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Flooding: Cornwall

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the response to the flooding in Cornwall; and what action is being taken to avert or diminish a future incident of this kind.

My Lords, the response to last Wednesday’s flooding in Cornwall was truly a team effort. Over 250 properties in all were flooded and people were evacuated overnight. I would like to echo the praise given by the leader of Cornwall Council for the emergency services and offer sympathy to those whose lives have been disrupted. We will review what happened with partners to see whether lessons can be learnt about the future handling of such incidents.

Is it the case that flood defences, pumps, telephone warnings and ditches were deficient and that longer-term defences are likely to be hit hard by the cuts, thereby imperilling thousands of people, despite promises to the contrary? All this is happening when, as the Secretary of State for Climate Change has acknowledged, extreme weather is becoming more and more frequent.

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord’s first point. Environment Agency teams were out there before the floods happened, clearing out streams and culverts and doing all that they could to make sure that things were mitigated as far as possible. Sadly, the weather was so extreme that these measures were not able to cope with what happened. Something of the order of one and a half inches—that is 38.8 millimetres, if the noble Lord prefers that measure—of rain fell in one hour and, quite frankly, what was in place could not cope with that. I do not accept what the noble Lord said about cuts. We will be spending something of the order of £2.1 billion on flooding and coastal erosion over the next four years, which is only a very small reduction on the previous four years.

My Lords, I echo the Minister’s congratulations to people in Cornwall. A couple of properties within a quarter of a mile of my house were under five feet of water. Given that Cornwall abuts the Atlantic, the south-westerlies and the fact that these occurrences will happen more frequently, will the Government undertake a dialogue with councils in the south-west, particularly in Cornwall, to put in place more permanent arrangements for dealing with these incidents in the future?

I accept my noble friend’s point that these things are likely to happen more frequently as a result of climate change. We will continue to talk with local authorities and all others, which is why today we have made an announcement about our response to the Pitt review and the new approach that should be followed to deal with floods and the danger of floods. We will look at new approaches to allow more schemes to go ahead that will attract money not only from the Government, through the Environment Agency, but from all other sectors.

Is not the lesson that we learnt from the floods in west Cumbria, where the noble Lord lives, and Cornwall that the aftermath always brings problems over house insurance costs? Cannot the Government now take a role in co-ordinating meetings with the insurance industry in order to get a better deal for home owners, who are greatly losing out and very often cannot reinsure their properties?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord referred to the floods in Cumbria. I visited Cockermouth only last week on the anniversary of those floods and I was pleased to see the resilience with which the people of west Cumbria, where both the noble Lord and I come from, have dealt with the situation; I imagine that the same will be true of the people of Cornwall, who are equally resilient. He makes a perfectly valid point about insurance and the Government are talking—and will continue to talk—to the Association of British Insurers about how we can deal with these matters.

My Lords, can the Minister assure me that the new Government have had access to the report of the lessons learnt from the floods of six years ago in Boscastle, Cornwall? As I understand it, the role of helicopters, in particular, was absolutely critical in rescue operations then and may well be again in the future. Have the Government had access to any assessment of those lessons?

My Lords, we look at the lessons learnt from all floods and we have made great progress—as did the previous Government—in getting all agencies, whether local authorities or the voluntary sector, to work together in this field. My noble friend is quite right to refer to the role that helicopters can play, but there is also a large role to be played by the emergency services and the voluntary sector. We greatly praise the RNLI, which I know helped out in west Cumbria, the Red Cross, mountain rescue and many others who help on these occasions.

My Lords, I extend from this Front Bench the Opposition’s sympathy and support for those who have been affected by the floods in Cornwall, particularly those who had to be evacuated from their homes. Given the concerns expressed by the Environment Agency, the Institution of Civil Engineers and others about funding cuts in the next four years, and given that communities such as those in Cornwall and Cumbria need certainty about which flood protection projects will go ahead, may I ask the Minister what local authorities will receive from the CLG formula grant next year and when his department will publish a definitive list of projects that will receive funding and those that will not?

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is referring to the help that we will provide to local authorities under the Flood and Water Management Act. I understand that they will receive some £21 million next year, due to phasing in, but thereafter it will be some £36 million. That will help local resilience forums, which are local authority-based, to do all the work that is necessary. We believe that the £8.1 billion that we are providing for capital work on floods is a pretty fair settlement in light of the deficit that we faced when we came into government. It represents only a very small reduction on what was available for the previous four years.