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Flood Risk: London

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 20 April 2022

I will call Felicity Buchan to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered flood risk in London.

In July last year, my constituency of Kensington suffered devastating flooding. It was not only Kensington: the adjoining boroughs of Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham, which are represented by the hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), were also badly affected.

I want to give a sense of the magnitude of the flooding. On that Monday evening, London Fire Brigade received almost 1,800 flooding calls. If related calls are included, that figure reaches 3,000, which is the highest number that the London Fire Brigade control room has ever taken. I did a survey of the most affected wards in my constituency, and although people in almost 500 homes replied to say that they had been flooded, the reality is likely to be multiples of that number.

Flooding has truly devastating consequences for those who suffer it, and I will give a few examples. I heard from one lady who had just bought her first home. The floodwater in the basement was almost up to the ceiling with only a few inches spare. Many constituents—not just one or two, but multiple constituents—are still out of their homes nine months later. A lot of the basement properties in my constituency are actually owned by housing associations, and residents in those basement properties have lost absolutely everything they own—from clothing and photos to important documents, everything has gone.

Constituents of mine were flooded not just in July, but three or four times over the past 10 to 20 years. That is an important point, because although July was a truly devastating flood, it was not a one-off. The flood that I am referring to happened on 12 July, but London saw another devastating flood only two weeks later on 25 July. There was another in 2007, and I should declare a personal interest in that one, as my own house was flooded on that occasion. Those were three devastating floods, but we also had floods in 2004, 2005, 2016 and 2018.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is pursuing this issue on behalf of her constituents, as I am on behalf of mine, and she has hit the nail on the head by saying that we have had previous floods and we were told that the problem had been solved, but it has not. Does she agree there is a danger that, again, we have a partial, patchwork solution—flooding local improvement projects here, one or two schemes there—when what we need is a comprehensive solution so that our constituents do not live at constant risk, particularly in the summer months, of their homes being devastated in this way?

This is one of the rare occasions on which the hon. Gentleman and I completely agree. We need a comprehensive solution, which I will go on to talk about: we need a short-term solution, because my constituents are very anxious about this summer since most of this flash flooding has occurred in July, August and September, and we also need a long-term strategy. My constituents, like the hon. Gentleman’s, simply cannot live with this risk hanging over them.

I informed the hon. Lady that we would be seeking to make a brief intervention. I am grateful to her, and congratulate her on securing this debate. As she knows, I secured a similar debate in the autumn.

Insurance is one of the most worrying issues for residents in our parts of London, along with the difficulty people face in obtaining affordable insurance or insurance at all. There is a scheme, but it does not cover many flat owners in blocks of more than six properties. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that we need to do more to make sure affordable insurance is available, as the risks of flooding are, unfortunately, only likely to increase?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that affordable insurance needs to be available. Speaking from personal experience, as I said, I was flooded in 2007. My then insurance company did an amazing job of paying out to remedy the damage, but then said the year later that it did not want me as a client, so that is an important point.

Sometimes, I wonder why flooding in London does not attract more attention. When a member of the general public thinks about flooding, they probably think about flooded fields in Shropshire or coastal communities in Cornwall and Devon, but the reality is that flooding in London is a huge issue, and there are many reasons for that.

We have a Victorian sewerage system that was built for way fewer people. We have clearly seen climate change, with warmer air that can carry more moisture, hence more rainfall. We have also seen densification and concreting over in London, especially central London, so there simply are not as many places for surface water to flow. This is a very real issue; it is certainly one of the top issues in my constituency, and it will continue to be so, because the risks of these flooding events will continue to grow—because of climate change, as I have mentioned, but also because of population growth and the need for more housing.

I have set out the magnitude of the problem and the frequency of these events, and have said that we need short-term and long-term solutions, but it is worthwhile looking back at what has happened, because as I say, this has been going on for 20 years. After the devastating flood in 2007, Thames Water decided to put into effect a strategy to deal with the Counters Creek catchment area, which includes Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham. Its proposal, which it put to Ofwat and which Ofwat agreed to, was for—in effect—a 5 km relief sewer tunnel, and to add lots of individual flood defence mechanisms to houses, called FLIPs. It was agreed that that should take place in the period 2015 to 2020, and the expenditure was going to be £300 million. It was all agreed to and the work was due to be completed by 2020. However, Thames Water decided not to proceed with that relief tunnel. Indeed, it said that one of the reasons for not proceeding was that the

“risk of hydraulic sewer flooding was much lower than we had originally thought.”

Clearly, that conclusion was wrong, given the devastating flooding that we had in 2021.

Thames Water was fined by Ofwat for not proceeding with this significant infrastructure scheme. It is now 2022 and there has been devastating flooding, so if it was the right scheme before the expenditure for 2015 to 2020, I need to be convinced of the reasons why it is not the right scheme now. I am not a structural engineer, but if it was the right scheme then, I think it is likely to be the right scheme now. Clearly, we can improve things—we should not be wedded to technology from 10 years ago—but if the conclusion was that we needed major infrastructure investment then, I think it is highly likely that we need it now.

Since the floods in 2021, Thames Water has appointed an independent review panel to investigate them, what caused them and how Thames Water’s assets performed. I welcome that independent review, but we need to make sure that it is not simply an academic analysis. We need to make sure that the review leads to concrete proposals and a plan and strategy that we can implement. That plan needs to be both short term and long term, because my constituents cannot live with this risk hanging over their heads.

Thames Water has also made £10 million available to install individual FLIP devices in the worst-affected properties in London. Of course, £10 million is welcome, but I really do not think that it will sort out the issues in London. This is not £10 million for a small bit of Kensington; it is £10 million for the whole of London. We need a lot more investment.

By its own admission, Thames Water’s response on the night was inadequate. Both Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Councils had to get involved because Thames Water simply could not cope with the situation. I know that Thames Water has done an internal review, but it is very important that the processes are sorted.

I have outlined the problem, my concerns about the solutions offered to date, and my plea for better short-term solutions and a long-term infrastructure solution. I sought this debate, first, to highlight the issue and, secondly, to ask the Minister for her support in holding not only Thames Water but Ofwat and the Environment Agency to account. As I say, my constituents cannot spend the next 15 to 20 years with this hanging over their heads. If the right solution in 2015 was major infrastructure, I need to be convinced why that is not the right solution today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) on securing this important debate. I understand how important it is to both her and the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck), because flooding devastates lives. It leaves the most horrendous effects, and I sympathise unreservedly with everyone affected.

I commend all those who responded last July and in previous floods. People were frightened and lost; they were trying to get a pet out, or to salvage important things such as personal photographs. Families I have spoken to after flooding often say it is those personal things they cannot replace that affect them the most. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said—I am sure it is the same for other hon. Members—families are still out of their houses almost a year later. Government are investing £5.2 billion in flood and coastal erosion defences in England, to better protect 336,000 properties. This specifically includes £313 million in London. The total spend in London is £370 million—the additional £57 million is made up by other partnership funds and so on.

Last July, the affected areas of London received over a month’s rainfall in just a couple of hours. It overwhelmed drainage networks and caused the surface water flooding that my hon. Friend has spoken to me about at some length, particularly in Notting Hill and north Kensington, but I am sure other hon. Members will have equally harrowing stories from their constituencies.

On that point, to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), we were told when we had floods in 2011 and 2012 that they were one-in-100-year events. Ten years later, we are back having what is described as a one-in-300-year event. That reinforces the urgent need for Thames Water to recognise and make that investment. These events are occurring with a regularity that is absolutely not normal, and the adjustment has to be made to accommodate it.

As pointed out, these so-called never events appear to be happening more frequently. Given the combination of climate change with other things, we need to look fundamentally at how the system is joined up. I think the hon. Member for Hammersmith articulated that this does not need a “bit” approach but an overall approach. Hopefully, hon. Members will see where the thinking is going.

That overwhelming meant that we got complex localised surface water flooding. Water does not stop. It knows no bounds. It does not stop at a constituency edge or a road end. Indeed, many of our towns and villages have lanes called Water Lane, for example, because we know that is the natural course of water. It happens quickly; it is difficult to predict; it can be exacerbated by the impenetrable surfaces that my hon. Friend spoke about, and it can overwhelm the drainage networks. Everyone—all those agencies, individuals, local authorities, Ofwat, the Environment Agency—has their part to play in understanding the flood risk and the mitigating actions they should take, as do the householders, to ensure they can best protect themselves and their property.

The statutory responsibility to manage flood risk falls to the risk management authorities such as the Environment Agency and the lead local flood authorities and water companies. As my hon. Friend well knows, the Environment Agency has the strategic overview role, and while it does not lead on surface water flooding, it provides support and advice and facilitates partnerships. I know that she has met with all the agencies and with Sarah Bentley at Thames Water to champion her constituents’ challenges, but I would like to reassure her that that cross-partnership work is going on.

Lead local flood authorities have the operational lead in managing local flood risk, including surface water risk. They are best placed to understand, mitigate and respond to these risks. Working with local communities and with the invaluable information that Members and other bodies bring forward, as part of the local flood risk management strategy, they are driving down and making sure that we get the right mitigations in the right places to protect people.

The Government fully support and encourage greater collaboration and partnership working. Following the flooding, many organisations stepped forward this time to work together to make sure we got the right result. As everybody has said, this is not a situation where responsibility can be passed on. There is a task and finish group going on. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), covers this part of the portfolio and will be meeting with the deputy Mayor shortly to hear more about this work. She will challenge them to ensure that the right work is going on in the right places to drive the right results and make sure there is ambition.

What I have heard from everybody is that they want there to be the ambition to protect constituents. The task and finish group has been working on a range of issues, including better communication. As was alluded to, we know that many residents do not have English as a first language. We know that there were challenges because of transient populations, and a sub-group on communications has been set up. I have been assured that the failures seen last summer are noted and being addressed and rectified. I believe the call centre went down, and there were various other challenges.

It would be useful if we could have the details of the task and finish group and have communications with it. Yes, work is going on, as the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) indicated, but there is a real lack of trust, because we have been through all this before. We have had sewer and surface flooding, and the solutions are only partial flap valves that really deal only with sewer flooding. We cannot allow this to happen again. We need a comprehensive solution. It may cost a lot of money, but we have to protect the thousands of people who are vulnerable. To echo the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) made about Flood Re, will that cover our constituencies as it covers rural constituencies?

Flood Re is a scheme jointly administrated by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it has covered some 335,000 properties. I am not entirely sure of the scope of things, but I will make sure that Members are written to, because it is a valid point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said, the challenge—one that I have had in my own constituency—is that when the work is done, the reinsuring becomes either prohibitively expensive or in some cases virtually impossible. I will make sure that I write to Members on that matter.

Thames Water commissioned an independent review of the performance of its network, including the Maida Vale flood defence scheme and the cancelled Counters Creek scheme. As my hon. Friend said, it also committed £10 million in property flood resilience measures, including those non-return valves. Counters Creek is arguably not a single solution to this. It was designed for specific storm events, not the rain bomb or the intensity of the events of last summer, and it has been argued that it would not have prevented the flooding.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that that has been looked into. Further investigations were done by Thames Water, and it implemented the flooding local improvement project to reduce the risk posed by the non-return valves. The challenge with rainwater is that it is almost like watching popcorn. We cannot be sure where the flood is going to occur, because of the different meteorological effects and all the rest of it.

My understanding is that the independent review will investigate whether Counters Creek would have solved the problem, and that that will be part of the final stage of the investigation. At this stage, the jury is very much out on that.

I note my hon. Friend’s point. However, I would like to reassure her that the Government are investing more in surface water, flood and risk management. Following changes to the partnership funding policy, approximately one third of the 2,000 schemes planned will mitigate surface water flooding. That includes £30 million in London—three times more investment—delivering 110 schemes to better protect nearly 2,600 properties, and including sustainable drainage systems. Those will be used in the Portobello Road area, among other works.

Last July, we published an update report on surface water management, setting out progress in delivering our surface water management action plan and the response to David Jenkins’ independent review of surface water and drainage responsibilities. At the autumn Budget we commissioned a new National Infrastructure Commission study on the effective management of surface water flooding in England. That will report by this November.

While I know that these actions feel to be after the event, we need the clear direction to target surface water flooding. The Government’s strategic policy statement to Ofwat sets out our priorities and objectives for its regulation of the water sector in England, including—most importantly in this area—the resilience to flooding. That is what we are talking about here. The water industry is doing much more to tackle natural hazards, including by investing £1 billion to reduce flooding impacts on the communities that Members are here to fight for.

Again, it is utterly devastating when one’s property is flooded. We recognise the importance of having a robust drainage system, both now and for future demand. A new duty under the Environment Act 2021 will require water companies to produce comprehensive drainage and waste water management plans setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewage networks over the long term. That addresses the point on ageing infrastructure. Water companies will produce those plans with other risk management authorities, providing a full assessment of the condition and capacity of the networks and developing collaborative long-term and short-term solutions for our problems.

Those plans and collaborative solutions will identify the best way forward. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington understands that the wholesale upgrading of the entire network would be prohibitively expensive, take decades, and cause mass disruption without any guaranteed solution. We are looking for targeted solutions.

In August 2021, the Government committed to a review of whether to implement schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. The schedule would introduce standards for new sustainable drainage systems and remove the automatic right to connect to the public sewer, which again addresses the problem of over-delivery of water into the system by reducing the amount of water being added to the sewer network and the risk of surface water flooding. The review will be presented to Ministers this autumn.

On the topic of major strategic investment, I do not want anyone to rule it out at this stage. Counters Creek was actually developed in response to the flash flooding in 2007, to address the very issue that we are suffering from.

As my hon. Friend has heard from the figures that I have given, we are very much not addressing investing large sums of money. Indeed, we have committed large sums of money to address our flooding and surface water problems. However, we need a strategic plan; we need people to be working together; we need all authorities involved at the table, driving the right solutions, because there is no single solution. We need an integrated approach to find the solutions. A good example has 32 London boroughs, the Mayor’s office, Thames Water and the local Environment Agency team driving that work.

I want to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington—indeed, with all hon. Members—to hold everyone’s feet to the fire. We remain committed to tackling flooding and ensuring that everyone plays their part to increase the resilience for people. I know that my hon. Friend, as the Member of Parliament for Kensington, and her neighbours, will be making sure that we do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.