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Severe Weather

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2014

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what additional financial resources they will make available to enable the various relevant public authorities in each part of the United Kingdom to respond to the impact of the recent severe storms.

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to provide an Answer to the noble Lord that is slightly longer than is customary. Noble Lords might welcome an update on the current situation in line with that given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in the other place earlier today.

In doing that, I must first pay tribute to the emergency services, Environment Agency staff, local authorities, voluntary organisations and many members of the public who contributed to the response to the flooding over Christmas and the new year. Tragically, seven fatalities in England between 23 December and 5 January are associated with the severe weather conditions. I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to their families and friends.

There are currently 104 flood warnings and 186 flood alerts in place across England and Wales. Although the weather has improved, river and ground water levels remain so high that further flooding could come at short notice. There are a number of particular concerns, including in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and on the Thames in Oxfordshire. Given these ongoing threats, COBRA continues to meet and is doing so this afternoon.

Recognising the seriousness of the situation, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a Bellwin scheme to support local authorities with the costs associated with the immediate response to protect lives and properties. As of 7 January, my department has received 22 notifications from local authorities that they intend to make a claim under Bellwin for the severe weather events dating from the 6 December east coast tidal surge until now. Equivalent funding for Welsh and Scottish local authorities is a matter for the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Speaker for permitting this Question, particularly as there was a Statement in the other place on Monday which we were not able to have repeated in this Chamber. I am grateful to the Minister for the Answer that she has given. Perhaps I may associate myself with the sympathy she has expressed to those families that have suffered bereavements in these tragic circumstances.

Does the Minister accept that in some areas, such as Aberystwyth and other parts of the Ceredigion coast, and, indeed, the Pembrokeshire coast, the damage was so acute that it may run into many millions of pounds to put right, well beyond the resources of small local authorities, and that the National Assembly for Wales has a very limited contingency reserve capacity? Can she give an assurance that the Treasury will help out on a basis of the needs of such areas and that that principle will be applied not only in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom?

The noble Lord raises a question on support and funding which goes beyond the immediate process that is available to local authorities. As he knows, and as he indicated in the question that he has just put to me, the funding that local authorities in Wales may require is very much part of the Welsh Assembly’s arrangements. The funding that they may receive from a similar kind of Bellwin scheme in Wales would be a matter for the Welsh Assembly. I am not in a position to offer any further information at this time as to what the Government might do beyond the Bellwin scheme.

My Lords, in the event of the Treasury providing assistance for England, will it provide an increased amount to meet the Welsh Assembly’s need for expenditure in Wales?

As I said, the normal response to situations of the kind we are experiencing at this time is for the Bellwin scheme to come into force. As noble Lords will know, this is a tried and tested scheme that has been in place for a substantial period of time and has worked well. The noble Lord is suggesting something in addition to that and I am not in a position at this time even to suggest that it is necessary for us to go beyond the Bellwin scheme.

Does my noble friend accept that the costs of cleaning up after floods are considerably greater than the costs of protection from floods? Therefore, now that the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the official spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party in the House of Commons have admitted the connection between climate change and flooding, can we expect that the Government will re-assess the on-going spending on flood prevention in the United Kingdom?

My noble friend raises an important point. On our investment in flood defences, it is important to make the point that this Government’s overall investment is higher than ever before. We announced in the Autumn Statement before Christmas—this has not happened before—a commitment to a protected, long-term, six-year capital settlement for flood defences. This will lead to £400 million a year by 2021 and will mean that a further 300,000 other properties are protected beyond those that already are.

My Lords, we join in paying tribute to all of those who are working in difficult circumstances to tackle these dreadful adverse consequences of our weather conditions and welcome the Bellwin scheme announcements. However, we have obtained figures in a Parliamentary Answer which make it clear that the Government have reduced investment in flood defences by as much as £100 million in real terms, lower than the level they inherited, from £646 million in 2010 to £527 million this year and £546 million in 2015. How does the Minister justify the claim that has just been made? How does she justify the proposed one-third cut in the budget of local flood authorities for 2015-16 that has just been announced in the local government finance settlement?

On the noble Lord’s first point, as I have said, this Government are investing more than £2.3 billion on flood defences in this spending review period and the overall investment, when that is combined with local authority and private sector expenditure, is higher than in the previous four years. As for any reductions in budgets, as the noble Lord will know, because he will have heard my honourable friends make the same point, in any reductions to budgets, necessary budget cuts that we have had to make because of economic situations, front-line flooding services are not affected.

My Lords, as one who lives near Aberystwyth and is proud, indeed, to have been born in that town, I suggest to the Minister that the situation not just in Aberystwyth but in many other places on the Welsh coast that have been so badly hit is far more desperate than the Government seem to appreciate. The scale of storm destruction is such that it is impossible for local authorities or, indeed, the Welsh Assembly to render proper remedy. Although Westminster exercises sovereignty over the land and nation of Wales, with that sovereignty there is also a high and heavy moral responsibility to assist in situations of crisis such as these.

I understand the point that the noble Lord is raising. In responding to the situation and ensuring that those who are affected are properly supported, we would expect that to be the same whoever is affected and wherever in the United Kingdom they may be. As I have made clear, and as the noble Lord understands, this is a devolved matter. The Government are at the present time introducing the Bellwin scheme. We believe that that is the proper approach and we look to the Welsh Assembly to consider what action it should take.

My Lords, my family was one of the 750,000 in this country without power for some time over the Christmas and new year period—in our case for four days, on and off, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I pay tribute to the companies, local authorities and volunteers who kept our local community in Godalming going. I applaud the Government for their decision last year not to merge the Environment Agency and Natural England. That would have resulted in a critical loss of focus by the Environment Agency from its core function of responding to flood defences. That was a wise move. However, bearing in mind the need to ensure that we plan in the future for such inevitable further extreme weather events, will the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs soon be in a position to say which policies and programmes it will have to cut in order to make the savings of £300 million in the next two years so that we can plan properly for any future emergency events?

First, I echo my noble friend’s points about the real, serious effects that some people have had to contend with, particularly those in some parts of the country who were without power for substantial periods. It is worth my saying, as the Prime Minister made clear earlier today, that while the overall response to these situations has been good, a small number of organisations have not been good enough in their response. There are lessons to be learnt and we will ensure that they are. I can inform the House that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is meeting distribution network operators and Ofgem today to discuss power.

In response to my noble friend’s specific point, I make the same point that I made earlier, which is that in the savings that are being made in the Environment Agency, the chief executive of that agency has assured my right honourable friend that he has every intention of protecting front-line services concerned with flooding.