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Volume 751: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they have in place in the light of renewed flood warnings issued by the Environment Agency.

My Lords, the Environment Agency and local authorities are in the recovery phase regarding the recent flooding. This entails restoring flood defences and working hard on preparations for the next flood incident. We are reviewing procedures adopted by them and by government departments to see where our response to flood warnings can be improved. Other government departments, local authorities, electricity distribution network operators and transport authorities are undertaking their own reviews.

My Lords, I am grateful for the information provided by the Minister. Right across the country, families, communities and businesses in our county and coastal towns are suffering from the dire effects of serious flooding. I have recently been given first-hand reports of the damage caused in Somerset, where people on the Levels are still having to use boats. The Conservative MP is blaming the Environment Agency. I suppose that that is better than blaming gay marriage. Can the Minister please reassure the House that the flooding in that county and elsewhere has had nothing to do with the reduction in investment in flood defences by more than £100 million in real terms since 2010?

My Lords, I share the great concern of the noble Baroness for the people of specific villages in Somerset, who have had a really tough time, among many others around our country. We recognise the serious impact that the current flooding is having in Somerset. The Environment Agency is working with local authorities and communities in the county to help to mitigate the situation. We are making it easier for farmers to undertake their own watercourse maintenance activities, including through a pilot scheme on the River Brue in Somerset. However, we realise that the long-term sustainable management of the Somerset Levels and moors needs careful consideration, and we are working on that.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to discourage further residential development on flood plains?

My Lords, one has to be realistic about this. Around 10% of England is in high-flood-risk areas, including large parts of cities such as Hull and Portsmouth and, indeed, central London. Development in areas of flood risk is permitted only exceptionally, where there are wider sustainability considerations and must in all cases be safe, must not increase flood risk elsewhere and, where possible, overall flood risk should be reduced.

My Lords, given that the Thames Barrier was raised only twice in its first four years of existence, but in the latest four years for which figures are available—apparently figures are not publicly available for the past two years—it was raised 24 times, are the Government really satisfied that it is sensible to wait until 2070 before considering its replacement?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that recent incidents, like those over the past several years, indicate that there are flood risks across our country. That is a very important one, and there are many others. We are, as the noble Lord well knows, spending a large sum of money: £2.3 billion over the current spending review period, and going on into the future. All these things are crucial and we must attend to them all according to their priority.

My Lords, going back to an earlier answer given by the Minister, is he satisfied that building regulations in respect of flood plains are adequately enforced?

Yes, my Lords. The NPPF contains tough requirements, so we can build in high-risk areas if there is nowhere else at lower risk; the needs and benefits outweigh the assessed flood risk, taking account of mitigation measures; buildings are safe and less susceptible to flood damage; and flood risk is not increased overall and, indeed, where possible, is reduced. So, yes, I am.

The Secretary of State has received assurances from the ABI that households will receive every possible support from the insurance industry. Can my noble friend the Minister say what evidence there is to show that that is happening?

Yes, my Lords. Indeed, some examples of how the insurance industry has responded are that it has drafted in extra staff, including cancelling Christmas leave, to ensure that capacity is sufficient to deal with the increased volume of claims; it has deployed emergency response vehicles to flooded areas to give advice to affected communities; it has called customers in flooded areas to offer assistance; it has deployed loss adjusters to visit affected areas as quickly as possible to assess damage, begin the drying out of properties and arrange for repair work to begin; and, importantly, it has prioritised vulnerable and elderly customers.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is very pleased indeed with the information given to it about the actions being taken by the Government. However, to take the Minister back to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Harris, to which no basic reply was given, why have the Government decided that the review of improving the Thames Barrier should not take place until 2070? In fact, they have moved it from 2035. Can he explain to the House why they have done that and whether that is a safe act?

That is an important question, and I absolutely take that. Noble Lords will be pleased, I hope, to hear that I am going out there to look at the construction myself. I might be better placed after that to answer their questions.

As most people are understandably concerned about the impact on human habitation of flooding, what assessment have the Government made of the impact on agricultural land? The anecdotal evidence, as one travels around the country, is that a great deal of farmland is still under water from the rains before Christmas. There must be considerable loss to farmers. Can the noble Lord give the House any information about how that has been assessed?

Yes, my Lords. More than 95% of arable land in England is either outside areas at risk of flooding from main rivers or the sea or is in areas benefiting from a greater than one to 75 standard of evidence.