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Flooding: Agricultural Areas

Volume 752: debated on Monday 3 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to improve flood defences in agricultural areas.

My Lords, we are spending £2.4 billion in this four-year period on national flood risk management and much of the 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land at flood risk benefits from this investment. Over the past two years, our capital investment has provided improved protection to more than 150,000 hectares of farmland and many agricultural areas also benefit from the Environment Agency’s flood defence maintenance work.

My Lords, while I welcome the creation of the farm recovery fund to support bringing flooded land back into production, is my noble friend aware that the impact of the flooding means that the majority of crops in the current production season will be totally non-productive? This causes considerable hardship in many agricultural communities. I ask my noble friend what plans the Government have to alleviate this hardship.

Before I answer my noble friend’s question, I remind the House that I have a farm and that I am not unfamiliar with being flooded. The £10 million farming recovery fund will help farm businesses bring flooded agricultural land back into production as quickly as possible. In addition, £10 million is available under the farming and forestry improvement scheme—part of the rural development programme—which will provide support for farm business resilience. One hundred per cent rate relief is available to flooded businesses for three months. There are also, more generally, grants of up to £5,000 for households and businesses in affected areas to improve resilience of premises to future flooding.

My Lords, I declare an interest as my own village, Vernham Dean in rural Hampshire, has been very badly affected by the flooding. In our village, some householders have been told that although their insurance is valid if there is rising river water, it is invalid if flooding is as a result of rising water through the water table. This is preposterous on the part of insurance companies. Will the noble Lord do everything he can to ensure that insurance companies live up to their responsibilities to the people who have been paying their dues?

First, I extend my sympathy to the residents of the noble Baroness’s village and, indeed, the many other people who have suffered as a result of flooding in the last couple of months. I suspect that the specific answer to the question she raises is that unfortunately it depends on the drafting of the specific insurance contract. However, I sympathise strongly and I assure her that we are looking very carefully at the issue of insurance—as she will know—particularly in the context of the Water Bill currently before your Lordships.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen reports stating that where there are trees, managing flooding control is very much easier—apparently they aid the removal of water from the surface very effectively—but that the EU encourages our farmers to cut down trees? I do not know whether this is true, but if it is has he any comment to make about it?

My noble friend is right that trees planted in the right places can do much to help with flooding before it happens, as it were. I am not aware that the EU encourages people to cut down trees. Specifically, though, through the RDPE, the funding that we get from the common agricultural policy has been used to plant many millions of trees.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be only too aware of the huge contribution that British agriculture makes to food security. Could he therefore tell us what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made concerning the risk to food security due to poorly planned flooding amelioration and prevention schemes, which are allowing considerable areas of high-grade agricultural land to be taken out of production due to flooding?

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for coming to see me the other day to talk about these things. There is currently no evidence that flood events such as those experienced in 2007, 2009 or 2012—or, so far, in recent events—represent a threat to food security in the United Kingdom. According to the UK food security assessment, the UK enjoys a high level of food security as a developed, stable economy. I think it is more likely that disruption to transport links could impact access to food supplies, but we are watching this carefully.

My Lords, can the Minister advise the House whether any money is available from the European Union to offset these costs on the British Government? If so, have the Government drawn down any of that money?

I think that the noble Lord might be referring to the EU solidarity fund, which is designed to support recovery if a country is in an area that has been affected by a major natural disaster. The UK applied to the fund once before in 2007 when flooding affected over 48,000 households and 7,000 businesses. The threshold for a national disaster is still €3 billion, in 2002 prices. Recent events, although locally severe and certainly very traumatic for local residents, cannot be compared in terms of impacts or categorised as a major natural disaster. However, we will keep the matter under review.

My Lords, in a Somerset village completely cut off by water, a woman who normally works 45 to 50 hours per week to support her family is having to rely on a boat to get in and out. She is therefore not able to work nights and her working week has been reduced to 20 hours. Her income has dropped dramatically and she is now in rent arrears. Her house, however, is on high ground and well above the flood-water. Can the Minister assure us that this woman and others like her will be able to gain access to the grants announced by the Government?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, we have huge sympathy for those who have been affected and we are doing what we can to help. In my supplementary answer to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, I outlined a number of the schemes that are available. I suspect that I am going to need a bit more information about this specific case, and if my noble friend would like to get in touch we will see what we can do to help.

My Lords, is there not an argument for turning agricultural land that floods into reservoirs, thereby providing upstream storage of water which would help alleviate flooding problems, particularly in the Thames Valley?

My Lords, we are looking at a number of possible ways in which we can do this. The noble Lord will know that these things are not simple. I will have to ask him to have some patience while we look at the various options.