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Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what immediate action they are taking in the light of the warnings of further flooding.

My Lords, I am sure that the House extends its sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives in the current floods. We are also mindful of the sheer devastation to people’s lives and pay tribute to the emergency services.

The Environment Agency, the emergency services, local authorities and other relevant organisations remain on high alert for further flooding. The Environment Agency’s flood forecasting and warning systems are in place, ready to respond to further heavy rainfall. Military assistance remains available for deployment as necessary.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for those reassurances. We on these Benches join him in his condolences to the bereaved and those whose homes have been flooded. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have now said that they agree with the National Audit Office that more resources need to be put into flood defence and that budgets need to be raised in real terms? Secondly, what efforts do the Government think they can make to bring forward sustainable drainage systems which would mean that the waters, instead of flooding down into towns, channelled by concrete and tarmac into people’s homes, stayed far further up the river system, in the fields and woodlands where they belong? Does the Minister think that the need to avoid building on flood plains must now be taken far more seriously?

My Lords, for the information of the noble Baroness and the House, the Public Accounts Committee is, at exactly 3.30 pm, starting its evidence session with the Environment Agency on its report Building and Maintaining River and Coastal Flood Defences in England, published a few days ago. A lot of the detailed issues will therefore be raised there. I am in no position to do that today.

In the past 18 months or so, the Environment Agency has become a statutory consultee on building and development on flood plains. That is an important innovation. The Thames Gateway is often used as an example but, contrary to popular belief, all the planning and building there is in urban areas, not on the river banks.

There has been an unprecedented amount of capital expenditure on flood defences in the past 10 years. We want that to continue. For the avoidance of any other questions, there was no cut to the Environment Agency’s capital flood defence programme. But of course there is a huge amount of work to do with the 60 to 70 main river catchment areas in this country to ensure that adequate preparation is made for exceptional rainfall.

My Lords, I remind the House that, as the Minister mentioned, exceptional rainfall is not unusual in this country. One only has to think of the flooding in the south-east six or seven years ago, or in Boscastle more recently, to realise that this is not uncommon. I am therefore confident that it is a factor considered by everybody concerned with emergency planning across the country. That said, I pay tribute to those who have had to deal with this emergency over the past 48 hours; it is on a wider scale than those earlier events. I sympathise with them in their need to remain on standby because the alert is continuing. However, people should be aware that rainfall does not very often continue to fall in the same place. Other areas may well be affected.

I welcome the application of the Belwin rules, which will cover exceptional expenditure by local authorities. However, I ask the Minister whether there are flexible financial arrangements in place for other government services directly involved in this instance. Of course, the high cost of this flooding will initially be borne by individuals and businesses. Do the Government have discussions under way with banks and other financial institutions to ensure sympathetic treatment for short-term funding requests, which will be essential if communities are to recover in a reasonably short timescale? Will they get involved in discussions with insurance companies—which will of course become involved—to try to ensure that when premium rises come through, as they surely must after this event, they are contained to that which is essential to cover additional, proper costs?

My Lords, it has been normal for the department to have discussions with the Association of British Insurers—this has been raised before in the House—on our programme for flood defences. That will continue. So far as other departments are concerned, the Belwin formula is demand-led and kicks in within one month of the event. It only covers local authorities. I understand that this afternoon the civil contingencies office is taking stock across all departments in Whitehall. That will naturally include departments that will have more detailed contact with the insurance industry.

My Lords, assuming that the Environment Agency does not depend entirely on the weather forecast to work out what to react to, what mechanisms does it have in place to assess and monitor flood risk?

My Lords, in some ways the Environment Agency is not an emergency service such as the rescue services, the police, the ambulance service, the local authorities or utilities engineers. It has a key role; it is not simply reactive. I am told that virtually all the main rivers in this country are equipped with gauges. They are all looked at by telemetry to keep track of what is happening at any time of any day and to give accurate warning. Many rivers have sluices and gates. As we meet now, engineers are actively managing water flow in the main rivers to hold it back or divert it to ease pressure. The Environment Agency has a key role in monitoring what is going on and is not simply the arbiter of a weather forecast that may or may not be accurate.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he referred specifically to the capital budget of the Environment Agency not being cut? Can he reassure the House that other parts of the Environment Agency’s budget have not been cut and that its budget for the current year, particularly for maintenance costs, has not been reduced?

My Lords, I can confirm the latter part of that question. There was a £15 million adjustment to the Environment Agency’s budget last year as part of Defra’s £200 million budgetary adjustment. None of that affected capital flood defences. Of the £15 million, some £9 million affected maintenance. General administration and other matters were also affected. I have been assured that none of that would have changed anything that has happened in the past few days. That £15 million was put back for this year; hence, I can be positive about the second part of the question.

My Lords, as we all know in this House, I am sure, the flooding is largely caused by the acres of concrete laid over many years and the removal of flood plains. Will the noble Lord assure us that, with the thrust for new house building, involving 2,000 houses or more in some places, removing flood plains and increasing the likelihood of floods by laying acres of concrete will be stopped?

My Lords, this country is desperately short of new homes. I fully agree that we have to get them built in the right place. With modern technology, things such as permeable pavements must be part of the infrastructure. All the water authorities must have a 25-year plan. I have already said that, like the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency is now a statutory consultee on large-scale developments, so it can cause them to be modified. That is important. People build on flood plains at their peril.

A lot of our old industrial sites are affected. The valley in Sheffield is very narrow and not normally prone to flooding. Old industrial factories were built right up to the river bank. This is a difficult issue which must be tackled sensibly. It is not on simply to say that there cannot be any more building anywhere or to stop the house-building programme. We have to use our land to the best effect and use modern technology so that houses do not use as much water. It is fundamental that we have good drainage systems so that water flows away from urban areas. That means that even supermarket car parks should be permeable rather than having large areas of tarmac.