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Flooding Preparedness: Yorkshire

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 30 September 2020

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

It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker, not least because you have been such a long-standing champion for Yorkshire, but also because I know you take a close interest in the issue of flooding.

In November last year, I was standing in Lang Avenue in Barnsley. I had often been there before, but this time was different. In the freezing cold, around 70 homes had been flooded. Among the residents there was the quiet desperation of having been made effectively homeless in the middle of winter, of having lost precious possessions, of seeing Christmas plans lying in ruins.

There were many scenes like that last winter. Very early one morning I arrived in Fishlake, near Doncaster. That quiet village had the feel of a disaster movie, with waters running perilously high, the Army on the streets, and the emergency services working tirelessly to save lives and homes. I remember one couple who had lived there for 50 years; they were ferried out of the village on a tractor, their house waist deep in water. The husband was fighting cancer, and as they struggled with hospital appointments, they also had to deal with endless complication and delay from their insurance company. It was many months before work on their house even began.

I remember visiting a house in Bentley with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, all of us standing together in the home of an 83-year-old woman, with her ground floor flooded and almost everything destroyed. Her insurance had been cancelled through no fault of her own. She had lost her husband not long before, and now she was faced with losing much of what was familiar and precious to her.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making an eloquent, passionate and moving speech. Does he recognise that, for many of my constituents who have been affected by the floods, 10 months on, this is not something they have recovered from because they are still fighting with their insurance companies? Even if they are back in their homes, they are worried about what the future will bring; in particular, they are concerned that although £170 million has been announced for flood projects, not one of them is in Doncaster. They are deeply angry about that. Does he share their anger and recognise that they want the Government to show that they understand the need to help them, not just last November, but now, and to secure better protection for them?

My right hon. Friend is completely right to raise his constituents’ concerns, which I absolutely do share. What his constituents require is a plan, and we are doing a lot of work at local and regional level, but what we need is support from national Government. I will say a bit more about what I think that should involve.

My hon. Friend is making a chilling speech. It is a reminder of Storms Desmond and Eva, in which my constituency experienced significant flooding, as it did in February this year. Five years on, those residents are still waiting for their property level resilience to be put in place. Does he agree that that is completely unacceptable and that we need a better system in place to support residents ahead of floods arriving again?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend is right to make that point, which will form the basis of the remarks I am about to make.

We need to acknowledge the scale of the problem. About 1,000 homes in South Yorkshire and 565 businesses were directly affected by November’s floods, but the impact of flooding goes far beyond the material and economic damage. It carries a human cost—lives disrupted, homes abandoned, futures made uncertain and full of hardship. This is a growing threat: a once-in-a-lifetime disaster in South Yorkshire was followed weeks later by further flooding in West Yorkshire. Calderdale, for example, has suffered three major floods in the last eight years. Hull was badly hit in 2007, and York—my hon. Friend’s constituency—was hit in 2000, 2015 and again earlier this year, as she just described. Other parts of the UK from Scotland to Cornwall have suffered from flooding.

We are lucky to be a rich country with the means to help people and to respond to this danger, but that requires us to recognise the challenges we face, to deploy our resources as we need to, and to confront the longer-term causes of the crisis. I deeply regret that this Government have so far failed to do that. It is not that they have done nothing—indeed, I acknowledge and appreciate the efforts the Minister and her Department have made; the Environment Agency in particular has done sterling work in Yorkshire—but it was only yesterday that the Government gave a date for the flooding summit we discussed with them back in November last year.

I congratulate and commend my hon. Friend on the leadership he has shown on this issue. I also commend him on having secured the South Yorkshire flood summit. If I am not mistaken, though, a Yorkshire-wide flood summit was promised, not least following the devastating flooding that we experienced in Calderdale, which he has mentioned, as well as in areas of North Yorkshire. Although I really welcome the progress my hon. Friend has made on the South Yorkshire summit, does he agree that we need the same conversation for the rest of the region?

I absolutely do agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. The original concept was that the flooding summit would cover the county of Yorkshire. I work closely with the Yorkshire Leaders Board and know that there is a real desire to work closely with the Government on this issue. I would appreciate the Minister’s clarifying precisely what the attendance at the summit will be. If it is just for South Yorkshire, what are the plans to ensure that the rest of Yorkshire gets the support that it needs from the Government?

To be fair to the Minister and to the Government, of course we understand the disruption that covid has caused. But the people of Yorkshire should not have had to wait all this time for this meeting. To quote Lord Stark from “Game of Thrones”—not from the other place—“Winter is coming”, and there is every possibility that floods could strike again. If they do, potentially amid a second wave of covid infections and challenges relating to the Brexit transition, the effects of that flooding will be even more devastating.

It is not that the summit will be a silver bullet—of course, it is no substitute for the hard strategy and funding commitments that we need—but it will be an important way of focusing minds and bringing the Government and stakeholders together to co-ordinate a coherent long-term response. That is why I very much hope that the Prime Minister will accept the invitation, which I warmly extend to him again today, to take part in person. His presence would be an important sign to the people of Yorkshire that he recognises the scale of the threat and is working to address it.

As I said, the substance of the response is ultimately what matters, most immediately in relation to the ongoing aftermath of 2019, because 10 months on many people are still in temporary accommodation. Kilnhurst Primary School in Rotherham remains closed until the new year, with families facing additional stress on top of the difficulties caused by covid. We need to get communities the help that they need, and the Government must play their part. Councils have faced extraordinary costs at a time of hardship, and existing support has not filled the gap. Many of the people affected will face problems with insuring their homes, even when they move back into them.

The Blanc review is rightly considering this issue, and I trust that Ministers will act following its imminent completion, but we need to prevent the next flood, not just react to the last one, and that requires investment. In collaboration with local authorities throughout South Yorkshire, we have developed a detailed £271 million priority flood-resilience programme, to protect more than 10,300 homes and 2,800 businesses. The projected return on this investment, just in terms of avoided damage, is £1.7 billion, but funding for the plan remains in doubt. The grant in aid allocated to it under the Government’s medium-term plan has yet to be confirmed. Assuming that it is, and taking other sources into account, there is still a shortfall of £125 million.

As another flooding season begins, we do not have the resources that we need to protect our region. I ask the Government not just to confirm the current draft MTP, but to provide an exceptional boost above and beyond it to fully fund our proposals. That would follow the precedent of the £115 million in exceptional funding that Yorkshire received after the 2015 floods. I hope the Government will go beyond that and give local authorities the revenue—not just the capital—that they desperately need to get flood-prevention projects shovel ready.

This is not just about money; we need to fundamentally change not just the amount that we invest but the way that we do flood prevention. We need to shift away from engineering solutions towards natural flood management and a catchment-wide approach, which can reduce the threat of flooding at its sources, rather than shifting it from one place to another. Our priority programme includes £2 million to support catchment-wide modelling as an essential step towards that approach. We warmly welcome the Environment Agency’s support for nature-based solutions in South Yorkshire and the draft MTP’s inclusion of almost £38 million for those schemes in the Don catchment.

We cannot, however, build our way out of this with concrete. Working with nature, rather than against it, will ultimately be much more effective and affordable, and will allow us to preserve and expand critical habitats such as wetlands, moors and forests. The pioneering work of the Environment Agency, with the Woodland Trust and others, shows just how effective this slowing the flow can be. I have partnered with the Woodland Trust as part of an ambitious wider programme to plant millions of trees in South Yorkshire, with flood prevention a key goal of a plan that will also help communities, wildlife and our climate. I hope that the Government will back the effort—I say that in good faith to the Minister—and adopt my amendment to the Environment Bill to require a dedicated tree strategy for England.

As floods like last year’s become increasingly common, natural flood management must be not just one tool among others, but the core of our strategy across the whole country. The Government need to make that shift as a matter of urgency. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has spoken in favour of natural flood management. He needs to ensure that it is rolled out quickly and comprehensively. That needs to come hand in hand with greater flexibility. I hope that the Minister will heed the Local Government Association’s call for a more flexible funding model for flood prevention and for capital and revenue funding to be devolved into a single place-based pot to allow greater local control. We must also further reform the Green Book to allow a wider set of values to carry weight in investment decisions and end the dominant focus on residential properties and property values.

Those flooded houses in Lang Avenue, Bentley, Fishlake and right across Yorkshire are connected to a much wider crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that climate change could increase the annual cost of flooding in the UK almost fifteenfold within 60 years in high-emission scenarios. A portion of the hundreds of millions of pounds we are asking the Government for is part of the cost of our collective inaction on climate change over the past decades. This is a small taste of just how false an economy that inaction was. The idea that it costs too much for us to decarbonise is madness. The only thing worse than not having acted then would be not to act now.

The Government have promised a green recovery from covid. We appreciate that intent, but so far they have not delivered anything resembling the transformational change that we should be aspiring to in this once-in-a-generation moment, a moment when massive public investment is not only possible but essential to save our economy. To take just one example, the £3 billion allocated nationally for building retrofits, one of the most obvious and essential ways to decarbonise, as well as to create skilled jobs, is roughly what we need for retrofitting South Yorkshire alone.

The Committee on Climate Change is unequivocal: we are not making adequate progress. The Government have agreed a 2050 target for net zero, but they are not yet doing what is needed to reach it. The challenge of course is real, but so far their actions do not reflect the catastrophic threat that we face. For my part, we have a plan for South Yorkshire to reach net zero by 2040 at the latest, and immediate proposals to plant millions of trees, transform our public transport and carry out £200 million of green infrastructure investment, but we need Government support if we are to make more than a fraction of those plans a reality.

To conclude, we have the opportunity to act now on flooding in Yorkshire, on natural flood prevention right across the UK and on global climate change. I ask the Government to respond to the threat highlighted so powerfully last November in a way that reflects its scale and its urgency and the fact that it is at once a local, national and global challenge, and at every one of those levels to make the investments now that will ultimately save us from paying a much greater price in the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this very important debate. He knows how seriously I take flooding. He spoke passionately, as he always does, for his constituency. However, he will know that we have spoken a number of times over the past few months, so he cannot say that I have not engaged with him—nor, indeed, can other Opposition Members. I have definitely been listening. He will know already that that letter has gone out, inviting hon. Members to the said event to discuss flooding in South Yorkshire. I hope he welcomes that. I worked hard with the Secretary of State to press for it. He also knows that we were hit with an election and then, when we came back, the coronavirus pandemic. He knows that that really is the reason for not having fixed the date yet. It is now firmly in the calendar and I am very much looking forward to discussing properly many of the issues he raises. It will be on 8 October.

I appreciate the Minister’s giving way, but the Secretary of State was in my constituency when he made the announcement that the event would be for Yorkshire. He certainly made a commitment to my constituents, the local authority and others that we would be part of the flood summit. What has happened to that commitment? Are we expecting another flood summit for the whole of Yorkshire, or one for North Yorkshire?

I will come on to talk about much of the funding that has gone to the rest of Yorkshire. We have had a great deal of engagement with colleagues and MPs, and I will cover that in my remarks.

What I want to say at the outset is that flood and coastal management is a very high priority for the Government. I am acutely aware of the impact on businesses and individuals, as the hon. Gentleman clearly pointed out. Coming from Somerset, I really am aware of exactly how it affects people.

I want to go back over the long recent history of flooding that Yorkshire has suffered. There have been a number of significant flooding events, notably in 2007 and 2012. There was the tidal surge of 2013, and then, in 2015, about 40,000 properties flooded. Sadly, people were affected. Very sadly, some people have died. This is very serious, and we take it very, very seriously. I will come on to highlight some of the different parts of Yorkshire that have suffered incidents and how we have dealt with them.

In November 2019, South Yorkshire, which obviously includes Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley, saw rainfall of more than twice the monthly average. That resulted in widespread damage, the majority of which was in Doncaster, Bentley and Fishlake, as the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has highlighted to me a number of times. In just 48 hours, about 150% of the average November rainfall fell over the River Don. Overall, the river levels rose to, and in some locations exceeded, the previous record which occurred in 2007.

In West Yorkshire in February, the impacts of Storm Ciara were felt most in the Calder valley, with over 800 properties severely affected. River levels rose to their highest or second highest recorded levels at Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Dewsbury, and at Gargrave on the River Aire.

About three weeks later, East Yorkshire—Yorkshire is a huge place, as we all know—was affected. The River Aire catchment area received over three and a half times the normal amount of rainfall for that time of year, and 100 properties were flooded in Snaith and East Cowick. February was the wettest on record for Yorkshire. At this point, and on behalf of the House, I must pay tribute to the emergency services, the Environment Agency, the local authorities, the Army, Government officials, and everyone who helped and responded in those very difficult times.

As I said, the Government are absolutely committed to investing in flood risk management, with £2.6 billion in flood defences committed between 2015 and 2021 to better protect 300,000 properties. As hon. Members will recall, at the Budget we confirmed the doubling of Government investment in flooding and coastal defences in England to £5.2 billion over the next six years from 2021. That will better protect a further 336,000 properties, including 290,000 homes. I think the hon. Member for Barnsley Central will agree that that is not insignificant.

In July, we published a long-term flood policy statement, which I really hope the hon. Gentleman has read because a great deal of effort went into it. We have had a real rethink of our direction on flooding, and that statement touches many of the things that are important to him and us. It includes five ambitious policies to accelerate progress and better protect and prepare the country, and 40 supporting actions, so I urge him to have a look at it. Alongside that, the Environment Agency has published a long-term flood and coast erosion risk management strategy for England, which dovetails with Government thinking.

Partnership funding, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, will continue to play a key part in delivering our £5.2 billion capital programme. DEFRA’s partnership funding policy will help communities to be clear about what they can expect from DEFRA and what levels of partnership funding they need to enable projects to go ahead. The hon. Gentleman touched on that, and those details are quite clear about the partnership funding that has to go hand in hand with Government funding.

In 2019-20, the Government are investing more in Yorkshire than elsewhere in the country. Over time, Yorkshire has actually been very successful in securing Government funding and attracting partnership funding. The 2015-16 severe flooding in West Yorkshire, in Calderdale, Leeds and Bradford—I went up there on a visit—and in York and North Yorkshire, drove major investment in complex and innovative schemes, in particular in Leeds, the Calder valley and even York. I say to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) that York has received £45 million of central Government flood funding to protect 700 homes, and £32 million for the Foss barrier to protect another 1,100 homes. That is a clear commitment.

Since 2015, the Yorkshire Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, which represents 12 local authorities, has received investment of £671 million, £496 of which is from the Government, to better protect 66,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. We can debate the hon. Lady’s intimation that the Government have neglected to fund Yorkshire for a long time, but I have given some facts and statistics that clearly show that the Government are committed to Yorkshire.

East Yorkshire has had £42 million invested in the Hull river defences. I have mentioned North Yorkshire already, so let me come to South Yorkshire. Sheffield City Council is leading on a number of schemes, including Sheffield’s lower Don valley, where the completed £19 million scheme has better protected 250 homes and key businesses. For Sheffield’s upper Don valley, a £23 million investment will reduce the flood risk for more than 400 homes. That was recently awarded in the £170 million to which the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) referred.

I know that the hon. Lady cares deeply about this issue and did so even before she was a Minister. She mentioned the £170 million, but does she recognise the anger of my constituents, which I highlighted to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), about the fact that those projects were not in Doncaster? My constituents in Bentley were flooded in 2007 and again in 2019. Does she recognise the need for action to minimise the risk that they are flooded again?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a sound point. We have many schemes, grants and funds, but that has to be calculated. When we are working with the people who allocate the grants, it has to be done on the basis of the number of homes and properties protected. He knows that there is a formula for that. I urge him to continue to work with the EA, the Government and the local resilience forums so that the schemes that will help his people and communities can come forward.

In West Yorkshire, phase 1 of the Leeds flood alleviation is now complete, and phase 2 is well under way. That is a £94 million investment.

Looking ahead to the next six years, the Government will be investing over half a billion pounds in Yorkshire, with partnership funding making the overall figure significantly higher, reducing flood risk to approximately 22,000 homes. I have touched on the £170 million fund that has just been handed out to a whole range of projects that had been affected particularly during the coronavirus pandemic to help communities there. Indeed, £50 million of that went to Yorkshire, with £16 million going to the Sheffield upper Don Valley and the upper Don catchment natural flood management scheme to better protect 19,000 jobs and 665 businesses.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central touched on natural flood management. I totally agree that this is one of the tools that have to be engaged with. Many projects are already coming forward and there are many more to come. We are committed through our new flood policy statement to many more of these nature-based solutions.

I really welcome what the Minister says about natural flood solutions, and I welcome the response that she is giving. However, it would be a terrible shame if we ended the debate without clarity about the summit. Hon. Friends have raised important points about the extent to which all of Yorkshire will be involved in this particular gathering. It would be really useful if she could clarify whether it is just for South Yorkshire or for the wider Yorkshire county area. If it is just for South Yorkshire, what plans are in place to ensure that the other constituent parts of the county get the support that they so urgently need as well?

The hon. Member has been assiduous in pressing me. The meeting that the letter has gone out for is for South Yorkshire, and a raft of MPs have been invited to it. The Secretary of State and I very much want to discuss the issues that have been flagged up to me over the summer—actually, over all the months since I stepped into this role—and that is what we are going to discuss. We have had a great deal of engagement with other MPs. I can list for him all the constituencies, if he wants me to go back over that, all the people we have engaged with in our Department, and the flood schemes that the Environment Agency and DEFRA are engaged with.

Returning to nature-based solutions, this is a really important tool going forward, for a raft of reasons—not just for flood control, but to help with our climate change mitigation and our policies on reaching net zero and carbon capture and storage. It has multiple benefits, and it is one of the tools that we will be using. The Government have committed a component of our capital programme to natural flood management and we have provided specific funding, in addition, for specific schemes. I hope that the hon. Member will welcome that, and that we will see more of these projects coming forward in Yorkshire in general.

On the tree front, I, too, am very keen to plant a great many trees. We have our tree strategy, which I hope the hon. Member has looked at, read and contributed to, because it is now closed. We will be summarising it shortly. It will inform the Government’s commitment to plant 30,000 hectares per year across the UK by 2025. It sounds as if he is going to be playing his part in helping us to do that, which I very much welcome. Funding from the nature for climate fund will go towards helping with tree planting.

I think that we and the hon. Member have much in common: green recovery, climate change, and nature-based solutions. He needs to learn a lot more about what we are doing in DEFRA, because all these ideas are coming through, not least in the Environment Bill and the Government’s commitment to a green recovery. I look forward to the meeting that is coming up on 8 October, and thank him very much, again, for raising this issue tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.