Skip to main content

Flood Defences (Leeds)

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2016

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

The River Aire runs through my constituency on its way through west Yorkshire to the heart of Leeds city centre and towards the East Riding of Yorkshire.  The Aire has been central to the life and development of Leeds, and Kirkstall specifically, for centuries. Kirkstall Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in the Aire valley in 1152, served as a centre of work, education and welfare for hundreds of years. A corn mill built by the monks on the river’s banks survived the abbey’s dissolution to power iron production and the manufacture of agricultural tools. Around Kirkstall forge grew engineering works that became a centre for steam train and automotive manufacturing, and the forge is now the focus of a major redevelopment and regeneration scheme which includes the building of a new railway station.

The industry and inventiveness of the local community has seen Kirkstall through the ups and downs of history, and today the area is home to more entrepreneurial people and businesses than ever. On Boxing day night, however, the Aire showed its full force when it rose to its highest-ever level of 5.2 metres—more than a metre higher than it has been since its previous peak in 1886—and its banks burst, devastating local businesses, families and the community. At the latest count, 519 businesses across Leeds were affected, along with 2,113 residential properties and 14 other properties, including the industrial museum at Armley Mills and Rodley nature reserve in my constituency.

In Kirkstall, approximately 250 businesses employing 2,500 people were affected. Businesses of all sizes lost machinery and stock, workers were laid off, and jobs were lost. Many small businesses have not yet been able to reopen, and many have laid off staff. I have heard from some that may never open their doors again. Furthermore, £8 million-worth of key infrastructure across the city was damaged.  The A65 Kirkstall Road, one of the main routes into and out of our city, had to close, as did the railway line from Leeds to Ilkley and Bradford.

The clean-up operation that took place so intensively in Kirkstall was a tribute to the community, as well as to Leeds City Council and our emergency services.  With nearly 1,000 volunteers in Kirkstall alone, my constituency saw countless acts of everyday heroism that will be remembered by the people of Leeds for years to come. It is at times of adversity that we often see communities at their strongest, and we are reminded that together we can achieve so much more than we can alone. I have never been so proud to represent the people of Leeds West in Parliament.

I intend to focus on the flood defence scheme in Leeds, but let me first touch briefly on two other issues: flood insurance, and the funds that are available for immediate support. There is absolutely no guarantee that the businesses that are able to open their doors again after the floods will be able to gain access to affordable flood insurance.  The Flood Re scheme, which is very welcome, applies to residential properties, but will not help small businesses in my constituency. The Government must immediately review the extent of the challenges faced by businesses, and think about how they can step in to help when markets fail.

One of the problems with flood insurance for businesses is the fact that they often have to pay huge excesses. It is not just a question of obtaining affordable insurance; it is a question of ensuring that the excesses are manageable.

I entirely agree. Many businesses, particularly in Kirkstall industrial park, have spoken of excesses of £8,000 or more. Others were underinsured. Because it was Christmas, a number of businesses had more stock than they would usually have, so their insurance claims will not meet the full extent of their losses.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The whole of Leeds was affected by these terrible floods. She has highlighted many of the businesses that were affected. Does she agree that one of the greatest tragedies was that of Duffield Printers, which has been in existence for many decades, and which has been forced to close with the shedding of 27 skilled jobs because of the under-insurance and its inability to get future insurance? That is a tragedy for everybody in Leeds.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to say that Duffield Printers has had to lay off 27 workers. The Sheesh Mahal on Kirkstall Road, which has been open for 26 years, has also closed, and there are fears for the future of those businesses and many others, in part, because of the worries about their being able to access affordable insurance in the future.

The second point I wanted to make was about immediate support. Leeds must continue to receive the immediate funding it needs. The people have played their part in the clean-up operation, and now it is time for the Government to play theirs. The city has received £4.7 million up to 11 January in Government grants to help with the clear-up and recovery efforts from the recent flooding, but that is still not half the overall £11.44 million that is deemed to be needed. I urge Ministers to release the additional funds without any further delay and, importantly, to allow local authorities dealing with these situations as much flexibility as possible in how these funds are spent, so that there are no unhelpful barriers preventing them from assisting local residents and businesses.

Now let me turn to the crucial issue of flood defences in Leeds.

As well as the river that ran down Kirkstall Road, residents and businesses around the The Calls, Dock Street and Stourton were affected. Given that we have known in Leeds for a long time that there was a risk of serious flooding, which is why the full flood defence scheme was drawn up in 2011, does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to give the city and the economy of Leeds the protection it needs is by having a full scheme now, funded by the Government?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He speaks with great authority on these matters, and of course the constituency of Leeds Central was badly affected by the floods. I agree wholeheartedly with what he says and I will come now to why it is so important that we have a full and comprehensive flood defence scheme in Leeds.

As my right hon. Friend said, in 2011 there were plans on the table for a £188 million flood defence scheme. This would have provided a one-in-200-year standard of flood protection for our city, yet the decision was taken to split the defence scheme into three phases and funding was available only for phase 1. This phase, which has the aim of defending the city centre against a one-in-75-year flood event, is under way with additional funding from Leeds city council.

Phases 2 and 3, which would cover the 12-mile stretch from Newlay bridge through Kirkstall and the city centre to Woodlesford to provide a one-in-200-year standard of protection, was cancelled in 2011. I recognise that the scheme is expensive, but let me also say this: the costs of inaction exceed the costs of investing in infrastructure. A full flood defence system does not come cheap but, according to previous estimates, if the flood had happened on a normal working weekday the cost would have been about £400 million, twice as much as the cost of investing in the first place.

I praise the hon. Lady for securing the debate and the work she is doing to co-ordinate this matter—the wonderful Kirkstall Bridge inn in her constituency, where a lot of help was necessary, is run by constituents of mine. Does she agree that the statement made by Ministers in 2011 that we did not need this Rolls-Royce scheme for the River Aire, but that a family-car scheme would do, was a flawed decision? We still have not had answers and, considering the damage, it was an utterly false economy.

For the reasons I have outlined, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a false economy not to make these investments in flood defences because of the damage that has been done to businesses and prosperity in cities such as Leeds. The president of Leeds chamber of commerce, Gerald Jennings, has this week also described the failure to invest in flood defences as a false economy, and I agree with him, as do many other hon. Members in the Chamber this evening.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but what will my hon. Friend’s constituents think when they reflect on the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and my predecessor, George Mudie, spoke in this place in 2011 of the flooding that could happen in Leeds if their dire warnings were not heeded? I am afraid that those warnings were not heeded.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we gave those warnings in 2011. Many people have been affected by the floods—whether it is their houses or their businesses that have been flooded, or whether they have lost their jobs—and they are all asking how many warnings have to be given and how many times Leeds has to flood before we get the flood defences we need. That is why I am asking the Minister to listen carefully to what we are saying and to make the investments that our city desperately needs.

We heard in the meeting with Leeds City Council’s leaders that, had the flooding happened on a weekday, 27,000 office workers would have been trapped in the city centre with no road or rail exits. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would not tolerate that lack of resilience in any other large city in the country? It is totally unacceptable for this country’s third-largest city to be left so vulnerable.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I want to turn now to the economic effects on Leeds of the floods. The workforce in Leeds total 470,000 people, with a huge number travelling into the city from the surrounding areas every day. If the flood had happened on a working day, thousands of people would have been unable either to get to work or to get out of the city, resulting in huge amounts of congestion and countless working days being lost. The disruption to mobile telecoms infrastructure was bad on Boxing day, but it could have been worse. Significant risks have been identified at key infrastructure sites, including the Vodafone site off Kirkstall Road, which provides important communications to the council, the police and the national health service, and the power substation on Redcote Lane in Kirkstall, which powers 50,000 properties. Both were disrupted on Boxing day and for days afterwards. Leeds is also the regional centre for emergency and specialist healthcare, hosting the largest teaching hospital in Europe, and it relies on that infrastructure on a daily basis. For that reason as well, the city needs to be accessible by road and by rail.

In York, 50,000 phone lines went down and vital emergency infrastructure was impacted, including the lifeline that 700 elderly residents depend on. Is it not right that telecoms should now be part of the gold command and silver command operations, to ensure that we have full support for our communications?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, whose constituency has also been devastated by the floods.

The point is that important infrastructure sites such as the Vodafone site off Kirkstall Road and the power substation on Redcote Lane were not protected and were badly damaged on Boxing day. In Kirkstall, in my constituency, the consequences for the local economy of having no investment in flood defences is devastating. Businesses will leave, and new businesses will not come. We risk creating ghost towns if we take no action.

Last week, I and my fellow Leeds MPs—all eight of us—along with Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake and the council chief executive Tom Riordan, met the Secretary of State to ask for the reinstatement of the flood defence scheme in Leeds. We welcomed her saying that further flood protection for Leeds was a priority for the Government, but we were disappointed that no firm commitment was made to provide funding—not even the £3 million required to commence urgent design and preparatory work for flood defences over and above phase 1. We need that money for flood defences if we are to turn her commitment into a reality. I fully appreciate the budgetary challenges relating to flood defences, but we must all acknowledge the significance of the flooding arising from Storm Eva and the significant economic risk that the city of Leeds, and thus the UK economy, will therefore face without adequate investment in flood defences.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I am pleased that she has been able to secure this debate. I, too, welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that flood protection for Leeds is a priority. I have also had a meeting with the Chancellor, who has promised to look at this matter personally. Although there is a role for Government, does she agree that there is also a role for local councils in looking at where future housing will be built, because the rain that may fall in my constituency could have a severely adverse effect on her constituency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Leeds City Council helped to fund phase 1 of the flood defence scheme in Leeds, recognising that it was important to make that contribution to protect our city. Of course we need to consider where housing is built, and it is right, as the Secretary of State has said, to look at the whole catchment area, and not just at the parts of the river that flood. As the hon. Gentleman will agree, we need £3 million to carry out an urgent feasibility study to see what the flood defence scheme will look like. That said, we need the flood defence scheme to protect our city. Many constituents from Pudsey rely on the A65 and the train links to get to work, so the problem affects both our constituencies.

On the point about catchment areas, in Calder Valley, which of course has high-sided valleys, it is a case of not just building walls down the river, but looking at the moors above, tree planting, and how we slow water coming down the valley. If we do not stop the water in the Calder valley, Leeds will flood anyway.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority and knowledge because of the flooding that he has seen on many occasions in his constituency. Again, I agree that we need to take a whole catchment area approach. It is now more than a month since those floods happened, and we do need those feasibility studies to be quickly carried out, so that we are protected in the future.

In his letter to the Chancellor this week, Gerald Jennings of the Leeds chamber of commerce said:

“As the engine room of the Yorkshire economy, Leeds already plays a major role in driving forward economic prosperity; we have seen significant private sector investment over the last 25 years. The city has created jobs in large numbers as a consequence, which have benefited the entire city region. Without further investment in flood defences, businesses may be forced to reconsider their own investment plans and the ability to attract new investment will be curtailed.”

People’s homes, jobs and livelihoods are at stake, and so too are communities, local economies and the future of the northern powerhouse. The community played its part in the immediate aftermath of the floods, clearing up, rebuilding and repairing, but now the Government must do their part, too. They must ensure that there is affordable and available flood insurance; that financial support is available to those most affected; and that they build the flood defences that our city so desperately needs. To fail to do so will let down the people who turn to Government to harness our collective effort. Let us build the northern powerhouse—let us not sink it before it has a chance even to set sail.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for her powerful speech in which she made a very strong case for the unique status of Leeds and its importance as a city—and, indeed, as the hub of a whole city region. That is the nub of the discussion that we are having today. We must strike the right balance between the unique needs of Leeds and being fair across the country to many other communities. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that Leeds is unique in many ways and requires unique treatment. I will try to come back to that point, hopefully with some good news, at the end of my speech.

Let me develop a few points to put the whole matter in context. Clearly, the challenge that we face in dealing with a floods budget—it does not really matter how much money a Government have—is being fair across the country and trying to find a way of looking different communities in the face and explaining why we are investing in one place rather than another. There are 250,000 houses in the Humber which are below the mean sea level. If the water were to over-top the defences there, there would be a national emergency. In 1953-54, 400 people were killed there. An investment of £80 million in the Humber would protect 50,000 homes.

The challenge that Leeds faces—we can go back in time to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s involvement with this between 2008 and 2011—involves that funding formula, and getting the right balance between the hon. Lady’s good points about Leeds’s enormous importance as one of our great cities, and the number of houses protected and the level of protection offered to them. I defend the Environment Agency because I think that it works transparently and straightforwardly, and it has always clearly explained how its decisions are made. However, I agree that it is time to look again at Leeds for reasons that I shall come on to later.

I also pay huge tribute to the people of Leeds for their response to this extraordinary event. As the hon. Lady pointed out, flooding of this sort has not occurred on the Kirkstall Road since 1866, so it was very unusual. The 24-hour, 48-hour and monthly rainfall records were broken. In addition to the 1866 flooding, there was flooding on the Kirkstall Road in 1946, but with the exception of those two cases, we have not seen an event of anything like this sort, which was why the historical decision was taken to invest south of the train station. It is absolutely right that £10 million of the £44 million investment has come from Leeds City Council, but that was not the only source of funding. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has put £23 million into flood defences in Leeds. All the protection that covers Asda and the Royal Armouries, and the work on the movable weir and the canal, was done not on the basis of the traditional formula, but through our growth fund, because we recognise the unique importance of Leeds and its real importance to the broader economy.

We should pay tribute to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his work to make that innovative scheme possible. From the first installations of weirs in 1699 right the way through to 1816, as the canal network developed, the large concern was how to keep water in the centre of Leeds for navigation and to power the wool industry. Those weirs therefore existed to keep water back. There are still navigation needs in Leeds, which means that there has to be a way in which those weirs can remain when the water is low, but we now have a kevlar solution that allows us to demount them and to let the weirs down so that the water can come out. Furthermore, the important Knostrop scheme will benefit constituents further upstream. By taking away the distinction between the canal and the river, we are essentially creating a catchment lagoon downstream that will benefit people a long way beyond the upper walls.

Let us move on from the past because we need to think about the future. The hon. Lady said that she had a good meeting with the Secretary of State. I do not think that I am sharing any secrets when I say that the Secretary of State is genuinely moved by what happened in Leeds. I believe that her parents live there and she is committed to the city. She cares about proving that something can be done in Leeds, so I hope that the hon. Lady sensed that during their meeting.

A cross-party case needs to be made, because we will need to have difficult conversations with other communities throughout the country to explain why we are acting in such a way, but we will build a case together exactly along the lines of what the hon. Lady set out. We need to point out that Leeds is the UK’s second, third or fourth largest city, depending on where we put the boundaries. It certainly has the second largest legal centre in the United Kingdom after London. It is one of our leading financial centres, with an economy worth £54 billion. It is an extraordinary transport hub. It has, after London, the second or third busiest commuter train station in the United Kingdom with 140,000 people a day passing through it. If we get this right, there is enormous potential in Leeds for not only existing businesses, but development land. With its many brownfield sites, Leeds has more potential than almost anywhere else that one can think of for the development of new businesses. The headquarters of businesses such as Asda and Direct Line are in Leeds city centre.

Over the next six years, we will invest £2.3 billion in flood defences, and the £44 million for Leeds, or at least our contribution to that, forms part of that investment. To make this new argument, which I am fully behind, we need to focus on a different kind of economic case—not the traditional formula, but a case about how a northern powerhouse requires a great northern city. If we get this right, there could be huge economic benefits, as well as in terms of amenities, because people coming to see the river and canal could bring benefits similar to those experienced by cities such as Newcastle.

We are keen to work with Leeds City Council, and the Environment Agency had another meeting with it yesterday. May I break with protocol, Madam Deputy Speaker, and ask whether the shadow Minister intends to speak, or whether I can take a couple of minutes to develop my argument?

Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. In that case, I shall exploit my five minutes.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made a powerful argument as someone who was involved. To some extent, he embraced the £44 million scheme, but he would like much more to be done and a higher level of protection throughout the city. The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) made a powerful contribution, with an argument for an economic centre. We also heard from the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and finally from the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who made a strong argument about how all of this should be tied together.

Many apologies. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) also made a good case.

There has to be a cross-party approach, because we need investment from businesses and councils. We have to deal with communities upstream or downstream that are concerned about the impact of the flood defences that we are putting in. We need a communications drive across the country. I am happy to confirm that we will now go ahead with the feasibility study that the hon. Member for Leeds West requested. That money will be made available, and we will make a full analysis of the Leeds scheme. That will allow us not just to complete phase 1 but to look at the future.

We will have to look at various options. Outside the window in the apartment of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, he would be looking at the possibility of raising those walls that are already going in. There is not much more that we can do downstream, as that work has already been done with the moveable weirs. Upstream on the Kirkstall Road, we would have to look at putting in walls where walls do not currently exist, and higher than that we will have to look at the possibility of two different types of reservoir: permanent reservoirs and offline reservoirs—in other words, farmland can occasionally be used. We can also look, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley said, at the potential of measures on upstream catchments to slow the water coming downstream.

The feasibility study will address the catchment coming through Leeds. It will look at upstream mitigation, reservoirs and the potential for walls to be built along the road, which will involve many hon. Members discussing with local residents whether they are prepared to have their views cut off, how high the walls should go, and to what extent companies want to contribute to those walls. I believe that, after this flooding event, the political will is there and residents will be happy to do that. It will have to go all the way down to the constituency of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, where we will have to look at raising the walls of that £44 million scheme.

On that, and with great thanks to the hon. Member for Leeds West, I wish to say a huge thank you for all the work that has been done by people in Leeds, including the leader of Leeds City Council, who has put a huge amount of heart and soul into this, and by the thousand volunteers who were mentioned. May I assure the people of Leeds, as was made absolutely clear by the Secretary of State, that Leeds is a priority, exactly because of the unique characteristics that have been raised so powerfully in this debate?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.