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Volume 694: debated on Monday 23 July 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement currently being made by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the serious flooding that occurred over the weekend.

“A band of rain swept across central and southern England on Friday, developing into intense rainstorms. In 24 hours, up to 160 millimetres—six and a half inches—of rain fell. With already saturated ground, this rapidly entered rivers and drainage systems, overwhelming them.

“Transport was severely disrupted, with the M5 and M50 affected and train services unable to run. Many local roads in flood-hit areas remain closed and the public are advised not to travel in the worst hit areas.

“The most serious flooding has been experienced across central England, and in particular in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I must emphasise that this emergency is far from over and further flooding is very likely as the Thames and the Severn fill with flood waters from within their catchments.

“There are currently eight severe flood warnings in place, covering the Severn, the Thames and the Great Ouse in Bedford. Fifty other flood warnings are in place across England and Wales.

“We believe that up to 10,000 homes have been or could be flooded. Our thoughts are, of course, with all those whose lives have been so badly affected by the floods. In addition, up to 150,000 properties in the area including Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Cheltenham have lost, or risk losing, mains water following flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury. This loss of water supply is serious and we do not expect houses to have service restored for some days. Severn Trent, the water company, is making provision for some 900 bowsers to be deployed and refilled by tankers, for those people without mains water. The company reports that about 240 bowsers are already in place and priority is being given to hospitals and vulnerable customers.

“Precautionary notices to boil water have also been issued in Sutton, Surrey, following rain water getting into treated water storage. Electricity supply is also a concern. A number of electricity sub-stations have been affected by flood water, and about 45,000 properties have lost power, including at Castle Mead and Tewkesbury. A major National Grid switching station at Walham, Gloucester, remains under threat, which could result in 200,000 additional properties or more losing their supply. This would have a knock-on effect on water supplies.

“Yesterday evening, Armed Forces personnel were drafted in to help fire service and Environment Agency staff to erect a kilometre-long temporary barrier around the site and to start pumping out 18 inches of flood water behind the barrier. So far, these defences are holding but the water is still rising, so it is touch and go. If it does flood, the National Grid will be used as far as possible, but properties in the affected area will lose power. Contingency planning is under way to ensure continuity of essential services and supplies.

“Last night, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of COBRA and today he visited Gloucester. Other ministerial colleagues and I have also been to see the problems first hand, in my case visiting Worcester, Evesham and Gloucester yesterday.

“I am sure the whole House will wish to thank the emergency services, the Armed Forces, staff from the Environment Agency, local councils and the utilities, and others for the way in which they have worked together in implementing the emergency plans. I would also like to thank local communities for their huge effort in helping each other.

“Because this emergency continues, I would ask the public to listen out for flood warnings, particularly on local radio stations; to contact the Environment Agency floodline on 0845 9881188; to respond to advice about evacuation; and to look out for neighbours and anyone who may be vulnerable as a result of flooding, or loss of power and/or the water supply. People should not go into flood water and children should certainly not play in it. Even six inches of fast moving water can knock people off their feet, and the water will often be polluted or hide dangers.

“As the waters recede, the clear-up will begin. The revised Bellwin rules will assist local authorities in the areas affected to cover the immediate costs of dealing with the flooding and its aftermath, and the Government will now look at the support required for these areas. We will also increase funding for flood defences to £800 million by 2010-11, as I informed the House on 2 July.

“Finally, the review which I have set up to learn the lessons from the floods of this summer will, of course, look at what has happened over the past three days. I have decided that I will ask an independent person to oversee the review. I will keep the House informed of developments”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and join him in thanking all those who help to try to sort the problem out; the professionals in whatever capacity, or the volunteers trying to help others in dreadful circumstances. It is awful to have one’s own home invaded, but of course a lot of businesses have been affected as well.

We welcome the Prime Minister’s review but there are some questions that I would like to ask. The Statement is brief. I do not mean that in a derogatory manner; it is as it is because it comes fairly soon after the emergency. The Statement clearly says that the Armed Forces were asked to help “yesterday evening”, which was Sunday. Why were they were not called out earlier? It seems strange that it has taken so long to do that.

Secondly, of the money which is being put forward under the Bellwin rules to help flood defences in the future—some £800 million by 2010-11—how much will be allocated immediately up front? I suspect that most of us hope that a lot of that money will be moved early, rather than waiting to be updated in later years. I presume that the money will go directly to local authorities, but what happens to individual households? Some will have insurance cover, but I am sure the noble Lord will accept that many have not. Again, I should like some clarification of the position because there is nothing in the report on it.

I want to reflect on the position of the Environment Agency. It was featured in a National Audit Office report published in June which noted that only 57 per cent of all flood risk asset systems and 46 per cent of other high-risk systems, such as those protecting urban areas, had achieved their target condition by March of this year, with the potential risk that a flood could occur. What is the Government’s reaction to that, and what pressure have they put on the Environment Agency to put its house in order? I also understand that because of Defra’s financial difficulties earlier in the year, cuts were made to the Environment Agency’s budget. Perhaps the Minister can clarify how much those cuts were worth, and when or if they have been restored. I turn to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who said that the upgrading programme requires £1 billion each year. Can the Minister tell the House where this leaves us currently?

Our deepest sympathy goes to all the affected businesses, individuals and families, many of whom are not in their own homes and will not be for many months. It is a dreadful situation. Floodwater is bad enough, but foul water is quite something else. My heart bleeds for those families because it is not a happy situation. Given that a Defra Minister is repeating the Statement, can he tell us what is the anticipated strategy for providing help to farmers in the affected areas? Many farms have been totally flooded with loss of livestock in addition to ruined crops. Has any thought been given to this issue? Within that, I want to mention the work of the Farming Help Partnership, a voluntary body offering help and support for families in need as quickly as it can.

I come from the East Midlands region, which has not been quite as badly affected as the area around Tewkesbury and the West Midlands, but it has also been hit, particularly in Horncastle and Louth. When the earlier flooding occurred in Hull and north Yorkshire, why did Lincolnshire not receive any financial help when the other two areas did? I hope that in the allocation of moneys to local authorities, it will not be the case that some will be given money while others will get nothing. If no financial help is given to Lincolnshire this time, it will have been hit twice.

Finally, I turn to the whole question of insurance cover. Many households have insurance cover for flooding, but a good number do not. Is the Minister in a position to tell the House how individual householders should go about seeking help? Will it come only from the Bellwin scheme or will the Government be making emergency money available to help them in the short term?

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for pointing out that unfortunately the situation is ongoing. Two aspects of it are particularly worrying: first, dirty water is all around and there are shortages of fresh water, which should be made available to all households; secondly, I understand that part of the electricity supply has already been lost and more may well be disrupted if the water cannot be pumped out of one of the substations. Those are my specific concerns.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in another place, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her remarks and questions. I agree with virtually everything she has said, and would particularly like to register from these Benches our profound sympathy for the families, companies, individuals and farmers who are suffering from this flooding. Everyone is going through an awful time in those localities. If we are spared this flooding disaster personally, it is easy just to read about it in the papers and leave it at that, but it is a horrendous personal problem for people and we feel very deeply about the situation. This is the fourth Statement in recent times on flooding problems. It is the first time that it has been repeated in the Lords and we particularly welcome that. This will inevitably be an ongoing matter.

Obviously it sounds trite if one starts to criticise the Government for weather conditions—that would be most unfair; it is easier to criticise them for many of their domestic policies on a proper basis—but in this case we have to register our great concern about the ongoing problems which seem to be arising. The obvious climatic differences from previous occasions need to be looked at, but of real concern here is the way in which the Government have dealt with these things on past occasions. It gives me no pleasure to say this but it has to be said: is the Minister ready to deal seriously with these problems and what are the Government going to do in their review?

It took the Government a long time to react to previous warnings, statements made by other people and ecological and weather experts in this country and elsewhere, and we can see the effects now in this country of the dire budget cuts that have taken place and the difficulties that they are causing to people. I have to say, again with regret, that the Government have failed to provide adequately for flood prevention, despite warnings. They were warned on a number of occasions that there would be serious flood risks in the north, particularly, and maybe elsewhere. This time the floods seem to be more in central and southern England. Our fellow citizens in the north suffered very grievously on an earlier occasion and are still suffering from it. Why did not the Government therefore make proper efforts to tackle these matters and to liaise with all the various agencies, including the Environment Agency, to ensure that there was proper co-ordination?

We pay tribute to the community, voluntary and other organisations, and the Armed Forces, particularly, for what they have done in this recent emergency; it has been a magnificent effort. But the Government need to have forethought about these matters, and that was somewhat lacking on previous occasions. Despite the Government’s promises two years ago to give the strategic overview of all flood risks to the Environment Agency, nothing has happened effectively. The responsibility for prevention and protection against continued flooding remains split between councils, water companies and the Environment Agency, all of which operate on different scientific and quasi-scientific assessments of risk.

I am sorry to say that the new Prime Minister must take some responsibility for the Government’s flood failures as he cut the flood defence budget by £14 million last summer; and it was only last month that his previous department asked the agency and the local flood boards to plan for real effective cuts for the next three years. Even after the Yorkshire floods, the Treasury only reluctantly conceded that the defence budget for flooding should be boosted by 2010 while saying very little about the next two years of the spending plans. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked a Private Notice Question on 27 June about the flooding, and that was the catalyst that caused the Government to respond.

While we on these Benches feel disappointed, we thank the Government for the emergency measures they are taking now. We need further drastic action and much more reassurance from the Government in general. I should like a further update, if possible, from the Minister on the Ulley reservoir. What does he intend to do to provide immediate remedial action to help people, particularly those in danger of electricity cuts, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred, and the danger of repeat flooding, about which experts have warned, in these areas during the coming days and weeks?

My Lords, I am grateful for the supportive comments from noble colleagues for the work of the emergency services and others; they are reflected by everyone. I shall do my best to answer the questions but let us get this clear: it is said in the Statement that the situation will get worse today and tomorrow as the rivers rise; anything I say could be overturned within an hour so it is not possible to be specific. There are thousands of people out there working their socks off trying to protect the power stations and the transmission stations, and trying to pump out and get the water treatment plant working as soon as possible. Obviously that is vital. But, at the same time, the weather forecast is not good, the surge has not completely diminished and there are severe flood warnings on the Thames. So things can change dramatically. But I will give a commitment that Parliament will be updated. This is an awkward week, as it is the last one before Recess, but we will do our best to update.

So far as the request for troops is concerned, the noble Baroness must appreciate that the Gold Command structure was set up long ago, and it was at Gold Command’s request that the troops were called in. One has to leave it to the police, who are in overall charge of emergency services. The military liaison officers were present in Gold Command from the beginning, and obviously reacted when a request was made. I cannot be specific about the discussions that took place before that because I do not know, but that system is tried and tested and it works.

I have to knock on the head again the allegations about the Environment Agency budget. The £14 million, out of the roughly £500 million budget, was nothing to do with defence work. That was last year’s budget, and it was replaced in this year’s budget with even more money. That was not a capital programme. No flood defence work was stopped for it. The capital programme—£600 million, from memory—is more than what it was eight or nine years ago, when it was £200 million or so. We have said we will put it up to £800 million. The noble Baroness put that in with the Bellwin rules, but it is nothing to do with those figures; it is the capital flood defence programme that we have already announced for Environment Agency work.

The Bellwin rules were that 85 per cent of the extra expenditure necessary for local authorities is provided. That has been changed to 100 per cent, as the Prime Minister said over the weekend. I cannot be specific about the money that local authorities will get, but clearly we have to review their funding, as was said following the floods in the north when extra money, over and above Bellwin, was made available. The reduction in the Environment Agency budget was for some repair work, but I emphasise that it was £14 million. It would not have made the slightest difference to the current situation, and it was not part of the capital programme for flood defences, which was not cut; indeed, it has been increased over the period of this Government.

Last week, on a visit, the Secretary of State said that he would relax the cross-compliance rules for farmers on request for those who needed to use, for example, set-aside land. We will be actively looking at considering that in relation to the whole of England and will consider how the regulations work and whether there should be any other necessary relaxations to assist farmers. One cannot tell at present what is needed. We know what crops were in the fields and it is true that many will be devastated, some more than others. We will do our best to help farmers, who are very practical people in any event.

I was asked about the co-ordination of flood emergencies. They are co-ordinated, as are other emergencies, by Gold and Silver Commands, led by the police. That system works well. The Government have set out a strategic overview role for the Environment Agency. We have the stated procedures, which we will be reviewing. There is no doubt that there are lessons to be learnt from the past three days, as from three weeks ago.

I regret that I cannot say anything about families and insurance. It is far too early for me to say anything about what has happened in the past three days in that respect. I understand that, in the area that has been flooded in central England, fewer properties have been affected than in the north a few weeks ago and that there is a greater propensity for properties to be insured in that part of the world. I do not have specific figures. I saw some graphs and charts early this morning, but it is too early to say at present.

The floods in central England are, by current calculations, worse than those in 1947. What is more, in 1947 they came in winter when one expects flooding, with the rain and the snow off the hills. Here we are in the middle of summer, when one cannot reasonably expect all this. This was not rain coming off the Welsh hills down into the Severn; it was six and a half inches of rain dropping across central England. London got a taste of it on Friday, but that was nothing like what fell on the rest of the country.

As for warnings, I fully accept what the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, but I can remember standing at this Dispatch Box a few months ago, giving a report about the fact that we had had no rain in April. I was assuring the House that the reservoirs and aquifers were full and that we did not foresee having standpipes. I was got at in the Corridor outside by noble Lords saying, “You’ve really put your head on the block there, sonny. Are you really sure we’ll have enough water?”. Some of the forecasts were of a long, dry, hot summer. With no rain in April, we were thinking there would be serious trouble—and then we end up with the wettest June on record. I fully admit that all kinds of warnings have been given, but with what happened on Friday, no warnings and no amount of work following them would have assisted. I understand that the barrier at Upton upon Severn could not get there; if it had been there, it would have been overwhelmed this time, unlike the last time it was used. I appreciate that that is no comfort to the people in Upton upon Severn.

I mentioned Lincolnshire in the list of counties and we accept that it has been affected. It would be unfair if a county was caught twice and missed out twice; we will take that factor into account.

I am not in a position to go into detail about the National Audit Office report. It was a follow up to the one in 2001; it was checking, and the Public Accounts Committee took advice from the noble Baroness and others. I think that it has yet to report.

The key aspects of the emergency are supplies of clean water and electricity. Your house being flooded is one thing, but no water—in the taps, for the toilets, to wash with—and no electricity is serious. This is of the utmost importance. In the mean time, the companies are supplying water to locations which everyone will know.

I reinforce what was said in the Statement. People should first contact the Environment Agency’s floodline and, above all, they should listen to their local radio station. National radio stations are no use for local information. I was caught on Friday, like a lot of others, and Radio Oxford and Radio Gloucestershire gave me, and all the thousands I was stuck with, massive amounts of good, practical information. That is used by the police to feed information to people so that they can react. People should look in on neighbours they may not have seen, help out with the water situation and give comfort. If the electricity is off, they should make sure that before it is switched on again, things are safe.

There is an emergency out there as I speak, and I regret that I cannot be more informative.

My Lords, I intervene as a former chairman of the National Rivers Authority, the predecessor body to the Environment Agency. As there are photographs of Tewkesbury in practically every newspaper today, I might add that I was married in Tewkesbury Abbey to a Tewkesbury girl.

I join those who have expressed sympathy for everyone who has suffered the appalling disaster of having their homes flooded. But in my view, it is very unwise, even for—perhaps especially for—Members of Parliament rushing to score brownie points with their constituents to criticise public bodies such as the Environment Agency without knowing all the facts. Having had to deal with situations during my time, although not quite as bad as this, I offer my congratulations to the Environment Agency on the sometimes heroic work that it has carried out and the conscientious way in which it has done so. While we may, when we examine its record, find that some mistakes were made, I think its overall performance has been entirely to its credit.

My noble friend Lady Byford spoke about the condition of assets and asked what pressure had been put on the Environment Agency to put its house in order. I am afraid that I would put the question rather differently: what pressure has been put on the Government to put their house in order in funding the Environment Agency, not on the capital budget, to which the noble Lord referred in some detail, but on the maintenance budget? My understanding is that the Environment Agency pressed hard for additional funding for the maintenance of existing facilities.

When people look at the performance of the Environment Agency, they are understandably unaware of the many areas where flooding has been avoided because of the work that has been carried out in constructing schemes. I cite, for example, the Thames, where flooding would have been much worse but for the construction of the project there.

Probably the most important single lesson to come out of this is that you must build neither housing nor infrastructure in the flood plain. That is primarily what we suffer from; we will have more flooding of this kind until that lesson is learnt. As I am being urged to sit down at this point, I may rise to press that point again when we come to the housing Statement that will follow.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, because I can remember when he left the other place to chair the National Rivers Authority. He is quite right that it is unwise to hurry criticism. Plenty of people can be subject to criticism in due course, after we have had a mature look at what has happened. I reinforce his tribute to the water engineers and the electrical engineers, who have worked their socks off anyway, particularly in emergencies. They are the people on whom we rely and they are doing a very good job.

The noble Lord mentioned the maintenance budget. To the best of my knowledge, flooding in less than 1 per cent of areas is as a result of a structural failure of flood defences. Even the NAO found that the flood defences that are in place are maintained to a very high level. There has been structural failure in only about 1 per cent of flooded areas. Those defences in place have worked extremely well, although I accept that there are not enough of them.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his Statement. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is sitting beside me, and I are between us responsible for a fair amount of the flooding, so some people would like to think. However, they happen in our patch. I therefore pay tribute particularly to the others who are not often named. If it were not for volunteers, our society would collapse at times like this. I think of St John Ambulance, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and so on. It is important that tribute be paid to them, who are helping at this very moment. I have just come from the headquarters of the St John Ambulance and there is hardly anybody there, because they have all shot off to do what they can.

Perhaps I may make a point from three weeks’ experience of the flooding. We are beginning to pick up some of the pieces in Sheffield and look towards what might happen in the future. On Friday evening of this week, it will be the Forfeit Feast in Sheffield, where the Master Cutler hosts a reception and a great feast for the Lord Mayor of London and others. The Master Cutler has a small business, built in the flood plain, but several feet above the record level of any flood damage in the history of Sheffield. He has lost in his small business all his 150 motors, which have to be dismantled and dried out. He does not know when he will get back in business; the likelihood is that he will not. Therefore, his small business and many others will go under. Sheffield Forgemasters has lost £20 million already through lost business. Coupled with the strength of the pound many manufacturers in our part of the world will perhaps be permanently damaged by what has happened in the past few weeks. It is my hope that, in these emergencies, the Government will think well enough in advance about what might happen.

My Lords, before we go any further, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the Companion tells us:

“Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions from all quarters of the House are allowed, statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate”.

I make that point because I think that a considerable number of Peers would like to make a contribution.

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for emphasising the work of the third sector and others who are not part of the third sector but are just good neighbours. Half of Gloucestershire turned up on Friday night, well past midnight, at the school—I cannot remember its name—at Junction 9 of the M5. It had all its doors open and people were bringing clothes and bedding; there were not many chairs but the place was warm and dry. The motorway was jammed and it was dark, so you could not see what was happening. But there has been a massive contribution from the sectors. I cannot comment on businesses. Some of them are insured and some are not; some will be covered and some will not; some of them have past experience and some have not. These issues must be reviewed and we must learn the lessons.

My Lords, I shall follow the injunction of my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting. I declare an interest as a resident of the city of Worcester and a member of Worcestershire County Cricket Club, which will sadly not be playing again at Worcester this season.

I have two points. First, will the Minister extend his very welcome comments about the devotion of the emergency services to those public servants such as the employees of county councils, who have worked almost without break for the whole weekend? I have heard accounts this afternoon of county council employees working for 36 hours continuously to deal with the crisis in Worcestershire and of the staff of a special school who stayed with their pupils through the night because there was no other way in which to look after them.

When we come to review the lessons from this awful weekend, could somebody please look at the flood defences on the River Severn, particularly upstream? This is not the first time that the Severn has flooded and it is certainly not the first time that Worcestershire cricket ground has flooded, but it is the first time that we have had anything on the scale that we have seen over this weekend. Could some form of permanent barrier be put in place to deal with this sort of situation in future?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for emphasising the work of local government staff. It is true that local government probably knows more about its areas than any other body—although, when one flies over those areas or looks at the pictures in the papers, one cannot quite see the boundaries of one authority and another because it is all covered in water. But it is true—people did not go home but stayed at their posts over the weekend to do their public duty. If there is an interest to be declared in this regard, I should say that I pay my council tax to Tewkesbury Borough Council.

My Lords, has anything been done to get huge supplies of bottled water to the area? That was not mentioned in the Statement, but there was a report on the radio this morning that none of the supermarkets or the other shops in the area had any supplies of bottled water and that all their supplies had been, if not purloined, then taken up. I thought it very ironic, when I walked past Westminster Tube station and alongside Tesco, to see that there were whole windows of bottled water. Has something been done about transferring supplies to that area?

My Lords, I shall check on this for the noble Baroness, but nobody has indicated any shortage of supply of bottled water. Shops may have run out, but I refer to water authorities getting water to the areas. What is in the supermarkets is a different issue. The bowsers will be filled by the tankers, and there are supplies from the water authorities, as I understand it.

My Lords, if the flooding continues, the Thames estuary will become vulnerable if there is a particularly high spring tide. Has any work been done on anticipating that, apart from listening to local radio?

My Lords, I am just hoping that the barrier will work, as it is the one flood defence that we have. It is old and it is sinking and it does more work than was planned, so we must look at that for the future. The noble Viscount is quite right: the Thames is going to rise. The surge of the Thames at various locations is yet to come.