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Flooding in Cumbria

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 November 2009


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the flooding in Cumbria.

“With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the serious flooding in Cumbria and other areas of the country in the past few days. I have to report that PC Bill Barker lost his life in the floods in Workington while protecting the public. I know the House will wish to echo the tribute paid to PC Barker by the Prime Minister on Friday. He was a very brave man. I also have to report that Michael Streeter, a contractor working for the Environment Agency, died following an accident on Selsey Bill in West Sussex, where he was maintaining defences. There has been one other fatality, Mr Chris Wheeler, a canoeist, and a woman is missing in Wales. Our thoughts are with all their families and colleagues.

The flooding was caused by sustained rainfall from Wednesday evening onwards. Some parts of Cumbria saw unprecedented amounts, totalling over 300 mm, which is over 12 inches, in 24 hours, The worst affected areas were in west and central Cumbria, and around 1,300 or more properties have flooded, mainly in Cockermouth, Workington, Ulverston, Burneside, Kendal, Keswick and Eamont Bridge, as well as in a number of small villages.

As the forecast heavy rain arrived, silver and gold commands were quickly set up and many residents were evacuated, some by helicopter. Some went to stay with family and friends; others have been housed in reception centres set up in Kendal, Cockermouth and Keswick. Many local roads have been affected, the west coast main line was temporarily suspended, and six bridges have collapsed due to the force of the water. Workington has lost Northside Bridge, and the Calva Bridge has been seriously damaged. Councils are making arrangements to ensure that residents can get access to essential services. More than 1,000 properties lost electricity, 40 were without mains water, and 12,000 properties were left without landline phones. Efforts are being made by the utility companies to restore supplies.

I saw for myself on Friday and Saturday in Cockermouth just what an effect the torrent of water had on homes, businesses and communities. It is utterly devastating, and the House will wish to express its sympathy to all those affected. The House will also wish to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in responding to this emergency, in particular those who worked so hard throughout Thursday night and into the weekend, led by Chief Constable Craig Mackey. This includes the staff of the fire, ambulance and police services, the RNLI, the RSPCA, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, mountain rescue, our Armed Forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and, of course, the communities affected: neighbour once again helping neighbour and showing the best of human spirit. I also thank all the MPs in Cumbria who have been working so hard to look after their constituents.

The Government and local councils will do everything possible to help people rebuild their lives, although we know that it takes time for homes and buildings to dry out. Council homeless teams are arranging longer-term accommodation for those who need it. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government activated the Bellwin scheme for the worst affected areas on Friday morning. This helps local authorities with the cost of emergency assistance and clean-up. In recognition of the exceptional nature of these floods, he has also extended the scheme to allow authorities to claim 100 per cent of the costs incurred, as in 2007. The Prime Minister announced on Saturday during his visit £1 million of community recovery grant, matching the amount that is being given by the regional development agency to support the many small businesses that have been severely affected. The Department for Transport will also provide emergency funding, as it did two years ago, to help with repairs to bridges and roads.

Cleaning up the mess has now started, and Cumbria County Council is leading the local recovery effort. There will be a ministerial meeting later this afternoon to look at what more needs to be done to help. However, I advise the House that further heavy rain is forecast overnight. The Association of British Insurers has urged people who have been flooded to contact their insurance company as soon as possible. Its first priority is to ensure that every claim is dealt with quickly and it will do everything that it can to help customers recover.

As with all major flooding, there will be lessons to be learnt, although I have to say that the response of the emergency services was very impressive. We will work with the Environment Agency and others to ensure that this happens. In the two years since the 2007 floods, the Environment Agency has completed 106 flood defence schemes, protecting more than 63,000 additional homes in England and Wales, including in Carlisle. The new £40 million flood defence scheme there, which was built after the 2005 floods, helped to prevent flooding to around 3,000 properties last weekend.

The House will know that in the decade to 2007 we more than doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion defence. We are investing a record £2.15 billion over the current three-year spending period. We have also responded to the Pitt report by setting up the Flood Forecasting Centre to provide better early warning of flooding; invested £2 million in improved flood rescue capability, including improving the co-ordination of rescue boats; set up a £5 million scheme for household flood protection; and encouraged 140,000 additional people to sign up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales.

We have also introduced the Flood and Water Management Bill that is before the House. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the EFRA Committee for its scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I am sure that all sides of the House will help in getting this important Bill on the statute book. Although we cannot attribute this particular event to climate change, we can expect to see more extreme weather in the years ahead. This is a future for which we must prepare. I will, of course, keep the House informed of any further significant developments”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating this sombre Statement and I am grateful for the advance notice that he gave me. The Statement pays proper tribute to those who have lost their lives, in particular PC Bill Barker. From these Benches, we send our sympathy to their families and colleagues, and I am sure that all sides of the House will wish to join in these tributes. People have been affected all over the country and some noble Lords may have experience of this latest bout of bad weather. The severe weather warning was all too accurate. Minds are focused particularly on the Lake District, an area I know well, and communities such as Cockermouth, Keswick and Workington, as well as many of the smaller communities.

Those of us who have had to rely on television pictures can but imagine the chaos and disruption that has been visited upon these towns, villages and hamlets. I should like to record a further tribute to the emergency and support services. The Minister repeated the list of the many who have been involved, including mountain rescue, which has done a fine job. All those who have helped to move people to safety deserve our thanks. Many are volunteers and we pay tribute to their involvement, courage and determination to help.

Now we must concentrate on the future. The Government must ensure that people are back in their homes as soon as possible. I do not underestimate the difficulty of this task. Some 18 months after the summer floods of 2007, some people still are out of their homes. Lessons should have been learnt as to how to avoid such delays. I am pleased that the Government have already been in dialogue with the Association of British Insurers. Last time, the co-operation and assistance of the ABI were vital in bringing people’s lives back to normal. Meanwhile, it has been heartening to see how communities have been brought together by these devastating floods. There are lessons for the Government in recognising this important asset at all times, but particularly at times like this, and how important it is for government policy to support communities, particularly those in rural areas.

In repeating this Statement, the Minister tells us of the damage done to infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. Troops have already been involved and I hope that the Royal Engineers will be called on to set up temporary crossing facilities, Bailey bridges and the like. This is not easy country and the river systems cut and divide people from work, school, shops and care services. The full reconstruction of some of these bridges will take time. In the mean time, we must all support the establishment of normal life.

I note the ministerial meeting to be held this afternoon and I hope that the cross-government co-ordination will continue into the recovery phase. We will shortly have the opportunity to consider the Floods and Water Management Bill. We will talk about it in the debate on the humble Address tomorrow. We welcome the Bill. The events of the end of last week have made its enactment even more pressing. By implementing the Pitt report, the Government can at least make sure that while they cannot prevent flooding, they can ensure that proper protection is in place and that the threats faced by so many are reduced. I expect noble Lords on all Benches did not need the wake-up call of the events of this past weekend, such as the catastrophic floods in Cumbria, to agree with that objective.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on the flooding incidents in Cumbria. My heart goes out to the people who have been affected because I was brought up in a house which flooded every three or four years. I know about the mayhem that floods bring to families; it is most distressing. The Cumbrian towns of Cockermouth and Workington appear to have been particularly badly hit and we extend our sympathy to all those affected, as well as acknowledging the bravery and courage of all the emergency services. Particular sympathy is extended to the family of PC Bill Barker, who of course was washed away when the bridge in Workington was destroyed. We remember also people who have been affected elsewhere in the UK. In my former constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, we have lost through drowning in the floods a young lady. Our condolences go to her family as well.

The immediate response of the rescue services in Cumbria was excellent and fully deserves the praise of this House. However, apparently in south Cumbria the flood watch call system did not operate as well as it might have done. In some cases, residents were informed some six hours after the incidents were apparent. Can the Minister assure us that more immediate assistance will be provided for homeowners and especially businesses that have been affected in Cumbria? The people of the region are anxious to let us know that they will be open for business as soon as possible, which is important given the area’s dependence on tourism. I am sure that the local authorities concerned need assistance in order to get people back into their homes, and businesses need to be supported. As has already been said, help has been provided to repair the infrastructure so that people can get back to work and children can go to school in the emergency situation. There is no doubt that the Army could be more involved in this. It has already been suggested that the skills of the Royal Engineers could be used to build temporary bridges that are particularly needed at the moment. There are military establishments in the area which could provide support. Indeed, we saw the superb support given by the Army in Cumbria during the foot and mouth outbreak crisis in 2001-02.

The question to be asked is this: is the sum of £1 million for assistance in the recovery adequate? I hope that that sum is only a start because the bills to residents and businesses in the region could run to tens of millions. Will there be a further Statement once today’s meeting of Ministers has taken place to tell us about the overall co-ordination of the response to the emergency, detailing how all available resources are to be brought in?

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the constructive way in which they have addressed this sombre Statement, and in particular for joining in with the tributes to those who have sadly lost their lives in these events. It is certainly the case that we needed to learn lessons from the 2007 floods, and we have been aided in that by the excellent Pitt report which has guided us on the legislation now before the other place. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for indicating that the Bill is necessary and that we will have co-operation as and when the Bill passes through this House and goes on to receive Royal Assent. There is no doubt that it contains recommendations and proposals on which there is broad agreement, and which we already knew were essential before the disaster in Cumbria this weekend. It has not been a wake-up call but it has reinforced the Government’s determination to ensure that action is taken as rapidly as possible.

I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, about the role of insurers. The ABI has responded already and indicated its eagerness to play its part. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to the resources which will be necessary to repair the damage to property and business. Government resources, of course, are overwhelmingly concentrated upon infrastructure and restoring the capacity of communities to rebuild themselves. Private insurance will have to come into play in relation to businesses and homes and we are grateful that the ABI has indicated that it will deal with claims as rapidly as possible.

We are considering the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, in regard to the flood warning for the southern part of the Lake District and Kendal. The warning system worked elsewhere where it was in place. However, for reasons that we have not yet been able to identify, it does not seem to have worked as effectively as it ought to have done in Kendal. I can assure the House that we are looking at this as a matter of urgency.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated that help will be needed by local authorities. I have indicated two sources of help: the money that will be available through the regional development agency from the resources of the Department for Business; and the Prime Minister identified £1 million which he wanted to see devoted to assistance in recovery. However, it is a major task. Given the geography of the Lake District and these areas, water sweeping away bridges will destroy effective communications. The Royal Engineers may well have a part to play, but any such action would be of a limited kind and it will be some time before all communications are restored. It will be a major priority, but the House will appreciate the severe amount of damage caused by the destruction of so many bridges by the force of the water. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their constructive response to the Statement.

My Lords, I should inform the House that Workington, Cockermouth and Keswick are in my former constituency.

Does my noble friend accept that what the Derwent Valley, and in particular Keswick, where I have a home, need is for Thirlmere Lake, which supplies water to Manchester, to be placed at the heart of a new flood alleviation programme for west Cumbria—enforced by the Environment Agency, which has the powers—a programme which requires redesigned, increased capacity water release valves on the dam at Thirlmere; reconfigured spill arrangements; an end to United Utilities resisting reductions in water levels on the dam in high rainfall periods; and an end to the delay in the funding of flood protection measures on west Cumbria rivers, in particular the Greta in Keswick? The people of Keswick are fed up with the dithering of United Utilities, which defends the Thirlmere water assets for its shareholders while it is the people of Keswick and west Cumbria who are paying the price.

I place on record my profound appreciation of the work of all those in west Cumberland who have given so much time over the recent days in helping everyone in the community. In particular, I thank the Prime Minister for coming to west Cumbria to give the reassurance that he did to the local people.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the generosity of his last few remarks. As for the earlier part of his contribution, I know that he has enormous and detailed knowledge of that area of the country gained from his long years as a Member of Parliament. It may not be unparalleled, but it is certainly not paralleled by mine. I am therefore not in a position to go into the same degree of detail as he did with regard to Thirlmere Lake and the proposals that he put forward. He is certainly right that the Environment Agency has the necessary powers and will look seriously at the issue.

With regard to United Utilities, my noble friend may well have justified criticisms on the issue of Thirlmere Lake, but I think he will appreciate at this time the extent to which the utilities have responded to the crisis with prompt and effective action in so many cases. My noble friend may therefore be asking me to consider a matter for the future, but not the immediate future.

My Lords, as somebody who lives extremely near to Cockermouth, I thank my noble friend for having repeated the Statement and place on record the appreciation of the local community for the way in which the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister so speedily visited the area.

Does my noble friend agree that it is difficult to exaggerate the trauma of finding the main street of Cockermouth turned into a river eight feet high and moving at 25 knots, and the way in which it smashed into shops, sweeping their contents into the street and causing immense economic havoc? Does he also agree that, in the face of such an onslaught, the courage and resilience of the local community have been outstanding? As my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has just said, the teamwork and courage of those operating in the rescue services demand the respect and gratitude of us all. Of course, the tributes to PC Barker are immensely important in this respect, as are our feelings for his family.

Will my noble friend accept that, while there are short-term demands, the most trying and difficult period will be when the television cameras have gone, and the years it will take to reconstruct and psychologically to restore the community from what has happened, and that solidarity and sustained support over those years will be crucial? Can my noble friend assure us that the Government will be second to nobody in making certain that this support is forthcoming?

I had a long conversation with the leader of Allerdale council this morning. He emphasised most strongly the disruption of transport in the area. Children have to travel as far as 30 miles to their local school and people in some cases face journeys of up to 80 miles to get to work. With bridges down and others threatened, there is an urgent need to restore the transport system not only for human needs but also for the economic well-being of the community.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I am aware that he knows the area intimately and is able therefore to appreciate fully the devastation that has been wrought. I think that all of us who know Cockermouth at least for being the birthplace of William Wordsworth realise what a tragedy it is that the devastation has occurred in that particular town. It highlights the fact that the Lake District is one of our prime tourist areas and that the restoration of its facilities is therefore enormously important to everyone.

I am grateful to my noble friend for emphasising the issue of transport. He is absolutely right that the devastation wrought to the bridges and, therefore, the highways, is particularly worrying. The issue of schools relates to the safety of children, but there is no doubt that as soon as we can get children back to school the better it will be for everyone.

I have been reassured that access to a main hospital is guaranteed. That is a tribute to the emergency services and to all those who have worked so hard to make this possible, because we all recognise the desolate circumstances that people would be in if the breakdown of communications meant that anyone who was seriously ill or in real need of hospital treatment could not get into Carlisle hospital. I understand that that situation is resolved.

My Lords, as one raised on water from Thirlmere—and I have never enjoyed better water in my life—and who met his wife in that part of the world some 60-odd years ago, I find it particularly horrific that this situation has arisen.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, raised the question of Bailey bridges. Do they still exist? How many have we got in the country? There will be an awful lot of Bailey-type bridging required in this period, but that is only a temporary measure. The existing bridges are very often not piled. They are Victorian structures and the scouring of the water has completely undermined the piles of many of these bridges. Are the Government aware of the likely investment necessary to provide new bridges? I do not think that the existing bridges can be repaired in many cases. What will be the cost of building new bridges to replace not only these but the ones that are still standing but are in danger of being brought down in subsequent flooding?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who is also very knowledgeable about the Lake District. It is the case that 10 bridges have been closed, six of which have collapsed, so none of us can underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. As I said earlier, the Army can give some help—and we will see what help that can be with regard to the limited bridge capacity. I do not have the figures for how many bridges there are, but of course they have that capacity—it goes without saying. This is a major problem. As the noble Lord said, the permanent restoration of bridges is the challenge. He is absolutely right that the particular architecture of Lake District bridges is such that they have suffered very severe damage. I was astonished to learn that it is not only that water is pressing at the base of the bridge or sweeping the bridge away. Water lifts the bridge and destroys it, because of the way in which the superstructure rests. That indicates how very significant damage can be done by torrents of water going through the rivers at the rate that has occurred this past weekend.

My Lords, it must be appreciated that not every householder or owner of a business will be insured. The Minister referred to the point made by the ABI. Are we giving any consideration to providing financial help to householders and owners of businesses who are not insured? That result would be long-lasting.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Some people will not be insured, despite the extent to which that issue was emphasised after the floods in 2007, when a considerable number of people found themselves in distress because they were uninsured. Of course we will look at the question of support for those in greatest need, but I know that the noble Lord, with his great knowledge of the insurance industry, will appreciate that we look to that industry to be prompt in its response to those whom it can help.

Will my noble friend seek to establish why on the day before the floods, at a time when Cumbria was on flood alert, the River Greta was allowed to drop more than one metre when it should have been running at full spate and releasing water from Thirlmere, thereby easing the subsequent flooding problems in west Cumberland? Will Ministers seek to establish what the position is on this important matter?

My Lords, that is a highly technical question. I have not had time to work my way through the issue sufficiently to give my noble friend a categoric answer, but I take fully on board the point that he has made and the issue will be examined.

My Lords, although the volunteer emergency services have done very good work, I wonder whether there are enough of them and whether the Government ought to be expanding their number and their training.

My Lords, I imagine that we can never have enough support in those terms. We are well aware of the fact that a whole range of the emergency services always look for support. I am thinking in this instance of the RNLI, which has often pressed for the resources that are necessary for its work. On this occasion, it is clear that they have all co-operated and done a wonderful job. There has been wonderful leadership from the chief of police with regard to the emergency services, the co-operation has been of the highest level and we should recognise that achievement.

My Lords, there has been reference to the insurance issues that have arisen in this disaster. Is my noble friend aware that one of the big anxieties among the local population is whether some people will ever be able to insure their houses again and whether insurance will be available? Will he assure the House that the Government will get together with the insurance industry and others to look at this problem, which is an acute worry for people in that situation at the moment?

My Lords, the Government are all too aware of the risk of flooding. That is why we have in place the legislation that we are proposing, why we commissioned the Pitt report and why we have learnt the lessons of 2007. My noble friend is right that the issue of insurance is an important dimension of this situation. He may rest assured that the Government are fully seized of the importance of the matter.