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Oxford West and Abingdon: Flooding

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

I am ever so grateful that the House has allowed me to raise the vital issue of flooding in my constituency. This is the second debate on this issue that I have had in two years, which I hope shows just how important an issue it is to my constituents. Our area has historically flooded, in most recent times devastatingly so in 2007 and again, notably, in 2014. Literally every year some portion of my constituency has an event, most recently over Christmas.

As a community we of course understand that we cannot prevent floods, only reduce their risk, and I give credit to all the community for their resilience and fortitude. However, despite the prevalence and severity of floods in our area, I have asked for this second debate because we have seen precious little progress from the Government since the first. I was promised a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor that never took place, despite my best efforts. There is much to discuss, including the delays in the Oxford flood alleviation scheme, funding for the Abingdon scheme and much more. As a result of the lack of progress, my constituents feel that their concerns have not been taken seriously by the Government.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the incredibly hard-working staff at the Environment Agency for everything they have done and continue to do in our community. They do what they can with the funding and resourcing that they have been given. We do not need to hear from the Minister how much money is being spent nationally and how with limited budgets we have to prioritise certain places, because, bluntly, that is not going to help my community. I want to hear from the Minister how the Government plan to help the people of Abingdon, Yarnton, Begbroke and South Hinksey. Climate change means that flooding events are going to become only more frequent and more extreme, and every time they come, anxiety rises. What can we do to give people a sense of relief?

Let me talk about the scheme for which we do have funding: the Oxford flood alleviation scheme. We found out late last year that the scheme may be delayed by up to five years because of necessary bridge works that need to be completed in Kennington. For the villagers of South Hinksey, every month of delay is another month of anxiety. During the recent floods, which frankly ruined people’s Christmases, I inspected the temporary flood barriers that were brought into the village from Osney. The floodwater was literally just 5 cm from coming over the top. Temporary barriers are obviously gratefully received, but they are no substitute for the real deal. Let us take David and Claire: their garden backs on to the floodplain. When floods hit, they are on the frontline. Part of the Oxford scheme is a permanent flood barrier that will be built just behind their home and around the edge of the village. Can the Minister tell us why the South Hinksey permanent flood barrier cannot go ahead sooner as a stand-alone project while the wider scheme is delayed? Will she ask the Environment Agency and the county council to press on with it?

The village remains vulnerable until the new scheme is in place. In the more immediate term, I have asked the Environment Agency to store full-sized temporary barriers at South Hinksey. At the moment, the large temporary barriers need to be collected from Northampton. That is a four-hour round trip, and this time that was just too slow, so smaller barriers had to be brought in from closer by in Osney. However, as I just described, those barriers were literally just centimetres away from failing. Can the Minister help me to relay that ask to the Environment Agency? The villagers will provide the storage, and given the delay, I do not think it is too big of an ask.

Notwithstanding those issues, the village remains concerned about the impact of the Oxford scheme on the A34 and local roads. Once it starts, the current plan is for there to be pollution and traffic for four years. The residents have ideas about how to make that better, and it is after all in their interests that the scheme is done as quickly as possible, but with minimal impact. They feel that often they have not been heard by the Highways Agency or the Environment Agency on these matters. Can the Minister help me to bring together the Environment Agency, Highways England, local councils, local councillors and the community to ensure that we solve this problem together?

Finally on this issue, is the Minister aware of the environmental concerns that have come up with the scheme, such as the damage that will be done to Hinksey meadows and the loss of hundreds of trees and much habitat in the medium term? I think the scheme should go ahead—do not get me wrong—and in the very long term, there is a great opportunity to increase biodiversity, but it should not be a matter of taking with one hand and giving with the other. We need to do much more to help protect precious habitat and wildlife now.

Moving on to the Abingdon scheme, in recent weeks and months my constituents have seen floodwater rise, and they worry about a repeat of 2007. It is, of course, only a matter of time. Councillor Samantha Bowring received an award from the Prime Minister for the work she did to support flood victims after the 2007 floods, despite having had to move out of her own flooded home. Speaking at the Vale of White Horse District Council meeting two weeks ago, she reminded us that once someone has been flooded, they worry every single time there is heavy rain and the rivers start to rise.

The crude cost-benefit ratio system used to decide whether schemes get funding found that the Abingdon scheme—already designed and ready to go—does not score highly enough. The original scheme was estimated to cost £5.2 million, but after the costs doubled for several reasons, including the drop in the value of the pound post the Brexit referendum, the scheme was not deemed to be viable. However, the need for the scheme, if we look at it from the point of view of residents, has only become even more urgent. They are frustrated and feel left behind. They went from having a scheme to suddenly not having one at all, and that is simply not good enough. We are not spending enough on communities like Abingdon.

Equally, we cannot say with any confidence that what is being spent elsewhere is being used effectively. In its annual report on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which was published yesterday, the National Audit Office made that very clear. Abingdon is a large town—indeed, it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the country—and it is getting larger, with big housing developments on the horizon. Can the Minister tell us whether the cost-benefit calculation for the alleviation scheme took the new housing into account?

We know that the 2007 floods left emotional scars for hundreds of families to endure. Will the Government ensure that the Environment Agency is adequately funded, so that it can afford to fund prevention schemes such as this one? Surely the real test of value for money is whether people’s lives and the economy in towns such as Abingdon benefit.

The Environment Agency is clear that it believes a scheme in the town is necessary and would make a huge difference, but funding is the issue. I thank the Minister for her letter to me yesterday, in which she reiterated what her predecessor said, but I wonder how many other towns stand to receive no help from the Government because of crude calculations like this. If the Minister stands by the calculations, will she at the very least ask the Environment Agency to help draw up new plans for what can be done in Abingdon that it can afford?

That brings me to the village of Yarnton and the problems it is facing. In Yarnton, we have a whole different problem: there are no schemes at all in place and no plans for them, even in theory. When flooding hits, we see what that means for residents: agencies pass the buck to one another reactively, and Yarnton’s residents buy their own pumps to stop foul, stinking sewage water flowing through their homes. Michael, a constituent in Yarnton, told me:

“whenever rain is forecast we are on edge. It is hugely stressful for me and my family.”

They and their neighbours, rather than spending their time preparing for Christmas, spent 14 hours the day before Christmas eve pumping that water away from their homes. If the Minister were in their shoes, would she not want that addressed urgently? Michael and his neighbours are calling for a multi-agency approach with our local councils to fix it.

To add insult to injury, the Cherwell local plan was recently approved and will lead to developments around Yarnton and Begbroke. In a very small area that we know floods, more than 2,000 homes are due to be built, with the groundwater runoff associated with that. I think it is fair that residents are concerned that their existing problems are likely to be made even worse.

We have seen a similar issue in Radley in recent weeks. Years of underfunding in infrastructure have taken their toll, and new housing is coming without any more drainage investment from Thames Water. Our parish councils need help. There are problems with things as basic as broken underground pipes and blocked ditches. Parish councils and residents cannot do that on their own. They need help from Thames Water, landowners and upper-tier councils to resolve these problems. Will the Minister speak to Thames Water about its response times? We need the agencies to work together, not pass residents between them. Will the Minister agree to meet me, agency representatives and local councillors to try to resolve these issues?

Meanwhile, residents are very keen, in the absence of bigger schemes, to protect themselves. Recently a local campaigner called Mary phoned into my virtual surgery on BBC Radio Oxford and asked whether we could extend the green homes grant to allow homeowners to make their homes more flood resilient. I think that is a fantastically simple idea, and I have already tabled a motion in the House to do that.

However, it seems that the Chancellor is thinking of cutting the green homes grant in next week’s Budget, to the dismay of environmental and business groups alike. What does the Minister think of that? I cannot imagine she is a fan. Does she agree with me that extending the grants to cover home improvements that help residents to future-proof houses from flooding is a quick, easy way of helping them right now to protect their homes from damage? Can she tell us whether the property flood resilience grants scheme will be extended so that my constituents, who have already been flooded in recent weeks, will be able to continue to apply for those grants?

Thames valley is the largest unprotected floodplain in England. Just last week, the Government announced ambitious new plans for the Oxford-to-Cambridge arc. It is an area the Government are relying on to drive the post-covid recovery. Does the Minister agree with me that investment in protecting our area from flooding is, bluntly, a no-brainer? It makes a huge amount of sense with the arc in mind. Investment in flood protection for our area is insurance for Government investment from other Departments. Have the plans for the arc been taken into account in her Department’s thinking and cost-benefit ratios?

To conclude, the coronavirus pandemic has been awful. We have all had to make incredible sacrifices, but that will be just a dress rehearsal for the ongoing climate emergency. We can either act proactively and future-proof our communities against flood devastation, by doing what we can sooner in Oxford, funding the Abingdon scheme, and fixing the agency’s approach in Yarnton and other villages, or we can wait until it is too late, react desperately after the fact, and see more and more homes damaged and people’s lives ruined.

As I am sure the Minister knows, I will keep campaigning on this issue, so to make things easier for everyone, will she commit to meeting me—as her predecessor promised to do but never did—to discuss each of the issues that I have touched on, so that we can continue this discussion as we go along? I appreciate that it has been an incredibly tough time for the Government in many ways, but on this we do not have time to wait. Let us get ahead of the game and finally give the residents of Oxford West and Abingdon the peace of mind they deserve.

As ever, it is a pleasure to have you with us tonight, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have a small group of people here, but thank you none the less. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this debate. As she says, it is her second debate on flooding in her constituency, and she is raising awareness of the risks of flooding. She has also written to me recently, which she referred to, and I am happy for the contents of that letter to be shared with interested parties if that is helpful, as it covers a number of issues.

Flooding is a real and increasing risk for many people across the country. The Government take it extremely seriously—I am sure you have heard me say that many times, Madam Deputy Speaker—and recognise the devastating impact and harm that flooding can cause, affecting people’s livelihoods, lives, businesses and communities. The Government are doubling the amount that they invest in flooding and coastal defence in England to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027.

The hon. Lady stated clearly that she did not want the Minister to mention how much the Government have committed or want to spend on flooding, but I think that is incredibly important, particularly as we have doubled the funding, which shows the Government’s commitment. That funding will provide around 2,000 new defence schemes better to protect a further 336,000 properties in every region of the country. That includes better protection for homes and non-residential properties such as schools, hospitals, transport links and utility sites.

The investment programme aims to reduce the national flood risk by up to 11% by 2027, and it will help to avoid £32 billion in future economic damages, providing economic benefits across the nation and supporting job creation; although this debate is about Abingdon, I thought we had to note that. The hon. Lady will recognise that it is important to invest money fairly and well throughout England, ensuring that we secure value for money as we aim to protect those most at risk.

Let us now turn to the hon. Lady’s constituency of Abingdon. I am mindful of the challenges that the town has faced, and faces, and particularly the flooding experience of 2007, when more than 400 homes were flooded by the River Ock, and water levels exceeded the 1947 flood, which I am sure people in her constituency still talk about. Over recent years, the Environment Agency has taken action to reduce flooding in Abingdon, including increased levels of river maintenance, the provision of a flood wall along St Helen’s Mill, and a robust deployment plan for temporary defences, should they be needed.

Thankfully, this winter, these temporary defences were not needed. The Environment Agency responded to the high river levels in the Abingdon area during Storm Christoph, from 19 to 22 January, including by issuing flood alerts and warnings. During the peak water levels, the Environment Agency field team were up 24 hours a day clearing trash screens and bridges to allow the water to move more freely. I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady acknowledged the hard work that those from the EA certainly do. It really is thanks to this work that there were no reports of property flooding this time.

Of course, that is a reminder that there is always a flood risk—it is still there. The Environment Agency’s modelling recognises that some 561 properties in Abingdon are at risk from fluvial and surface water flooding, which is flooding that that has a one in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year. That is why the agency continues to work in partnership with the Vale of White Horse District Council, Oxfordshire County Council and the Thames regional flood and coastal committee to find ways to further reduce flood risk in Abingdon. The hon. Lady mentioned working with all these different groups, and that indeed is what the Environment Agency is doing.

Back in 2018, the Environment Agency investigated the development of a flood storage area upstream of Abingdon on the River Ock. The investigations found that while a flood storage area was technically feasible, the benefits it would provide would not be much greater than those delivered by the Environment Agency’s routine river maintenance. The flood storage area would have provided better protection from flooding to 30 houses initially; when climate change is taken into account, that drops to just three properties at the end of the scheme’s lifetime. That means that the flood storage area would deliver additional benefits worth only £2 million to homes and businesses, but they would come at an estimated cost of £10 million. Quite clearly, it did not represent value for money to the taxpayer, and that is why this option could not be progressed. I asked particular questions about that to check up on the detail of it.

It is of course always disappointing when a flood scheme cannot be taken forward, especially for local residents who feel that it would have provided better protection for them and their neighbours. However, our funding policy is designed to be fair and equitable, and it remains people-centred: it focuses the case for Government support more on households, and so on people, than on gaining other economic benefits.

DEFRA’s partnership funding approach helps to make the grant in aid funding go further. The partnership funding policy clarifies the level of Government investment a scheme will secure, so that it is clear what funding communities need from other sources to allow projects to go ahead. Partnership funding can be secured from a range of sources, including local beneficiaries, partners and growth funds. However, it is worth noting that the local council was engaged in this bid, and it itself concluded that it was not value for money, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows.

However, we do not rest on our laurels when it comes to the funding framework; we consider how it might be improved to reflect our changing climate—and it is changing. The hon. Lady rightly mentioned this. We are getting more frequent extremes of weather. Last year, the Government announced amendments to the partnership funding rules to ensure we better recognise the full range of benefits that flood schemes can bring.

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that, on 1 February, we launched a call for evidence to explore whether any specific changes should be made to strengthen the assessment of local circumstances in the new 2021 to 2027 investment programme. This includes looking at the funding formula to see if we can provide further benefit to frequently flooded communities. That was something I specifically made a point of highlighting, as did the Secretary of State, because there are lots of communities that are frequently flooded, but perhaps do not have the big numbers of homes needed to attract funding under a particular funding formula. The call for evidence is also further exploring ways of increasing the uptake of property flood resilience measures that enable householders and businesses to better prepare for flooding.

While the flood storage area is one proposal for alleviating the problem in Abingdon, there are alternative ways to further reduce the risks and impacts, including the flood wall at St Helen’s Mill, which I have mentioned, and the temporary defences. The Environment Agency is reviewing further suggestions from the local community flood group, and I know that a very active local community is working on this. I believe it is called the Ock Valley Flood Group, and its input is much valued. It is looking at whether there is scope for the temporary flood barrier alignment to be made into a permanent defence, and the agency is gathering evidence on whether this would be technically and economically viable.

The Environment Agency is also investigating whether natural flood management options would be effective in contributing to reduced flood risk in Abingdon. It is working in partnership with the Freshwater Habitats Trust, and they are engaging with landowners who have expressed an interest in introducing measures such as tree planting to hold back the flow. These investigations will be concluded later in the year, but obviously this has to work all the way round for everyone. The hon. Lady rightly mentioned farmers, whose crops also have to be protected from flooding, so there needs to be a balanced approach. Should natural flood management be included, the landowners would have to be fully involved, and would have to engage on the question of whether that scheme would work for them.

Before I wind up, I want to touch on a couple of points raised. The hon. Lady mentioned the South Hinksey area, and yes, there were high river levels this winter on the Thames through South Hinksey. The Environment Agency used temporary barriers on Christmas day and again at the end of January, and successfully prevented flooding to properties. The agency received very positive feedback from local residents, but this seems contrary to what the hon. Lady has told me today. I think she mentioned that people were not happy, so that needs a bit of clarification. Anyway, the South Hinksey temporary defences are due to be replaced by a permanent flood bund as part of the Oxford flood alleviation scheme, so I hope that gives her some assurance.

The hon. Lady also mentioned Yarnton and Begbroke. They were affected by surface water flooding, and three properties were flooded recently in Yarnton. No properties were flooded in Begbroke. The risk to those communities is, as I said, from surface water flooding, which is the responsibility of the lead local flood authority. The EA therefore does not have plans for permanent or temporary flood defences at those locations, but it is ready to work with the lead local flood authority and other partners to help with possible mitigations for those communities, and I urge them all to get together and do that.

On the question of funding, Oxford is receiving a large amount of money, and where costs do stack up, of course schemes are going ahead. The Oxford flood alleviation scheme will cost around £150 million and is one of the biggest flood schemes in the country. Construction on the scheme was expected to start in 2020, subject to a compulsory purchase order. However, Oxfordshire County Council found that a bridge was in need of replacement, so that has to be sorted out before progress can be made, but surely it will be made. The benefits of this programme to the huge wider area of the community will be really significant. Similarly, the EA is working with partners on the Thames Valley flood scheme, which involves a wide catchment approach to mitigating the increasing flood risk resulting from climate change.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising these issues, and I hope I have given her some assurances tonight and also in her letter. If she wants to follow up with me on any of these issues, I am of course happy to discuss them, because we want people to be assured that the Government are taking flooding seriously. Indeed, I hope I have conveyed that I believe we are taking it seriously. Not every flood mitigation proposal will go ahead, but I think I have highlighted that there are many ways of skinning a cat, and many approaches to flood mitigation, all of which need to be taken into consideration with all the different partners brought to the table, including our MPs who are standing up for their constituents. I believe that that is the way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.