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Impact of Floods in North Westminster

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of floods in Westminster North.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in this short debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here today and for this opportunity to raise an issue that has been hugely important to my constituents this summer. I will ask for her help in holding Thames Water to account for its very poor performance in the aftermath of the floods in my constituency and in getting responses from it to a number of unanswered questions about how the floods occurred. In doing so, this debate will also have implications for water companies and flood preparation in other parts of the country.

Before I turn to the specific events that happened in Westminster North, I will briefly refer to the context in which they happened, because they clearly took place in the context of rising flood risks, arising in particular from climate change. We know that climate change is impacting harder and faster than even our worst fears a few years ago, and that devastating floods have wreaked havoc across the world, from New York to Germany and elsewhere. We have to accept the reality that extreme weather events are the new normal. Also, while poorer communities are always at greater risk of damage from such extreme events, floods or other kinds of extreme weather—such as the extremely dry weather that causes forest fires—are no respecters of postcodes.

So when Thames Water points to an exceptionally slow-moving weather system concentrating unusually high rainfall in a particular area, as was the case in my constituency in July, it may indeed be right. The question is whether such a powerful monopoly provider as Thames Water should have done more to anticipate and prepare for such events. Also, given the history, which I will refer to in a moment, why did the preparations that had been made fail and why was Thames Water’s immediate response to the flooding so inadequate?

Westminster City Council also has duties in this area. After the introduction of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, responsibility for local flood risk management, including surface water run-off, groundwater and flooding from ordinary water courses, was passed to lead local authorities, of which Westminster City Council is one.

Westminster City Council had already identified, via its floods policy, that:

“Due to the heavily urbanised nature of Westminster, and the predominantly Victorian drainage infrastructure, there is a widespread risk of surface water flooding…It is expected that sewer flooding may occur within Westminster and a consistent risk profile is therefore applicable. There is a risk of groundwater flooding within Westminster, and this risk is likely to be exacerbated by increased below ground development (basement extensions etc.).”

The issue of basement extensions has been a hugely controversial one for me in recent years.

The council’s floods policy continues:

“There is a residual risk of flooding due to the failure of either water mains or canals”.

The council recognised in the policy that:

“Further enhanced surface water flood risk modelling was undertaken…in 2015…The study considered the impact of climate change on surface water flood risk assuming a 20% and 40% increase in peak rainfall intensity.”

The council is currently undertaking its own review of the July floods and we expect a report imminently. However, it is already clear that the increased risk of flooding, due to climate change in particular, was understood.

So what happened on 12 July, the day of these particular floods? In the afternoon, intense rain impacted on an estimated 500 properties, mostly, although not entirely, in the Maida Vale area. The water rose incredibly quickly and in addition to the rain and the overflow, sewage pipes backed up, covering many homes—particularly basements—with raw sewage. Thousands of calls were made to Thames Water, with little or no response from it in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

The London Fire Brigade was in attendance and many local residents spoke of there then being a specific intervention by the fire brigade, which led water to drain away “like a plug being pulled out of a bath”. Over that night and the next day or two, hundreds of residents and businesses were left in crisis, due not only to the damage but to the obvious health risk associated with the sewage overflows.

After a varyingly slow start, which was particularly slow by Thames Water, staff from the council, from housing providers and then from Thames Water got to the scene to support people and begin the clear-up. People helped their neighbours magnificently and many staff worked very hard in the aftermath to ease the distress. Even so, people fell through the net. One constituent, who is HIV positive and currently receiving cancer treatment, was put into a hotel and no payment was made. My office was dealing with him on the night after the floods when he was crying in the lobby because of the lack of support.

Many people had to be urgently rehoused after their home was flooded with sewage. That was not organised for a couple of days and, even now—as recently as last week—I heard from a woman who is still confined to a single room in her home as she is immune suppressed and the rest of her home is badly affected by the damp and mould, to which she cannot risk prolonged exposure.

Those affected and many others in the at-risk areas want to know why the water rose so fast and why the sewers backed up and then why the water disappeared so fast once the London Fire Brigade attended. They deserve to know whether anything could have been done sooner to avert disaster as the rain fell. A typical comment went, “As you might know, the water levels dropped very suddenly after the fire brigade attended on our street and seemingly opened a flood valve or removed some kind of obstruction. The rain was still falling as heavily as it had been, but the water went, in my case, from 70 cm deep to ground level within minutes. Thames Water are blaming heavy rainfall but that does not explain how the water just dissipated.”

Many, although not all those affected in Westminster—the problem was particularly concentrated in the Maida Vale area—have a wider question. After localised flooding some 10 years ago, ward councillors, residents and I pressed Thames Water to increase drainage capacity in the W9 and NW6 areas. This was strongly resisted for some time. Thames Water took the line that these were 100-year events. We counter-argued that there had now been two 100-year events in the course of just three years. It gave in, and in the middle of the last decade, new tanks were installed under Tamplin Gardens in W9 and additional capacity was increased, with major works around Warwick Avenue and Westbourne Green lasting two years.

In 2012, Thames Water told us it would complete the Maida Vale sewer flooding alleviation scheme over the next two years, saying that the alleviation project would cover four wards in the Maida Vale area and be good news for the 400 or so residents who have experienced sewer flooding over the past few years, some of whom have been flooded with sewage up to nine times.

The heart of the matter is this question, which Thames Water and, to some extent, Westminster, must answer. Why did a major alleviation scheme designed to cope with 100-year events fail so spectacularly within just half a decade? Was the additional capacity insufficient and should that have been foreseen six or seven years ago? Was the system properly operational? Were there any blockages in the system? Were the drains clear and properly maintained? If the rain that fell on 12 July was a 300-year event, as we have now been told, how long before it fails again?

If Thames Water now suggests that we cannot build our way out of the severe weather-related flood risk, how and when will a package of alternative measures be put in place across agencies to achieve a reasonable level of protection?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate because several hundred of my constituents were equally affected by the floods she is describing. Thames Water candidly described its response to me as “bloody awful”. It said it was under new management with new shareholders, but it is always under new management and new shareholders. That is the problem. It was exactly the same 10 or 15 years ago, when the same properties were flooded for the same reasons and the schemes have either been cancelled or have not worked. Does she agree that, like the Thames tunnel and the Bazalgette sewers we rely on now, whoever ends up paying for and delivering this, it needs Government direction, because this is a serious matter that repeatedly affects our constituents?

My hon. Friend is right. We are constantly told that Thames Water is under new management. That management always seems to enjoy a level of remuneration that would make my constituents blanch. It continues to charge costs to consumers and is seemingly impervious to the kind of challenges and questions that he and I are raising.

We were told by Thames Water at a public meeting at the end of July that this event was simultaneously unforeseeable and yet also likely to happen again. Legally, its position remains that it is not liable for the damage arising as a result of the flooding. It claims that London’s sewers were never designed to deal with rain on that scale, and yet relies on the fact that its systems meet the targets as evidence that it was not negligent. If that position holds and is reaffirmed by the inquiry set up by Thames Water, this question arises: how can targets be adjusted significantly to reflect the changing weather expected over the coming years before more homes are affected by similar events?

Almost everyone who was in touch with me and ward councillors over the days and weeks after the July floods has good grounds for feeling that Thames Water failed them with its response that night and in the aftermath. A significant minority of people whose homes were flooded are still suffering and feel that their housing providers, council and Thames Water have not acted as swiftly and caringly as they might have done, despite many of the employees stretching every sinew to help.

What assessment has been made of the capacity in local authorities and housing providers to resource their emergency responses? They have been cut back drastically in the past decade and, as we saw with Grenfell, an effective emergency response cannot be guaranteed without the staff available to deliver it. Increasingly, they also have to be able to manage more than one crisis at a time, or in close succession.

Has the Minister undertaken an assessment of the capacity of local councils and others to support residents who lose everything in disasters such as this? Local support payments are designed to patch the increasingly large holes in social security, not to help what might be hundreds of people on lower incomes who are uninsured and left without furniture, clothing and toys. Also, local support payments offer assistance only to those on qualifying benefits—excluding people on working tax credits, for example.

Locally, we have organised crowd funding and worked with the local voluntary sector to relieve hardship. I congratulate such volunteers and One Westminster for their assistance; they have been significantly more supportive of the community than has Thames Water, which I asked to contribute to the hardship funding quite separately from the issue of liability—a request that has been ignored. Why is it that volunteers and community organisations can raise more money for people who have been devastated by floods than the powerful monopoly water provider can?

I turn back to the flood itself. The threat of recurrence now haunts us locally. How are the Government working with local authorities in areas such as mine, where large numbers of basement properties are understood to be at particular risk? Westminster’s 2019 flood policy states:

“Self-contained basements or basement flats wholly or partially below ground without freely available access at all times to a habitable space above ground level within the same dwelling are ‘highly vulnerable’”,

and that

“applicants are encouraged to incorporate flood resistance and resilience measures as part of the design…to prevent water ingress and to reduce flood damage should flooding occur.”

Is encouragement enough, however? How will that be monitored? Where will the responsibility lie in privately owned properties, whether freehold or leasehold? What rights do private tenants have? Who would pay for such alterations to social housing? The time for warm words and vagueness is definitely now over; in terms of damage and indeed safety, we need firmer action. Do the Government have plans to scale up the expectations of local councils—backed by the necessary resources—to review, report on and deal with factors that expose residents to flood risk?

Then there is Thames Water. Ultimately, as I said, residents feel that Thames Water let them down catastrophically. One typical comment was:

“Thames Water were extremely slow in dealing with this emergency and when they made an appointment either didn't turn up or if they did were several hours late. They then arrived with a dust pan and brush and a bottle of bleach and were quite unhelpful commenting always how it was not the fault of Thames Water and what a wonderful company they are.”

My constituents believe they deserve compensation for the damage caused, although Thames Water has already been quick to deny liability. Will the Minister assist my constituents and me in pressing Thames Water to ensure that the already somewhat foot-dragging independent inquiry is now completed as a matter of urgency, so that we have absolute clarity on the sequence of events on 12 July? How can my constituents hold Thames Water to account more effectively given the obvious imbalance in power and resources between them—me—and a private company of such size enjoying a monopoly position as a provider? I and hundreds of local residents need the support of the Government if capacity is to be increased, people protected and Thames Water held to account. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

As ever, it is a delight to see you in the Chair, Sir David.

I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for securing this important debate. The issue has clearly affected so many people’s lives, as we saw in the news during the summer. I pay tribute to all those who helped: the emergency services, and in particular the Environment Agency and the fire services, who really led on this emergency.

My heart goes out to all those people who suffered; I come from Somerset, so I know about flooding. I have also visited a great many people around the country, so we know how devastating flooding can be for people. I do not underestimate what it is like, and nor do the Government: we have doubled flood funding to £5.2 billion in the next spending period, which will put in place more than 2,000 new defences around the country.

The hon. Member for Westminster North has focused very much on surface water flooding, and in the new Budget we have escalated the importance placed on that issue. Approximately a third of that spending will be on surface water flooding schemes, so although it did not help the hon. Lady this July—although there are some schemes within her constituency—that issue is going to receive much greater emphasis going forward, and rightly so. Surface water flooding is the most widespread form of flooding in England, with around 3.2 million properties at risk. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the effects of climate change combined with population growth mean that we are expecting more of these related issues.

However, everybody—not just the Government—has a responsibility for managing water effectively. In England, the statutory responsibility for managing flood risk falls to the risk management authorities, including the Environment Agency and the lead local flood authorities. The Environment Agency has a strategic overview role for all sources of flooding, and although it does not lead on surface water flooding, it does provide support and advice on risks and facilitates effective partnerships.

I have just been on a visit to Merseyside and West Yorkshire, and have seen some very good examples of those partnerships working to get over some of the problems that people are facing. The lead local flood authorities—county and unitary councils—have the lead operational role in managing all local flood risks, including surface water, and are responsible for identifying the risks and managing them as part of the local risk management strategy. Alongside this, the highways authorities have responsibility for the road network, which includes highway and road drainage maintenance, and water and sewerage companies are responsible for maintaining the public sewer network to ensure that the area is well drained.

As the hon. Member for Westminster North said, we saw devastating flooding this summer, not just in Westminster but around the world. Here, we had those incidents in July and August: the Met Office recorded over a month’s worth of rainfall in just a few hours, and the localised nature of the downpours meant that certain areas were incredibly badly affected while neighbours were not affected at all. It was quite extraordinary, as I think the hon. Lady will agree. The flooding witnessed in north Westminster was primarily due to surface water. This kind of event occurs with extreme rainfall, where the water simply cannot drain away as quickly as it is arriving.

I want to stress one of the central points of the argument: Thames Water built a £17 million flood alleviation scheme, completed just six years ago, to deal with exactly this problem in exactly this area, yet it failed catastrophically. We have been unable to get Thames Water to properly respond to us about why that happened—whether it was a planning issue or an operational one. That is one of the key things that I would like the Minister to help me get Thames Water to respond to.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I hear what she says. Measures were put in place when the Met Office gave its warnings, but of course it was all so quick: the fire brigade swung into action, but those things that the Environment Agency could whizz into place, such as trash screens, just could not cope with that flooding or the sewage overflows and so forth. That is what the Thames tideway tunnel project is going to address, and I have a meeting with those involved later this afternoon. However, the hon. Lady is right that questions need to be asked about that new development. As she referred to, a big public meeting was held with Westminster City Council after the flooding.

I will just finish this bit and then give way. There were lots of people—the council, Thames Water, the Environment Agency and so forth. They have committed to doing this independent review, which is crucial. As Minister, I need to wait until we hear the consequences of that review and the Westminster section 19 investigation before making any further comments. I will be looking at that with interest and I will be happy to have a conversation with the hon. Lady when we have got that, because we do need to get these things right.

Of course, Ofwat is the regulator and Government set the policy. We are working on our draft policy statement to Ofwat for the next period and will be highlighting surface water flooding more than ever before, along with things like water quality and the whole sewage issue. We are doing a lot on that in the Environment Bill, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intrude. Thames Water has told me that the tideway tunnel, which is very welcome in preventing pollution going into the Thames, would not have helped in this situation. It would only have helped properties very near to the river, because this was high tide and therefore some water would have been let through. It would not have helped my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North or most of my properties that way.

What would have helped is the Counters Creek flood alleviation scheme, the £300 million project which went down the middle of Kensington and Hammersmith and would have protected those two boroughs. That was cancelled by Thames Water and has not taken place. Will the Minister accept that we need an inquiry into why that did not happen and what can now be done to prevent exactly the same properties flooding on a regular basis?

Of course, many different schemes are underway, but the Thames tideway tunnel is the biggest scheme we have taken part in for decades. It will address serious issues around mixing of the waters and sewage overflows in times when we get these extreme weather events. It will make a big difference. I will put your points to them this afternoon.

All flooding projects are ranked and rated according to properties protected, delivery and so forth. There is strict protocol for that. The Environment Agency is involved in trying to find out what happened at this incident. It took part in a resilience forum after this event and is very engaged in advising and helping.

I want to take the opportunity to talk about surface water. It is pertinent, because we just published an updated report on surface water management, setting out progress in delivery of our surface water management action plan. David Jenkins did an independent report on surface water and drainage responsibilities. Key highlights include Government funding to provide better surface water flood risk maps in 28 lead local authority areas by summer 2022. That site list will be crucial to the areas mentioned and those across the country, so that people know what is happening. That is what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, I think. We need a clear view of what the situation is on the ground, what is working and what else needs to be done. These flood risk maps will be really important. Improved mapping will provide over 3 million people with more detailed information about local surface water flood risk.

The Met Office and the EA are scoping out a new approach to provide faster communication for surface water flood forecasts when an incident is deemed likely, which would be helpful since people need to react very fast. Water and sewerage companies are working with other risk management authorities to produce drainage and waste water plans, ensuring that drainage and sewerage systems are resilient to withstand these future pressures. Again, Thames Water will have to do that, and it is working on that now. The Government are making these plans a statutory requirement through the Environment Bill. Weirdly, that was not statutory before, and it will be important to looking at the issues the hon. Member for Westminster North is dealing with. We are considering right now the guidance and reporting necessary to ensure timely action in areas with greater surface water flooding problems.

Alongside all that, the Government are investing more in actions to mitigate surface water flooding overall. In April 2020, we made a change to the partnership funding arrangements, which are already having an effect. In July, we published our investment plan over the next six years, which includes £860 million in investment this year to boost design and construction of more than 1,000 schemes. We are aware of the big issue and more than a third of those will tackle surface water flooding, including in London, with two schemes in Westminster. They are the Kilburn Park Road surface water scheme, which should be completed by March 2022 and will better protect 44 properties, and the Upbrook Mews surface water scheme, which should be completed by March 2025.

Alongside that, I have been given assurances that Thames Water is also taking action through its surface water programme. That is investing £3 million in partnership with five local authorities and will be investing a further £1.5 million through a wider call for projects. That project could come under the scope of the reference made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). It will help better manage surface water entering the sewer network and enable the implementation of a sustainable drainage system, while also creating green spaces and amenity value, because a lot of that is also linked to the schemes. I have seen some of the schemes and they are extremely welcome in neighbourhoods; they make the whole neighbourhood look and feel better while having the double-whammy achievement of helping to sort out the flood risk, the drainage and so on.

We are also working with 25 local authorities across England, investing £150 million in place-based resilience innovation projects. Some of those will include mitigating surface water and flood risk, and the outcomes will be shared with other local authorities and risk management authorities, so they can learn from those projects and—if we find something that particularly works and would apply, for example, to Westminster or Thames Water—adopt some of those measures.

In addition to the Government’s investment, water companies will be investing more than £1 billion between 2020 and 2025 to reduce the impact of flooding on communities across England and Wales. They have proposed an additional £2.7 billion of environmental investment through the Government’s green economic recovery fund. Some of those projects have been accelerated, partly owing to the impacts of covid and the lockdown, because there were so many spin-offs from those sorts of projects. A lot of those include measures such as blue-green infrastructure, natural flood management and partnership working at a catchment scale, which is important. It is not just about what is happening outside our door, but where that water is coming from and what has affected it further up the catchment. That still applies to all the London areas as well.

The Environment Agency works with lead local flood authorities to manage surface water flood risk through strategic planning, supporting the development of projects, access to Government flood and coastal erosion risk management funding and access to regional flood and coastal local levies. The regional flood and coastal committee levy plays an important role in the financial support for the development of the lead local flood authorities—all those titles are very wordy, are they not, Sir David? That can help fill the funding gap outside the direct legal lead local flood authority funds and the grant in aid, as well as paying for Thames flood advisers to provide additional service on scheme development. I know the EA teams are working with the Greater London Authority, Thames Water, Transport for London and the local authorities on sustainable urban drainage systems, flood risk, water quality and all those measures.

Our ambition is to make a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion and work to manage and mitigate the effect of surface water flooding will continue at pace. I hope I have demonstrated that I mean business about this, as do the Government, contributing towards implementing the flood and coastal risk management policy statement. We are working with stakeholders on all of this. We will be undertaking a review of maintenance responsibilities to examine whether existing local buyers are efficient in ensuring local assets are maintained and expertise is shared across authorities. I think the hon. Member for Westminster North will be interested in that.

We are also reviewing with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government the policy for development in areas of flood risk. Finally, the storm overflows taskforce will make recommendations on lots of those issues as well as sustainable drainage and the sewage outlets. I hope I have demonstrated my commitment. I am always very happy to talk to the hon. Lady and I thank her for raising the subject today.

Question put and agreed to.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.