Question for Short Debate
My Lords, given the appalling weather that many people experienced at the weekend, this is a more timely debate than I could have anticipated when I submitted the Question some weeks ago. It does, however, bring into sharp focus the need for adequate flood defences throughout the United Kingdom. I do not pretend that I need them in my house, but my cellar was a swimming pool at the weekend. Crucially, to be effective, these controls must be part of a long-term strategic plan that recognises the needs of local communities.
Flood warnings are no longer a rarity. Those red hazard triangles are now a regular feature of our weather forecasts and rising global temperatures mean that we can expect more of the same in the future. Only this month, the National Audit Office warned that,
“climate change means that the weather is becoming more unpredictable, leading to increased risk of severe weather events”.
Indeed, in 2012 the Government’s risk assessment reported that changes in the global climate would significantly increase flood risk for our country. Yet despite this knowledge, they have been responsible for slashing funding for flood protection by nearly £100 million, a real-terms cut of 17%.
In practice, this means that hundreds of flood defence schemes are currently on hold, three-quarters are not being maintained as they should and half are receiving only minimal maintenance. It leaves some places, for example Great Yarmouth, which has the highest number of homes at real risk of flooding, even more vulnerable. The independent Committee on Climate Change, whose adaptation sub-committee is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has made it clear that the current level of government support for managing flooding will result in 80,000 more properties being at significant risk.
Ministers knew that the possibility of flooding during this Parliament was more likely, but still they decided to cut budgets. Unfortunately, last winter, as record levels of rain fell across the UK, we saw exactly the sort of consequences one would expect: around 7,700 homes and 3,200 businesses were affected; 49,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded; and rail, road, air and sea travel was severely disrupted. Some of the worst-affected areas were in the south-west of England, an area I know the Minister knows well, particularly in the county of Somerset, when the River Parrett burst its banks causing havoc to homes and businesses in the nearby towns and villages. The clear-up operation was slow, to say the least, and only after the water subsided did the Government turn their attention to dredging.
When Parliament broke for the Summer Recess, just £403,000 had been paid out to Somerset farmers, and only £2,320 to fishermen in the south-west, from the original £10 million pledged—so much for the Prime Minister’s assertion that “money is no object”. Not only this, but the Somerset Levels flood action plan, which will put necessary flood defences in place, and which is very welcome, continues to be surrounded by uncertainty. The 20-year strategy requires government investment of £100 million, yet only a third of that has been promised. Considering the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves the country an average of £8 in flood damage, this is deeply troubling and does not seem to make economic sense. When he responds, will the Minister give clear answers on how and where funding has been and will be allocated in the south-west?
Of course, it was not just the south-west that was impacted or that looks set to continue to have problems. In Worcester, an area very close to me, budgets for flood defences have been cut by 33%. Many, including local expert Mary Dhonau,
“don’t know how on earth Worcestershire will cope with this reduction”.
These examples show what happens when you have a blinkered approach to flood defence management. Not only do we need an immediate strategy to protect the 5.2 million homes at risk of flooding, but the nature of the risk demands that we also have a long-term plan. That is what the last Labour Government put in place, and it is exactly what the current Government have scrapped. After the severe floods in 2007, there was a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle flooding as all political parties signed up to the Pitt review and subsequent spending plans. David Cameron has, however, gone back on these commitments. Indeed, he appointed as his Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, whose views on Europe could be described as misguided and on climate change as quite frankly dangerous as, time and again, he questioned its scientific basis. Not only did he reduce domestic funding for climate adaptation by 40%, but he removed preparing for and managing risk from flooding from Defra’s priorities. This is highly significant because it makes it far more difficult to think strategically about issues or to adapt to long-term trends. Those areas that might not be as susceptible to severe flooding at present, but may be in the future, are being exposed. We can already see evidence of this happening, in Stevenage for example.
This is an area that is not generally prone to flooding, but Hertfordshire County Council has reduced gully and highway maintenance. In September this year, when Stevenage suffered heavy rains, three areas in the town were badly flooded and residents are still out of their homes. To add to their problems, the complexity of the system means that those who are affected do not know who is accountable at a time when, as I am sure the Minister agrees, clarity is paramount. Thanks to a government approach gone wrong, short-sightedness has led to nothing more than pain.
I am sure that in the Minister’s response he will refer to the additional £270 million of funding. However, it was not additional funding. Even after you add it to the total spending on flood defence and management, areas such as the south-west, Great Yarmouth and Worcester were still left short. The point is that the money was allocated after the flooding took place and, as the National Audit Office so succinctly put it:
“As a rule, our experience is that ad hoc emergency spending is less good value than sustained maintenance”.
We know that when you invest, it works. It serves for the long term. A few years ago there were terrible floods in Gloucester and the electricity station was in danger. My Government invested and, despite mighty rains, the station and the surrounding houses, which used to be flooded, have since been safe. We are in danger of going backwards. The next Labour Government will reprioritise long-term preventive spending that will reduce flood risk, as well as establish an independent national infrastructure commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, including flood defences. This not only recognises the threat that climate change poses to communities across the country, it also puts people at its core.
If we invest, if we engage, if we support, not only can we save money in the long term, we can also ensure that people can live safe in the knowledge that their homes and families are protected. Surely that is the most important role that any Government can play.
My Lords, I declare an interest as I have recently taken on a chairmanship at Buckthorn Partners, a partnership which identifies and seeks to make investments in the mining, oil and gas services and water industries. Our main objective is to invest in clean and used water technologies with applications in the Middle East, for example in desalination-driven markets and in countries facing drought and water shortages, such as Saudi Arabia. This may seem a far cry from the subject of our debate—flood defences—and it is, as we have made no investments in the UK water industry and certainly not in flood protection. However, I adhere strongly to the principle that if there might be construed to be any doubt over a declaration of interest, then declare, declare, declare.
This week sees the culmination of a series of events reflecting on the 25 years since water privatisation, the original Bill for which I was ministerially responsible during its parliamentary stage in another place. There are good reasons for celebration. Both parties have subsequently worked closely together to ensure that one of the principal objectives of the Bill, that of ensuring that the water companies gained access to long-term capital markets to make the substantial necessary investments required of the sector, was achieved. The separation of functions in the industry between the National Rivers Authority and the industry recognised the need to ensure that the gamekeeper did not have the opportunity to turn poacher. Emphasis was placed on the equally important requirement for long-term investment in flood defences. Subsequently, with increasing rather than decreasing all-party consensus as the ideological divide over the original privatisation dissipated, a great deal of further work has been undertaken by Governments of both political complexions.
On the question of adequate flood defences, I would argue that the issue is not how much investment is made, but how effective that investment is. Only this year, the hard work of my noble friend the Minister paid off when the House recognised and acted upon the fact that water resources were under significant pressure in parts of the United Kingdom and water supply constraints were predicted to spread in the future. The need to secure future investment was realised and the importance of resisting considerable upward pressure on water bills recognised. In all aspects of the water industry, the key issue is the quality of investment programmes and this is nowhere more so than in flood defences and measures to combat coastal erosion. In that context, my noble friend Lord Deben has done outstanding work on the protection and strengthening of coastal defences, particularly on the east coast. The Minister has achieved his aim of delivering more resilient water supplies and, in the context of water management and flood protection, a new flood insurance scheme for domestic properties and a new duty for the regulator to focus on the long-term resilience of water supplies.
Consumers, with their concerns echoing in the press, simply and effectively amplified by dramatic photography, cannot understand why we apparently move from damaging floods and excess rain to drought orders in a matter of months. They rightly look to Government to provide adequate investment in flood defences, a strategy to conserve water in the summer months, and a national plan of reservoir management to safeguard this most required commodity for our survival. One reason why the Minister needed to make progress on the Water Bill a year ago was to give time to establish a new insurance scheme for those in areas of high flood risk to secure affordable insurance cover. That progress is being made on the introduction of Flood Re is to the significant credit of the Minister and his team. I would be grateful if he could update noble Lords on the precise level of progress being made.
The scale of the problem was not only one for the much publicised Somerset Levels and the countryside. It is important to place on record the impact of the 2013-14 floods here in our capital city. As cited in the evidence from London councils at the time, floods can clearly devastate the economy of our high streets, many of which contain SMEs and charity shops. They are affected by damage not just to property but also to stock, and it can take a long time to recover. The flood hazard and risk maps published by the Environment Agency just under a year ago show that more than 166,000 non-residential properties are at risk of flooding in the Thames area, nearly 76,000 of which are in London.
The broader challenge is to ensure we have coherent policies in place to cope with the inevitable effects if we do not address the need for adequate flood defences, and so I would ask the Minister to consider the following points when he comes to answer this debate. How far have the recommendations of the Pitt review, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, been implemented, and in particular progress on flood forecasting? How prepared are we for future floods and how effective does he estimate our current level of flood defences to be? Will he give an update on his assessment of the effectiveness and life expectancy of the Thames Barrier? Have we increased the number of specialist flood rescue teams on standby, as promised, and whether the record levels of capital investment in projects on his watch are, in his view, effective and adequately audited for their effectiveness?
I conclude by picking up on the important subject of the Somerset Levels raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. The Levels pose a unique challenge and I ask the Minister to give due consideration to introducing a new legislative framework for the area. I have long believed that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Authority, formed under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, in which I declare an interest having taken the Bill through another place, has been an important example of a special statutory authority managing an area and thus affording a level of co-operation and protection similar to a national park. I believe it may be an appropriate model for the Somerset Levels and I would ask Ministers to give it due consideration in the future.
I conclude with the observation that the key to avoiding widespread damage to property from flooding is co-operation between the agencies, effective investment and flood prevention and asset resilience through regular and sustained maintenance, and investment in our flood defence assets and watercourses. Such measures are always preferable to clean-ups. I hope the Minister will be able to throw more light on the important issues raised in this debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, on having secured this timely opportunity, as we head into winter, for parliamentary consideration of the level of adequate flood defences throughout the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for securing this debate. Flooding and its long-term effects is a subject dear to my heart and one from which the local community in Somerset has not fully recovered following last year’s appalling weather, which has been referred to by other noble Lords. Everyone saw on their television screens the effects on the communities of the Somerset Levels and surrounding villages. Night after night, week after week, we saw images of homes flooded and of people cut off from schools, shops, jobs and communities.
We saw the sterling work of the fire brigade and their boats in rescuing and ferrying people to and from their homes to safety. We witnessed innumerable visits from dignitaries, high-ranking officials, party leaders and others as they went on fact-finding missions, offered words of sympathy and promised metaphorical jam tomorrow. Government and local councils, submerged—forgive the pun—by the welter of publicity surrounding them, announced initiative after initiative in response to the call to do something. Sadly, this then became part of the problem and not necessarily the solution.
There was money from Defra, the DCLG, the Environment Agency, LEPs, county councils, district councils and others, some of which was targeted at flood alleviation and relief, and some at mitigating the financial impact on residents and businesses. While this was welcomed and well intentioned, it was confusing because residents especially were not sure which fund they were supposed to apply to for relief and sometimes they did not qualify for one fund but did for another. It was all very confusing at a time of great stress. I hope that in future there will be greater clarity.
In Somerset, all the agencies worked together and produced a flood action plan. I do not share the misgivings and pessimism of the noble Baroness about that. This was published in February 2014, having been given a very tight timetable by central government. This was an extensive piece of work and covered both soft and hard measures to secure alleviation of the effects of flooding. This area of Somerset is never going to be entirely free from flooding. It is a given by the very nature of the area. However, mitigation is key.
There were six objectives in the flood action plan: reduce the frequency, depth and duration of flooding; maintain access for communities and businesses; increase resilience to flooding for families, agriculture, businesses, communities and wildlife; make the most of the special characteristics of the Somerset Levels and moors; ensure strategic transport connectivity, both within Somerset and through the county to the south-west peninsula; and promote business confidence and growth. This was a very big ask after such devastation. However, work has continued and the progress update in September showed that much had been achieved against targets and more work should be completed shortly.
The first eight kilometres of the Tone and Parrett rivers have now been dredged by the Environment Agency—a long overdue measure—and the capacity of the King’s Sedgemoor Drain is to be increased. Somerset County Council will undertake appropriate roadworks to allow the river Sowy channel to be widened and will install locking gates on roads that regularly flood to prevent drivers becoming stranded. The construction of a barrier or sluice at Bridgwater will be speeded up, with the objective of achieving delivery by 2024. That sounds a long way off but it is a big project.
The newly established Somerset rivers board will have greater control and responsibility for work to maintain and improve water management on the Levels and moors. This is a key step forward. It is essential that those on the ground who know the area and have done so for many years are the ones who should take control and ownership of what happens. Only then will we see sustainable solutions coming forward.
Community resilience will also be important in future years. In Moorland, hundreds of volunteers from all over the country arrived to assist local residents. Such were their numbers, they completely overwhelmed local agencies. At the time, there was no system in place for dealing with the numbers and no structures to ensure that their time and energy were used to best effect. The Somerset Emergency Volunteers, under the auspices of the South Somerset Association for Voluntary and Community Action and in conjunction with local district councils, came to the rescue. Everyone in the area owes a great debt of gratitude both to the volunteers who arrived in such numbers to help and to the SSVCA for organising that help so efficiently.
Last Monday evening, South Somerset District Council held a flooding reassurance meeting for all those who had been affected. More than 100 people turned up. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the Environment Agency team and its illustrations, which clearly and simply explained how the water on the Levels and moors was managed and where the key trigger points were for operating pumps and sluices, to prevent widespread flooding beyond the system’s originally designed capacity. All this is good news, but it will not solve the problem by a long way.
In his Statement in the other place on 6 March this year, the Secretary of State reported that 7,000 properties across England had been flooded during the winter. On 30 October, in answer to a Written Question, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded that £3.2 billion would have been spent on flood defences over the course of this Parliament, compared to £2.7 billion over the previous five years, and that since 2010, the level of protection had been improved to more than 165,000 households. It seems as though the problem is being given a high priority, but I worry that the money available will be put into hard construction solutions, instead of softer measures, such as dredging. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on how this money will be allocated and spent.
My Lords, the Moses Room is an appropriate room for this debate: maybe we should just part the waters. Seriously, as money is short while the dangers of flooding and water mismanagement are rising, rather than going for more and more expensive government infrastructure projects, commercial solutions, more research and lengthy reports, Her Majesty’s Government would do well to turn to already tried and tested, successful community methods of river and water control. There are very simple measures that can be taken now and do not cost a lot of money. They are not high-tech interventions, but they improve the catchment capacity by working with the community on simple measures.
There are several case studies in which solutions to flooding were achieved at low cost. There are many other flood-risk areas where such measures would equally apply. I compliment the Government on the work that has already been done, but there seems to be a great opportunity of implementing these measures more through local communities at low cost. In the village of Belford, in Northumberland, the Government estimated a £2 million cost of preventing the village from flooding using high-level engineering solutions. The actual cost of building a local, simple intervention in the landscape was less than £150,000 and the village now has the lowest incidence of flooding in its history. Moreover, last year at Holnicote in Somerset, the National Trust spent just £160,000 building such a community intervention, using natural flood management from the source of the river right down to the sea. The Environment Agency says that this protected £30 million of assets from the consequences of flooding last year.
Preventable soil-compaction events—due to basic lack of understanding or responsibility—could be averted at minimal cost by liaising with landowners on keeping their topsoil fertile and uncompacted. Runoff from grazed watershed has been shown to be 30% greater than that from ungrazed watershed. In the cases where this has worked, community action by farmers, land managers, the Environment Agency, local government and residents has led to very simple measures being taken, such as buffer strips, bunds and other soil retention techniques. These have slowed the flow sufficiently to protect downstream areas from serious flooding events and retained the fertile topsoil in the area, rather than washing it away into the sea downstream.
In 2011, Defra commissioned a study on 25 catchment management solutions such as these. The findings proved that catchment-based planning was successful and viable financially. Its recommendations included the following:
“Recognising that the costs of the Catchment Based Approach are low compared to the benefits generated, there is a compelling case for the wider adoption of the approach in England … Catchment groups should be allowed to develop their objectives and approach based on the needs of the catchment, the support available from the catchment stakeholders and local circumstances … This should not be prescriptive but allow local governance and activities to reflect local issues”.
However, it also spoke of the problem of funding. It went on to say that there are also a number of barriers, particularly through,
“confusion over available funding streams and timescales”.
There is a mismatch between the work that needs to happen and the current streams of funding.
This is not a top-down approach requiring huge funding and planning; these are small, simple, community-led initiatives with local and national government as equal partners. It is a lot less expensive and could even be self-funding in the long run. As in other areas of our ineffective banking system, while channels exist to put money into expensive technology and heavy solutions to flooding, there are only fragmented streams of funding to support these inexpensive natural measures. It is imperative that channels are created to allow local authority funding for these simple measures. This requires work at two levels: bringing the community together and building the needed interventions along the catchment area. We need more engagement from large landowners and land managers. The Government need to begin to approve, across the nation, the availability of local funds to experts and the community in restoring the catchments with simple measures, so preventing major flood events.
This is not either/or; it can occur alongside the bigger measures and will show the Government to be effective in a very short time in turning around the bleak prospect that we face this winter. The rapid and good growth in this country of social enterprises and the creation of impact bonds, developed by Sir Ronald Cohen, could be an excellent mechanism here. We could look at starting an impact bond programme where the community itself is able to invest in the long-term benefits of such measures for its area, and this would become self-funding.
Is the Minister prepared, with appropriate members of the government team, to meet those who have been working on such successful low-cost methods, cutting across disciplines and bringing unlikely departments together to achieve community-led results? I would be happy to play a part in facilitating that.
My Lords, although the noble Baroness’s Question asks about the Government’s plans for adequate flood defences in the UK, I hope that she will allow me to turn my attention to the situation in my part of Wales, for which the Welsh Government have responsibility—although, of course, they are restricted by the Barnett settlement in the amount of funding that they receive from the UK Government. I am sure that the Minister takes an active interest in flood defences throughout the UK, including Wales.
I shall give some explanation of my interest in this debate. My interest, like that of many noble Lords, comes from where I live. I live in north Wales in the Conwy Valley, through which the Conwy river flows. The river has its source in Lake Conwy, in the area surrounded by the Migneint and Berwyn mountains, and flows into the sea at Conwy. The river and its name, as noble Lords can no doubt imagine, sometimes dominate our lives.
The small town in which I live, Llanrwst, sits at one of the narrowest points of the river and has an almost iconic status within Wales as the town that is always affected by floods. Year after year, newspaper and television reports have shown the damage to properties and the devastation to the lives of some of our inhabitants. Comparatively recent floods in 2004 and 2005, where there were three flood events within two years, left over 60 properties flooded, some of which flooded twice in a matter of days, leaving householders unable to sell their properties or arrange future insurance cover.
I am among the first to criticise the Welsh Government for their failures but I am also among the first to praise them when the occasion allows, and this is such an occasion. The work begun by the then Environment Minister for Wales, Jane Davidson, and Environment Agency Wales, is now beginning to come to fruition and, hopefully, the residents of our town can have more confidence in being able to withstand the powers of future floods. I offer these descriptions as examples of actions that Governments can take.
Over the intervening years since 2005, the Welsh Government have put schemes in place to alleviate the floods. Although they are designated as flood alleviation schemes, they can also be described as providing flood defences for the town. A £3.2 million major engineering scheme—85% funded by the Welsh Government, with the remaining 15% funded by Conwy County Borough Council—saw tunnelling work carried out under our streets and the construction of a massive culvert. Flood gates now automatically open when the floodwater rises. The water is stored under our streets until the river level begins to drop and the gates again open to allow the water to flow back into the river. One of the characteristics of the River Conwy is that it is tidal from its mouth at the Irish Sea to about two or three miles north at Llanrwst. When a high tide is coming up river and meets the torrential floodwaters making their way down from the mountains, our town becomes the pinchpoint.
The Conwy Valley is primarily rural and one of our major industries is agriculture. Over the years, flood banks have been constructed alongside the river, leaving the rich soil of the flood plains to be grazed, or cultivated by farmers. This added to our problems, narrowing the river channel and increasing the pressure of both flood and tidal waters and increasing the speed with which they met.
In a further £7 million scheme, funded by European objective 1 funding, a Welsh Government block grant and Environment Agency Wales’s flood defence budget, other steps have been taken to deal with the problem. In very sensitive talks with local agricultural representatives and farmers, agreement, with compensation, was reached to reduce the height of the flood banks, allowing 450 acres of low-lying land to be flooded and allowing the flood plains to do the work that they should have been doing over the years. Further flood banks were then constructed at the next village down river, Trefriw, in order to protect homes there. Perhaps I should add here a comment and warning that flood defences in one particular location can have a knock-on effect on other locations further down river.
All these measures have proved successful and following the latest flood event in the valley in January 2013, when 95 millimetres of rain fell in two days and the volume of water was equal to that of 2005, a spokesperson for Environment Agency Wales said:
“Homes in Llanrwst and Trefriw were protected as a result of the flood scheme completed in 2010 … We have seen unprecedented levels of rainfall in 2012 and it is testament to this initiative and the hard work of our officers that the defences held up to safeguard properties in Llanrwst and Trefriw“.
In another part of the £7 million scheme, Dutchdam and Bauer demountable defences were selected and purchased to protect the most vulnerable properties, if all the other measures fail. These barriers can be erected quickly, which is essential for use in an area where the river rises quickly and where there can be a relatively short warning period. Mercifully, there has been no need for these barriers yet, but, as others who live close to rivers will testify, one can never be certain.
Work has recently been completed to protect a further 42 properties close to one of the small tributaries which flows through the town and is liable to flood estates as the water backs up and tries to join the fast-flowing and more powerful River Conwy. This scheme, again funded by the Welsh Government and following a plan developed by Conwy County Borough Council, aims to increase the capacity of the existing watercourse by raising flood walls, realigning and increasing the size of culvert inlets and replacing trash screens.
Those of us who live in close proximity to water have a healthy regard for its power, force and unpredictability and would never be foolish enough to say that such schemes are guaranteed to make flooding a thing of the past. We all understand that each river and each incident of flooding has its own characteristics and a solution achieved in one location will not necessarily apply to another location, but our experience in the Conwy Valley shows that innovative thinking and creative engineering can make a difference.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Royall for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for what has been an interesting, informative and timely debate. I thank all noble Lords for the breadth of their comments, which have reflected what an important issue this is, not just in terms of its impact on everyday lives but also for the infrastructure of the country. Flooding is something that, as a wet and crowded island, we have experienced probably since we first inhabited this land, but the facts of climate change are such that we now know that we are going to be exposed to changes in weather patterns that mean that this will be a growing threat into the future. In that context, we need leadership from Government and a long-term strategy.
I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out and reiterating the fact that that is exactly what a Labour Government would implement. Our record in this area is strong, as has been mentioned. In 2008, in reaction to the severe flooding that we saw then, the Pitt review took a comprehensive look at the problem and came forward with 92 recommendations. Unfortunately, even today not one of those recommendations has been put in place and the Government have apparently abandoned any process for updating on progress towards their implementation. Will the Minister give us an update on the position? That echoes a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. Exactly how are we doing on the Pitt recommendations, which were comprehensive and at the time enjoyed the support of all parties?
The sad fact is that under this Government, as with so many things, we have seen a complete undermining of common sense by people who simply do not seem able to grasp the bigger picture of what is affecting our country. In the interests of short-term cost savings, flood defence budgets have been slashed. As has been pointed out, the real-terms budget for the Environment Agency has been cut by 17%. A small increase was granted—I am sure that the Minister will refer to it—but that was merely to fix damaged infrastructure. The budget then returned back to a lower level and is set to remain static until 2021. That simply does not demonstrate the leadership that we need and does not reflect the reality that flooding is a pressing problem that needs a long-term vision.
As my noble friend Lady Royall pointed out, it is not at all surprising that we are in this position. Let us remember that we had in Owen Paterson a climate sceptic leading the department responsible for this area. As has been mentioned, he removed from the department’s list of strategic priorities the preparation and response to flood risk. Will the Minister respond to the question of whether that has been reinserted back into the department’s strategy? Has the new Secretary of State, Liz Truss, put this back on to her department’s top priority list? It should certainly be there because not only does flooding have a direct impact on people’s lives and valuables—it is a hugely destructive and traumatic event—but it also has an impact on our economy and on our farming. Defra should certainly have flooding as one of its priorities, and I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Stone for pointing out the link between flood prevention and land management. Not only can proper land management mitigate and help to prevent flood and run-off, which is becoming an increasing problem, it also helps us to protect our soils. Soil is a valuable resource but it is being eroded. Satellite photographs taken after a major flooding event show a brown stream of soil that has been washed away from the land and is making its way to the sea. That is the loss of a valuable asset, and I do not believe that this Government, as in so many other things, have the full picture and a strategic overview of how serious this issue is for our country.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right to raise the issue of the Flood Re proposals that the Government brought forward, and again I am sure that the Minister will mention them. There have been many exemptions to the new scheme, though, and I would like an update from the Minister on how it is progressing. In his estimation, how many houses remain outside that important protective measure, which enables people to have access to insurance?
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also raised the issue of the Thames Barrier. This is important, not only in terms of how well it protects London. It was a massive infrastructure project, commissioned by Lady Thatcher in the knowledge that climate change was going to be an issue. What are the current Government doing to assess the need for upgrades to the barrier, which is being used far more frequently than was ever imagined? Will they show the same kind of vision and leadership in understanding what they need to do to protect the country?
One aspect of prevention is not building on flood plains. Since 2009, an additional 4,000 new homes have been built on flood plains. Could the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that Environment Agency advice is adhered to and that, in our rush to build houses, we are not exposing people to more risks by building on flood plains?
My final point is about local authorities and their ability to respond. I understand that, since 2011, local authorities have been obliged to produce strategies and plans but only a small percentage have actually done so. I suspect that this is because they have been subject to huge pressures from central government budget cuts. Exactly what percentage of local authorities have submitted a plan for flood management? What are the Government doing to ensure that more of them respond and put plans in place?
This issue does not just affect the UK; the impact of climate change knows no boundaries. There is a misperception by many on the government Benches that climate change is somehow going to be a net benefit—that it will all be fine and we will all just grow wine in Kent. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and the noble Viscount Lord Ridley, certainly gives that impression. I hope that the Minister is not at all seduced by that logic. There will be some benefits but there will also be very significant and serious disbenefits and risks, and we must take action. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, was right: this is a very fitting place to have this debate. Unlike in Moses’ case, though, this is not an act of God; we are generating a man-made problem of environmental risk. The Government have not shown themselves capable of responding to the risk of climate change on any level, and I am sad to say that this is reflected in their response to flooding. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the very pertinent questions posed this evening.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for securing the debate today and giving us the opportunity to discuss flood defences in England. As has been amply explained today, flooding can have devastating impacts on communities, and recovery can be a long and distressing process for those affected. Flood defence is therefore something in which we all have a significant interest. That is why we are investing £3.2 billion in flood and coastal erosion risk management over the course of this Parliament. That money helps the Environment Agency to manage its £24 billion flood defence asset base and continue to invest in new and improved defences each year.
After the winter storms last year, when our defences took a considerable battering, we made available an additional £270 million to repair, restore and maintain critical defences. The Environment Agency and other risk management authorities have undertaken a considerable amount of work since then to ensure that we are ready for the winter ahead. Repairs to damaged flood defences are on track and no communities will be at greater risk than last year going into this winter. Despite the exceptional weather last winter, it is important to remember that our defences protected about 1.4 million properties and more than 250,000 hectares of farmland.
We are spending £170 million on maintenance this year alone, but this is only part of the answer. It allows us to continue protecting those who are currently protected, but capital investment in new or improved defences means that we can reduce flood risk overall. This year, 54 new flood defence projects will begin construction. When complete, they will protect more than 42,000 households. From April next year we will be making record levels of investment through an unprecedented long-term six-year capital commitment, so I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, on the need for long-term plans.
We will be spending £2.3 billion on capital investment in improving defences right up to 2021. We will be publishing our long-term investment programme of flood defence improvement projects with the Autumn Statement. This programme will help to secure significant savings through new ways of working made possible by the scale, certainty and length of the capital commitment. These savings, which I am confident will far exceed our 15% target, will be boosted by substantial contributions from other sources. In addition to the total number of properties that we are currently protecting, the programme will also help us to reduce the risk of flooding to an additional 300,000 households by March 2021. This is on top of the 165,000 homes whose protection has been improved over the course of this spending review.
In addition to government funding, through our partnership funding approach we are on course to bring in up to £140 million of extra funding between 2011 and 2015. This approach allows greater transparency, increases certainty and allows local communities to influence what happens in their local areas. It has also meant that significantly more schemes are going ahead than would have been possible under the old approach.
I turn now to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, drew attention to the NAO report. We do not recognise the assessment that she portrays. The Environment Agency’s own target is to have 97% of its assets in high-consequence systems in the required condition. As the NAO report states, until 2013-14 the agency exceeded its targets. As I said earlier, defences took a pounding over the past winter. However, a national assessment after the damage showed that 94% were still in target condition, and we have provided the Environment Agency with all the funding needed to return its assets to target condition as soon as possible. Good progress is being made, and we will soon be announcing when the Environment Agency expects to get back to target condition.
The noble Baroness also raised a point suggesting a requirement for £8 of benefit for every £1 spent. I should make it absolutely clear that we do not insist on £8 of benefit for every £1 spent; eight to one is the average anticipated benefit that we expect to gain from our overall capital investment in flood and erosion risk management over the current spending period. It is an important measure of the overall value for money that we get in return for taxpayer investment in flood defence, but it has no bearing on funding for individual projects.
The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lady Bakewell referred to Somerset. Indeed, as my noble friend said, in response to the flooding in Somerset this year we worked with local partners to develop an action plan to manage the risk of flooding there. The plan is wide-ranging. It covers flood risk management projects, farming and land management interventions, transport infrastructure, planning and community resilience issues. We have committed £20.5 million to support the delivery of the action plan. As my noble friend said, the dredging of eight kilometres of the rivers Parrett and Tone was completed to schedule by the end of October. I echo my noble friend’s tribute to the volunteers who worked so tirelessly and offered their services free of charge, and to those farmers from elsewhere in the country who so generously sent feed and other supplies to help out in the farming community. It was a wonderful demonstration of the generosity of our country.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Worthington, commented on the approach taken to climate change. We prioritise the need to adapt to our changing climate across government and well beyond. We will of course look to learn any lessons from the recent extreme weather events. Longer-term impacts, including climate change, are fully taken into account in the Environment Agency’s decision-making processes on flood risk management. Shortly it will publish its updated long-term investment scenarios, which will take full account of climate change in its consideration of longer-term financial sustainability.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan asked about progress with regard to Flood Re. I can tell him that it is on schedule to be established by July next year. After a period of testing, and once the appropriate authorisation is in place, households at high risk of flooding will be guaranteed access to full flood insurance. Insurers have agreed meanwhile to continue to abide by the statement of principles, which ensures continued access to flood insurance until Flood Re is fully operational.
My noble friend asked about progress on the Pitt review, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. The vast majority of the Pitt review’s recommendations have been implemented. We are committed to implementing the remaining four recommendations at the earliest opportunity. Progress on one or two of them has been affected by the need to settle complex issues raised by stakeholders. However, noble Lords may rest assured that those are receiving full attention.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked about the Thames Barrier. I agree that it is vital, which is why I have gone to inspect it. The Environment Agency’s latest studies indicate that if the sea level continues to rise in line with the most likely climate change scenario, the Thames Barrier will continue to provide its design standard of service until around 2070.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, called for more local involvement in action. I agree with him. That is the basis for the partnership funding concept, which stems from recommendations in the Pitt review. The aim of this approach is to give local areas a bigger say in what action is taken to protect them, in return for more local contributions towards the benefits delivered. It provides more transparency over funding levels from Government for each and every potential investment, creates space for local and private contributions to come forward to help to pay for the significant benefits to land, property, infrastructure and other assets realised when defences are built, and focuses government support on areas most at risk and people in the most deprived parts of the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, raised another issue, in response to which I will say that Defra is sponsoring three demonstration projects to assess more thoroughly the impacts that land management might make on local flood risk. These are all partnership projects between Government and other entities: Pickering in North Yorkshire, led by the Forestry Commission; Holnicote in Somerset, led by the National Trust, to which the noble Lord referred; and the River Derwent in Derbyshire, led by the Environment Agency and a national park.
The noble Lord also commented on the catchment-based approach. Our evaluation shows that there is potential for the catchment-based approach to support flood and coastal erosion risk management, but the degree to which we use those partnerships for that purpose is something that we are still exploring with them or with the relevant risk management authorities. I agree with the noble Lord that it is not all about hard solutions; he made a point about soft solutions being appropriate in some cases. I have no argument with that; finding the appropriate solution is the important thing. I am of course happy to meet him, as he suggested.
My noble friend Lady Humphreys drew our attention to what happened and is happening in Wales. She knows that I am not responsible for what goes on there, but we are all grateful for her interesting and informative contribution.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, and my noble friend Lady Bakewell both made comments about fragmented sources of funding. It is fair to say that a number of schemes were put in place specifically following the past winter in order to help affected families, businesses and communities to recover from the flooding. In some cases, these schemes were tightly targeted, such as schemes to help farmers or fishermen, or for local authorities to repair damaged roads. The Government will reflect on the lessons from their recovery efforts, and I am sure that the points made by noble Lords will be taken into account as we do that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked whether flood protection is a strategic priority for my new Secretary of State. I confirm to her that it is: it is right up there.
We must plan ahead effectively and invest where it will provide the most benefit in protecting people and property from flooding. We are looking at what further flood defences are needed in future, and updated long-term scenarios will be published later this year. These scenarios will take full account of climate change in consideration of longer-term financial sustainability.