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Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of flooding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. In 2007, Tewkesbury and many other areas of the country suffered the worst floods we can remember. Some areas that had previously never flooded were overcome by water from rivers and water running off from land. Houses and business premises were flooded. Ironically, water services were lost, as the Mythe waterworks were overcome by water. Electricity supplies were lost to many, as the Walham substation was overcome.

As a result, around 1,000 households were displaced in my constituency. People, including the elderly, the terminally ill and families, had to live in caravans. They were out of their homes for up to a year. Tewkesbury hospital had to be evacuated and, sadly, there was loss of life as a result of that flooding. King Charles—Prince Charles as he then was—and the then Duchess of Cornwall visited Priors Park to see the damage and lift spirits. In making that reference, I want to wish King Charles the very best.

That was 17 years ago and, although we have not suffered flooding to the same extent in my area, we do experience flooding on a regular basis, including a few weeks ago. In my area, that may be unavoidable to an extent, as Tewkesbury sits on the confluence of two main rivers—the Severn and the Avon—and other rivers are in the area. There is no surprise when the area floods, although the inevitability of it is no comfort to those whose homes are flooded.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate. He is right to outline the issues. He said the last time there was a massive flood was 17 years ago. In my constituency, floods that are supposed to happen every 100 years now happen every 10. Does he agree that policy and strategy must be not only for England but for the whole of the United Kingdom, when the floods are happening everywhere?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. To his point, in my part of Mid Norfolk, where the clue is in the name—it is not on the coast—we have seen in the past 10 years an extremely high rate of flooding. In 2020, 200 houses were flooded with sewage; two months ago, 100 houses in Attleborough were affected . This is getting worse and worse. It is partly climate change, yes, but also house dumping and inappropriate investment in infrastructure. Does he agree that, as well as a national strategy, we need to ensure that in such counties, where 38 agencies have responsibility, somebody has to be held to account to avoid the flooding of our constituents’ houses?

My hon. Friend is right, and makes a good point I will touch on. Although some flooding is occasionally inevitable, we can take action to avoid some of the worst excesses. Since 2007, a number of schemes have been implemented in my area, at Deerhurst, Longlevens and Westbury, and some minor improvements have been made elsewhere, but we were flooded again a few weeks ago. People in Sandhurst and Tewkesbury itself suffered when their homes were flooded. People in those areas feel that more could have been done to prevent the effects of heavy rainfall.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, in places where farmland regularly floods, there is a case for saying that farmers should be paid for storing water on behalf of the state?

Yes. My right hon. Friend has anticipated a point that I am about to make, so I thank him for that intervention.

As I said, schemes have been put in place and grants have been made available to people who have been flooded—homeowners, businesses and farmers—and that is welcome, as is the further compensation that some people can claim. Claiming tends to be a rather cumbersome exercise, however, with professional help required to access it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury on securing this important debate. Flood victims across the country have been affected by Storm Henk, but none more so than people in Frome in my constituency. So far, they have been unable to access some of the property flood resilience repair grants, or to floodproof their homes and businesses. Does he agree that the Government must urgently provide access to that scheme so that constituents such as mine can make their properties more resilient against floods?

I entirely agree. That is a very good point. Making it available is one thing; enabling people to access it is something else. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member; he is making an excellent speech. I want to quickly refer to businesses in my constituency, many of which have not been able to trade for around four months because of the need to dry out after the flooding. Does he agree that, where businesses are affected, there should be an immediate suspension of all the business rates that they are due to pay? Does he also agree that we need clarity around the Bellwin scheme to make sure that it is not based on the number of businesses that flood but is for every single business that floods?

Absolutely. That is right. Business rates are one of those strange things; businesses pay without having made a profit. It is an unusual tax, so I certainly think that a lot of thought should be given to that. I also agree that businesses have to be looked at individually, as households should be looked at individually.

When flooding looks likely, many people who are registered are warned about the problems that are coming, so that they can make preparations, if possible. One of the actions they can take is to place sandbags around their properties. Sandbags are usually available from the local council, but sometimes there is an inadequate supply; the bags might not be filled with sand when people pick them up, so people have to effectively construct their own protective sandbags. The problem with that is that time is of the essence, and not everybody has the capability to do that—old people and vulnerable people, for example, are unable to do that for themselves—so they require help.

Unfortunately, many of those who have been flooded feel somewhat left on their own to fight against nature. They do not feel that everything that could be done has been done; they understand that they live in flood-risk areas, but they would like to receive a little more help. Of course, the Government and the Environment Agency have plans in place to help, and while macro-strategies are fine and necessary, micromanagement is sometimes needed so that households do not feel left out or ignored. We have the Environment Agency, the borough councils, the county councils and various other organisations that have been referred to, but perhaps we need a clearer steer on who is responsible for what.

I mentioned that there is a certain inevitability that flooding will take place in some areas, but in my area, it is felt that we make things much worse through excessive building. As I said, Tewkesbury town sits at the confluence of two rivers, and other rivers are nearby, so the water table is quite often very high, which makes flooding more likely. The more fields that are there for the water to rest on, the less likely it is that homes and business will be flooded. Conversely, when those fields are built on, the water has fewer places to go and to rest. In other words, fields are prevented from doing their job by being built on, yet I am informed that Tewkesbury Borough Council—in an area that floods so badly—is the fastest growing area of England outside London for development. In fact, in recent years, my constituency has had four times the constituency average for house building. That is not 10% or 15% as much; it is four times as much. While I am pleased to see businesses expanding and more people coming to live in the area, and while I recognise the need for housing, I wonder whether we can cope with all that growth in one area. Flooding around the town of Tewkesbury, and at Sandhurst, Longford and other areas, would tend to suggest that the problem has been made worse by the building that has taken place.

My hon. Friend is referring to exactly the situation in my constituency, where there has been a very high level of new build over recent years, so we have seen increasing flooding. In particular, a constituent of mine who lives adjacent to a new build seems unable to prove exactly why he is suffering that flooding, and yet this new build has occurred. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely critical that a local authority, particularly one that has granted permission for that new build, should have clearer responsibilities as the lead local flood authority to help constituents in that distressing situation to resolve the problem?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am very glad she made that point—there certainly should be that responsibility for the infrastructure. Building is sometimes allowed on appeal, which makes it even worse; where is the line of responsibility then? The Environment Agency has responsibility for drawing up maps and identifying flood plains, but that system is not working and has not worked for a long time, mainly because the system does not take water displacement into account. In other words, it is not just about whether the new houses that are being built flood, but whether building on those fields will cause other properties to flood. As well as deploying property flood resilience measures, which we should, there should be a detailed consideration of whether sustainable urban drainage systems, for example, work, and if they do, at what threshold they should become mandatory for developers.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He quite rightly talked about responsibility being a focal point. In relation to flood defence work and preparation in Havant, we benefit from the work of Coastal Partners, which is a regional body supported by local councils and funded by the Environment Agency, among others. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Minister and the Government to continue their support for bodies such as Coastal Partners, because they provide a regional focus for flood defence and protection work?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point that ties in with what everybody is saying. The fact that there have been so many interventions shows what an important subject this is.

It is very appropriate that this debate is led by my distinguished neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), whose constituency has consistently suffered worst in every major flood for some time. He is making a strong case for responsibility for flooding, and of course he and I know that the protections since 2007—the Mythe waterways, the Walham substation and the Horsbere Brook flooding programme, all of which are in his constituency but on the edge of mine—have made a huge difference.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are some improvements on Alney Island, which is in my constituency but close to his, that the flooding Minister and the Environment Agency agreed to, particularly fixing leaks in the flood wall and extending its height? Does he also agree that the environment Minister here today, who helped to create the Severn partnership some years ago with my hon. Friend and me, could encourage the flooding Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), to meet all of the 40 or so MPs of the Severn partnership as soon as possible to consider the creation of a new reservoir in the Welsh hills?

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes several good points. I am sure that the Minister has heard that and we can take up those issues. This issue is not going to go away. If anything, it is going to get more prevalent. Above all, we need to rethink how we identify areas that constitute not just flood plain but flood risk, with particular reference not only to the proposed new properties but to existing ones. In those areas, we should avoid any further development.

We then come to the problem of water management. At the end of 2022, some people in my area had their Christmas completely ruined by failures in the drainage systems, which resulted in raw sewage re-entering their houses. Not only were their houses damaged by these events, but people had to move out of their homes while they were being repaired over the Christmas period. In some cases, pumping stations had failed and homeowners had to pay the price of that failure.

We need to have a clear policy in place with regard to new buildings. Should they be able to tap into existing drainage systems, or should there be a threshold beyond which they need to ensure that extra drainage capacity is in place before building commences? That is a point that I raised with the then Prime Minister in 2021-22. It is not just about large-scale developments; sometimes building an extra house here or there can, over time, cause problems for others in the area. Making sure that watercourses are clear obviously helps to reduce the risk of flooding. Councils have a responsibility to ensure that riparian owners carry out the correct amount of work, but this is not always the case.

That takes us to the question of river dredging—an issue that I raised in the main Chamber recently, when my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said that he would look into the matter. I understand that dredging has taken place in the Somerset levels and has been a success. I do not intend to pretend that I am an expert on dredging—I am not at all—but it seems logical that if a river can contain more water without bursting its banks, surely that has to be helpful in avoiding flooding.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does he agree that it is really important that the Department—I am grateful that the Environment Minister is in her place—understands that rivers’ principal function is to drain water to the sea, and that our ditches’ and watercourses’ principal function is to do that? At times in Norfolk, it is beginning to feel as though the environmental agencies are more concerned with keeping them full of mud and plants than making sure that they fulfil their primary purpose, leaving constituents—farmers and people with sewage in their houses—to pay the price. We need to remember that drainage is about drainage, first and foremost.

Absolutely. That is why rivers run to the sea. It is a very good point.

One of the arguments made against dredging—I am afraid it is on the Government’s website—is that clearing one part of a river just pushes the water downstream, but the logical conclusion to that argument would be to say that we should never place flood defences anywhere, which we are obviously not going to say. Rather, it is one good reason that we need both national and local approaches to the problem. For example, looking at the River Severn as a whole, we might come to the conclusion that the whole river needs dredging so that the water can be moved out to the sea as quickly as possible, as my hon. Friend suggests. I know that dredging is controversial, but we need to have a conversation about its benefits, and a proper analysis carried out by the Government and the Environment Agency.

Of course, it is not just buildings that flood at times of heavy rainfall, but roads. In the recent floods, three of the four main roads that serve the town of Tewkesbury were closed, leaving just one to cope with the traffic. Further down the A38, towards Gloucester, the road was closed, causing further inconvenience to motorists and bus passengers. These roads have been closed a number of times in the past, so it is no surprise that they were closed again. Perhaps the only surprise is that little or nothing has been done to protect the roads, so we need to consider what further steps we can take to avoid road closures in the future.

The hon. Gentleman has made some excellent points. In my constituency, which, like his, floods frequently, people are cut off for days on end. Even when their houses are dry, they are unable to get about, do their business or get to work. People walk across fields in the middle of the night to find their cars. Does he agree that having a plan from the council to make sure that people can move around safely when there is flooding is so important for resilience?

Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is important that we are able to do that, for all sorts of reasons.

Farms also flood. Although there is compensation for farmers for non-insured damage, perhaps we could, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said, consider expanding the schemes to encourage farmers to do more to help contain the water on their land in order to avoid flooding causing damage to others. That could be part of the environmental land management scheme, which they are currently being encouraged to take up.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way again. He has already mentioned that Somerset is home to a large number of wetlands and, indeed, the levels. That can help communities affected by floods, by creating temporary storage areas that slow the flow of floodwater. Does he agree that we should be supporting the engineering of those types of management defences to help aid communities and boost flood resilience?

That is certainly is what we should do. I ask the hon. Member’s forgiveness for not going into her point in more detail, as I will have to wind up in just a minute.

In closing, I will say clearly and loudly that Tewkesbury is well and truly open for business. We are pleased to welcome visitors, but we need to take steps that will help to prevent people’s homes flooding in future and roads being closed. I have outlined a few thoughts and suggestions, and I hope the Minister and the Government will take them seriously and consider ways in which they can be implemented.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for calling such an important debate. My constituency of Tamworth has a long history of flooding, but Storm Henk was the third most serious incident in the area. Tamworth has 8.8 km of linear flood defences made up of walls, embankments and other structures, such as outfalls and penstocks. As it stands, 3 km of those defences are from the 1960s and require improvement as they do not meet the design standard of today.

The Environment Agency estimates that 2,205 residential properties in the area are at risk, as well as a significant number of non-residential properties, like the Ventura retail park. I spoke with the Environment Agency about flood defences and the fact that there is a need for increased funding. It is currently putting together a business case, and I hope that areas such as mine, which are at higher risk and which may get worse due to climate change, are given their due consideration and the protections they need. We need to protect homes and businesses in our constituencies with short, mid and long-term preparations for flooding.

Next month, I will host a flooding summit with key stakeholders to review the ways that organisations currently work together and respond to flooding incidents, and to collaboratively explore what lessons we have learned, plans for better protection against future incidents and the practical solutions that can be put in place now. On a broader level, Labour has laid out plans for a flood resilience taskforce to improve joined-up thinking and communication. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have similar plans to look at ways in which community groups, local residents and businesses can link up with those larger authorities and those with responsibilities, such as the Environment Agency, to collaboratively work together at a local and national level, and outline how we can respond in order to live with flooding and learn how to deal with it better in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing the debate. Given this is a short debate, the number of interventions truly demonstrates how important the matter is; so many hon. Members are standing up for their constituents. I was the flooding Minister and worked closely with almost everyone in this room to make sure that we are developing a nation that is resilient to this ever-changing demand because of our climate. I am no longer the floods Minister; that is the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who I am standing in for during this debate—I will certainly pass on some messages to him.

I clearly sympathise with anyone who has ever been flooded, going back 17 years in the Tewkesbury area. Coming from Somerset, I am well-versed in flooding, and the angst and hardship it can cause. As a number of hon. Members have touched on, we are seeing more extreme weather. We have had a whole succession of storms, with Storm Babet, Storm Ciarán and Storm Henk since October, bringing into focus the fact that about 4,400 or so properties were flooded. But we must remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) pointed out, almost a quarter of a million properties were protected in those areas that sadly saw flooding. That is the intention behind what the Government are doing with their floods policy.

We have a very strong policy statement to make this nation more resilient, with 40 actions and five ambitious policies stemming from that. Indeed, we have doubled the flooding budget from that of the first tranche to £5.2 billion in this six-year spending round—and that covers coastal erosion as well.

In Norfolk certainly, the internal drainage boards are the most expert bodies at handling drainage. Could I make the gentle suggestion that we pay for them through some of the Environment Agency’s substantial funding, rather than through council surcharges, which are very stretched?

The drainage boards play a very important role in all of this. They play an important role in many cases, including the provision of nature-based solutions and regulating water levels, as was touched on earlier.

We have allocated a whole raft of funds to help. We announced the frequently flooded allowance, which I really pushed as the floods Minister. That has enabled a whole range of projects that previously did not qualify for floods funding to get off the ground. Because of that fund, we have finally seen spades in the ground in Toronto Close—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who sent me a picture just yesterday—and a whole range of other colleagues have got projects off the ground.

We have got our natural flood management programme running, because that is another way of managing the water, as well as the £200 million coastal innovation fund. We also have specific pathway projects, one of which is working in the Severn area, to look at more adaptive ways of coping with flooding in the future, which touch on many areas mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury.

I hope everyone is aware that we have listened to the issues relating to flooded farmland; we have had comments about Yorkshire in particular. On 4 January, new actions were introduced under the environmental land management scheme, particularly with regard to grassland management and arable land management for flood resilience, as well as water storage on farms—with decent payments. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury to have a look at that, because we have been listening to our farmers.

We have also listened regarding the issue of sustainable urban drainage, which has been one of my pet subjects since I have been in Parliament. Getting that switched on is in our plan for water, and we are working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to speed up and switch on schedule 3; again, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury touched on that, and it is so important for regulating water in our housing developments.

As I come from Somerset, I know that that has been a much-debated issue since the big floods in 2014. A whole range of management processes have helped to control the flooding in Somerset, and recently we have weathered the storms really well compared with the past. Dredging is only one small part of the answer; the rest involves regulating the water, getting the farmers to clear the ditches—which they can do by law—and slowing the flow on the much wider areas. All those measures are part of how we regulate the water.

Lots of our funds have now been switched on to help people who have recently suffered flooding, and Tewkesbury is included in some of the areas benefiting from Government support—as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury understands. Our property flood resilience measures have helped to insulate 90 properties in his area, and I urge other hon. Members to look at where they could be helpful.

The flood recovery framework has been triggered, and lots of areas are eligible for that support as a result of the recent storms, including in Gloucestershire and areas around the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. The business recovery grant has been triggered, as has the whole flood recovery framework, which includes discounts for business.

I have had to speed up, but my message is that this Government take flooding really seriously. We have been very creative in listening to people, and with regard to those adaptive pathways, including that Severn valley partnership. I will pass on the message to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, asking him to meet with all the hard-working MPs up and down the Severn valley to make sure we have got the system right. We have made really good progress up and down the Severn and the River Avon, but that is not to say that there is not more to do, because we are facing climate change.

Question put and agreed to.