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Flood Defence Projects: South-west

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2017

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered management of flood defence projects in the South West.

I am delighted to be working under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the Minister for responding to two debates in a row—seagulls and flooding. There is a sort of synonymy to that. I am grateful for this debate. It is a short one, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) wishes to contribute.

Three years ago, almost to the day, I stood in the Somerset levels in waders, in floodwater, fighting for Government action. We witnessed the most appalling and predictable natural calamity when rain began to fall. It was a relentless season of downpours, and many of my constituents were stranded and made homeless as the riverbanks burst.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is present, and I would like to let the Chamber know that at this precise moment there are three battalions in England, one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland on stand-by for flooding. This is a critical time to have those people, and I am thankful for the work they did last weekend. The work they did in my patch was absolutely phenomenal. I know that they are ready to go.

Returning to what happened in my constituency, some of the sewers gave way and the landscape began to vanish under a feisty, filthy water. At the time, I was very critical of the Environment Agency and its then chairman, Lord Smith. I described him in a couple of TV interviews as a coward for failing to visit the stricken area. When asked what I would do if he turned up, I replied that I was tempted—and I was—to flush his head down the nearest water closet. Forgive my straightforward turn of phrase; they were tense and difficult times as 17 miles of my constituency had become an inland lake. Lives had been ruined. Tempers were at breaking point.

All that is happily behind us, but there is a saying about things destined for the water closet: Lord Smith may have been flushed out of the Environment Agency, but he remains afloat as provost of a Cambridge college and chairman of the Task Force on Shale Gas. How apt and rather sardonic. The good news is that the Environment Agency is in much safer hands these days and plays a far more proactive and constructive role in protecting us from the ravages of flooding. For that, the Government deserve a great deal of credit, and I thank them.

The Minister represents a constituency with flooding challenges of its own, so she fully understands the subject from personal experience. Because of her hard work and the efforts of her predecessors, Bridgwater and West Somerset can now breathe much more easily whenever we hear raindrops.

After the crisis of 2013-14, a new era of flood defence was born, with the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority. The idea was simple and sensible: take back control of flood defences from the centralised Environment Agency and base it locally with people who live and work in the area. The agency would use its technical skills to get the job done and the authority would set out the important tasks to be tackled. There were big battles to be fought, of course. There had to be muscle to ensure that the then Prime Minister came up with enough money to pay the large sum we wanted for the initial remedial work, but, with determined arm-twisting, David Cameron delivered. At this point, I must pay tribute to the Minister for her efforts in pushing forward the legislation to secure the SRA future funding. We are all very grateful.

Now I would like to reveal one or two skeletons, unfortunately. It has not been easy getting the SRA set up and running. The authority was designed to bring together all the experts from the old river drainage boards and Somerset’s local authorities. The Government provided starter money, but the deal demanded local authority contributions too, some of which were easier to obtain than others. Without doubt, the worst offender was Taunton Deane Borough Council—my neighbour.

When it comes to alleviating flooding, Taunton Deane could not be called a big spender. The local authority has failed to deal properly with flood risks in Taunton over many years. It skimps. It calls for consultants’ reports. It sits on the results. But when the waters rise in Taunton the rivers burst in my constituency, not in that of Taunton Deane. The River Tone snakes its way right past the centre of Taunton and ends up joining the overworked River Parrett down in the middle of the Somerset levels, as the Minister is aware. That is where the worst flooding happened three years ago. Since then, the neighbouring Sedgemoor District Council has worked tirelessly, along with the Government, to get the important parts of the River Parrett properly dredged—grateful thanks again. Much of that great and important job has been done, but it is absolutely pointless if your next-door neighbour leans on his shovel and does next to nothing. I am sorry to report that that is precisely what has been happening in Taunton for almost 60 years—it ain’t new.

I hope that the House will forgive me for offering some of the background to this sad state of affairs. Records of flooding in Taunton go back to the late 19th century. Since then, we have been seriously flooded in 1929, 1960, 1968 and 2000, and, of course, more recently. Without a shadow of a doubt, the worst incident was in 1960 when, as the river overflowed, 500 properties in the town were washed out. Some parts of the town were 3 feet underwater. It was a soggy mess. Plans for a relief channel were suggested after that. The old Bridgwater to Taunton canal could have been used, which, in engineering terms, made perfect sense, but the estimated £1.7 million cost was considered prohibitive. So the cheap option was chosen, and the riverbanks were upgraded just a bit, but by the early 1990s it was obvious that more needed doing. The banks had to be built up again, and this time a guarantee was given to safeguard everyone for 200 years.

Rule one: never take a guarantee at face value. Barely a decade later, the River Tone flooded the town, and there have been more recent floods in 2004, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013. That gives Members the general idea: too little, too late, too cheap. It is the same old Taunton story repeated time after time.

Today, just as for the past eight years, Taunton Deane is led by Councillor John Williams, a builder with an extravagant plan for the future. By now, I think he probably believes he can walk on water and, if he is not too careful, pretty soon he will have to do just that. Mr Williams wants to grow Taunton by building. His dream is to put up 17,000 new houses by 2028. That is unbelievable growth, higher by a margin of 70% than the average Government prediction for new houses anywhere. It is absolutely impossible. Last year, with the help of Mr Williams’s mates in the local building trade—firms such as Summerfield, which seems to own an awful lot of land around there—Taunton Deane Borough Council presided over the construction of just 883 new houses, and that was a record then. If the council carries on at that rate, by the end of 2028 it will be way short of the insane target of 17,000 houses.

But, say what you like about Councillor Williams—a lot of people do—he is nothing if not determined. His absurd new building target was set in 2010 and he is sticking to it. There is a faint chance, and I sincerely hope it is a faint chance, that he might even get the Government to put in money to help him on his way. Mr Williams has tarted up his plans and submitted a bid for Taunton to build a new garden town. What his glossy documentation fails to point out, however, is that all this manic building will take place on some of the wettest and flood-prone land in the United Kingdom. The much-trumpeted Taunton garden town could well turn out to be tomorrow’s Atlantis. The builders might need aqua-lungs and flippers. Does Summerfield employ frogmen? Perhaps Wrencon—Councillor Williams’s personal building firm—does.

Those who follow parliamentary affairs will know that I take a dim view of some of Mr Williams’s activities. It is wrong for any elected councillor to accept a private building contract on his own patch without declaring it, but Taunton Deane has no rules about that. Even the council leader is immune. That is not just strange; it is downright wrong. It undermines the confidence we deserve to have in local government leaders at any level. No wonder people in Taunton have become highly suspicious of this leader and his empire-building plans.

Before I came to Westminster Hall this afternoon, I took a hard look at the Environment Agency’s flood maps for the Taunton area, and I ask the Minister to do the same. The blue bits represent risk, and the blue bits are almost everywhere. I have also read detailed reports compiled by flood experts on behalf of Taunton Deane. They do not go as far as to say, “Stop before it’s too late,” but they never minimise the threat and they urge absolute caution unless flood defences are radically improved. Let me quote from one of the latest reports, completed in 2014:

“The town centre and many existing properties rely heavily on the degree of protection resulting from the existing flood defence embankments and structures. The condition of these… is very variable, many will need to be replaced… None of the defences will provide an appropriate standard of protection… and they do not include a ‘safety margin’… which is essential… where so much property and business could be affected by small changes in the predicted flood water levels.”

As chair of the all-party group on flood prevention, I am undertaking a routine check on all areas throughout the United Kingdom. I started in Tadcaster last week, and I hope to complete some areas over the next five or six weeks. Is the hon. Gentleman minded to allow me to visit his area to gather some information?

I would welcome the hon. Gentleman. The Minister has been down to look not just at the flooding, but at Hinkley Point nuclear power station—she has Sizewell. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon is one of my near neighbours and we welcome anyone coming to look at the flooding. It was a disaster for us all. The Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), is a Cornish MP and therefore knows how much flooding affects our area. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman and personally host him.

I will continue as I have a little bit to go and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon wishes to have his say. This is what the flood experts had to say on Councillor Williams’ building bonanza:

“The proposed new development in the town centre and other sites will increase the volume of water discharging to the Levels and Moors”.

That was the clearest warning that Taunton’s building bonanza could spark floods next door. The report said that

“doing nothing is no answer”.

The only way to tackle the issue is with a new water storage facility costing around £15 million, but will it ever happen? I checked the National Rivers Authority programme for the coming year and there was no mention of it. Apart from some maintenance on French weir in the centre of town, Taunton is not scheduled to do any serious flood defence work in the foreseeable future, yet the council leader is boasting that he has the money in next year’s budget to deal with floods. How much? Slightly less than £2 million. That does not make sense. It is not enough.

Once again, Taunton is cutting corners, and it is not using its own cash either. Councillor Williams intends to spend the new homes bonus, which is a grant he gets from central Government, as the Minister is well aware. It is sleight of hand—trickery—and it is cheating the public. Everyone knows that flood prevention costs serious money. We know that. Everyone knows that budgets are tight. That is agreed. Everyone would understand if Taunton simply could not pay, but the council is prepared to spend money like water on totally pointless things.

Last night, the council voted to borrow millions of pounds—you are not going to believe this, Mr Pritchard—to refurbish its office. The Deane House is the council’s headquarters and it is 30 years old. The council would get about £2.5 million if it sold the place. Its advisers said it was not worth a penny, but Councillor Williams, the jobbing builder, intends to fork out £11 million to do it up. For that kind of cash, looking across the Atlantic, he could install gold lifts, marble walls and champagne fountains. Eat your heart out, President Trump; look what President Williams has got! A short step down the street is Somerset County Council’s headquarters, which the Minister knows. Taunton could have moved there to a brand new office for a fraction of the cost. It was offered a building. Does that sound like a good idea? I know a man who thinks so:

“If Taunton Deane moves to County Hall the Council will form part of a gathering of other public sector services, to create a one-stop shop for our community.”

The writer is none other than the leader of the council: John Raymond Williams, to use his full name. The words are on Taunton Deane Borough Council’s own website, but like the author, they are slightly out of date.

The reputation of any council depends on leadership and management. I do not have to tell anyone here that. Taunton Deane has a leader with bizarre territorial ambitions. He is trying to swallow up West Somerset Council, in my patch. He has an absentee chief executive with the worst sickness record of any local government officer in the whole of England. I am sorry to say that I would not trust either of them to run anything. Least of all, I cannot and will not trust them to look after the flood prevention measures that affect my constituency so badly.

I am most grateful to you, Mr Pritchard, for allowing me to take part in this short debate. I cannot aspire to maintain the drive and momentum of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), but I want to use this opportunity to raise one specific issue with the Minister. To date, I think she is unaware of it.

I want to talk specifically about a number of properties on The Green in Whimple that are adjacent to a local river and a train line. I have been following the issue for a number of years, not least because one of my councillors, Councillor Peter Bowden of Devon County Council, lives in one of the affected properties. The problem is that for a number of years, his property and the surrounding properties have been beset by flooding. We have identified the solution to the problem, which is clearly to replace the culvert under the railway line. There is some funding in place for that work, but Network Rail is unfortunately preventing that crucial work from being carried out. I draw this case to the Minister’s attention because I suspect that it is not the only place in the country where there is a stand-off between the different agencies involved.

I have had meetings on site with representatives of Network Rail, but they have made it clear that in the event of works to replace the culvert overrunning, my local authority, East Devon District Council, could be liable for a fine of £4,000 per minute, which is clearly ridiculous and unaffordable. The theory behind that, presumably, is to ensure that the works are carried out quickly and efficiently so as not to disrupt train times, and I have sympathy with that, but how can a local, hard-pressed district council possibly authorise such a project to be undertaken if it incurs a potential liability of £4,000 a minute? That is the reality.

As I said, I suspect that that situation is not unique. Indeed, I can cite another example. In the neighbouring constituency of Tiverton and Honiton is the village of Feniton, and it is affected by the same problem. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister is aware of problems elsewhere in the country. It requires ministerial involvement at this stage. We have tried all the different agencies. We have brought them all together. We have come up with a resolution, but it is impossible for my constituents to be exposed in this way to flooding that will happen time and again until the situation in Whimple is addressed.

Will the Minister please look at this particular situation again and, if necessary, bring all the interested parties together, including Network Rail, the local authority, the Environment Agency and anyone else she wishes to finally resolve this situation? I know that my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is in his place, would very much welcome a meeting with the Minister, if we can have one, to hear how the situations in Whimple and in Feniton, which I know he cares so desperately about, can be resolved.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate on the management of flood defence projects in the south-west. He has spoken passionately on behalf of his constituents and the wider area. I note with concern his comments on Taunton Deane Borough Council and his long-standing concerns about its performance in regard to flooding. I also note his other specific concerns about possible sites for development. I am sure those words will have been heard clearly in Taunton Deane. He will understand that I am not going to take direct action, but I am sure that in moving forward, those concerns will be taken on board.

My hon. Friend may not be aware of this, but I hope he will join me in acknowledging the dedicated work of the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal risk manager for Wessex, Nick Lyness, who sadly passed away last month. Nick worked for the Environment Agency and its predecessors for more than 30 years. In that time he made a huge impact in helping to better protect the country from flooding. Nick had a personal hand in the Somerset flood action plan. He never lost sight of the fact that we are here to serve the communities and to ensure that we make things safer and better for them. Thousands of people have benefited from his tireless work even though they may not realise it. I am sure that those present today would also like to acknowledge the commitment that Nick made to the management of flood risk in the south-west.

I am aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community. I have supported my constituents in Suffolk following flooding in recent years. My hon. Friend has already acknowledged that I am absolutely committed to reducing the threat of flood risk. He will know that the Government continue to play a key role in improving protection for those at risk of flooding. We are investing £2.5 billion in more than 1,500 flood defences to better protect the country from flooding. That will protect more than 300,000 homes by 2021. We have increased maintenance spending in real terms over this Parliament to more than £l billion.

In the south-west of the country, the Government spent £169 million in the previous Parliament, providing better protection to more than 15,000 homes. Within our current programme of work to 2021, we are investing £176 million, which will provide better protection to more than 26,000 additional homes. I recently saw some of that good work on a visit to Exeter last December, where a new flood defence scheme is being constructed. It will provide better protection for more than 3,000 homes, and includes Government investment of more than £24 million.

My hon. Friend’s constituency is made up of a diverse range of watercourses and coastline, from the fast-flowing rivers and streams that start on Exmoor and in the Quantock hills, to the tidal River Parrett, which makes its way up to the Somerset levels, and the long length of coast from Porlock to the Steart peninsula. As he said, there is a history of flooding in the constituency, including the devastating flood that took place nearby in 1952, when 34 people lost their lives at Lynmouth and a further 420 were made homeless, and the more recent coastal flood in Minehead, in 1990. Everyone is particularly aware of what happened in the winter of 2013-14, when communities on the levels experienced widespread flooding, particularly within the Parrett and Tone river catchments. The Environment Agency estimates that there were 100 million cubic metres of floodwater covering an area of 65 square kilometres.

Following those floods, the Government provided more than £20 million to support actions in the Somerset flood action plan, which included the need for a new locally funded body to bring local flood risk management bodies together to work in partnership and undertake additional flood risk management work. The Somerset Rivers Authority was established in January 2015, bringing together partners to give real control over flood risk in the area. Supported by £1.9 million of start-up funding, the local authorities in Somerset were given the ability to continue to fund the SRA through additional council tax flexibility. We are working with the SRA on its long-term funding arrangements; my hon. Friend knows that I am working hard to make sure that, when parliamentary time allows, we will progress that legislation.

Some of the work that has already been led and carried out by the Environment Agency on behalf of the Somerset Rivers Authority includes improvements to the resilience and operation of both Northmoor and Saltmoor pumping stations and the preparation of an outline design to improve the capacity and flow of the King’s Sedgemoor Drain and the River Sowy, which will help to alleviate the pressure on the River Parrett and across the levels. A project that finished last autumn, adding two new culverts and weirs at Beer Wall, allows for better management of flood levels.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that in the last Parliament, the Government invested £25 million in protecting homes. The current planned investment up to 2021 is more than £17 million. The regional flood and coastal committee, which has a majority of local authority members, decides the schemes to prioritise, making local choices and agreeing the final programme, which allows for local input into decisions on where investment should be prioritised.

I want to point out that there have been several other investments, including the Steart managed realignment scheme, the Cannington Outfalls project, the King’s Sedgemoor Drain and planned investment in the Parrett Estuary Cannington Bends project, the Cannington flood defence scheme, and the Curry Moor reservoir. The Environment Agency has also been making good progress looking at the different options for a potential tidal barrier on the River Parrett near Bridgwater. Local consultation has taken place with stakeholders. Once a preferred option has been chosen, public consultation is expected to start this spring. A barrier would help to ensure that Bridgwater is better protected from the tidal influences of the River Parrett. If the business case gains final approval, it is expected that the barrier will be constructed and in operation by the summer of 2024. We forecast that, if the business case allows, our investment will be £25 million. I hope my hon. Friend is assured that we take his constituency very seriously.

It is also right to point out that the Environment Agency has successfully implemented some natural flood management measures on the National Trust’s Holnicote estate within the Horner Water and River Aller catchments of my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is also supporting the Hills to Levels partnership project, which is endorsed by the Somerset Rivers Authority, the Royal Bath and West of England Society and led by the south-west’s farming and wildlife advisory group. That project is considering the potential for natural flood management measures to slow the flow in some of the tributary catchments of the Rivers Parrett and Tone and west Somerset rivers and will be delivered over the next four years.

New flood defences only form part of the picture for the management of flood risk and the flood action plan for the Somerset moors and levels and dredging has happened along the Rivers Parrett and Tone. In 2016, the Environment Agency dredged a further section of the River Parrett on behalf of the SRA. As a consequence, since 2015, 99 km or 60 miles of desilting was carried out in Somerset by the Environment Agency, jointly with the SRA and the all-important internal drainage board. Although dredging assists in providing some additional relief from high river flows, it is not a solution in its own right and will always be considered carefully with other elements.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) here and am grateful for his interest with regards to work on protection. On the national flood resilience review, it is worth setting out on the record that we continue to follow up on the actions of that review—we were certainly better prepared over this winter to deal with the risks. We continue to invest in mobile flood defences and pumps. As has already been said, 1,200 troops have been on standby if councils need their help, and they were recently deployed in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

With regard to Bridgwater and West Somerset, the Environment Agency has undertaken a robust assessment of the locations that are suitable for using temporary barriers. It assessed the practical implications such as road closures and flood risk benefit as well as ensuring that they do not make the flood worse. A temporary defence deployment plan is currently being prepared for Croscombe, which was hit by flooding recently.

A key part of the national flood resilience review was having infrastructure providers reviewing the resilience of their key assets. They identified and protected their assets with temporary defences this winter while longer-term solutions are implemented. We have also continued to work with the private sector to develop a new flood resilience action plan, which illustrates to homeowners and business owners some straightforward measures they can take to improve the resilience of their property to flooding, as well as enabling them to get back in far more quickly if they are unfortunately flooded. Those can be simple measures, such as air-brick covers, or more substantial works, such as installing a pump, having solid floors or installing wiring so that plug sockets are higher up the wall.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) referred to the situation in Whimple in his constituency. I understand that he met representatives from Network Rail and the Environment Agency last summer to discuss the issues. I am aware that the project currently under consideration is eligible for £600,000 of Government investment under the partnership funding policy. There is currently a shortfall, which will be required to be secured. I note that the regional flood and coastal committee has provisionally offered to help with a contribution of about a third of that amount from their local levy fund, and I am sure that he will continue to work with local partners to raise the additional funding required.

My right hon. Friend referred to a specific issue with the railway line and the discussions with Network Rail. I will ask the rail Minister to look into this matter with Network Rail. I have been advised that if the construction method chosen avoids the need for a track closure, the threat of the fines is no longer there. I recognise, however—as many of us who deal with Network Rail will do—the challenges of what we think of as common sense getting tied up in bureaucracy. I assure my right hon. Friend that I will refer the matter to the appropriate Minister, who I believe will be able to cut through some of the evident red tape.

This has been a very useful debate to consider the particular situation in the south-west and especially in this very special part of Somerset. I hope I have been able to show my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset that plans are under way to address flooding issues. I thank him for his praise of the Environment Agency. I recognise and agree that it is a different beast from what it was several years ago, when I first became an MP. A lot of that has to do with local leadership, which will now sadly be lacking due to Nick’s unfortunate death, but it also stems from the leadership of Sir James Bevan and his team, including people such as John Curtin, in addressing the issue.

The Minister has made my point for me. I was going to praise the new chief executive, the former high commissioner to Delhi in India, Sir James Bevan, who has brought a fresh attitude to the Environment Agency.

That is why the Government are standing behind the Environment Agency. Although the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not entirely welcome our response, I believe that when there is good leadership getting on with the job, disruptive change is unnecessary when we are trying to do our best to protect more homes and more residents, especially when my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset recites examples of where he feels that local action could be better than it is and impacts on his own constituency. I assure him that the Environment Agency will continue to work with him and hon. Members from all parties to reduce flood risk and to work collaboratively to help deliver projects in the area.

Question put and agreed to.