we should be mindful of the people who work for them and think about the support we can provide to them, both to regenerate the places where they work and to support them in the interim.

I totally agree.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of personal finances. So many people in my constituency who were flooded could not afford any insurance at all. They just do not have the resources to pay for insurance, and £500 does not stretch far. All I have been told is that they need to draw on charitable sources. We need a more structured approach to support people who, in their poverty, have lost even more.

There are so many things that I could raise; this is just the start. I hope that there will be an opportunity for MPs to gather together to share their intelligence and concerns and to raise issues that they believe could help future operations. As we gather that intelligence, between us we could ensure that sufficient plans are in place to address the need, should such floods occur again. With climate change on its way, there is a high possibility that that could be the case.

As seems to be in keeping with proceedings in Westminster Hall, this has been an enlightening and constructive debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on kicking it off so perfectly. Her description of the River Calder as becoming weaponised is something I can relate to. I walked through very shallow flood water in Hawick in my constituency and was taken by the sheer power, even of shallow water. The sheer force was incredible, which means all the more credit should go to those who went out and worked for days and nights to try to help people to save properties and businesses throughout the UK. We thank them for their commitment and hard work.

The hon. Lady made a number of excellent points that brought home the incredible damage and range of costs that have resulted from the flooding. I echo her thoughts on the EU solidarity fund. The fact that it might take a while to get the money suggests to me that perhaps they think we will be out of the EU by the time it comes through. I do not care: let us get the money, because it should all help. Everything helps, and every pound is a prisoner nowadays, so absolutely, let us apply and have some benefit from the EU instead of continually complaining about it.

The hon. Lady made an excellent point about Flood Re. I realise that there are some challenges and that we have to be careful, but if there is a will, there is a way, so I am sure we can do something.

I sat on the Bill Committee that debated Flood Re, so I can tell the hon. Gentleman that if a business is also a residence, it falls within the scheme. The problem is that Flood Re is paid for by other consumers. Nobody of any party in the Bill Committee tabled an amendment to include businesses, because the cost would be passed on to other consumers. That is the rub.

Absolutely. That is a great articulation of the challenges, but as I said, if there is a will, there is a way. Let us look at what schemes we can put in place, even though there will be limitations.

The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) talked about the importance of insurance for businesses. He brought the issue alive with some detailed figures about the impact on businesses. It is easy to talk about things conceptually, but personalised stories enable us to really understand how important this is.

Having a single agency is an interesting idea, but the approach in Scotland is different. Granted, we have a considerably smaller population, but the structure of the agencies is different, so we have an opportunity to share lessons and experiences and learn from one another. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the importance of learning lessons. Although floods happen too often, thankfully they do not happen very often. Whenever they happen and cause people trauma and disruption, we need to look for lessons that we can learn. As the hon. Lady said, we already knew some things from past problems. Let us ensure we do not say the same thing when the next event happens, as it surely will. She came up with a number of great suggestions as a way forward.

The reality is between December and January—certainly in Scotland—we had the greatest rainfall in the past 100 years of available records, and there were 50 new record river levels across Scotland. We will probably not get used to climate change, but it means that we need to look at how we manage severe weather in the future. Local authorities in Scotland were at the centre of the relief operations. They worked in partnership with the Scottish Government and other agencies to distribute funds and plan for future risk.

In Scotland, the draft budget provided £4 million of extra funding for the local authorities most affected by flooding, including my constituency, which was one of the worst hit. The Scottish Borders Council got nearly £2 million. Earlier this month, Nicola Sturgeon announced an additional £12 million of funding to help affected areas, including capital funding of up to £5 million for local authorities to replace infrastructure severely damaged by flood waters. An additional £5.8 million has been allocated to households and businesses, including a provision for local authorities to make payments of £1,500 to households, businesses, charities and communities affected by flooding. A flat-rate grant payment of £3,000, which will be funded separately by the Scottish Government, can also be made to businesses to offset clean-up costs.

Earlier this month, I was in Selkirk with the Scottish Environment Minister to launch our first ever flood risk management plan, which includes 14 local strategies. In June, local authority-led partnerships will set out a detailed action plan with details of how that plan will be delivered up to 2021. The Scottish response has been rapid, comprehensive and effective, with partnership and local authority action at its heart, but we still have lessons to learn, and we strive to do so. We recognise that there are severe challenges across the UK. We welcome all UK Government investment in flood prevention, not least because it led to Barnett consequentials, which we gratefully received.

Flooding is not going to go away, so the Scottish Government have prioritised prevention. We need to share best practice across the UK and in the regions and develop a fuller understanding of the issue. The UK and Scottish Governments can and should learn from each other. That is an example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate. All hon. Members who contributed made excellent points. My hon. Friend made the important point that only one Government Department can respond to this issue. We discussed which Department is the most appropriate to respond, but the responsibility fell to the Department for Communities and Local Government. I will do my best to sum up the debate, and I am sure the Minister will respond in kind.

Hon. Members made several important points. I do not want to repeat what everybody said, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say in answer to them. It is, however, important that we talk about electricity sub-stations, which is an issue that I have raised in the Chamber. We need to do something about our flood defences around electricity sub-stations. The major issue in my area was not the flooding, but the power cuts that left 20,000 homes in the borough of Rochdale without electricity for a long time, so the Government must improve flood defences around our power stations.

An important point was made about the listed building status. I would like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what we should do when a building or structure becomes unfit for purpose. I fully appreciate the problems that my hon. Friend, who is a history graduate, has with that issue. We need to pay a lot of attention to it.

Let us apply for the EU solidarity fund. I do not understand why the Government keep saying, “It’s difficult; it’s a lengthy process.” Prevaricating makes the process even lengthier.

Several Members talked about business support. I fully concur with my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), and with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr). Every Member in the Chamber mentioned business insurance, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West made a very important point about people who are still out of work because damage to their business has made it unable to operate.

I fully support the idea of getting Department for Business, Innovation and Skills staff to bring their expertise to flooded areas. We have been called on to work with other Departments. It is really important that we use our expertise to advise businesses that are struggling with ruined stock and problems with insurance.

The idea of a national floods conference is excellent. Everyone in the Chamber said that we need to learn lessons and that local councils can learn from best practice. We heard about some brilliant examples of good practice and some not so good examples where there were delays in communication. In York Central, there were problems with the phone lines.

We could spend three hours on this debate, but I will wind up to give the Minister sufficient time to respond. Will he consider the example of the Somerset Rivers Authority? It has been given the power to raise a shadow precept from April 2016, which enables it to raise additional funding for flood risk. Will the Government allow other areas to use a similar mechanism where there is local agreement to do so?

Before the Minister starts, I want to say that we have had a full and frank debate. Members on both sides have been very kind in being here for the whole of this very serious debate and restricting themselves to making interventions. This is a very difficult subject, and we are grateful for that. I ask the Minister to leave a little time at the end for the mover of the motion to respond to the debate.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I will of course take that request on board and endeavour to do so. The debate has been constructive, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on bringing it forward.

Those whose constituents have been affected know just how devastating flooding can be and the impact that it has on individuals, businesses and communities. Whether an area has a small number of homes or, as we have sadly seen in some areas during the recent storms, a significant number of homes, that makes little difference to the person or business affected by flooding. We need to look right across all areas to see what we can do to support them now that we have passed through the immediate response phase. We must ensure that recovery starts, that businesses are protected as best we can, that homeowners are given the support that they need, and that we recognise the good response work that so many different agencies, local authorities and volunteers have done. We must do everything that we can to mitigate the flooding’s impact.

December was a record-breaking month for rainfall in some parts of the UK, with exceptional amounts of rain falling on to already saturated ground. Over the weekend of 5 and 6 December, we experienced the highest levels of rainfall ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the UK. Around 7,000 properties were initially reported as flooded. Over Christmas and new year, we experienced more heavy and sustained rainfall, which resulted in widespread flooding across the north of England. At the height of this second incident, 32 severe flood warnings were in place and around 9,000 properties were initially reported as flooded. It has been a major series of incidents and the impact has been significant, as we have heard in hon. Member’s comments today.

We deployed resources and personnel to where they were most needed in what was a fast-moving, complex situation. The multi-agency response to the flooding was rapid, with the army deployed from day one and with assets deployed and money paid out to local authorities in record time. We wanted to ensure that local authorities had the financial support that they needed to respond quickly, and without hesitation and concern as to what would follow. Cobra met 14 times, including daily between Christmas eve and new year’s eve, to assess impacts and to co-ordinate where and how most effectively to deploy further resources from across Government to support affected communities. The Environment Agency, local authorities, fire and police, military personnel, the voluntary sector, utility providers, communities and a range of individuals came together to respond to what was such a significant incident.

I also include in that list many Members of Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who is in the Chamber, was out in his constituency delivering sandbags to those who needed them during the Christmas recess. He was working hard to look after and protect his constituents and to ensure that they were given every support. Members were not only out doing things on the ground. Many were also talking to Ministers, responders and their local authorities, feeding in what was going well and what they wanted done differently, ensuring that the response was as informed as it could be, so that it could do what was needed to minimise the impact of such a significant weather event.

It is appropriate to put on the record the scale of the response and the scale of what we were responding to. The Government have announced support packages worth around £200 million. Money has been given out in record time. There have been concerted efforts to co-ordinate across Government Departments and agencies. We have seen so many individuals work so hard throughout the period.

I want to address some of the specific points raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Halifax made specific reference to Elland bridge and the welcome £5.5 million for its repair. She asked about its listing and what that means for the repair work. Listed buildings are complex, and it is sometimes difficult to know the right answer. The list of listed buildings is maintained by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and if consideration is to be given to delist a building, it would be done in consultation with Historic England to ensure that it is the right thing to do. If the hon. Lady wants to pursue the matter, I am happy to assist in facilitating that. I do not know what the outcome will be, because we will have to look at the impact and at the bridge’s contribution and consider Historic England’s views, but if she feels that it is an avenue worth pursuing, we should discuss it further.

The hon. Lady and several other hon. Members have asked about the European Union solidarity fund and I want to make the Government’s position absolutely clear. We have not ruled out applying for such funds, but we need to understand what that would mean, what sums of money we are talking about, which incidents are eligible, and what resource would need to be put in to the complex process of applying—it is an incredibly complex fund.

However, we have not yet reached a deadline by which a decision whether to apply would have to be taken, so we are looking to understand the impact across the board to see how it breaks down and what making an application would mean. A decision will be made at the appropriate time as to whether it is the right thing to do. It is true that it takes a long time for such funding to be paid. I believe it is in the region of six to seven months from the date at which we can make an application, which has not yet arrived. It would not therefore provide the immediate relief that many areas are looking for, but if going through that process is the right thing to do, it is of course what we will look to do. We want to understand exactly what it would mean and exactly what sums we are talking about before giving a black or white answer, which some Members may seek, because the picture is not as simple as some—not anyone who has contributed to the debate today—in public discussion have occasionally attempted to present it.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the cases of specific businesses and the level of Government business support. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) also referred to several businesses in his constituency about which he has concerns. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has teams located across the country, and our teams covering the north-west, Yorkshire, Humber and the north-east are working closely with local partners on business recovery. Where specific expertise or additional support is needed, I encourage hon. Members to contact me with the details. Our teams can be deployed to try to provide support, advice and guidance, and we will look to direct them to any businesses in Members’ constituencies that have been specifically affected. I am happy not only to take on board the comments that have been made during the debate, but to take something constructive and proactive away from it should hon. Members want to contact me.

The proposal for a national floods conference has merit—it would be foolish of me to say we would not consider it. At this time, we have to support local authorities with their significant ongoing work dealing with the situation, but in the longer term I see no reason why we would not want to consider such a conference.

I agree with the Minister that that is something to consider, but we have been here before, through such lesson-learning exercises—guidance was issued years ago to local authorities about the need for emergency plans. My contribution, which I hope to make in this intervention, is that they are not top-down only. The 2007 event hit my area, as all those other events have, but we are in exactly the same position with resources. The response has to be bottom-up, with strategic sandbag stores in the localities, run by parish council emergency committees, such as the one established in my area, and with local flood warnings. We have to have a bottom-up approach. I commend to him North Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire for the funding that they have provided to parish councils to do just that, so that the parish councils are the people who respond to an event.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that I have shown in many different kinds of debate my support for devolution and for allowing people at the appropriate level to make decisions and to drive forward responses, whether to flooding or in other areas of local government. We have seen some of the lessons learned in the Government response to the events of recent weeks and months. We have seen funding transferred quickly to local authorities, but control over how it is spent has also been devolved to them. They have had much greater flexibility in how they deliver schemes, in how they support local areas and in what they do. We have looked not only to support but to empower local authorities to do what is needed with that £200 million of funding on which I have already commented.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that a bottom-up approach is needed. Floods are an example of an area in which we have to pool risk and share resources, including for flood defences. In 2011, the Government scrapped the flood defence scheme in Leeds that would have protected the area from the city centre and the train station up to Newlay bridge. Had that scheme been in place, the Boxing day floods would not have had the same devastating impact on Kirkstall. I urge the Minister to take the opportunity to learn the lessons from the floods and to put in place the comprehensive defence schemes necessary if we are to create a northern powerhouse.

I gave way hoping that the constructive nature of our debate would continue, but I fear that we are starting to venture into broader points of a party political nature, which I had hoped we would avoid. In 2005, the Government spent £1.5 billion on flood defences; the coalition Government in the last Parliament spent £1.7 billion; and in this Parliament £2.5 billion is to be spent—a real-terms increase in each consecutive Parliament.

We need to learn lessons, however, and we need to look at what the areas can do. We need to listen to what local communities understand about their areas and about what has to be done.

I have given way to the hon. Lady once, but now I must wrap up so that the Member who introduced the debate may conclude it.

It is important that we recognise that MPs from across politics and the areas affected have worked well in and with their communities. Lessons have been learned from what has happened before, and we have seen evidence of those lessons in the route that Government response has taken recently. We ensured that funding got out more quickly and we gave local authorities as much flexibility with it as we could to ensure that they could respond properly. We are continuing that in the nature of the resilience funding that we are providing, which is up to £5,000 per flooded household. Furthermore, only last week at a meeting in Manchester, we gave guidance to local authorities that gave them flexibility on how they will deliver their schemes, because we recognise that different areas need different things.

Hon. Members have raised a number of important issues, some of which I have been able to touch on, including insurance. We need to continue to look, to listen and to learn lessons from what has happened. A lot is being done, but we can always ask, “Can we do more?” My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley wanted a single responsible person, but we have already seen great improvements in how Government respond and bring Departments together. We have seen the appointment of flood envoys by the Prime Minister in response to some of what we have seen happening recently. We always ought to look at where we might go further and what else we might do, however, and my hon. Friend’s ideas are valuable.

I will give way to my hon. Friend, but then I must conclude and allow the hon. Member for Halifax to sum up.

In the spirit of bringing people, Departments and local authorities together, does the Minister not agree that, when we are talking about spending money on flood defences, we have to look at the whole catchment area? That might mean spending money to defend York outside the city in the wider catchment area.

My hon. Friend makes an important point that will of course form part of our considerations. I hope I have been able to answer some of the questions asked by hon. Members. I am always happy to have further discussions and meetings, whether in debates or outside the Chamber. I am conscious that the hon. Member for Halifax who introduced the debate might wish to add a further comment.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I will follow some issues up with him in more detail, if that is okay. I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate today, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for your chairmanship. I hope we can all work constructively together to prevent some of the damage we have seen recently in future events.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).