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Flooding: River Medway

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

It is a privilege to be here for my first Adjournment debate on a particularly topical matter: flooding along the River Medway and its tributaries. The recent storm has brought some serious flooding across our country. I am sorry to have to report that some properties have been flooded in Edenbridge in my constituency. I am very grateful to the flood wardens in Edenbridge, Tonbridge and across the community who have done such sterling work not only in warning people about the floods but in ensuring that drains were cleared and culverts were not blocked. That has prevented surface water from becoming a problem.

Surface water and more serious flooding has been an issue for us in Kent in the past, although Kent is rightly recognised as the garden of England and has some of the most beautiful countryside in our land. I am blessed not just to represent it but to live in it. This unites me with all those who live from the coast to the High Weald, whether they are “men of Kent” or “Kentish men”—a distinction based on which side of the Medway they are from and whether they come from Jutish or Anglo-Saxon stock.

The river has shaped much more than just the names of the people. It has carved its way through our history and is reflected in two of the towns that I have the privilege to speak for in this House—Tonbridge, with the Medway running through it, and Edenbridge, with the tributary, the Eden, running through it. Both testify to the importance of the river in our county’s life. Further downstream, towns such as Maidstone and Rochester have grown over the centuries as a result of the river providing an important trading link with neighbours. Communities have grown up around the river because of what it offers. The Medway is no different. The floodplains offered fertile fields and later cheap development options with good flat land.

It is no wonder that the history of flooding long pre-dates my time representing this wonderful community, but it has also marked me. Three years ago, just weeks after being selected as the Conservative candidate for the seat of Tonbridge and Malling, I found myself making some of my first visits as a candidate to local villages. Sadly, many were under water. I can vividly remember seeing the impact of floodwater in Hildenborough in January 2014, when I visited with Councillor Mark Rhodes, now the mayor of our wonderful borough council.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on bringing this important debate before the House. As he knows, my constituency was devastated by floodwater in the Christmas floods of 2013, and even now some of those areas are not fully recovered. Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to everything that the Government are doing in respect of flood defences, they should also earmark funding for the more natural flood defence schemes, such as the four-acre wetlands site in Marden in my constituency, which can hold up to 15 million litres of floodwater? I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that many of these schemes are low cost, low tech and low maintenance, but very effective.

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes some persuasive points. I shall shortly speak about some local flood defences.

The Brookmead estate and surrounding roads, which I visited with the present mayor, were struggling to recover—as my hon. Friend and neighbour pointed out, some parts are still struggling to recover—from flooding by what to some may sound like a very small amount of water. In many parts it was just over a foot, and sometimes only a foot and a half, of water, but the damage done, even by so little water, can be overwhelming.

That Christmas will not be forgotten by me and, I know, by many residents, some of whom are still struggling to get insurance deals sorted out. Having been elected their MP, I am proud to be here representing them, but I am also conscious that flooding is one of the most pressing issues for me to solve.

The underlying causes of the massive Christmas 2013 flood have not changed significantly in the past three years, unfortunately. We all know that these instances may be getting more frequent. That catchment area flooded severely in 1947, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1974, 1979 and 2000, before the 2013 flood, and these are just the major events. Localised flooding on tributaries can occur much more often.

On Saturday 25 June this year, when many people were either celebrating or mourning the result of the referendum, very few people noticed that homes in Ightham, a beautiful village to the north of the community that I am privileged to represent, were being swamped, following only 33 millimetres of rainfall in just two hours. Busty stream was not able to cope and burst its banks, and the village suffered what the Environment Agency calls a one-in-19-year flood. Today, five months on, many residents are still not back in their homes, and sadly, they are not alone. In Hadlow and East Peckham, recent localised floods on the River Bourne have forced people out of their homes, while in Penshurst, Chiddingstone and Edenbridge, the River Eden has threatened to burst its banks many times since 2013. All these tributaries feed into the River Medway and underline the importance of finding solutions that address the underlying causes of these localised floods without simply passing the problem on to communities further downstream.

Let me take Tonbridge as an example. The new 320-metre flood wall at Avebury Avenue shows a local solution that works. Following restoration of the ground height, 80 homes in the Barden Road area, which were flooded in 2013, are now less at risk from the river. However, the scheme works only because the new walls work in conjunction with existing defences at Leigh and in Tonbridge town centre. Each individual solution must be part of a larger strategy for flood mitigation along the wider catchment.

I recognise that communities in the River Medway catchment are not the only ones in the country that flood. Indeed, we in Kent have great sympathy with the people of Somerset, Yorkshire and Cumbria, who have had their own dreadful floods in recent years, and Government funds to help those communities are welcomed by us, too. Both the larger schemes and the smaller projects, such as the £4 million investment in riverside footpaths in Cumbria, show a Government seeking to address the causes of flooding events. However, every time there is investment elsewhere, Kent residents rightly consider its effectiveness and ask whether such defences could help in our county, too.

Finding solutions to flooding on the River Medway is important for not just Kent but our country, because so much more depends on it than simply the protection of homes. Yes, our catchment area has 3,000 properties at risk of flooding, half of which are in Tonbridge and Hildenborough, with 500 more in East Peckham, but it is about more than that. Kent is also an economic powerhouse, and many businesses that rely on the ability to operate even in severe weather will be protected should we get the appropriate level of protection.

That is why I support the creation of a Medway flood action plan, which would bring together local authorities, businesses and residents, as happened in Cumbria and Calderdale. Indeed, the Cumbria model, which was well championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), is rightly recognised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a central feature of its 25-year environment plan. I hope that success can be mirrored under the banner of a Medway flood partnership. I look forward to its work starting in the new year—it would certainly have my support, and I hope it would have that of the floods Minister, too. Having a flood partnership panel on the horizon would be very popular, as it offers the possibility of a collective solution—one that is cost-effective and that does not cause unnecessary problems elsewhere.

That would support the work already done by the Environment Agency to protect each community and would reinforce the thorough work it has done to demonstrate where the greatest gains can be made. Those inquiries all point in the same direction. It will come as no surprise to the Minister, who is very aware of this issue, that the most viable scheme involves the enlargement of the Leigh flood storage area, the Hildenborough flood alleviation scheme and the East Peckham flood alleviation scheme. That is where resources for capital projects should be directed, with the Government also being clear that property-level resilience should be explored, where feasible, to deal with the 350 properties that may fall outside the effectiveness of those schemes. Where community defence projects are shown by agencies not to be viable, the Government should commit to property-level resilience. The fact that collective defence does not work does not mean that people should be left out. I am told by the Environment Agency that that applies to communities bordering my own.

For my community, however, tomorrow will be the defining moment, as we very much hope to hear from the Chancellor’s autumn statement the outcome of local growth fund allocations. I am sure the floods Minister will agree that the bid for the Leigh flood storage area is impressive and compelling, and it would be deeply disappointing to everyone involved were the £4.5 million requested not provided.

This bid is crucial to our community. It has the third largest amount of “other funding” of all the south-east local enterprise partnership region bids. It includes contributions from local businesses in East Peckham, from Kent County Council, from Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, and contributions in kind from Southern Water and Tonbridge School. This is a true community project and, with the Environment Agency's commitment of £15.5 million of flood defence grant in aid, a viable one too. The Environment Agency’s contribution is not symbolic. It understands better than anyone that the project would increase capacity at Leigh by 30% while constructing much needed local embankments at Hildenborough and East Peckham. As I mentioned earlier, those projects work in conjunction with each other to improve the wider catchment area. That was why the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised Government funding on his visit to the area in the aftermath of the Christmas 2013 floods.

However, there is a wider issue at stake along the River Medway and all its tributaries that goes beyond individual bids through the local growth fund and localised schemes in particular villages—the strategic importance of the Rivers Medway, Eden, Beult, Teise and Bourne to Kent and to the wider south-east region. The Government have been very clear in highlighting the growth that they want to deliver in our part of the country over the coming years, and that depends on investment and people—and, in turn, on viability. This project alone would enable an additional 2,100 homes to be built in sensible locations in an area of predominantly green belt in the south-east of England. It would also deliver over 13 hectares of employment land by 2031, roughly equating to 2,900 associated jobs. The Government targets are rightly ambitious, and to succeed we need to address the creaking infrastructure of the towns and villages nearby. The long-term economic plan, about which we all once heard so much, would focus on these communities to ensure that we have every possible option open to us locally to plan for the future.

Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council is currently consulting on that future through its local plan, and has shown that without significant investment in local flood defences it will be unable to deliver the growth required by Government. The consequences of a funding shortfall would be severe. Investors would be deterred from coming to the area, new buyers would be priced out of the market due to a lack of supply to keep up with Government demand—or rather popular demand—and current residents would remain at severe risk of flooding. For the cost of a rather modest house in Chelsea, thousands would be left at risk.

Further upstream in Sevenoaks district, the demand for more services in Edenbridge is increasing, yet without additional defences on the River Eden, land will not be available to make these important developments. The doctors’ surgery needs more space, as do many in the town of Tonbridge, but their search is severely limited by flood risk in the town. Localised projects that tie in with the collective aim of the catchment could help to solve a variety of problems that our towns and villages face.

I feel it only right to end by referencing the importance of finding solutions to flooding on the River Medway and its tributaries for each individual community involved. A trip upstream from its mouth near the Isle of Grain through Aylesford, Maidstone, East Peckham and Tonbridge will show to all just what a beautiful county Kent is. It will also demonstrate the reliance that each of the communities places on the river, and how economic and cultural links have been forged by the connections it provides. Each of its tributaries, from the Beult and Teise to the east, to the Bourne to the north and the Eden to the west, have seen communities built around them. They no longer feed the tanner’s yard and the cricket ball factories, but they are still at the heart of our life. It is crucial that this Government make their contribution to ensuring that Kent has the ability to grow and to deliver its plans in the region. That is important not only for the Government but, most of all, for the people of Kent. The work has been done and the options are now present for each town and village. Some will require larger capital schemes, while others will require property level resilience to deliver the appropriate outcome. Each has its place.

Christmas 2013 is still in my mind, and I know just how much of an impact it has had on many others who lived through that night and the past three years. We all know that it could happen again at any time. I hope that the Government will do their bit so that next time we flood—sadly, I fear it will be next time, rather than never—the impact is limited and the people who have made their lives and businesses in west Kent are able to do so in the security of the appropriate flood defences.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this debate on flooding on the River Medway and its tributaries. He spoke passionately on behalf of his constituents, and I congratulate him on securing his first Adjournment debate in the Chamber; I think this is also my first reply to an Adjournment debate in the Chamber.

I am very aware of the impact of flooding. I have supported my constituents in Suffolk following flooding in recent years, and I understand the impact it can have on people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods. I am committed to doing my utmost to raise awareness of, and to reduce, flood risk. My hon. Friend referred to the Edenbridge flooding today, and he praised flood wardens. I absolutely congratulate them on coming forward, and I thank the Environment Agency for working with Kent County Council in training those wardens. I am also pleased to hear of the preparations that were made to try to alleviate the risk of flooding today.

The Government continue to play a key role in improving protection for those at flood risk. We are spending £2.5 billion on 1,500 new flood defence schemes to improve protection for 300,000 homes by 2021, and we have increased maintenance spending in real terms over this Parliament to more than £1 billion. I understand that we have also spent £825,000 on the River Medway on maintenance in the last year; that is the highest it has been for some time. Moving to a six-year settlement has given the Environment Agency greater certainty on schemes and has made it easier to protect more homes, in contrast with the hand-to-mouth existence that arose from the previous annual settlement.

The Minister is talking about funding. I wonder whether she thinks, as I do, that the Chancellor’s autumn statement tomorrow may be the perfect opportunity for the Government to turn their very wise and warm words about innovative flood measures into reality at last.

The plans that people at the Environment Agency are working on with DEFRA, which include potential developments on natural management schemes, are exactly the kind of initiatives that I hope might get highlighted in the autumn statement. Nevertheless, we will all have to wait and see.

In the catchment area of the River Medway more than 3,000 properties are at risk of flooding, including 1,500 homes in Tonbridge and Hildenborough and 500 in East Peckham. During the winter 2013-14 floods, more than 900 homes and businesses in Tonbridge, East Peckham, Maidstone, Yalding and other smaller communities were flooded from the River Medway and its tributaries. This flood was the largest ever measured in many parts of the catchment of the River Medway. The Leigh flood storage area is situated upstream of Tonbridge and currently protects 1,200 homes and businesses from flooding. Although the Leigh flood storage area already plays a vital role in protecting those properties, the Environment Agency has also been working in partnership with the local community to improve the level of protection.

I wrote to my hon. Friends in August this year with an update on the work to reduce flood risk on the Medway, and I assured them that we remained committed to working in partnership to provide a scheme that will further reduce the flood risk to local communities. The Environment Agency has been working in partnership with local councils to find the most effective way to reduce flood risk for communities along the Rivers Medway, Beult and Teise. This work included an initial cost-benefit assessment of various options. In April 2014 those partners committed £1 million to fund the development of a business case for the schemes. That work included carrying out more detailed modelling of the Medway catchment.

Currently, the Environment Agency, Kent County Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council are progressing the business case for enlarging the Leigh flood storage area and the Hildenborough embankment. I am aware that that is the favoured option for improving flood protection to homes and businesses in Tonbridge and Hildenborough, because together they will provide additional storage capacity that will benefit more than 1,400 properties. The project to enlarge the Leigh flood storage area and to build embankments is estimated to cost £17.1 million. The scheme qualifies for around £11.3 million of grant in aid, with a further £5.8 million of partnership funding contributions required. Work is also ongoing on plans for the East Peckham flood alleviation scheme, which involves constructing walls and embankments to protect some 560 homes and businesses. The scheme costs £7.5 million and requires £3.25 million of partnership funding contributions, which are being sought, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling described, from the South East local enterprise partnership and from local businesses that will benefit.

I am pleased that local partners are already working together to contribute to these schemes, alongside the considerable Government investment, and work is continuing to bridge the current funding gap. I should remind the House that it was under a Conservative-led Government that we changed the funding policy to give every scheme that had a positive benefit-cost ratio a chance to secure some grant funding, rather than the old system of all or nothing.

The Environment Agency is also scoping how it can work with partners to develop a Medway flood action plan, modelled on the successful integrated catchment planning approach of the Cumbria flood action plan. I am very pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is looking forward to participating in that process, and that the newly established Medway flood partnership will have its first meeting in the new year.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), I understand that natural flood management options will be considered for the action plan. Where schemes meet the objectives to which she referred, about the potential reduction in flooding, with economic benefits, such an option is already given to farmers. There are several schemes for which that is the case, although, admittedly, I believe that there is little such opportunity in Yalding.

This debate allows me to highlight what we are doing on a broader level to improve resilience and to be better prepared for whatever arises this winter. No Government can promise that no one will be flooded ever again, but we can learn and act. That is what we did with the national flood resilience review. The review was undertaken to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and extreme weather events. I can report that considerable progress has been made to help to prepare for future flood events. We have invested £12.5 million in mobile flood defences, which means that the Environment Agency now has 25 miles of such temporary defences, located in seven key areas, which are available to be deployed flexibly around the country, compared with the 5 miles that was available last year. We also have 500,000 sandbags ready. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced, 1,200 troops are on standby if the worst comes to the worst and councils need their help.

Infrastructure providers have been reviewing the resilience of key assets that provide vital services to our communities. They are identifying where they can also protect these assets with temporary defences this winter, while longer-term solutions are implemented. This means that the country will be better protected this winter, and services to our communities will be more resilient to flood events. We have also worked with the private sector to develop a new property flood resilience action plan, which illustrates some straightforward measures that homeowners and businesses can take to improve the resilience of their property to flooding, as well as enabling them to get back in far more quickly if, unfortunately, they are flooded. These can be simple measures, such as in-built airbrick covers, to more substantial works, such as installing a pump, having solid floors or installing wiring so that plug sockets are higher up the wall.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is in the Chamber, I thought it would be helpful to refer to the flooding that happened in her community. I recognise that, unfortunately, flooding in this area is a frequent occurrence. An event leading to flood depths of more than 1 metre occurs roughly every 10 years in Yalding. The communities of Yalding and Collier Street sit at the confluence of the Rivers Beult, Teise and Medway, which makes the flood risk there particularly challenging. The communities could be flooded by any or all of the rivers.

I am aware that although the Leigh flood storage area helps to reduce downstream water levels on the River Medway, it offers only a marginal benefit because it is 10 miles upstream. Given the local geography and topology, as well as existing developments within the catchment area, flood storage areas constructed on the Rivers Beult and Teise would not be sufficiently large to make a meaningful difference to flood levels in areas such as Yalding and the surrounding communities. That is simply not possible.

The Environment Agency now has a dedicated project manager working with the councils in Yalding and Collier Street to make progress in making properties and infrastructure more resilient to flooding. Early estimates suggest that approximately 350 houses may benefit from such property-level resilience. I am pleased that the Environment Agency will begin detailed surveys of each property in early 2017, and I, too, look forward to hearing the outcome.

The Environment Agency will continue to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling to reduce flood risk in the area and will continue to work collaboratively to deliver projects in this part of west Kent. I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have listened to all the comments that have been made today and that the Government will continue to ensure that we are always as well protected from flooding as possible.

Finally, as has been referred to extensively, the autumn statement is tomorrow and there will be forthcoming announcements about LEP funding. If anything changes as a result of those announcements, I will be happy to update my hon. Friend again. Of course, he does have Question 1 at oral questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Thursday, when he may talk about flooding.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.