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Extreme Weather Events: Resilience

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the UK’s resilience to recent extreme weather events, including Storm Isha and Storm Jocelyn.

I begin by saying how sorry the Government were to hear that four people—two in this country and two in Ireland—sadly lost their lives due to Storm Isha. I extend my sympathy to their family and friends. At the same time, I praise our emergency and utility workers who worked so hard to help the public in very difficult conditions.

Forecasters at the Met Office raised a rare whole-country weather warning for the wind over the weekend, in preparation for Storm Isha. The warning encompassed even rarer amber and red warnings for wind in the areas forecast to experience the worst of the storm. Indeed, wind gusts reached a peak of 99 mph in Northumberland and 124 mph across the Cairngorms. Although the storm had the potential to be extremely destructive, the vast majority of the transport and power infrastructure stood up well and recovered quickly, which is a credit to the resilience of our critical infrastructure and the response capabilities of our operational partners on the ground.

Storm Isha was closely followed by Storm Jocelyn, which reached a peak of 97 mph. I am informed that it was the 10th named storm to impact our country this season. Again, the impacts of Jocelyn in England were less than feared, with operational partners working around the clock to clear any disruption on our transport and power networks.

There is no doubt that the forecasting capabilities of our experts at the Met Office, and the accuracy and speed at which they can warn and inform the public of incoming severe weather events, saves lives and protects our homes and businesses.

My officials and those across government worked hard last week and over the weekend to co-ordinate the extensive preparation and mitigation measures that were taken. The fact that no escalation to a Cobra-level response was required for either storm is testament to our effective response structures at local and national levels. I am very grateful for the response from colleagues in the devolved Administrations and local resilience forums across the country. Our local authority and agency partners kept public services running and reacted to any local issues that emerged.

We are adapting to weather events not previously experienced in our country, and events such as these come with increasing frequency and severity. The UK is driving forward cross-Government action to respond to climate risks and their impacts on our economy and way of life. Our third national adaptation programme, published in July last year, sets out an ambitious five-year programme of work, driven by three themes: action, information and co-ordination.

We are ensuring a more integrated approach to climate adaptation over the next five years, through stronger Government engagement and co-ordinated policymaking. As part of that, we have established the right Government structures not only to monitor progress, but to tackle strategic cross-cutting challenges that will drive the UK’s resilience to climate change. This is all in line with the Government’s broader strategy, as set out in the resilience framework, which committed us to strengthening the links between our understanding of the risks that the UK faces and the action we take to prevent those risks from materialising. We must continue to drive forward these initiatives, which help us to curb the impacts of climate change, and at the same time build systems that help us to withstand extreme events as they arise.

I thank the Minister for his response. Recent days have seen the UK battered by two severe storms, first Storm Isha and then Storm Jocelyn—the 10th named storm of this winter. Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, has said that these storms are

“some of the worst in the last 10 years”.

Our constituents across the country have been hit by widespread damage, flooding, power outages, and the cancellation of flights, ferries and trains. In the most tragic circumstances, four people are reported to have lost their lives. I want to pay tribute to the emergency service workers, electrical engineers and other response teams who have been working to help people, restore power and get transport moving, often at risk to themselves, in very severe conditions. We owe them all a debt of thanks.

Of course, Ministers cannot control the weather—indeed, ex-Ministers on the Conservative Benches cannot even control themselves—but the greater regularity and severity of extreme weather demands a response from the Government. Let me therefore ask the Minister: given the frequency of extreme weather events, why do the Government not have a standing flood resilience taskforce, as part of the Cobra system, with a specific responsibility for building up long-term protection? Local resilience forums have been neglected since the passing of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 under the Labour Government. What more can Ministers do to revive them and make sure they are properly supported? Last week, the Public Accounts Committee said the flood protection budget put in place has been underused since it was announced and is now expected to cover 40% fewer properties than was first claimed. That leaves more than 200,000 homes vulnerable to flooding. What is the Government’s plan for them?

Jocelyn may be the latest storm, but it will not be the last. The very least the public have a right to expect is that their Government| understand that, and are focused on the job and not on whatever is the latest episode in the Tory psychodrama that has distracted the governance of the country for far too long.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words about our emergency services and utility workers. On his specific point about flooding, he will have heard the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for this area, comment earlier in the week that, “Flooding resilience in England is a priority for DEFRA, as part of a whole-society approach to resilience outlined in the UK Government resilience framework.” For example, the Government are investing a record £5.2 billion in the flood and coastal erosion risk management capital programme. Since 2021, over £1.5 billion has so far been invested in flood defence projects across England, with over 67,000 properties better protected.

Of course, the response to flooding is just one part of our resilience work that is co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office. Mercifully, very few families were flooded out of their homes in the storms we have just had, but we are absolutely cognisant of the need to prepare. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have seen the National Audit Office report published late last year, which notes positively that since 2021 the Government have

“strengthened the arrangements to manage national risks”;

that they are

“taking steps to address extreme weather risks as whole-system risks”,

a point to which I will return in a moment; and that they have acquired

“good forecasting data for droughts, heatwaves and storms”.

Over the past few years, we have seen a noticeable improvement in storm preparedness and response. A few years ago, there were still about 40,000 people without power three days after Storm Arwen. The storms we have just had were very powerful and about 400,000 people lost power to their homes, but 99% of them had their power restored within 24 hours as a result of the planning and preparedness that this Government have put in place.

We have learned the lessons. We now have improved public warnings, we have hardened infrastructure and, crucially, we forward deploy repair experts. When we see storms forming over the Atlantic, we signal to local partners in the utilities and the emergency services, and they go out and get ready on the ground, doing everything from clearing storm drains to getting ready to repair infrastructure that might be vulnerable.

We have better public information. The public are much more connected with the activity of storms. Naming storms may seem like a superficial change, but we know that is has improved public awareness of what is going on. We have clearer travel advice and the Department for Transport is doing great work through our operators.

We also have superior forecasting. The Government have invested a great deal in compute capacity and forecasting capacity that enables us to see where storms are coming from. Better co-ordination and deployment of resources from the centre means that we are working better with partners on the ground and getting a better response when extreme events take place.

I thank the Minister for his statement and I thank his officials in the Cabinet Office who do so much that is often unseen. On those with a higher public profile, will he join me in thanking the Environment Agency emergency response teams for the west midlands, the Shropshire fire and rescue teams, who have done such a great job, and all the officials at Severn Trent Water, Shropshire Council and Telford and Wrekin Council?

The Minister mentions national infrastructure; does he agree that highways fall under that? Will he call on Highways England to do more to ensure that the M54, an important road in Shropshire and in connecting Wales and England, has less flooding in future and to put in place more mitigation and investment to do that?

I join my hon. Friend in his words of praise for those who have been working in the west midlands. I am sure that my DFT colleagues have heard what he said about the critical road in his constituency.

It is a little bit cheeky of the Government to take entire responsibility for the improvements. For example, SSE has put improvements in place and done a huge amount of work, for which it deserves credit, so it is not just about the changes to forecasting. I thank the resilience partnerships that improved the emergency services, the energy companies and all the individuals who stepped up to help others in their local communities. It was truly a community effort and people came together.

I wish the Government would take climate change more seriously, given the incredible amount of extreme weather events we are seeing right now. It is important for the Government both to talk the talk and to walk the walk when it comes to climate change. They should be leading from the front in developing a strategy to help to ensure that we are resilient in the face of climate adaptation and the changes that are happening, and they should put the funding in place to ensure that that strategy can be delivered.

The Scottish Government need funding to make the changes required for resilience. If there are massive geographical disparities in some of the weather events, such as with Storm Arwen, then Barnett may not be the appropriate method to fund some of the required changes. In the upcoming Budget process, it might be sensible for the Government to ensure that resilience funding is spread to the areas that are most likely to be hardest hit, so that rather than Scotland having a percentage share based on our population numbers, that share is based on the likelihood of extreme climate events. That would be most welcome, particularly when it comes to resilience.

That is a classic question from the SNP, isn’t it? The hon. Lady did not listen to what I have said and then asked for more money. Central Government are absolutely not taking all the credit for everything that has happened. As she will have just heard me say, it is our partnership with the people who work in the emergency services, local government, utility companies and so on that has made the changes possible.

On climate change, I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to discover that, since peak CO2 emissions in the mid-1970s, the UK Government by their actions have helped to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 50%, which is more than any other G7 country. We take these things seriously and we will continue to do so.

I thank both the Minister for his statement and the Government for their clear actions to strengthen our nation’s resilience. As these extreme storms again unleash damage right across the UK, will my hon. Friend join me in sending our thoughts to the people whose homes, businesses and farms have been affected, and in paying tribute to the Environment Agency staff, emergency services, local authorities, electricity companies and volunteer groups—such as the Appleby Emergency Response Group in my constituency—which do so much to help people and communities through the trauma and aftermath of storms and severe floods?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Appleby Emergency Response Group. So often, it is local community organisations, with their connections and awareness of and intelligence about what is taking place on the ground, that make a response possible, so I am very happy to join him in that. I am glad to hear that although his constituency was hit hard by the storms, it has managed to move on quickly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) asked why the Government had neglected local resilience forums and, indeed, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which they bypassed during covid. May I ask that question again? What lessons have the Government learned from covid and such issues in order to give greater sustainability to the local resilience forums that need to protect us?

We obviously learned a great many lessons from covid. As the hon. Lady will be aware from the documentation that the Government have published over the past couple of years, there has been a great deal of activity to improve our resilience and response to emergencies. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister gave a statement to that effect in this House in December.

The Cabinet Office assigns ownership of acute national risks to lead Government Departments, across risk identification, risk assessment, prevention, resilience, preparation and emergency response and recovery. The lead Government Departments may change between the phases as the impact changes and different competencies are required. None the less, the UK has adopted a bottom-up approach to managing emergencies, as most emergencies affect local areas. We have local responders such as the police, fire and ambulance services, which manage emergencies without direct involvement from the Government. The response to larger-scale emergencies is then led by lead Government Departments. It is only in the most serious cases that the response is escalated to Cabinet Office briefing rooms—known as Cobra—and senior Ministers from across Government are brought in. As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, this is very much about a partnership between centre and locality, and we are starting to see the benefits of that approach.

May I ask my hon. Friend to congratulate the good people of Repton and the other villages that came together to help with all the flooding that has been going on? In particular, they are holding follow-up meetings to get more flood wardens across South Derbyshire. I have never seen anything like the flooding that has taken place in South Derbyshire. We need to get the Environment Agency to move on with plans for installing holding ponds further up the Trent and the Derwent to stop the run-off from the fields that we have had this time round. Anything that my hon. Friend can do to help me to get spades in the ground on those projects would be much appreciated.

I very much hear what my hon. Friend says. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have heard likewise. She will have heard what I had to say earlier about the Department’s position on flooding. On alerts, for instance, normal flood warnings were operated. We did not use the national alert because the situation did not reach that threshold, and our local partners did not ask us to use it. From what we can see at this stage, that local system worked well and helped to protect people and, where possible, property.

The consistent storms we have had this winter have meant that our communities have felt more consistently battered by flooding and winds than ever before. Sadly, as the Minister mentioned, lives were lost at the weekend. Tens of thousands of houses and businesses were left without power. Transport links were halted in my Edinburgh constituency—there were no flights out of the airport, no trains were going anywhere, and roads and bridges were closed. Thousands of homes were flooded, yet the National Audit Office has warned that the Government have not set a long-term target for the level of flood resilience that they expect to achieve, and there are no concrete plans to do so beyond 2026. That means that any investment could be misplaced and inefficient and that homes will not be protected sufficiently. Does the Minister see that this could be a lack of foresight? Will the Government commit to reversing the current cuts to flood protection and do more to ensure that investment is effective?

The hon. Lady will have heard me reflect on what DEFRA said earlier in the week about the £5.2 billion of investment in flood and coastal erosion risk management through its capital programme, and the fact that, since 2021, the Government have put £1.5 billion into flood-defence projects across England.

On the hon. Lady’s first point about the level of disruption, we understand and sympathise with people who have been put in such situations. Although we cannot control the weather, we can, by degrees, become better prepared for events, both through the general resilience planning that the Government have been doing and by having better intelligence on storms forming over the Atlantic and making sure we have the right people with the right skills poised to act quickly when those storms strike. That, of course, means that we can minimise disruption to the public, even though we cannot eliminate it altogether.

In my Broxtowe constituency, some businesses and homes that I have visited have been affected by multiple storms and have received the flood recovery grant but, as it stands, those who have been affected by Storm Babet and Storm Henk can claim after only one of the floods. Are the Government looking to put more support in place for individuals who have been flooded multiple times by separate storms?

My hon. Friend raises a very important question. We know how awful it can be for families to be flooded out of their homes. There is damage to their property and effects, and sometimes to items with sentimental value. It is important that we have processes and procedures in place to make sure that we can help people out in those circumstances. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, I will make sure that he gets a response from colleagues in DEFRA.

In Scottish questions, I spoke of how Caithness and north Sutherland were completely cut off. All the roads were blocked during the storms, so a pregnant mum whose contractions had started could not even begin her 100-mile journey to Raigmore in Inverness to give birth. People speak of the helicopter ambulance; there is one based in Inverness, but if that has to go to an emergency in Lochaber, on the other side of Scotland, what does the pregnant mum do? To be quite honest, we are faced with a mum and her child dying. When the Minister meets the Scottish Government, will he please point out the utter folly of centralising these services in Inverness, when we have a perfectly good, workable hospital in Wick, which should be upgraded and put into full use?

I am happy to communicate that message strongly to the devolved Administration. I have visited Caithness and seen its remote beauty, but yes, one can only imagine what it would be like to be a young woman giving birth and cut off from major services. I feel that the hon. Gentleman’s plea for an upgrade at Wick is very important.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. Two weeks ago, Runnymede and Weybridge was flooded as a result of Storm Henk. When flooding happens locally, my constituents must navigate a host of organisations with different responsibilities, including Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, Surrey County Council, Runnymede Borough Council, Elmbridge Borough Council, Thames Water, Affinity Water, the Environment Agency and Surrey Highways. As part of my campaign to improve flood response and preparedness, and protection from flooding, I have been calling for a local flood control centre to be a single co-ordinated access point for accessible support and advice, and clear and consistent communication. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has such a worthy campaign to support his constituents. I will ensure that his request for a meeting goes to the most appropriate Minister, who may be able to advise him on how possible his proposal is.

According to the NAO, since plans were first unveiled in 2020 the Environment Agency has cut by 40% its forecast of the number of additional properties that will be better protected from flooding by 2027. In Feltham and Heston, the level of water on our streets during storms that is unable to drain away is getting higher and higher. I have to push the Minister on this: is he confident that his plans will be sufficient to keep homes and businesses across the country safe from flood-related damage? This is a huge and growing concern.

The hon. Lady will have heard me say a moment ago that the NAO was pleased that the Government have taken steps to address extreme weather as part of a whole-system approach, which can have real advantages when floods are coming. For example, it enables appropriately trained emergency workers to be sent out to clear storm drains and ensure that anything that might make the floods worse is cleared out of the way. She will also have heard me say that DEFRA has committed a great deal of money to improving flood defences over the past three or four years, and that tens of thousands of homes are better protected as a result. We are not complacent, and are always looking at ways we can improve that.

I welcome the Minister’s statement and the excellent work by the team at the Cabinet Office, who I know work extremely hard on these problems. As he will know, my constituency is home to some of our most precious chalk streams and winterbournes. I am sure that he is aware that water levels in the Bourne Valley and in villages to the west of Andover are perilously high. He will understand the ecological importance of those rivers, and the risk of the sewage system being overwhelmed and leaking into the chalk streams. The Environment Agency and Southern Water are doing great work. There is a huge pumping operation under way to avoid that calamity, but further significant rainfall might overwhelm the entire system. In his post-match analysis, once the weather calms down, will he consider giving special priority to identifying work that is required in areas of particular ecological sensitivity? Significant work has been done up and down my constituency over the past 10 years by the flood resilience group, Southern Water, the EA, and indeed riparian owners, but more could still be done, and it needs a certain amount of concentration.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his observations. As a former resident of 70 Whitehall, he understands the problems in great depth, and the chalk streams of Hampshire have no finer defender than his right honourable self. He makes a serious point about ecological sensitivity. It is right that we pay attention not only to the immediate threats to life or property but to our natural environment. As we know, if we do not do so, the damage can be irreparable and long lasting.

Barely a part of Oxford West and Abingdon was unaffected by the recent floods, but Abingdon remains unprotected. In 2007, we were promised a plan, which was cut because of a lack of resources for the EA. It is not just the River Thames; it is also the run-off from the new developments, where huge numbers of houses have been built. What is the Cabinet Office doing to connect DEFRA with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities so that the developers, who have promised to clear the culverts, can be forced by the local authorities to do so?

As the hon. Lady will have heard me say earlier, the Cabinet Office has a co-ordinating role that brings together lead Government Departments and local responders. It would be under that guise that different Government Departments would meet to discuss issues of the sort that she describes.

Even by the standards of what we are accustomed to in the northern isles, the last week has been exceptionally disruptive. I associate myself with the previous expressions of gratitude to the road staff, electricity engineers and others who have gone about their jobs, and to those who are responding even though it is not part of their job. The response of farmers, who just get on with clearing the snow with a bucket on the front of their tractor, has been phenomenal. Is this not a moment to pause and reflect that some of the changes proposed in other parts of Government could weaken our resilience? The switch-off of the copper wire network for telephones and the proposed increase in the response time of the search and rescue helicopter provided by the coastguard from 15 minutes to 60 minutes will leave us in a worse position if they are allowed to happen. Can the Cabinet Office do something to ensure that they are not?

No. One can only imagine what it has felt like in the Shetlands over the past week or so. My sympathies are with the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents. To his point about general resilience, the Government are trying to take a whole-system approach to understand exactly how we can work with emergency responders and those who are responsible for our national infrastructure. We are making progress, but there are always areas in which we can do more work.

As both the Minister and the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), pointed out, this is the latest in a series of storms that we have faced. In October, St Andrews harbour was significantly damaged as a result of the sea surges following Storm Babet. The harbour is run by a trust that dates from when James VI of Scotland granted the land to the people of the town, but as a result of the community ownership fund that the Government have run, and other funds generally, more and more of our assets are owned and run by local communities, which when faced with this kind of disaster have no source of funding to access support. Do the Government agree that they should be looking at ensuring that funding is in place, because St Andrews is a working harbour that is facing £3 million in costs. Without the repairs being made, there is a risk of other parts of the town being affected in the future.

I am pleased to have learned something about St Andrews harbour. I am sure that colleagues in other Government Departments, including DLUHC, are considering those issues. Community-owned assets can be a wonderful thing. It is important that assets such as local ports are governed by people who really understand the towns and cities in which they are based. I am happy to take that forward.

I thank the Minister for his positive answers to the questions. Farmers in my constituency tell me they cannot recall floods and rain quite like this; indeed, they tell me the volume of rain has been of biblical proportions. I hail from the coastal constituency of Strangford, where storms hit with a fury that is possibly not fully grasped. The coastline defences around Strangford loch and within my constituency have been subjected to a level of onslaught never before seen. Can the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with the Department in Stormont, to which Westminster gave substantial financial help to address coastal erosion? Perhaps the same level of assistance can be offered again.

I will ask Ministers from other Departments to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specifics, but he will know that we are very keen to see a restoration of Stormont, and I believe that the House will hear more about that very soon.

Somerset is so often battered by extreme flooding and, in response, the River Cam flood warning system is being piloted in my constituency. A stretch near North Cadbury will be fitted out tomorrow with laser depth-measuring devices, which will send real-time messages and alerts to residents when the water levels start to rise. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Liberal Democrat councillors and Somerset Rivers Authority for that initiative and agree that we need to fund more extreme weather resilience plans for isolated rural communities?

I am delighted to hear about the initiative in Cadbury—I have fond memories as a schoolboy of walking around the hillfort there—and am well aware of the historical threats that Somerset has faced with flooding. I am glad that in recent incidences local government and central Government have been able to work together for the benefit of the people who live in that area.