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Flooding: Somerset

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what the Army has so far done to help people affected by the floods in Somerset.

My Lords, military personnel and Somerset County Council have conducted a joint reconnaissance of affected areas. This concluded that the civil authority’s response, augmented by the substantial deployment of the national fire and rescue service’s assets, had sufficient capacity to manage the necessary tasks. There is an established system for authorities to request military assistance, which has been called upon several times over recent weeks. A range of defence assets remain on six-hour notice to move in Somerset.

My Lords, the ongoing floods on the Somerset Levels in particular are causing misery to people and animals on farms. Does not the fact that the county council can when necessary call in the Army and the fact that the Bellwin formula has been extended to the end of March show that the Government are doing all that they can to exacerbate the problem, but that it is for the people on the ground actually to do the work?

I am sure that my noble friend did not mean exactly what the Opposition thought he meant. The Army is on standby if necessary, as I have said. High-volume pumps have been deployed from the National Asset Register and they are in place to prevent further increases in levels of flood water. The pumping operation is in fact one of the largest that the country has seen. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked for a clear action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset Levels and moors to resolve the problem for the next 20 years. Noble Lords will be aware that I am repeating a Statement later to deal with extra funds for repairs.

My Lords, has the Environment Agency got its priorities right on the floods? It says that it does not want to do any dredging. I was told by one of its officers that there is no point in dredging, because there is a high tide and the water is coming in, but it must understand that there is also a low tide and it can go out. I had an e-mail this morning from the Environment Agency about the Dawlish Warren, and as we know the railway will be closed for six weeks. The agency says that it will study the bird movement on the beach over the next year to see whether it can move any sand back there. Are we looking after birds before humans?

My Lords, the agencies are working together to ensure that measures such as dredging can proceed as rapidly as possible and meet the existing environmental requirements. The Environment Agency, Natural England and the local authorities are working together to expedite this.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while what has been done so far in terms of pumping is a great improvement, in certain respects the situation is deteriorating significantly? I heard reports this morning that parts of Bridgwater are now liable to flooding at this time. The pledge from the Prime Minister on further action that will be taken is much appreciated. Meanwhile, is my noble friend aware that while it is not a matter for the military, I hear nothing but tributes for the work of the emergency authorities and services at the moment? Undoubtedly, if one looks at the weather forecast, there could be a serious and maybe continuing deteriorating situation.

My Lords, I think that all noble Lords would share with me sympathy for the people of Somerset, who are experiencing a really dreadful time. Like my noble friend I pay tribute to the local authorities, the emergency services, and the fire and rescue services. All services assisting in this exercise are wonderful.

My Lords, I realise that the Minister will shortly make a Statement that, apart from anything else, will be about funding. I am told by colleagues and friends in Somerset that the people there are collecting money. They are looking to raise £1.4 million to deal with dredging and whatever is necessary. While we must of course take responsibility for many things that happen within our communities, the people of Somerset should not have to foot any of the bills in relation to flooding, and future flooding and defences. May I suggest that once the present crisis has passed, the Minister gives an undertaking that the Government will look at the funds allocated to Defra and how they are allocated within it? It seems to me that something is not quite right at the moment.

I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness thinks that. As she knows, I will be repeating a Statement which covers funding, among other things. I agree with her expression of sympathy for local residents. However, it is reasonable to say that there is a scheme of partnership funding and, certainly in other parts of England, it is working extremely well.

My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend really gave a proper answer to the very relevant question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. There have been many complaints by the residents of the Somerset Levels that the Environment Agency seems to be prioritising birds over the needs of people. What is the Environment Agency’s answer to that charge, which seems to be very widely felt by the people in the area?

What I can say to my noble friend, which will not entirely satisfy him, is that I referred earlier to an action plan that has been demanded by my right honourable friend. Dredging will form part of that plan but it will not provide the whole answer. The plan will have to consider a whole range of options for improving the area’s resilience in the long term.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, mentioned animal welfare. We have all seen pictures on our television of cattle in a barn that seems to be on an island. Should the water get any higher, are there any contingency plans for evacuating those animals to higher ground?

I, too, have seen the clips that the noble Countess is referring to. What is really important at this stage is that when people are asked to evacuate by the Environment Agency, the emergency services and the police, they must listen to the advice that is given. We are also facing some potential tragedies with our farms and animals on those farms. The county council and the emergency services are working as best they can but people must come first.

My Lords, the floodwaters are now beginning to affect people who were previously on the periphery, bringing increased demand on the scarce resources of the fire and rescue and Army services, as we have heard. Where drivers recklessly enter floodwaters by removing “Road Closed” barriers, will the Minister join me, a resident of Somerset, in supporting the emergency services in charging those thoughtless people who have to be rescued, sometimes more than once?

What I can do is share with my noble friend her rap on the knuckles for those who do that and do not take the advice of the emergency services.