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Flooding: Pitt Report

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2008

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

“Mr Speaker, Sir Michael Pitt has today published his final report on last summer’s flooding. I thank Sir Michael and his team for the professional way in which they have gone about their work of identifying the lessons to be learnt. I also welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee report to which the Government are responding today.

“This month marks the first anniversary of the start of the floods. The lives of many people and businesses were turned upside down and the costs, human and financial, were considerable. Our thoughts will, above all, be with the families of those who lost loved ones, as well as with communities still trying to recover. I am sure that the House will wish to thank all those who have worked so hard to help those affected over the past 12 months and I pay tribute to the contribution of my honourable friend the Floods Recovery Minister.

“As Sir Michael says, ‘Last summer’s flooding was exceptional’. While we recognise both the huge emergency effort at the time and the investment over many years in flood defences, without which the effects would have been much worse, I said to the House last year that we would learn the lessons.

“Sir Michael’s report sets out more than 90 recommendations, including: establishing the right legislative framework to tackle flooding; clarifying who is responsible for what; ensuring that the public have all the information and guidance that they need; working with essential services to assess risk and protect critical infrastructure; and having a clear recovery plan right from the start of any major emergency.

“I welcome Sir Michael’s report and the direction that it sets. We will prepare a detailed response, with a prioritised action plan, in the autumn. We have already taken a number of steps that respond to Sir Michael’s findings and I wish to report these to the House.

“The Government have made available up to £88 million, with a further £31 million to come, to help local authorities to assist those in greatest need, as well as to repair infrastructure and to help schools and businesses to get going again. A lot has been achieved—most of those affected are now back in their homes—and we will continue to work with local authorities and the insurance industry to help the rest to return as soon as possible.

“Flood warnings save lives. Since last June, over 73,000 more people have registered with the Environment Agency flood warning system, and the agency will now automatically register properties to receive flood warnings where telephone numbers are publicly available. The agency has also improved its advice to the public and run flood awareness campaigns and it is working with the Met Office to improve the quality of flood warnings. The agency has spent £5 million on repairing defences damaged last summer. Current improvement schemes include a £5.9 million project refurbishing the Hull barrier and remedial works to culverts in Gloucester.

“As I informed the House last week, I have decided that the Environment Agency will now take on a new strategic overview role in England for managing flood risk, from whatever source, and that local authorities will take responsibility for surface water management, including surface water management plans, under the agency’s overview. We will now sort out the detailed arrangements for this, drawing on responses to the Future Water consultation and the results of the 15 pilot projects on urban drainage, the results of which we are publishing today.

“On critical infrastructure, electricity and water providers are responsible for ensuring continuity of supply. The electricity industry has identified just over 1,000 grid and primary sites that are in flood zones and is working with the Environment Agency to see which of these might need additional protection. Every water company is reviewing how its critical assets may be at risk from flooding in order to prioritise investment plans. This information will be used as the basis of a planned nationwide programme to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure, which the Government will produce later this year. Most local resilience forums have now been briefed on critical infrastructure in their area, and the remainder will be done by the end of August.

“On reservoir safety, we will now go ahead to prepare flood maps for reservoirs coming under the Reservoirs Act and ensure that, where they are not already available, they are provided to local emergency planners before the end of 2009. They will decide the best way to ensure that communities are informed. We will also modernise reservoir safety legislation.

“The Government will produce an outline for the national flood emergency framework by the end of July, with a draft for consultation by the end of the year. This will be part of a major programme to improve preparedness for severe flooding. We will bring forward a draft floods and water Bill in the next Session. This will enable us to respond to many of Sir Michael’s recommendations.

“The Government are increasing investment in flood risk management from £650 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. The Environment Agency’s defences protected 100,000 properties from flooding last year and this new investment will protect a further 145,000 homes across the country. We are developing with the Environment Agency a long-term investment strategy for flood defence.

“We have set aside £34.5 million for priorities identified in Sir Michael’s report. We will, of course, need to consider the detailed recommendations and their funding with local authorities and other partners before making a final allocation but, in order to make progress, I am announcing today that at least £5 million will be made available to develop surface water management plans in the highest priority areas and at least £1 million to improve reservoir safety, specifically for inundation mapping. I have also set aside an initial £250,000 to plan a major national floods exercise to test the new structures and arrangements being put in place to ensure that we are better prepared in future.

“We must recognise that we can never eliminate the risk of flooding, particularly as climate change takes hold, but all of us—government, water and electricity providers, local communities and individuals—must take flood risk seriously and be as prepared as we can be to deal with it. Sir Michael’s report will help us all to do this. I know that he will be taking a close interest in its implementation and I will invite him to attend Cabinet committee discussions on progress. I will report further to the House in the autumn with a detailed action plan”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in another place. It rightly welcomes the report of Sir Michael Pitt and his team. The Opposition also praise the quality of the report they have produced.

Since December, we have had the benefit of Sir Michael’s interim report, on which this final report is based. We have in addition to this full report a useful executive summary, which, if not enabling noble Lords to be fully comprehensive of the final detail of the report, enables us to be informed of its principal recommendations.

The Minister will also remember the debates we had recently on the initiative of my noble friend Lord Rotherwick, who is not in his place this evening. Since that time, I experienced, only a month ago, the flooding of my home in France. Eight inches of rain fell in four hours. There is nothing like direct experience in politics and it was frightening to see water cascading down the hill, through the garden, utility room and garage and out into the street. Fortunately, we were present and able to ensure that the damage was limited. Yet though the house is tiled throughout, even now it is still sweating out water. It is habitable, but neighbours were not so lucky.

I am therefore more aware than ever of the power of water and the way in which a scene of peace and calm can be turned into a scene of destruction, with landslips, mud, debris, fallen trees and collapsed walls. We were fortunate. However, the experience has made me more aware that many in this country suffering similar exceptional rainfall were not so lucky. It is right, when we consider the report, to remember the many families who still live with the consequences. Others will carry vivid and frightening memories. We can think of the families of those who lost their lives, those whose homes and businesses were wrecked and, as the Statement says, whose world was turned upside down. That will not be forgotten by them, nor should it be forgotten by us.

Some 12 months later, far too many people—11,000, in some 5,000 households—are still not back in their home. Some 2,500 are still living in caravans. I hope that the Minister agrees that insurance companies, local authorities and housing associations should prioritise getting people back into their home. It was the Prime Minister himself who promised to get people back on their feet as quickly as possible.

Many local authorities are still faced with the bill for the clear-up. Although the Government made funds available for this, not all affected authorities were fully compensated for the enormous sums involved. Do the Government have proposals for finding the £50 million by which local authorities find themselves out of pocket, or will the council tax payer pick up the bill?

Sir Michael Pitt made an interim report to enable the Government to act immediately on the 15 recommendations he made. How many of these have the Government implemented? Can the Minister tell us what they are? While we acknowledge that, thanks to the report, it is now clear what needs to be done, the Government need to appreciate the urgency of the situation. They need to demonstrate the determination to act decisively. They were all action when the spotlight was on the Prime Minister at the time, but since the fuss has died down, there has been the usual drag between intention and achievement. When he produced his report in April, Sir Michael was critical that insufficient action had been taken on raising public awareness. The Statement tells us that 73,000 more people have been registered with the Environment Agency’s flood warning scheme. How many does that make in total? How many people do the Government estimate are living in high-risk areas?

The Statement also refers to the £5 million spent by the Environment Agency in the last year in repairing damaged defences. Do the Government believe that that is an adequate response? Did not the Association of British Insurers estimate that the cost of the floods was £3 billion?

Early on, Sir Michael pointed out the confused nature of storm water management. The report makes clear the need for better maintenance of surface water drainage, particularly in urban areas. In some rural areas, highly competent internal drainage boards have maintained a high professionalism. I remind noble Lords of my interests and my dependency on my local IDB for keeping our family home, farm and business dry—no mean task when it all lies at 3 metres, more or less, above mean sea level. However, in many cases, where the need for taking these things seriously is not so self-evident, there has been a long-standing failure to maintain rainwater drainage in a proper fashion. All too often, building and development has been bolted on to an old, already inadequate and poorly maintained system, without sufficient consideration of the consequences.

We look forward to the draft floods and water Bill, but note that it is only a draft Bill. We in the Opposition approve of the opportunity for scrutiny which this provides, but do the Government feel that they can afford the time to wait for this Bill which, in the words of the Statement, will enable us to,

“respond to many of Sir Michael’s recommendations”?

Have they the time to wait for the Bill? Which of the report’s recommendations do the Government believe need urgent action? Are there some that the Government have identified as needing immediate implementation? What, then, is the timetable for action on those recommendations that will be acted upon now, without delay, 12 months on?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. Although we tried very hard, we were totally unprepared for what happened, and we are informed by the Government and government-backed scientists that this is liable to happen again. It is good to hear the Government say that they are learning from what happened, although there is then the caveat of “exceptional circumstances”. I think the general consensus is that such exceptional circumstances are likely to occur again within the next decade, if the scientists have got it right.

Can the Government give us some more assurances? I go slightly further than the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in asking whether a timeframe will be printed for the things that require immediate action? What should be happening locally over the years? Such actions will have to be locally adjusted, but can we have an idea of when these arrangements should be in place?

What is the idea and the structure behind planning regulations for new homes? Flood plains tend to be terribly attractive places for developers, who choose to ignore the fact that water can arrive there periodically. What will we do about ensuring that any new homes reach high standards in terms of both construction and support services? One of the most important things about the Statement was the idea that drainage and power supplies should be able to survive a certain level of inundation.

Do the Government have any idea when they will be able to rehouse all the 5,000 people still living away from their home? That would be a reassuring statistic because it would give us an idea of how seriously the Government take this planning. Can they assure us that it is not a question of just one department’s funding stream being involved and that there will be an effort across government? If any one department is responsible for this level of investment, it could be tempting to take lumps out of it for other projects.

My Lords, if I may, I should like to reply to the two noble Lords who have spoken. I am grateful for their broad welcome for the report and the Government’s response to it. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, indicated, these are very serious issues. The whole House will be sorry to hear of his recent direct experience of how serious this can be. I take only the smallest amount of solace from the fact that it occurred in another country and not the United Kingdom. As he rightly says, it gives one graphic experience of the costs of flooding and the cost in terms of time—people are affected for such a long time before they can go home again.

We have made significant efforts to ensure that as many householders as possible are back in their home. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed—the insurance companies, local authorities and other agencies which have responded intelligently and urgently. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, rightly identified, some people are not back in their home yet, and that represents an anxiety for us all.

The noble Lord will appreciate the figures in the Statement on immediate action taken by the Government in response to this obvious need and the promise of more to come. The additional expenditure that is scheduled for three years’ time is a very significant increase over the present figure. An increase from £650 million to £800 million is not to be disregarded—it is an indication of the extent to which the Government are concerned about flood risk.

The issue that was so painfully obvious from last year’s floods is surface water, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, identified, raises significant issues about necessary controls over the drainage system, which is meant to cope but at the time did not. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, reminded the House, we are to expect that the somewhat extreme conditions last year that caused such dreadful problems on Humberside and in Gloucestershire and the west country may recur. What used to be regarded as exceptional in the face of what we can all recognise as aspects of climate change may necessitate a greater action on behalf of us all.

I want to emphasise in response to the noble Lord that the Government presented early funding on the issue. They gained the promise of substantial extra resources to be available to the local authorities and the Environment Agency. It is an important point that we have made it clear that the Environment Agency has to take the lead role on the issue and ensure that local authorities respond to the very real points made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on the importance of the local authorities’ responsibility with regard to surface water. We must ensure that the Environment Agency looks with greater care to our reservoirs and their safety. That work is a major priority over the summer.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked whether only one department was going to carry the strain. The Department for the Environment will be in the lead. It is through that department that resources will be channelled. I want to give him the reassurance that he will already have recognised—this was made clear last year by the Prime Minister’s response—that this is a matter for the whole Government. I understand his point that it needs co-operation beyond one department, because there are a number of agencies that are obviously concerned. Other departments also have to increase the priority that they attach to the issues.

I am grateful to both noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, referred to a constructive debate that we had recently on the issue, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. I do not have the slightest doubt that the House will make sure that the issue remains at the forefront over the next few months and years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It has been enlightening. He will understand from my rising to my feet too soon my enthusiasm for his proposals. The one thing that worries me—I asked Questions for Written Answer on the matter some months ago—is that despite the Government’s good intentions and the constructiveness of that report we will find that there is a bureaucratic logjam when it comes to the sort of spending that the Minister has talked about and we will find that there is a conflict of interest.

I should like the Minister’s reassurance. I recall that one of the Written Answers I received indicated that local authorities had a statutory requirement to consult the Environment Agency. Will the Minister tell us what that means? Does consultation mean that they have to accept the guidance? We know the conflict and the pressures that occur at the moment in terms of the downturn in the economy. There is also pressure on developers to keep going. There is pressure on local authorities to accommodate developers. The one thing that struck me was that when I asked about whether redress was available to persons who purchased new homes following planning approval by local authorities and if there was flooding, who was responsible, I received a clear indication that the person who buys and lives in the house is the person responsible.

I ask the Minister to clarify that point. Where there is pressure from developers and where the local authority consorts with the Environment Agency, will reasonable attention be paid to a constructive and commonsense approach so that at the end of the day the householder, who is the person about whom we are speaking, has an assurance that the measures being proposed will be effective?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions and points. I can give him some reassurance. Of course decisions taken at local level will go through the usual channels and of course he may complain that that may lead to bureaucratic delay, but it is in the interests of local authorities to ensure that their neighbourhoods are safe. Let me say that they will be under a fairly clear obligation with regard to the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency is now a statutory consultee on planning developments, so the question of the permission that local authorities give to planning applications is a matter in which the Environment Agency will take an interest if the issue of flooding might be a real factor. That means that Ministers can call in major planning applications for consideration if they are advised by the Environment Agency that the risks being entailed may be too great.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I have just managed to obtain a copy from my noble friend on the Front Bench. As the Minister said, the Environment Agency will have a lead role. It has a flood warning system, it is working with the Met Office, and it is repairing defences. It is involved with the electricity industry. It also has to protect the flood defences for another 145,000 homes. Will the Minister enlarge on the role of the Environment Agency in the overall planning of housing? He has just stated that there is a statutory requirement for the Environment Agency to look at plans for housing, but is it true that that is not a statutory requirement for the eco-towns that are going to be built? That is one of the big problems that is causing concern, certainly in parts of the country. For example, in Sussex an eco-town is planned. I declare an interest in that I live not too far away from it. It will not affect me but everyone else is concerned about it. Only last month, when there were flash floods and unusual weather conditions, there was 18 inches of water on the road that will be in the middle of that eco-town. It is close to the coast and there is a real problem.

I have three further questions. First, will the Environment Agency have any say in those sorts of developments, because it would be a case of closing one door and opening another to the floods? Secondly, will the Environment Agency, in playing this leading role, get greater resources in terms of management and taking on the role of other organisations? My recollection is that 12,000 people work for the agency at the moment. Will the situation get out of hand because it is too big to manage? Thirdly, where does the Environment Agency sit with regard to joined-up government in this country?

My Lords, I must generalise about the issue as I am not in a position to identify the particular area to which the noble Baroness referred. The Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee and will follow planning guidance for all new build. I do not know how far plans for the eco-town she mentioned have reached, but I certainly give an assurance that the Environment Agency will play the role I mentioned. That is critical. On the more general points she made, the agency will inevitably need additional resources. That is why the Government are committed to providing them, because the agency is charged with a significant role.

As I indicated in the Statement, the Government have already pledged a programme of increased resources during the next three years, some of which will be for the Environment Agency. I agree with the noble Baroness that one cannot place obligations on any institution without giving it the means of fulfilling them. The Environment Agency has an excellent record and the Government will ensure that that record continues.

My Lords, in the Statement the noble Lord repeated the point that the Government have made available up to £88 million, with a further £31 million to come, to help local authorities and assist those in greatest need. The noble Lord may recall that a few weeks ago he answered my Written Questions on this point. I asked in particular about the money promised from the European Union Solidarity Fund that would be used to defray costs from central government. That amounts to £110 million, compared to the £88 million that the Government have made available so far. Can the Minister provide some explanation of how the money from the Solidarity Fund, which is to be used to defray costs, is related to the budget and the £88 million that is to be expended, as well as to the £31 million to come? At the moment those sums seem to be entirely reliant on the EU Solidarity Fund. I am sure that that cannot be the case. No doubt the Minister will explain that.

My Lords, the Minister would very much like to, but the response to the noble Lord’s Question was fairly detailed and technical. I can say to the House only that that Written Answer is in Hansard. I do not have its details here. It was a very precise Question, but all noble Lords who are interested in it will have seen the reply. I want to assure the noble Lord that when these resources are made available, the obligation on the Government is to ensure that they are spent on the purposes for which they are duly allocated. Therefore, I do not have the slightest doubt that I can offer the noble Lord reassurance on that.

On the main elements of the restoration fund, I have a figure of £30.6 million that has come from HM Treasury. We have been able to release that through a successful European Union Solidarity Fund bid. So we are making progress. It is not the end game yet as the noble Lord will readily appreciate, but I assure him that the Government are all too well aware of the resources that can be obtained, quite properly, from the European Union with regard to issues of this kind. We intend to ensure that we get our full share of that necessary resource.

My Lords, I declare an interest. I am the chairman of an insurance broking organisation and I have been a director of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association. I took part in the debate on flooding and I reinforce the points made by my noble friend Lord Taylor. The insurance industry has acted very quickly; indeed, we have settled claims as quickly as we can. Our difficulty sometimes is that a lot of properties are not insured, and this is where there is perhaps difficulty in obtaining reinstatement. Indeed, the experiences of our clients demonstrate that people suffer from a great deal of anguish. Does the Minister agree that there must be better co-ordination between the Environment Agency and local authorities, because one criticism is that there is not a great deal of that? Can he assure us that there will be a timetable for implementing what has been suggested?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, as I was for his contribution to the debate. The insurance industry responded well to the situation last year. That does not alter the fact that some households are uninsured and there are those who are bound to feel that the loss that they sustained has still not been fully made up. We are all too well aware of the difficulties that people face when their homes undergo flooding. I reiterate the points I made in response to a noble Lord earlier; the Environment Agency has a clear role to play in relation to local authorities. Everyone is crucially aware of the significance of having necessary flood defences and the action that needs to be taken by local authorities. The Environment Agency is in the best possible position to identify those issues and it will be its job to ensure that local authorities comply.

On the insurance issue, we will produce an action plan in the autumn with a timetable on how these matters can be dealt with. I assure the House that although the final report has just been published, the Government had preliminary sight of the position that Mr Pitt was taking, and therefore we have made preparations for full development in the autumn.

My Lords, Sir Michael Pitt should be congratulated on this report. Obviously, none of us has had time to read it all, or even the executive summary, but the list of recommendations seems to cover a lot of areas and there is a lot of common sense in them. I hope that the Government will take them up. The report has 462 pages plus a 43-page executive summary—a total of more than 500 pages. Any unsold copies might come in useful as flood defences in some areas. We are used to getting lots of paper in this place, walking away to our offices with piles of thick documents and having good intentions of spending a lot of time looking at them. I will take this document away to read when I am on holiday this summer, because it is full of extremely interesting and useful stuff. I have dipped into it and it seems to be more readable and interesting than quite a lot of the turgid stuff that we are invited to take away from the Printed Paper Office.

I have just a couple of points to make. First, I welcome what appears to be a theme throughout of partnership between the Environment Agency taking a strategic role at the national and regional level and the vital importance of local authorities, which have the local knowledge and accountability in their areas. From what I have read so far, it does not read as if the Environment Agency is there to ensure that local authorities do this, that or the other; it means that they will work together. Does the Minister agree that that is essential, because local authorities have the local knowledge? To make a detailed point that I made in the debate sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, there is evidence that the Environment Agency is taking responsibility for small streams for too small watercourses. There is evidence of watercourses being blocked and other such problems. Those problems need to be sorted out locally but local authorities cannot do that because they have been declared to be major rivers. Clearly, they are not; they are just becks.

My second point concerns insurance and the importance of the Government and the insurance industry getting as many people as possible insured. We will be looking at that very carefully, especially in relation to social housing. Social housing landlords have to take much greater responsibility for trying to get people insured. The Minister in the Commons said that he would report further to the House in the autumn. Will the Minister confirm that we will get that report here too?

My Lords, on the last point, a report is somewhat different from a Statement. If it is made as a Statement, I have no doubt that it will be repeated here. If it is a report to the House, it will be for this House to judge how it wants to handle the issue. I have every confidence in the House airing the issues, given the widespread concern about and interest in them. I have no doubt that the Pitt report and subsequent developments will feature in our debates in future.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about insurance, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has already emphasised the crucial role of the insurance industry. That is why we intend to make progress on that in the autumn. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is absolutely right to say that insurance is crucial. Far too many people have underestimated the necessity for it.

I was questioned by two noble Lords earlier; I want to emphasise the significance of the Environment Agency on planning decisions by local authorities. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—in every other respect, the Environment Agency’s relationship with local authorities is one of a partnership. It will need to work with the grain of local authorities. As he said, in so many areas, local people know best about local problems and have crucial intelligence for the Environment Agency. Often, the local authority is the agent of necessary change. I assure him that the Environment Agency has an enhanced role, but that is not at the cost of local authorities. Most of its relationship with local authorities will be one of partnership.