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Upper Catchment Management

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 26 April 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered upper catchment management.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what will be the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament. Upland catchment management is an important subject to focus on. Many Members in the Chamber today will have experienced flooding in their constituency, as I did in York Central on Boxing day 2015. We know the devastation that came from that. In York, 453 residential homes were flooded and 174 businesses experienced flooding. There are families who are still not back in their homes and businesses that are yet to reopen, such as the Blue Bicycle restaurant on Fossgate, which is still waiting for repairs to begin. Although we celebrate places such as Jorvik, which reopened over the Easter recess with a new exhibition—I encourage all Members to visit and to send their constituents there, as well as to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, which has also been restored—there is still so much to do. The insurance systems still are not working, and resilience is still an aspiration, not a reality. We need far tighter flood governance to support people when planning, during flooding and afterwards too.

To make a real difference, we have to look upstream at how we prevent flooding downstream. I am sure all Members present would agree that to address flooding in our country properly, the resource and focus need to switch upstream. With climate change, we know that flooding is a reality in this country, so we have to get on top of the agenda. I have been saddened that the Government have not prioritised climate change in the past couple of years in the way we would want. I know for sure that Labour will ensure we tackle the causes of flooding, as well as flooding itself. That phrase may resonate with people as a commitment, and they will see the actions that we will put behind that.

I know that instigating methods of prevention is always better than having to mop up after a disaster. That was why I was so disappointed by the Government’s “National Flood Resilience Review”. It talked about spending money on defences and moveable defences—it is only a little bit of money, mind, that is being put into that—without getting resource where it is needed upstream. The review also said that would not happen until the next comprehensive spending review. I am pleased to say that after the election, Labour’s comprehensive spending review will address this very issue to ensure we address flooding at source.

I fully understand what the hon. Lady says, but we only have to look a few miles to the west of York, to my constituency of Calder Valley, to see what the Government have done. They have done a tremendous job in developing a full catchment plan that looks at how agencies work together, tree planting, leaky dams, grip blocking and the management of reservoirs. Does she not agree that the Government’s focus, particularly since the Boxing day floods, has moved away from the bog standard, “Let’s build a wall”, to having an upper catchment plan, which is exactly what we have in the Calder Valley?

I am sure we will talk about different schemes that have been put in place. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who represents my not-quite-neighbouring constituency, is here, and we will consider what has happened at Pickering. We need to ensure that all such schemes slow the flow, because that is really important in addressing these issues.

I am sure all hon. Members agree that it is important that we build evidence—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is nodding—about what produces the best solutions for addressing upland management, which is why it is deeply disappointing that the Government have cut the research budget. I want to talk about a specific piece of research that I am going to ask the Minister to review. The University of York has carried out research into moorland management. This extensive piece of work, which is the most comprehensive of its kind, has run for five years at a cost of £1 million to the Government. The university is asking for a further five years of research funding—£660,000—to complete that innovative research, which covers 500 different patches across a whole catchment to look at how best to manage the moorlands. The groundwork has been done, so it is nonsensical not to see it through to completion. Doing so would enable us to see the impact over 10 years, which in turn would have a real impact on constituencies such as mine.

I believe it is best for Government to look for opportunities to save spending money. If that research runs for a further five years, it will address issues such as complete management rotation and the impact of the regrowth of vegetation. We will see the impact across the whole catchment, as well as the impact of time, and what 10 years produces, as opposed to just five.

I said that £660,000 is the upper limit for that piece of research, and that £1 million was spent on the first phase. So far, the university has been able to secure £353,000 from other sources, so it needs only £307,000. The Stockholm Environment Institute will put 20% towards the research, so that figure comes down to only £246,000. I am sure the Minister will agree that spending £246,000 over five years—£49,000 a year—is better than spending £2.3 billion to mop up the disaster from floods and putting barriers in places where they will perhaps not be needed if the research is complete. This is about investment and saving money for the Treasury, which I am sure the Minister would welcome.

My shameless plea is for us to apply some common sense and to extend that unique piece of research, which will improve our climate, reduce flood risk and reduce the prospect of spending so much money downstream. I am all for trying to reduce Government spend if we can invest it in the right places. As a keen walker, I am out and about across the moors and the dales, and I have seen the way the uplands are managed. This research, which is entitled “Restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation”, speaks to the need to use evidence to ensure we have better management.

There is more that will come from the research. It has excited academics beyond our shores, and has encouraged them to look at what we are doing. They want it to be completed, which is why we have got interest from Sweden. The Moorlands Association also said it is vital, which is why it is willing to put resource into it. Members of the public—it is their taxes and their money—do not want to see future floods. Therefore, they want their money to be spent prudently. At £49,000 a year, we could not get a better investment in something that will be so significant.

The research has concluded that how the uplands are managed has an impact on the amount of water that comes downstream. We had a debate on grouse moor shooting and how to manage the moors in that context. If we look at burning versus mowing the heather, it brings a 10% to 20% reduction in the amount of water coming downstream, which is significant. In a place such as my city of York, we are talking about 40 cm of water, which would have greatly reduced the damage caused on Boxing day 2015. That is significant.

The hon. Lady is making a good point about burning versus mowing, but does she understand that some locations on the grouse moor cannot be mowed because the terrain is not suitable for mowing? The people who manage the moors mow when they can, but other areas need burning rather than mowing.

The hon. Gentleman has a point, but the research also looks at other management of the moorlands. Some sites, for instance, are left fallow to see what the impact is and there can be absorption. The research looks not only at heathers but at the wider biodiversity that comes from the upland management. That is why a 10-year research programme is so much more significant. Measures arising from the research already conducted would bring flooding down in York by 40 cm. Looking at the regeneration of certain species over 10 years could reduce that level further. If we consider York and the 40 cm, many of the barriers now being discussed, and how high they are raised, might not need to be in place and could therefore save even more money. If we then reinvest that money into planting trees and, as in Pickering, having leaky dams upstream and other forms of water catchment, we could be talking about significantly more water not coming downstream: perhaps 45 cm or 50 cm, and each centimetre is significant. That proves the research is crucial to drive forward a programme that really addresses the issues.

I want to challenge the 40 cm figure. If my memory serves me correctly about the research that the hon. Lady quotes, there is a line that clearly says the flow is unimpeded. As we know, in the uplands we do not have unimpeded flow, so that is an incredibly worst-case scenario if we had flat moors and the flows came straight down the hill. The evidence quoted is not evidence because it uses unimpeded flow.

I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s point because I sat down with the research scientists and looked through the evidence they produced. They say it is 40 cm, but that could increase beyond that for certain scenarios. They want to carry out a 10-year research project to make sure that the data have even more rigour than the five-year research project carried out to date. Although there are differences in the way in which the water flows, and we want other measures such as filling in the grips and so on, the evidence clearly suggests that a different form of moorland management will make a difference in the amount of water that comes downstream.

We do not get the benefit from only the water flow. There are many other by-products. For instance, different management of the moorlands will produce greater soil resilience, which means that there would be less summer drought in the moorlands, thereby sustaining the bio-habitat over the summer and for a longer period, which is a real benefit, and we would increase the quality of the soil. We know from the debate we had on soil quality how important that is. Improving absorption is also important. On a climate issue, burning puts carbon into the atmosphere, leaving charcoal behind as a by-product as opposed to holding that in the soil.

It is also important to see this matter as part of a wider environmental strategy. I am sure the Minister will remind us that all of that will be discussed in the 25-year environment plan. To her embarrassment, I am sure, the plan was going to be produced before summer 2016, and then we were told we would get the framework before Christmas—so we cannot even use the Brexit argument now—but we are still waiting on that 25-year plan. It is a 25-year plan to write, I am convinced.

The Environmental Audit Committee has also recognised the need for more joined-up thinking about the benefits of such a framework. Bringing in issues such as how we improve planting and planting in the right place is vital in catchment management.

There is recognition that where heather is burned, we get greater germination of the seeds, which then bring heather. However, it has been shown that mowing means we get more shoots coming off the heather. For those who go out grouse shooting and support it, which I do not, mowing is better for that sport—if we can call it a sport; I probably would not. Mowing is also less labour-intensive, so it is good for those managing the moorlands.

Air quality, water quality, soil quality and biodiversity all come together here, and a 10-year study of the impact on all of them is significant. Anyone who is keen on the environment and on seeing environmental measures advanced will want to support that research, which I remind the Minister would cost only £49,000 a year. That study is required. It is long term, and it will improve our environment.

I say to the Minister, on behalf of my constituents who face the devastation, that this is about their money and their future. They have experienced real difficulties during the flooding and still are. Building evidence-based policy, which is surely what the Government want to do, by investing in a little piece of research will make a significant change. I trust that she will commit today to review that piece of research and its second phase and agree to fund the small price that it costs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this very important debate.

As the hon. Lady said, one of the beautiful market towns in my constituency is Pickering. It is not only a beautiful town but a gateway to one of the finest landscapes in this nation—the North York Moors, with its Wimbledon colours of green and purple. On a sunny day, we can enjoy the delights of the North York Moors railway, chugging gently through that wonderful landscape and enjoying the beautiful “Heartbeat” country of places like Goathland.

Beautifully concealed within that landscape is the Pickering “Slowing the Flow” project. It is a pioneering project involving bunds, which are dams—some of them deliberately leaky, and some more substantial; heavy tree planting on riversides, farmland and floodplains; and small-scale ponds and swales. All those things are to slow the flow. There is also some more conventional concrete flood storage, but in my constituency it is almost like modern art; it is beautifully executed.

Pickering has a long history of flood issues, with four significant floods since 2005. One in 2007 flooded 85 homes and businesses in Pickering, causing £7 million-worth of damage. Pickering had a one-in-four chance of flooding. The deep channels of Pickering beck, which are deeper over time, meant that the water could not get away before the “Slowing the Flow” project. Other conventional schemes were considered. In 2004 a concrete scheme was brought forward that I think would have blighted the beautiful town. However, it was seen as too expensive. It would have cost £7 million in 2004, which is probably more like £15 million in today’s money, with inflation and the cost of contracts these days.

The scheme was run by the local community, in partnership with Forest Research, which is part of the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency, the North York Moors national park, academics from Durham University and Natural England. It was funded by DEFRA—prior to our excellent Minister’s tenure but very important funding nevertheless; perhaps the hon. Lady might recognise that some moneys have been committed to these kinds of projects—but also local authorities, landowners including the Duchy of Lancaster and the community itself. The project was chaired by Jeremy Walker, who has great knowledge of these issues, and it was delivered for £4 million, rather than the £10 million or £15 million it would be in today’s money. It was a completely new, pioneer scheme; I know the Minister is very keen to see these pioneer areas and pioneer schemes.

One simple question is whether it worked. The jury is still out; the scheme was completed only in 2014-15, but we saw significant rainfall in 2015. It was analysed by the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency and the partnership to see if it actually worked. They looked at not just the rainfall but its intensity and how wet or dry the land was before the rain came. The hon. Lady pointed to the fact that many houses downstream in York were flooded on Boxing day 2015. That also happened in my constituency—in Malton particularly, but also in some smaller villages. However, Pickering did not flood, despite there being similar conditions to previous floods in 2008 and 2009. The research showed that the intensity—the peak flows—were reduced by about 15% to 20% because of those attenuation measures. The researchers are clever academics.

These are very complex schemes; they are not simple schemes to design and implement. The staging of the water flow is critical to making them work. With a high degree of certainty, it was established that that scheme worked; in fact, the comment was “better than expected.” Beck Isle, which is a small area of Pickering and one of those areas that floods every time there is a flood, saw no flooding of any properties, although the flooding came very close to homes. The dams I talked about earlier impeded the flows, which then pushed back into the backwaters behind and forced the waters out of the banks and into those riverside areas where trees had been planted. Of course, the trees then take up the water and make it less likely to push downstream.

About 50% of the reduction in peak flows was down to natural flood management measures and about 50% was due to flood storage, so the measures have been a real success. One could say, “Okay, that’s great, thank you very much. Let’s move on to Cumbria or Calder Valley or some other part of the country”, but I want the Minister to think of something other than that. There are additional measures that would make perfect sense at this point in time, such as gathering data, which the hon. Lady mentioned. That is one of the key things that we could do now to reinforce and multiply the effects of these measures.

The Yorkshire Derwent Partnership has been formed and, again, is chaired by the excellent Jeremy Walker, who has great knowledge of these areas. It is a catchment-wide project—2,000 sq km across that catchment. The Minister can straight away use that knowledge and experience. It has ready-to-go projects and three key things that it would like to do. It would like to gather data to see the effects of the projects, particularly when they are brought together across a catchment; the multiplier effect could be profound. There are also more measures for other communities.

Some of the beautiful places in my constituency, including Helmsley, Sinnington and Thornton Dale, which are stunning, chocolate-box villages, also suffer from these issues. Another project could be done on Thornton beck that would help Thornton Dale and across that whole catchment area. As the hon. Lady mentioned, such approaches have wider benefits. They do not just prevent flooding but create new habitats, benefit wildlife and improve water quality and management, and they still allow the public to access these beautiful areas.

The Department has allocated £15 million for slow the flow schemes in pioneer areas. I argue on behalf of the Yorkshire Derwent Partnership that the Derwent catchment is unique. It already has two sub-catchment areas with natural flood management projects that are working now. We could multiply those to see how they work, create more data and inform the debate so that such projects can be rolled out across the country where there are similar conditions.

All this can be done for only £175,000. A lot of money has been allocated, but I understand that there is about £1 million still to be allocated. The Environment Agency has the details of the Yorkshire Derwent Partnership’s proposal. Of course, lots of other proposals certainly deserve consideration. I would be neglecting my duties if I did not say that we also need more conventional flood attenuation measures such as dredging—our farmers really want me to say that word—but £175,000 would make a phenomenal difference to my area and the whole catchment area, and I believe that the work would be of national significance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for securing this debate on a topic in which I think most of us are interested. I heard on Radio 4 this morning that climate change is only going to get worse. I do not know how far north other hon. Members go, but my north is certainly a wee bit further than theirs. I look forward to addressing a topic that is dear to everyone’s hearts.

The hon. Lady made a particularly interesting comment about the £49,000 a year that is required to fund research to help resolve a problem. By anybody’s standards, that is a pitiful amount to find. If that research would help to resolve a problem, the Government should, without any doubt whatever, be able to find that money.

If the Government make that funding commitment, other people may come on board, so that figure could go down even further than £49,000 a year.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. She is a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention, which I chair, and I am always impressed by her knowledge of and passion for her area and the wider field. I commend her for everything she does. As chair of the APPG, I had plans to visit some areas, but unfortunately a general election has come along in the middle of those plans. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) painted a picture of Pickering as a place of modern art, so if we are both re-elected, I will take the opportunity to visit that area, too.

Flooding is the UK’s predominant natural hazard, and a significant increase in properties at risk is projected in the years to come. As we all know, flooding is rarely good business. For small and medium-sized enterprises, it is sometimes a matter of survival. I learned that all too well as a councillor in Falkirk. When the River Carron is in spate, it is the second fastest flowing river in Scotland and, I assume, in the UK. During that time, I found myself helping people and businesses affected by flash flooding and saw first hand the disruption that was caused to traffic and the community.

Getting involved in finding a solution opened my eyes to the value of preventive measures. There is no doubt that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Mitigation measures such as weirs, widening and increasing the height of bridges, and some hard defences are all needed, and mostly they are planned under the area’s flood risk management strategy. We also introduced fish ladders and a mini-hydro project, which are starting to bring additional benefits to the community. To emphasise what the hon. Member for York Central said, once one person is brought in, that seems to attract another. Groups follow, and are motivated by other people’s initiatives, including the one I am describing.

As chair of the all-party group on flood prevention and a member of the EAC, I took it upon myself recently to visit various areas—Tadcaster, Leeds, Ballater, Newton Stewart and Hoy—and began to put together, to present to the Minister, the evidence about small and medium-sized enterprises and how they are affected. I understand that a lot of good work has been done in Calder Valley. The community is extremely resilient, but there is still a continuing problem for small and medium-sized enterprises. I believe that insurance brokers there formed their own insurance funding, to help to cover such enterprises that could no longer afford to insure their businesses and properties, or, indeed, the excess amounts given to them.

I have heard people identify the need for better catchment level co-ordination between the bodies responsible for flood management in England and I have had an insight, from seeing and hearing things at first hand, into the willingness of communities to take part in flood risk management; but I have also heard their frustration, and I have heard about the reluctance of the Environment Agency, local authorities and other agencies to work with those local groups.

A water body’s catchment is the entire geographical area drained by that water body and its tributaries. Since the system is all connected, flood risk in a given part of the catchment area will be heavily influenced by what is happening above it in the catchment. Traditional flood management has focused on building hard defences and of course, as I have said, they are needed; but upper catchment management treats the catchment area as a single system, and it is vital to use natural flood management measures to slow the flow of water towards vulnerable areas. The approaches complement each other. Slowing the flow of water decreases pressures on hard defences and, most importantly, reduces the maintenance costs and the risk of failure of those already established flood defences.

Natural flood management has already been a lifeline for communities such as Pickering in Yorkshire that are too small for hard defences to be cost-effective. Such measures can have additional benefits, as has been said—trapping sediment and agricultural pollution and providing human amenities such as parklands and habitats for wildlife, including game.

The use of natural flood management at catchment scale is still in its infancy, and measuring the effects of a given flood management measure across something as hydrologically complex as a large catchment is difficult. I am certain that that fact is realised by those employed in the industry. There are risks as well as opportunities. As far as I know there is no conclusive evidence that natural flood management can be used at a catchment scale to reduce flood risk.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point; does he agree that while hard flood defences are important we must remember that that is only moving the problem further downstream? A number of villages in my constituency, such as Acaster Malbis and Naburn, south of York, support the flood defences in York; but ultimately those only move the water downstream and move the problem elsewhere. That is why upper catchment is so important, and it is why we must look at the whole. That has been well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake).

I could not agree more. It is a great example of how water does not know anything; it just goes where it has to go and there is no doubt that we need to think about how to manage the problem.

As I have said, there is no conclusive evidence that natural flood management can be used at catchment scale to reduce flood risk; if water storage capacity is added in the wrong place it, too, can increase rather than decrease the risk of flooding, so it must be considered very carefully. That is all the more reason for proper research and funding. There is a pressing need for research and projects—I know that there are projects under way around the country—but we must be careful that that is not used as an excuse for inaction. Natural flood management options have already been shown to be cost-effective management tools for managing localised flood risk in pilot projects such as the one carried out in Pickering, but even in the absence of catchment-scale flood risk reductions, it would make sense to identify areas where there is an opportunity to use NFM on a smaller scale, or where it might itself increase flood risk.

Catchment-level maps of natural flood management opportunities and risks are maintained in Scotland as part of the indicative flood maps provided by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. As far as I am aware, in England, opportunities for natural flood management have been mapped only for a few catchment areas in Yorkshire and Cumbria. The Environment Agency has produced detailed maps of England showing where there is potential to restore different types of wetland, but not where that might impact on flood risk, which is an important point to remember.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the mapping that the Environment Agency has carried out. It is incredibly frustrated that it cannot get on with putting the schemes in place and with getting the research to show the best mechanisms for slowing the flow. Does that not make a further point about another agency that would benefit from the research by the University of York?

Once again, I agree with the hon. Lady. At the last APPG meeting, we could hear that there is an urgency for all people to work together. One of the points emerging, every time we go to a place, is that no one seems able to take a lead. Everyone is waiting on someone else to do it. It is not a lot of money in the scale of things, and it will cost an awful lot more not to do it than to do it—so I absolutely, totally agree.

We also hear the argument that NFM might not provide protection against the most extreme rainfall events. Those arguments do not seem to take it into account that by taking pressure off hard defences downstream, NFM could decrease the risk that those defences might fail, and reduce their maintenance costs.

The cost of installing and maintaining the measures is very low compared with traditional flood defences. Most use natural materials obtained on site and are easily implemented by landowners or volunteers. If anyone takes some time to look at work that has been carried out, they would be impressed by how little it takes to make these things happen.

For example, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the local authority designed and implemented a NFM scheme that was credited with sparing the town from flooding in March 2016. The total cost so far has been circa £215,000. Previous flooding in 2007 affected 200 properties. A reservoir built in 2011 to enhance the protection of 350 properties in Gloucester cost £1.5 million. I think that makes the point clearly.

The Government announced in the autumn statement that they will invest £15 million in natural flood management in England, yet they are evasive about its allocation. Thanks to investigations undertaken by Friends of the Earth, we know that before the announcement was made, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was commissioned by the EA to draw up plans for £20 million worth of NFM projects. When pressed about its allocation, the then Secretary of State would only say that the money would be used to test the methods. Given that large studies into the effectiveness of NFM are already under way, it seems to me that the Government need to give communities in flood-prone areas assurance that the money will be spent on implementing NFM, rather than on projects for consultants.

We have probably all heard of the Chinese saying that the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago, and the second best time is today. Flood Re will run for roughly another 23 years. Either we implement a programme of action, or many of the 350,000 properties eligible for Flood Re will become uninsurable. Given the time that trees and wetlands need to become established, the implementation of upper catchment management has to be made a priority if it is to play a role in meeting that need. I urge the Minister to act urgently.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who is also an extremely able former shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She has done well in securing such an important debate. Both she and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) have shown a great talent for making a pitch, which any salesman would be rightly proud of.

My hon. Friend has highlighted how the lives of families and business people in the beautiful and historical city of York have still not returned to normal after Boxing day 2015, and she made an in-depth case for the Government to support the research by the University of York to improve moorland management.

I do not want to repeat all that my hon. Friend has said, as she spoke with her usual eloquence and passion, and laid out the evidence to back up her argument very clearly; I would say the same of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Surely, therefore, the Minister can see that the case presented by my hon. Friend makes sense, especially as the Government have already invested £l million to fund the first phase of the research. I am confident that the Minister can make a case to her Department and the Treasury, particularly because there are so many benefits to be had from the study, perhaps most importantly and immediately for the people of York and the businesses based in that great city.

Following their national flood resilience review, the Government said their 25-year environmental plan would introduce catchment measures to minimise flooding. That was seven months ago. Similarly, in response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report, “Future flood prevention”, which was published last November, the Government said they supported a catchment approach, alongside engineered defences, and that such an approach would be at the heart of their 25-year plan. The Government also agreed that is important to build up more evidence to support the catchment-based approach.

Unfortunately, here we are at the end of this Parliament and we are still waiting to see the 25-year plan, which is of little comfort to those who live in areas prone to flooding and who have to face flooding on a regular basis. I personally have never had to face flooding, but I know people whose homes have been flooded, so I know how important it is to get work done in the right way at the right time to alleviate flooding and mitigate its impact. It is of great importance.

Can the Minister say what progress has been made on the Cumbria Pioneer project, which the Government believe will be an important step in understanding the value of catchment management in larger catchment areas, as well as influencing the development of good practice and innovative solutions? Will those solutions include taking local knowledge into account, which would prove invaluable as well as helping to build the confidence of communities, who often feel that the value of their experience of flooding is not taken fully into account?

At the end of this Parliament, I hope that the Minister can give Members and the public more reassurance than has been the case hitherto, especially as the Government have failed to take forward any key recommendations from the EFRA Committee’s report.

In an earlier debate, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who unfortunately cannot be here today to respond to this debate on behalf of Labour, said that

“we need to look at the whole river catchment.”

She also said that we need some quick fixes to reassure “nervous” communities, as well as investing in long-term solutions. In addition, she said:

“we need to stop talking about flood prevention. We cannot prevent flooding, but we can manage it and make our communities properly resilient.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2017; Vol. 622, c. 71.]

No one could fail to agree with that and as this is the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament, perhaps a good parting gesture from this Government would be for the Minister to agree to the request from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central. I am sure that the Minister will answer my suggestion favourably and I now await her response with eager anticipation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, in what will be the last debate in Westminster Hall in this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this debate on upper catchment management, and I thank those Members who have joined us today in what is a busy week individually and for Parliament.

I am aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community, as it has happened in my constituency of Suffolk Coastal. I am absolutely committed to reducing the threat of flooding, as well as ensuring that we continue to improve our environment as a whole. The Government have played a key role in improving protection for those at flood risk. By committing to invest £2.5 billion by 2021, we will better protect the country from flooding. That money will go to more than 1,500 flood defence schemes to protect more than 300,000 homes. We will also increase maintenance spending in real terms to more than £1 billion.

The key change from which local communities have benefited is that we set out a six-year funded plan that will help the Environment Agency to efficiently and properly draw up schemes, rather than having the hand-to-mouth existence caused by annual budgets, which lend themselves to a stop-start approach. York, like many other places, suffered greatly in the 2015-16 floods, which as we all know were somewhat caused by record rainfall that winter. The hon. Lady will be aware that 627 properties were flooded in York alone. The Government made an additional £175 million available to support the worst-affected areas.

York itself received £45 million of that, which will better protect 2,000 properties with ongoing schemes. A further £35 million each is going to Leeds and the Calder valley. Cumbria received £33 million. The York five-year plan, which was published last December, sets out how the investment will build new defences and investigate new ways to reduce flooding in the city and surrounding area, giving priority to areas of the city that currently do not benefit from formal defences. The hon. Lady will be aware of the further £19.4 million being invested to upgrade the Foss barrier. By December 2017, construction will be complete and the barrier will be able to pump flood flows in excess of the record level experienced on Boxing day, thus protecting the heart of York.

Beyond the current plan for the city, and understandably after the general election, the Environment Agency will consult with stakeholders on the first stage of the York long-term plan, which will identify catchment measures to reduce flood risk in the city. Integrated catchment management is integral to our ambitions for the future of our environment, and we remain committed to holistic planning for our water to maximise benefits to people, wildlife and the economy. There is a consensus around the importance of conserving upland moorland habitats for all the benefits they bring, which include: the filtering of an estimated 70% of our drinking water, storing significant amounts of carbon and providing an excellent habitat for grouse and other wildlife.

The hon. Lady referred to the York University study. She will be aware that DEFRA has invested nearly £1 million in that research already, but following a rigorous prioritisation process, the Department will not be funding a second stage of the project. She will be aware that the learnings of the report will be out later this year, and there may be an opportunity to take lessons from that, but nevertheless, peatland restoration continues to be a priority. As announced earlier this month, DEFRA will be investing £10 million into peatland restoration projects over the next five years, recognising their importance.

I have sat down with the academics on this research. Given that the Government have already invested £1 million in the first part of the research and that to complete this groundbreaking research comes at a very small cost of £49,000 a year—as compared with the huge figure of £2.5 billion that the Minister has talked about—surely that investment is worth making. I ask her to go and look at that decision again, for the sake of having a really solid evidence base for policy making.

As it stands today, I will not be looking at the matter again. I can assure the hon. Lady that the decision went through a rigorous process within the Department, and the decision was made by appropriately qualified officials. She will recognise that we will continue to invest in peatlands and continue to work on moor owners and stakeholders to further improve practices and conditions.

Catchment management is not restricted to the uplands. Enabling whole catchment management requires bringing together local government, internal drainage boards, landowners, third-sector organisations and communities to identify the issues and solutions that provide the maximum opportunities to manage and mitigate water in that catchment to the benefit of residents, businesses and wildlife. We are proactive in supporting local decision makers in catchments to ensure a co-ordinated approach in a catchment, including for water quality, supply and flood management. We intend to strengthen focus on integrated catchment level planning as we prepare for the next cycles of river basin and flood risk management planning. There are already very good examples of partners coming together to consider whole catchment management, some of which we have heard about today, including the work of the flood action groups and the catchment partnerships around the country, which encourage all those who use and depend on water to share in its stewardship.

The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) asked about catchment partnerships. Last month, we announced a £6.3 million investment this year to continue to facilitate and build capacity in catchment partnerships and to fund projects focused on meeting local priorities, building partnership working and securing multiple benefits, consistent with integrated water management.

Actions under the Cumbria and Calderdale flood action plans, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) referred—I visited him in Mytholmroyd to see some of the progress on them—and which were published last year, include an integrated approach to managing catchment areas. Both areas are now considering how those flood plans can be incorporated into a wider catchment-based approach that considers not just flooding, but water quality, supply and environmental improvements. Of course, we must recognise that each catchment is different, so the solutions will be tailored to each area. We need to encourage more areas to take similar approaches. The Pioneer project we have started in Cumbria will explore that approach, and its learnings will be shared with others, but it is still too early to share any of those learnings.

Natural flood management can play an important role in the management of our catchments, and can have multiple benefits in encouraging biodiversity, habitat creation and improvements to water quality. In York and Yorkshire, the Environment Agency has already worked with consultants to model what and where NFM measures could be introduced into the Foss catchment upstream of York, and in Cumbria the Environment Agency has worked with the Rivers Trust and JBA to model potential natural flood management schemes across four catchments.

Between 2009 and 2015, we invested £4.1 million at Pickering in North Yorkshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has already referred to that. We also invested money in Holnicote in Somerset and Upper Derwent in Derbyshire. Those projects found that the measures could be effective in helping to manage flood risk when carefully incorporated into a wider suite of catchment measures.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) asked about the natural flood management projects. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced £15 million of funding for projects across England, £1 million of which has been ring-fenced as a competitive fund for local organisations to bid for. I ensured we set out that £1 million, as it was requested by some members of the National Flood Forum, who wanted the opportunity to have a much wider range of smaller-scale projects. I have also agreed that business cases should be developed for a number of projects across the country, including in Yorkshire and Cumbria, but I cannot give further details of the locations due to purdah. I note the pitch of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for a Yorkshire and Derwent partnership. I am sure that will be carefully considered, as there is a small amount of money—I am not sure there is £175,000 left, but we will see.

I established the principles and chose the business cases we wanted to progress because I felt that we need schemes of different sizes that can be achieved at a good pace, so that we can gather evidence and take forward the learnings about the benefits of natural flood management in different catchment landscapes. I specifically ruled out some projects that would not be able to start for a few years’ time. We want natural flood management solutions to be fairly assessed and supported where they offer a viable way of reducing the damaging impact of flooding. However, we cannot expect that such measures alone will offer protection in areas of the greatest risk or in the face of the most significant flood events, so good integrated catchment management will consider those, along with more traditional flood protection schemes, as the Environment Agency already does in its capital programme.

The need to gather more data and evidence has been mentioned. The Oxford Martin School recently published a restatement of evidence, which looked at previous research and reviewed findings. It reached the conclusion that NFM can provide support in up to 100 sq km of smaller floods, but more research is needed into the impact on larger floods. The Natural Environment Research Council has provided £4 million of further research for natural flood management, and the Environment Agency and DEFRA are developing a directory of evidence and maps to support future projects.

The hon. Member for York Central invited me to visit York. I am certain that I will take her up on that offer in the next six weeks or will certainly be in Yorkshire. This is an important issue, and I am proud that it is our Government who have invested those funds, which will better protect more than 2,000 properties. I will be making clear which particular Government provided that.

When the Minister visits Yorkshire, will she also take the opportunity to come to the jewel in the crown of North Yorkshire—the North York Moors and Pickering—to look at the scheme there and what further measures we might put in place to finish the job?

My hon. Friend tempts me. I know that his part of Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful British Isles. However, I am sure he recognises that I will have to prioritise my time in the next few weeks. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected to this House and reappointed to this role, I am sure that at some point I will be able to do that. I thought he had already grabbed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to visit at some point; he cannot be too greedy.

This has been a very useful opportunity to discuss the benefits of upper catchment management. I am confident that the House agrees that by working closely together across catchments we can make significant improvements. The Government have said that we want to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Strong local integrated catchment management can be a way to help to achieve that ambition.

It is a shame that that ambition will not be met, by the early calling of the general election. Clearly we want to ensure that there is a strong evidence base. The Minister talks about eye-watering sums. To say that we should not go ahead and build a strong evidence base to ensure that money is spent wisely is something I find deeply concerning, especially as she did not state the criteria she was looking at.

The world outside is saying that this research is so groundbreaking that they want to see it continue. That is why we have even seen organisations such as the Moorland Association committing £100,000 to the research. The cost of the research has been reduced. In the light of that reduced cost to the Minister’s Department, I want to know whether she would reconsider the opportunity to build a sound evidence base through a unique piece of research on catchment management, including biodiversity and soil, water and air quality. It could make such a significant difference for such a small spend.

I cannot comprehend not doing so, and nor will my constituents. I have to say that I did not invite the Minister to my constituency. I do not believe she would be very welcome there, because she is not putting funding into an issue that has turned out to be catastrophic for them. I know from meeting my constituents that they really want this research to go ahead.

Rather than being so stubborn, why does the Minister not go back and look at the research? She did not talk about the detail of the research, so I am not even convinced that she has read it. [Interruption.] Well, it does not seem, from her gestures, that she has looked at the detail of the research, which is negligent on her part. The research is powerful and says how important it is that we carry out this work. Given what flooding has cost my constituents personally, let alone financially, doing a bit of research to build an evidence base for policy making will make a difference.

When we are talking about looking to the future and building a sound evidence base, this academic research—[Interruption.] I am trying to concentrate on what I am saying, but the Minister seems to want to mutter her way through my concluding remarks. The reality is that we need to ensure investment is put into building a strong evidence base.

The Minister says that the Government have invested, but the academics—who, with respect, know their field—are saying that this research is absolutely crucial. They are world leaders in their work. It is crucial that we listen to the experts and ensure that we see this research through to a conclusion.

Public money to the tune of £1 million has been spent on the first phase of the research. To not see it through to the final phases is, some could say, a waste of public money. I ask the Minister once more to take back to her Department the request to look again at funding this research at a reduced sum, due to the generous contributions of other institutions, including the Stockholm Environment Institute, which see how crucial the research is for addressing flooding in our nation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered upper catchment management.

Sitting adjourned.