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Flooding: River Severn Catchment Area

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

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

I now consider flooding to be the single biggest barrier to my Shrewsbury constituency’s economic development. We are now flooding on an annual basis, and the sheer misery, damage and destruction that takes place in my town every single year is causing my council, local authorities, businesses and homeowners a great deal of financial stress.

In February 2019, when the Coleham area of Shrewsbury flooded, I invited the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to visit. I will never forget the day he went around Shrewsbury with me to meet many businesses—butchers, hairdressers and cafés—and homeowners, or the sheer, raw emotion that we experienced and saw on the streets of Shrewsbury.

People’s properties were devastated, and one has to remember that an Englishman’s home is his castle. People’s personal possessions and homes were badly affected. I know one lady in my constituency whose home is flooded every single year. It was a very emotional time for both the Environment Secretary and me, but it was an important visit, because I introduced him to Professor Mark Barrow from Shropshire Council. He helps to run the River Severn Partnership, which is a consortium of the councils all the way down the river. We have had enough of acting in silos; we understand the key aspect from an emotional intelligence perspective—the interdependence of all the communities along the River Severn. My council, Shropshire Council, has reached out to other councils all the way down the river to create the River Severn Partnership, so that as a consortium they can speak with one voice in lobbying the Government.

I am pleased to inform the Minister that in 2019, after that visit to my constituency, we received £50 million of taxpayers’ money, not only to help us with some small flood defence schemes in the constituency, but, most importantly, to start the work of creating a plan to manage the River Severn holistically.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the extraordinary amount of work he has done over the past few years in achieving a momentous investment, potentially, in the whole of the River Severn valley. He has also been successful in securing £50 million for his constituency. The last Prime Minister but one was also incredibly generous to Wyre Forest, in committing £10 million to the Bewdley flood defences, which are going up at the moment. Some action is being taken, as well as the excellent work my hon. Friend is doing.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I put on record how much my team and I appreciate his consistent support in working with me on the caucus that I manage here in the House of Commons.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important Adjournment debate. My constituency contains the River Severn catchment, the River Teme and the River Avon, so it is also prone to flooding. Does he agree that it is wonderful that the Environment Agency has delivered schemes in Upton upon Severn, Pershore, Uckinghall, Kempsey and Powick? Does he also agree that it would be good if the Environment Agency would complete the schemes it is working on in Tenbury Wells and in Severn Stoke?

I am happy to echo those sentiments, with the Minister listening and making notes. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the constructive way in which she has worked with me and others on the River Severn caucus. I wish her every success with getting those flood defences completed.

Although the flood defences that my hon. Friend refers to are essential—they are critical in the short-term to medium-term—there is also a long-term objective of managing the River Severn holistically. Hitherto, we have had the idea of building small flood barriers. They are important, but inevitably they push the problem further downstream; that is counter-intuitive to a certain degree, because we are protecting ourselves and making it more difficult for the community further downstream. Later in my speech, I will explain how, now that we have left the common agricultural policy, we want to start to manage this river holistically.

I pay tribute to Mark Barrow of the River Severn Partnership and to the Environment Agency, whose new chief executive, Mr Duffy, I met recently. As a result of our work, we have presented a business case to the Minister for flooding, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I am grateful to her, because she has visited my constituency twice in the past year. At my invitation, she has come to Shrewsbury, sat with the officials of the River Severn Partnership and been presented with the business case that we are now sharing with the Government on how we intend to manage the River Severn. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all her work, as well as her determination and ability to visit my constituency to hear our proposals at first hand. Following those discussions, the then DEFRA Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), visited Shrewsbury earlier this year at my invitation. She was presented with the business case that has now gone to Government and she was impressed with what she saw.

Finally, as I mentioned, I invited the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Mr Duffy, to visit Shrewsbury two months ago, which he did, and he was presented with the proposals as well. Those proposals have been developed through a collaboration between the caucus of 38 Conservative MPs whose constituencies the river flows through. As I said to the Chancellor, “You have heard of the blue Danube—well, this is the blue Severn”, because 38 of us Tory MPs have the river flowing through our constituencies. I presented the proposals to Mr Duffy and he understood the importance of the plans.

We presented the plans to the Chancellor at a meeting of the River Severn caucus last month, and I know some of his senior special advisers and assistants are currently examining the business model in order to understand its economic impact on the midlands. We hope and expect the Chancellor to have positive things to say to us in the spring Budget.

I also raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions today. The Prime Minister kindly recognised the many dealings I had with him when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He promised that the new Chancellor will look at the proposals and stated that the Government have already given an extra £6 billion for flood defences. I recognise that and thank the Government for allocating an extra £6 billion of taxpayers’ money to flood defences. However, the situation is grave across the whole of the United Kingdom and I have heard that a lot of that money has been spent in London. Protecting our capital city is obviously a priority, but I would argue that £6 billion is a drop in the ocean, if you would pardon the pun, Mr Deputy Speaker, compared to what is required.

We are not prepared to go to DEFRA to ask for a piece of that £6 billion. We want to go directly to the Chancellor, give him a business case and a business plan, and explain that if £500 million is invested today, there will be an economic uplift in the west midlands, which is the industrial heartland of England, of over £100 million gross value added. That is what is in the business case that has gone to the Chancellor.

I am proud to have campaigned for Brexit, but I am even prouder that my constituents in Shrewsbury voted for Brexit. One clear benefit of leaving the European Union is that we no longer have to comply with the ghastly common agricultural policy, which was difficult for us to benefit from and almost designed to be unconducive to English farming practices. Now that we are no longer part of the common agricultural policy, we can, for the first time, pay and incentivise farmers and landowners to hold on to water. That was not allowed under the common agricultural policy. Now that we have left, for the first time we can go to farmers and say, “If you want to be part of a major solution to flooding, we can incentivise you financially to hold on to that water and manage that water during extreme times of flooding.” We can also pay landowners for helping to be part of that solution.

I have had two very productive discussions with two Secretaries of State for Wales. I think you were once a shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Mr Deputy Speaker, and you were brilliant. You will know, from having held that position, the extraordinary interdependence that we have in western England with our neighbours in Wales. We are all part of the same Union, and, of course, this solution to managing Britain’s longest river can be achieved only if we have collaboration and co-operation from our partners across the border. Having represented a constituency on the English-Welsh border, I am acutely aware of the need to have schemes that enhance and promote the interdependence of both of our countries, as we share this one island together.

I am very grateful for the close support from my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), who is the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. We collaborate on many things, but he has already stated to his local press that he supports these plans. A counter-intuitive person would say, “No, I am not interested. That’s your problem. You deal with it” but he has said that he understands how some of his landowners and farmers could benefit enormously from financial payments if they were part of the solution. He understands the potential of the vast economic investment in his constituency, particularly at a difficult time for farmers and agriculture.

Shropshire Council has taken the lead with the River Severn Partnership. I chair a caucus of 38 Conservative MPs who have this river flowing through their constituencies. We are approaching—I say this unequivocally—a general election. Every year, Mr Blair and John Prescott came to Shrewsbury. In 1999, they ostensibly walked around Shrewsbury, saying, “Don’t worry, folks, we are going to protect you.” Well, we had a flood barrier, which protects a car park and 38 houses and that was the extent of the help that we got from Mr Blair and Mr Prescott. We cannot have just little sticking plasters on this problem, bearing in mind that this situation will only get worse—I think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you and I can agree on that. Given climate change and the number of months and days of floods that we are experiencing, this situation will get increasingly worse for our children and our grandchildren. If we can invest today in an innovative, progressive and modern way of holistically managing rivers, that will be not just a prototype for other parts of the United Kingdom, but, potentially, a massive British export worldwide. Think about the suffering and the misery in Bangladesh. Think about all the millions of people around the world who face economic hardship and sometimes death as a result of these rivers spilling over. If we can invest in this technology of managing rivers, it could be of huge benefit not only to our exports, but to our international development aid programme.

Finally, with £500 million—that is what is in the business case—we can show an uplift of more than £100 billion for the west midlands economy. I am not begging for £500 million; I am saying to the Chancellor, “This is the return on investment that you will get if you invest in this scheme.” I know how difficult the public finances are at the moment, which is why I am so proud of the way in which we have presented the plans.

I am grateful for the constructive dialogue that I have had with the Minister. I welcome him to his position, and I know that he will do a superb job. We need his support. I have sent his officials copies of the business case that has been presented to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am asking for the Minister’s understanding of our proposals, and for him to lobby the Chancellor with me ahead of the spring Budget. I am sure he will agree that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will need more than £6 billion in the years to come to manage flooding.

Finally, let me tell the House about my constituent Mr Bob Ashton of Cambrian House, an apartment building that floods almost annually. He has taken me to see it, and the residents themselves have built flood defences to protect the entire building; a sort of electronic shield goes up to protect it. That is a very innovative way of trying to protect a whole apartment building, and I pay tribute to Mr Ashton and his fellow residents for their innovation. They live in Coton Hill in Shrewsbury. I must declare an interest, because I too live in Coton Hill, an area of my constituency that floods annually.

I go to see businesses in Shrewsbury not just when they are flooding, but 30 businesses tell me their takings during the floods and in the weeks after them, and they are significantly down even two weeks after the flooding has subsided. As we know, the media are brilliant at highlighting when Shrewsbury is under water, but they are not so interested in broadcasting that the floods have subsided and we are back to normal.

Flooding is the single biggest barrier to Shrewsbury’s economic development. We have more listed buildings—Edwardian, Elizabethan and Georgian—than any other town in England. We are so proud of our architectural beauty. Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury. We are a very historic town and we are very proud of our town, but, as I say, the flooding is causing horrendous problems for my citizens, adversely affecting people’s ability to get insurance for their properties and putting tourists off coming to our town when they see the consequences of it.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak on a subject that I feel so passionately about. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate to build his case for dealing with the challenges that not only he and his constituents but those across the whole River Severn catchment area are experiencing with flooding. Not only was my hon. Friend successful in securing an Adjournment debate, but he did so for a day on which we could continue to speak about the subject for another couple of hours if we wished. That enables me not only to set out the position that the Government are taking nationally, but to pick up on some of the specific concerns that he has rightly voiced to me, as the Minister with responsibility for flooding, on behalf of his constituents.

Of course, the Government and I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents, and all households and businesses that experience regular floods. I was taken by the point my hon. Friend made at the beginning of his speech, when he talked eloquently about having hosted the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who visited his constituency back in 2019 to meet some of his constituents who had unfortunately been flooded, get to grips with the emotional challenges of flooding for them, and its impact not only on their property, but on their livelihoods, their families and some of their businesses.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend was able to introduce the then Secretary of State to Professor Mark Barrow, who heads up the River Severn Partnership, to make sure that the Department is alive to my hon. Friend’s ambitions for his constituency and further afield. The number of times he has raised this issue in the House is extraordinary, and he did so again earlier today at Prime Minister’s questions; I was in the Chamber to listen to not only his question, but the Prime Minister’s reply from this very Dispatch Box.

As climate change leads to rising sea levels and more extreme rainfall, the number of people at risk from flooding and coastal erosion continues to grow. That is why this Government are acting now to drive down flood risk from every angle. Given that we have some time, I want to set out what the Government are doing at a national level, and then I will come back to some of the specifics that my hon. Friend raised.

Our long-term policy statement, published in 2020, sets out our ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk. It includes five ambitious policies and a number of actions that will accelerate progress to 2027 and beyond, to prepare the country and better protect it against flooding and coastal erosion in the face of more frequent extreme weather. We are now halfway through our significant £5.2 billion flood and coastal erosion six-year investment programme. In that time we have invested more than £1.5 billion to better protect more than 67,000 homes and businesses in England alone, taking the total number of properties protected to more than 380,000 since 2015 and more than 600,000 since 2010.

That record £5.2 billion investment is double the £2.6 billion investment from the previous funding round, which ran from 2015 to 2021. That programme delivered more than 850 flood defence projects to better protect 314,000 homes, nearly 600,000 acres of farmland, thousands of businesses and major pieces of infrastructure. That demonstrates how dedicated this Government are to dealing with not only the challenges that my hon. Friend has raised in the River Severn catchment, but other challenges across England.

With double the investment, we will continue to build on past achievements and improve flood resilience for all. However, it would be insincere of me not to point out the findings of the recent National Audit Office report on resilience to flooding, which highlighted that our current investment programme has faced challenges. It is absolutely right that, like previous Ministers, I ensure that we are delivering for constituents right across England who need protection for their homes and for the businesses that are impacted, and that we audit the money being spent so that we can get better protection for all.

Unfortunately, the start of the programme was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in fewer people being available to develop projects and delayed the mobilisation. However, I am pleased to be able to reassure all hon. Members that we are well on course to delivering the funding that we have allocated during this funding round and that, despite the challenges, 67,000 properties have already been better protected from flooding under the programme, which started in April 2021. The delays do, however, mean that the original target of better protecting 336,000 properties by 2027 is under review, and I am asking my officials to give me further advice on that. The Environment Agency’s revised forecast is that 200,000 properties will be better protected in that time. I am currently in discussions with the Environment Agency on how we can make sure that the budget is spent properly.

We are ensuring that projects are delivered in every region, and we are providing flooding protection across the country. In April 2023, we announced the first communities in England to benefit from the £100 million frequently flooded allowance. The first 53 projects will be allocated more than £26 million in total in 2023 and 2024, safeguarding 2,300 households and businesses alone. In September 2023, we announced a further round of £25 million through the natural flood management programme; successful projects will be announced early in 2024.

As part of that wider approach, we have also funded a £200 million flood and coastal innovation programme, which has three elements: £33 million to develop a coastal transition accelerator programme in a small number of areas that are exposed to significant risks of coastal erosion; around £150 million to support 25 innovative projects over six years to improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion; and £8 million for four adaptation pathways in the Thames and Humber estuaries, the Severn valley and Yorkshire, enabling local places to better plan for future flooding and coastal change and to adapt to future climate hazards. In addition, we continue to invest in flood and coastal defence maintenance with an extra £22 million per year for the current spending review period to 2024-25. Currently, 93.5% of major flood and coastal erosion risk management assets are in target condition, but that is not where we need to be; we aim to achieve 98% relatively soon.

In addition to all that new funding, we are working closely with partner agencies to tackle surface water flooding. Unfortunately, 3.4 million properties in England are at risk of surface water flooding, and the Environment Agency and the Met Office are investing an additional £1 million over the next three years, through the Flood Forecasting Centre, to advance the modelling, forecasting and communication of surface water flood risk. In addition, the Government are focusing on water companies, where we will be investing over £1 billion between 2020 and 2025 to reduce the impact of flooding on communities across England and Wales.

Let me address the specific points that were raised in the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, because he is representing not just himself but 38 other colleagues as part of a wider caucus. I know the hard work that he has done with that caucus, and not just in the House. Not only has he already lobbied me in my first three weeks in this role, but I know that he lobbied the last flooding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), on several occasions, including on visits, and he raised his case at Prime Minister’s questions today. I know that his business case has been submitted to the Chancellor, and it has already reached my desk. I await the opportunity to digest it—it arrived only today—so that I can speak in more detail not only with my officials, but with those at the Treasury.

Let me pick up on the points made by my hon. Friend Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the Environment Agency scheme at Tenbury Wells and the Severn Stoke alleviation scheme. I want to reassure her that the outline business case for the Tenbury Wells scheme has been approved by the Environment Agency, which is reviewing design options for it. It has been advised that the scheme is complex, but nevertheless, we will ensure that it progresses. While there have been some complexities associated with the Severn Trent flood alleviation scheme, I reassure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency is working to secure a contractor, so that the agency and I can be reassured that that scheme will be able to commence construction from spring 2024.

As has been pointed out, we have already invested £50 million in the English Severn and Wye catchment between 2015 and 2021, protecting 3,000 homes. That programme has invested almost £8 million within Shropshire alone, better protecting over 200 homes, and under the new funding round that covers the period between 2021 and 2027, we expect to invest another £150 million to reduce flood risk and better protect a further 3,000 homes and businesses across that catchment. Almost £45 million of that funding will be invested specifically in Shropshire, better protecting almost 600 homes and businesses. That is in addition to the summer economic recovery fund, which has already allocated £40 million of investment to the River Severn catchment. Projects in Shropshire that will benefit include the highly innovative Severn valley water management scheme, which is already shaping landscape change in the upper catchment across England and Wales.

I want to pick up specifically on a point rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. We are now out of the European Union, and will be coming out of the common agricultural policy. That creates opportunities for not only DEFRA but the Treasury to look at how we can incentivise more upstream schemes, so that we increase the lag time of the water getting into the River Severn. I am very keen to explore those options as part of my flooding portfolio and alongside my DEFRA colleagues, making sure that those schemes work not only within urban environments, but upstream in more natural environments.

The Severn valley water management scheme aims to reduce flood risk across Shropshire, but will also secure water resources for the future, benefiting and improving water quality, natural assets and the environment. The Environment Agency is working closely with local authorities, landowners and communities to identify places where it is feasible and effective to deliver such innovations. It is likely that not all funding will need to come from Government—that is important, because we need to secure value for money, not only for the taxpayer but from public funds and private initiatives. I am happy to look at the options that are available; no doubt, those options might be included in the business case that has already been submitted to the Chancellor, but that is something that I, with my officials, will concentrate on as well.

As I mentioned, the Severn valley will also benefit from £1.5 million in funding as one of the adaptation pathway projects. The River Severn adaptation pathway project will help ensure that people and wildlife within that vibrant river catchment can adapt and be resilient in the face of the changing climate we are all experiencing. That suite of pathways and actions is being developed, and will help manage flood risk and ensure that water resources can be used much more effectively across the River Severn catchment, not only today or tomorrow but well into the future. The county of Shropshire is also benefiting from approximately £3.5 million of maintenance of current flood risk assets to ensure that we can continue to be effective in better protecting communities from flooding, not only those in my hon. Friend’s constituency but others across the River Severn catchment.

In total, since 2015, approximately £245 million has been committed to reduce flooding in the River Severn valley area, demonstrating this Government’s commitment to areas impacted by regular flooding. As I have said, I will pay deep attention to the business case that has been presented to my colleagues in the Treasury, and on the back of this Adjournment debate, I will be more than happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend and members of his caucus, which he is doing an excellent job of leading.

I am very grateful for the very positive way in which my hon. Friend is responding to the points I have made. Will he also commit to visiting Shrewsbury in the new year to meet the River Severn Partnership and to see, in practice, some of the proposals that we wish to create?

Before the Minister responds, may I urge him to face forward? I know the temptation is to look at Mr Kawczynski, but when he is facing forward he is speaking into the microphone, and it can be picked up by Hansard.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I was coming on to that point. I am happy not only to pay my hon. Friend a visit, but to meet his colleagues who have been working on the business case in his constituency to make sure that we are able to take fully into account the proposals being put forward to my Department. I am always happy to get out and practically speak to people on the ground who are being negatively impacted by flooding. I hope that a visit, which I am more than happy to do, will be of value not only to him, but to me in my role.

I want to reiterate that I fully understand the anxiety and frustration felt by my hon. Friend’s constituents, which is why I am absolutely committed to providing full attention to and focus on flooding and flood resilience. Storm Babet provided significant challenges to many local authorities across England, and I hope that some of the reassurance I have provided him, through the amount of money that this Government are spending across England, gives him some sense of reassurance about how importantly flood resilience and flood improvement projects are taken by this Government.

I also want to outline quickly some other work that falls into other Departments. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has activated the flood recovery framework and its package of support includes these measures. There is the community recovery grant, from which eligible local authorities will receive funding equivalent to £500 per flooded household to support local recovery efforts. I know this has been rolled out on the back of Storm Babet and others. In addition, there is the business recovery grant, from which the Department for Business and Trade will provide eligible local authorities with up to £2,500 for each eligible small and medium-sized enterprise that has suffered severe impacts from flooding that cannot be recovered from insurance. There is the council tax discount, under which the Government will reimburse eligible local authorities for the cost of a 100% council tax discount for a minimum of three months. Finally, there is the property flood resilience repair grant, and areas flooded by Storm Babet have been able to benefit positively from that grant. The scheme offers a package of funding for property owners directly flooded by a specific weather event, and grants them up to £5,000 per property to install flood resilience measures. In addition, these grants will be supported by the existing Bellwin scheme, which can provide financial help to local authorities for the immediate actions that they take in the aftermath of an emergency, such as setting up rest centres and temporary accommodation.

To conclude, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that his debate has been absolutely welcomed by me as the Minister. He used the opportunity before this debate to speak to me very specifically on the level of detail with which his business case is being put forward, and I am more than happy to meet him and to pay a visit to his constituency so that I can understand the business case in more detail. Let me be clear: we will continue to improve the resilience to flooding of our villages, towns and cities across England and the wider UK, and we will do that in a holistic manner.

I thought we were going to have a two-hour speech. I was looking forward to that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.