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Winter Floods

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014


My Lords, with your Lordships’ permission, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on the action taken in light of the recent floods and extreme weather. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is unable to update the House today, but we wish him a speedy return to his usual robust health.

One of the defining characters of Britain is her weather. However, in recent months it has been particularly savage. Parts of the country have been subjected to flooding from the sea, rivers, surface water and groundwater. In December, we saw the highest surge on the east coast for 60 years. This January has been the wettest since George III was on the throne. We will continue to face severe weather well into next week.

I want to put on the record my utmost sympathy for those affected. Flooding has devastating effects on communities. I know that it has been especially difficult for those families who have been flooded for many weeks, and those who have been flooded on more than one occasion in recent months. I think we have all been struck by the stark images of the stranded residents of the Somerset Levels, and their brave resolve to continue their daily lives, be it by boat or tractor.

I should also like to pay tribute to the hard work of councils, the Environment Agency’s on-the-ground staff and our emergency services, who have supported communities 24 hours a day, literally through hell and high water. Yet Britain’s flood defences have protected more than 1.2 million properties since 5 December, and the Thames Barrier has protected £200 billion of property.

None the less, it is evident that those defences are taking a pounding. There is damage to transport infrastructure and sea defences, including the railway line at Dawlish, as well as to power networks. More than 5,000 properties have been flooded, including at least 40 in Somerset. There are currently two severe flood warnings in the West Country, 61 flood warnings and 223 flood alerts in place. COBRA has met regularly since 29 January and has responded to every local request for assistance. The Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of COBRA later today.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, I can now report to the House the Government’s plans for further funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management. In the short term, I can announce that the Government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance: £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year. This will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained.

Emergency work on repairs started during December’s coastal surge. However, the full picture of the damage caused to flood defences has not yet emerged, and the weather continues to be savage. The Government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

In addition, I am publishing before the House today details of how my department is enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme. This helps local authorities in England meet the exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties. The changes I am announcing today include: paying the Bellwin grant at 100% above threshold instead of the normal default 85%; allowing upper-tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim on a comparable basis to stand-alone fire authorities; reducing Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities; and extending the eligible spending period until the end of March 2014.

No council has yet made a formal claim under the Bellwin scheme, so no council has lost out. Indeed, far more councils will now be eligible to claim. The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their role as first responders. However, it is clear that the Bellwin scheme needs further reform—an opportunity that was missed under the previous Administration. We will be undertaking a full review of the Bellwin scheme in due course, while ensuring that councils continue to have the right incentives to stop flooding happening in the first place. I can also tell the House that immediately after this Statement, Ministers will be holding a teleconference with council leaders from across the West Country to discuss further flood recovery measures.

Of course, flood prevention is as important as flood recovery. The additional funding that we have outlined today will allow the Government’s programme of capital investment to continue, fulfilling our commitment to improving defences throughout England. We have already put in place investment plans to improve the protection of at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade.

In addition, today we are announcing 42 new flood defence schemes for 2014-15. Together with other projects beginning construction in 2014-15, these will protect more than 42,000 households. They include schemes in Salford, which will improve protection for more than 2,000 homes and businesses; in Clacton, where more than 3,000 homes are currently at risk; and in Willerby in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where more than 8,000 properties will be better protected. There are also smaller, but no less important, schemes in Lincoln, Stockton and Todmorden. We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith, who implied that there is a choice between the two.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences: £370 million in 2015-16, and then the same in real terms each year, rising to more than £400 million by the end of this decade. By the Autumn Statement, we will publish a six-year programme of work running right up to 2021, including a new long-term investment strategy on flood defence. This will provide an assessment of the future need for flood and coastal defence, taking account of the latest risk maps and economic analysis.

We should certainly look at how councils plan and mitigate flood risk. However, I note that the level of development on flood-risk areas is now at its lowest rate since modern records began, and 99% of planning applications for new homes in flood-risk areas are in line with expert advice.

After the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to learn: from the way we help local authorities, to the role of quangos and the need for local accountability, to the influence of manmade policies on dredging and tree planting on our landscape and rivers, and to the resilience of our nation as a whole in the 21st century.

The measures that the coalition Government have announced today provide an clear commitment to reducing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The additional funding means that, over this Parliament, this Government will be investing more than £3.1 billion, compared to £2.7 billion in the previous five years under the previous Labour Government. This is more than ever before. We will spend it well and we will spend it wisely.

We cannot control the weather. But we can and will provide the security that hard-working people deserve to allow them to get on with the daily lives. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, particularly the announcement on Bellwin, which will be a great relief to the authorities and communities affected. I also thank him for his support for the people who are struggling to cope, in Somerset in particular, with the extraordinary and devastating events in that part of our country.

As noble Lords know, until two years ago I was a member of the board of the Environment Agency. I know the area; I live about 20 miles away. It is an extraordinarily complex system to manage. When an emergency occurs, it is the Environment Agency, the emergency services and local people who act together to try to minimise the effect, but it is a colossal effect and all our support should go out to the farms, families and villages that are in such serious difficulty.

Of course, as the noble Lord said, the problems are not just in Somerset. As it happens, while your Lordships were amusing yourselves with the European Union (Referendum) Bill last Friday, I was on the train to Plymouth, and a beautiful railway line it is—or was. It had been known that the line was vulnerable. There is now a serious problem as to how we restore communications with the far south-west of our country.

While it is important to recognise the efforts of the emergency services, it is also important to learn lessons. It appears that central government were taken a little by surprise on this occasion. It is an unusual event and therefore may not be in the normal contingency plans of central government. Nevertheless, the expectation of the population—certainly the expectation of the people of Somerset and other affected areas—was that the response would have been quicker than it was. In Questions, the noble Lord, Lord King, said that the level of pumping is the highest ever. It undoubtedly is. However, getting the pumps in was quite difficult, as the standing pumps were overwhelmed by the event. Whoever does it, the response must start a lot earlier than it did on this occasion.

Obviously there are issues behind this. The noble Lord has quoted some figures for expenditure on flood defences. The fact is that when the Government came in, for the first year they cut expenditure on flood defences—via the Environment Agency and in total—by £100 million. They have now restored some of that cut, but it has led to a hiatus. I would like the Minister to explain whether concentrating the resources of the Environment Agency on front-line activity at the moment—rightly so—has hit its ability to prioritise and to put in place a strategy for flood defences in the medium term. I think that there are serious concerns in that respect. Despite the Government’s claims, the resources available to the Environment Agency have not been made up by the funding from elsewhere—the £148 million to which the Government referred—as not all of it has been delivered, some of it is double-counted, and it is mainly from other public authorities. Therefore, there is an issue of public expenditure as well.

We need more priority given to flood defences of all sorts. By that I do not mean just pouring concrete, but catchment management. If anything, the Somerset Levels show very clearly how important catchment management is. It is not only a question of dredging; in my view, dredging will make relatively little impact, as the water must go somewhere. Dredging may be part of a solution, but it transfers the water somewhere else that may be more vulnerable, with more businesses and people involved. The catchment as a whole needs looking at, from the top of the hills, where there has been deforestation and inappropriate land use, right down through the streams into the sea. In an area that is below sea water, with a tidal river, these problems are particularly difficult. It requires a long-term plan and it is not yet entirely clear that we have a long-term plan.

I welcome the Bellwin scheme and the efforts that are now being made to deal with the immediate situation. However, the immediate situation includes a lot of people who are in ancillary distress. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate, for example, when he expects the electricity supply to be restored to all of those who have been hit. When does he expect the restoration of the rail services west of Exeter beyond Dawlish? Six weeks sounds a bit optimistic, I must say. We must recognise that while we are rightly worried about the hundreds of people affected in the Somerset Levels, some 1.3 million people are cut off from their main means of communication to Plymouth and Cornwall—an area that is greatly lacking in communications in the first place. I hope that we can have some urgency on that. It may require more drastic changes to the railways in that area. There is serious damage in Dawlish itself, which is an emergency equal to that in Somerset.

This has happened before. After the 2007 floods, the previous Government commissioned a report from Sir Michael Pitt. He made a lot of recommendations, some of which have been implemented. However, the Government have stopped producing progress reports on half of them. I would like the Minister to indicate when we will go back to those recommendations or any modification of them. In particular, could he refer to the recommendations relating to reducing the risk of flooding and the 10 recommendations, not yet acted on, concerning being rescued and cared for during an emergency?

There is also a superstructure issue. We have had 20-odd meetings of COBRA. However, Sir Michael Pitt proposed a national resilience forum. Although it is not necessary to have a Cabinet committee telling the Prime Minister how to run the Government, a national resilience forum is a good idea. It was being discussed towards the end of the previous Government. We would like to see progress in relation to that.

In immediate terms, I return to the issue of the long-term plan for the Somerset Levels. A number of assertions have been made, or have reportedly been made. However, the area needs to know what its future is. This emergency has hit a relatively poor part of the country pretty hard. Changes may be needed. The area is also one of great beauty and of significant economic importance to the agricultural and tourist sectors in that area. We must know how quickly a clear, long-term plan can be put in place.

I thank the Minister for the Statement. As the Prime Minister is now in charge of these issues, I suspect that he could do without the interruption to the Water Bill. I was to some extent expecting the Leader of the House to take this Statement. Nevertheless I welcome the contribution of the Minister and would like to hear his answers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his supportive comments, especially his sympathies for those who have suffered and the households and farms that have been flooded. As discussed in Questions, they have suffered a terrible experience. Like the noble Lord, I pay tribute to the emergency services, the Environment Agency and the Flood Forecasting Centre staff and to the leadership shown by the local authorities.

As alluded to by the noble Lord, there has been significant damage to sea and flood defences and road and rail infrastructure. Urgent repairs were made to critical coastal defences before the spring tides early this month. The Environment Agency is currently assessing the damage to flood defences. It may take a number of weeks to achieve a full assessment as water levels fall.

The noble Lord referred specifically to the Somerset Levels. As discussed in Questions, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has asked for an action plan to be developed within the next six weeks to look at different options as to how flood risk could be better managed sustainably on the levels and moors over the next 20 years. Dredging will form part of that plan but it will not provide the whole answer. The plan will look at a number of other options for improving the area’s resilience in the longer term.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to lessons learnt. I agree with him very strongly about that. Those lessons will go quite wide. I also agree with him on the importance of a catchment management approach. The noble Lord referred to power shortages. My understanding is that of the 50,000 people who lost power the night before last, the substantial majority had power again yesterday. The energy companies are working hard on that. The noble Lord referred to transport. Immediate work is already underway, with that urgency that he described as so necessary. The noble Lord asked about the capability of the Environment Agency to continue to perform. The Secretary of State has been assured by the chief executive of the Environment Agency that he has every intention of protecting front-line services concerned with flooding. I have no reason to doubt his ability to do that.

I return to lessons learnt. The Minister for Government Policy is undertaking a review specifically to identify those lessons. There are a whole range of things that it will look at, and I know that he is looking to report to the Prime Minister as soon as he can—that will be weeks, not months.

The noble Lord referred to the Pitt review. The vast majority of its recommendations have been implemented. We are committed to implementing the remaining five by the end of this year. Some of the main aspects to come out of Pitt that we have implemented so far are the creation of the Flood Forecasting Centre, much lauded in recent weeks for its ability to warn us where the problems were coming, the publication of the National Flood Emergency Framework and the provision of funding to more than 100 specialist flood rescue teams. The Environment Agency has published its national strategy, which will help communities and all parties to work together to manage flood and coastal erosion risk.

Before the Minister sits down, might I ask him whether he would be willing to include in the list of those whom he has thanked for their contribution in understanding and managing the present difficulties the Met Office? We may not enjoy the information that it gives us, but it is certainly useful.

Having listened to the statement made from the opposition Front Bench in another place, perhaps I may say how much I preferred the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and his constructive approach to this very serious issue. He has the advantage of actually knowing something about the subject.

The most worrying sentence in this Statement is:

“We will continue to face severe weather well into next week”.

And no one knows what it is going to be like after that. Anyone who is familiar with the current state of the Somerset Levels will know how that water is spreading and how the situation is deteriorating in certain areas as the water moves around. I am all in favour of sensible, constructive meetings of COBRA but it is the co-ordination on the ground that is extremely important. I appreciate the Prime Minister’s personal efforts and I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are now fully focused on this, but I hope that the sympathy will not go when the floods go down. In certain respects, there could be a serious health problem. A number of septic tanks and parts of the sewerage system are not working and problems may arise with rotting vegetation. I hope that the concentration of the Government will not end when the floods disappear but will remain totally focused on what will clearly be a very serious situation for some time to come.

I absolutely endorse my noble friend’s point about the importance of local co-ordination on the ground. My impression is that that is making considerable progress and I congratulate those who are involved.

My noble friend’s reference to ongoing attention—to Somerset, for example—I endorse as well. I must say that we should not lose sight of the other places that have suffered from flooding during this spate of weather. I shall not name any of them because I will forget to include some, but there are many places around the country which have suffered.

My Lords, I reinforce what my noble friend Lord Whitty said about the importance to Devon and Cornwall of the reinstatement of the main railway line that has been washed away at Dawlish. I declare an interest as a member of the First Great Western stakeholder board. Businesses are quoted this morning as saying that every day that the line is closed is costing them £30 million, so any delay beyond six weeks for its reinstatement will have a devastating effect on those economies—it is not just Cornwall; it is not just Plymouth; it is the whole of Torbay as well. I urge the Government to make sure that Network Rail is given every possible resource it needs to reinstate the line.

Looking a little further ahead, will the Minister consider the need for a possible new alignment that takes the line at the coast inland? It is something that Isambard Kingdom Brunel looked at but felt was not necessary. He thought that his wall would survive for ever, but, as we have seen with the weather of recent days, that might not be the case. Another possibility would be the reopening of the old Southern Railway line to Plymouth, which would at least give an alternative route through from Exeter.

I agree with the noble Lord about the particular railway line of which he spoke, which is perhaps one of the most exciting and beautiful of our railway lines. I know of his great interest in railways. I can assure him that the line is getting and will continue to get urgent attention. His comments drag me rather beyond my knowledge and responsibilities in terms of specifics about railways, but I will take his comments back.

My Lords, perhaps I may add a footnote to this discussion, which I unfortunately missed because, for the past hour, I have been over at the BBC discussing the floods on “Daily Politics”. I expressed myself uninhibitedly amazed that anyone would ever have thought that it was a good idea to stop dredging on Sedgemoor, but then I learnt—this is a superb example of how good intentions can go awry—that this was a conservation measure in order deliberately to return it to marsh land in the interests of wildlife. It underlines the complexity of some of the issues that we have to deal with.

My Lords, it is a shame that the noble Lord was not here at Questions because we addressed that specific point. I said then that the agencies are working together to ensure that measures such as dredging can proceed. That is likely to be part of the outcome of the action plan which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has demanded. We are looking for that to proceed as rapidly as possible. It is fair to say, however, that it should do so while meeting our environmental requirements, which are set by among others the EU.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the point about the Dawlish line being likely to be closed for six weeks. Further stretches are at risk from strong waves, meaning that other areas are likely to suffer—that is obviously not just local people but businesses. I thank my noble friend for the comments he has made today, but my understanding is that no research has ever been done on the significant impact of flooding on businesses, often small businesses, that make up the backbone of rural economies and the disproportionate effect of that on rural economies, particularly in places like Somerset. There is no research that shows how flooding affects the range of supply and demand chains in an area and identifies what impact this has on the overall community resilience of an area. After the devastation of this winter’s flooding and given that we are facing more in the next few years, do the Government have any plans to commission research into and to investigate the impact of flooding on the economic resilience of local communities in order to identify any further necessary policy interventions or resources?

I thank my noble friend for that question. She suggests that there has been no research on the effects of flooding on businesses. I will take that matter away. I am pretty sure that it will be covered in the action plan that my right honourable friend is looking at, but I shall look into it.

My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the Minister the question that I was hoping to ask him at Question Time, which bears directly on the observations of the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater. Has any assessment yet been made of the possible public health impact or implications of land being under water for sustained periods, particularly where that land contains, for example, domestic sewerage infrastructure and where animal waste is also involved? Who, if anyone, is undertaking that assessment?

Yes, my Lords. Somerset County Council is working with Wessex Water to ensure that proper water sampling is carried out and to co-ordinate any mitigation measures that are needed. Public Health England has issued clear advice on how to avoid any risk to health. People in the affected areas are urged to follow that advice.

My Lords, as the former chairman of the National Rivers Authority—thankful that I no longer have various responsibilities in these circumstances—may I join in the expressions of sympathy for those who have suffered the horrors of being flooded and in the tributes to the Environment Agency’s ground staff and the other emergency services who have been doing sterling work? I welcome the capital commitments that have been made and the proposed changes to the Bellwin scheme.

I would like to take up two particular points that have arisen. The first is on the local accountability question. In my Second Reading speech on the Water Bill, I said that for the NRA, the cornerstone of our activities was catchment management and the existence of our regional advisory boards, chaired by a member of the board and involving all the locally involved organisations. I have a feeling that that arrangement, which was so crucial to our successes, was discontinued at some time. Can the Minister assure me that a similar arrangement will be put in place? On the subject of dredging, may I suggest that regular dredging year by year of the lower reaches of rivers is likely to be much more cost-effective than one-off occasional action to try to relieve pinch points that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place?

First, I reassure my noble friend that proper, ongoing local co-ordination is vital and is being, and will continue to be, undertaken. On his comments on dredging, I hear what he says and am conscious that he is quite right that it is not good enough to do it once: you have to do this process continually. I agree with him on that.

I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and by the noble Baroness earlier on, on the impact of flooding on the farmers whose land has been submerged under water for weeks on end. This is the second year in succession that many of those farmers have suffered this effect. May I take the opportunity—I am sure the whole House will support me in saying this—to thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for going down on Tuesday? His visit was very well received by the residents and farmers of the Somerset Levels. I have to declare an interest: I am a trustee of the Prince’s Countryside Fund and His Royal Highness announced that £50,000 would be made available to help the farmers of the Somerset Levels. His Grace the Duke of Westminster also made a contribution, so we are very grateful for that financial support.

The funds will be channelled through the agricultural charities for the immediate costs incurred by farmers as a consequence of flooding, whether for animal feed or whatever. However, it will not restore the pastures and crops that have been submerged under water. The longer-term impact of this is not well understood. My noble friend may well have views on that. May I ask him to think longer-term about how those farmers might be assisted in maintaining their livelihoods following this dramatic impact on the land that is under water?

First, I echo the noble Lord’s thanks to the Prince of Wales for his visit and financial contribution, and for the contribution of the Duke of Westminster, which are extremely welcome. We want to ensure that farmers are able to deal with challenges such as bad weather, to grow their businesses, create jobs and compete effectively in the marketplace. It has been very helpful that, in response to recent events, our colleagues at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency have agreed to a derogation to move cattle in Somerset without a pre-movement test. That may sound like a small thing, but it is important. I am aware, as the noble Lord said, that a number of charities are supporting struggling farmers more generally. I can also say to him that we have not heard from those charities that they have yet experienced a huge increase in demand, but I take on board his comments, which were extremely important.

My Lords, earlier today, I appeared to criticise the Government for making the situation worse when I asked my supplementary question. I used the word, “exacerbate” when I should, of course, have said, “alleviate”—as this Statement shows very clearly. Whether that counts as a personal apology, I am not entirely sure. However, much of the Somerset Levels is classified as a site of special scientific interest. The problem has been made worse not only, as my noble friend has just said, by not constantly dredging the main rivers, but by farmers being allowed to change their farming practices by, for example, not dredging their individual rhynes. Would my noble friend take this point into the department’s thinking on the long-term ways of improving the situation, not least with the Environment Agency?

My Lords, I welcome this Statement and will try not to repeat what others have said. In particular, I welcome the additional resources for emergency repairs. As the Minister has indicated, the full extent of the damage will not be known until the water subsides. The announcement on the review of the Bellwin scheme is encouraging and I look forward to hearing the detail on this. The Minister has referred to the partnerships working on the ground, and I am proud of the work and intervention in respect of this of South Somerset District Council, of which I am a member. It will take a lot more hard work and co-operation in partnership before we are through this current process. As with previous speakers, I am concerned for the future livelihoods of those living on the Somerset Levels, particularly the farmers. The debate about how to take this forward has to be started soon. Overall, however, I welcome the steps in the right direction made by the Government, but there is still some way to go.

My Lords, I would like to raise a constitutional point relating to Wales in the context of these storms. Some weeks ago, a number of noble Lords, including myself, were told by the noble Baroness, the Minister, that essentially, responsibility for these matters had been devolved to the Welsh Assembly. I appreciate that responsibility for marine structures, coastal defences and so on has no doubt been transferred. On the other hand, under the 20 headings that I included in the schedules to the Government of Wales Act 2006, there is great vagueness. There is nothing at all to say whether responsibility for storm damage or for substantial havoc caused by nature has ever been transferred. I would be most grateful if the Government would publish some sort of reasoned opinion in relation to the matter. With regard to the Bellwin proposals, I remember 30 years ago, soon after I came to this House, how sterling they were. Is Wales eligible to profit from such a fund—and, if so, to what extent?

The noble Lord has a habit of bowling fast constitutional balls. Of course, coastal regions right across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have been affected by flooding and severe weather conditions. Responsibility for flood management is, as he suspects, devolved to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is for those bodies and their agencies to determine how best to allocate resources to support affected areas.

I declare an interest as a former resident of beautiful Dawlish; the railway line from Exeter to the outskirts of Dawlish went through the constituency that I was very honoured to represent. I am therefore very familiar with the problems and quite horrified to see the size of the waves—with which, again, I am very familiar. May I reinforce to my noble friend the request of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, to look at alternative railway access to the far south-west? May I also urge my noble friend to encourage the Department for Transport to urgently reassess the need for more dualling of roads into the far south-west—the A30 immediately comes to mind— and to make sure that the economies of, particularly, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall are not impaired in this way if this is the sort of weather pattern we are to expect in the future?

My Lords, after the water subsides, I suspect that the next headache will be an insurance nightmare. One has not heard in the considerations of the lessons learnt whether the Government will try to understand the insurance implications for farmers, householders and businesses. One would imagine that, as a result of the now frequent flooding, many of those properties and businesses will be absolutely uninsurable—or insurable only at a cost that is entirely prohibitive. I hope that, once the catastrophe has been managed, the insurance implications going forward will be considered.

My noble friend is ever topical, because we will debate the issue of flood insurance, specifically in the context of the Water Bill, on Tuesday. He will know that we have been working very hard for many months with the Association of British Insurers on this very issue.