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Flood Defences

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of recent flood warnings and alerts, what assessment they have made of the state of the United Kingdom’s flood defences.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities.

My Lords, the Government are committed to long-term investment in new and existing flood defences. Some 96% of the UK’s key flood defences are at or above target condition, with temporary measures in place for those undergoing repair. The department, the Environment Agency and key responders are in a state of heightened readiness to respond rapidly to deploy pumps and temporary barriers, having learnt the lessons from the winter of 2013-14.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer, and the key responders and emergency services such as the Environment Agency, local councils, flood wardens and others for all that they do. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that maintenance spending will match capital spending on flood defences and that he will leverage in as much private sector funding to improve flood defences as is possible?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right in acknowledging the work that the vital services, the department, the Environment Agency, the Army and all sorts of voluntary groups do to deal with a dreadful situation when we have flooding of property and land. What the Government are doing by way of maintenance is important. Indeed, it was confirmed in the spending review that the maintenance budget would be safeguarded. It is also very important that we are spending more money on capital projects—£2.3 billion on more than 1,500 schemes. I am pleased to say that in the recovery programme for the maintenance of flood defences, 99.8% of flood defences damaged in the winter of 2013-14 now have permanent repairs. The remaining 0.2% have temporary repairs. Permanent repairs will be in place by March next year.

My Lords, given the spate of floods in recent years, what measures have the Government put in place to ensure that we are properly prepared for the next one?

My Lords, the best example of what my noble friend asked about is what happened over the weekend of 14-15 November this year, when very heavy rainfall was projected in the north of England. There was a considerable number of severe flood warnings and flood warnings. After the appropriate action was taken, 20,000 properties were protected by using permanent and temporary defences, such as pumps and barriers. I am sorry to say that 29 properties were flooded, but the work of people over that weekend prevented an enormous amount of damage.

My Lords, both the Question and the Minister’s Answer referred to the United Kingdom. What discussions have he and his colleagues in Defra had with their counterparts in the Scottish Government?

My Lords, clearly, because we are an extended family, we have continuing discussions, although Defra is responsible for England and the Scottish Government and the other Administrations are responsible for their areas. I have not personally had discussions, but discussions are taking place because, clearly, river courses cross boundaries. It is therefore important that we have a co-ordinated response because, for example, in the case of rain in the mountains of Wales, we need to work with the Welsh authorities to prevent the flow of water coming into the Severn.

My noble friend concentrated almost entirely on the maintenance activities of the actual flood defences. Does he not understand that it is almost equally important for the Environment Agency to work with the agricultural industry to prevent unnecessary flow off the land of the mud and silt that causes much of the damage, and for the local authorities and planning authorities to try to ensure that there is not unnecessary run-off from the hardstanding, concreting and all the other things that are a fundamental reason for much of the flooding?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that we need not only to protect property but to ensure that agricultural land and production of our food are safeguarded. That is why more than 98% of arable land in England is protected by flood-risk management assets. There has been no risk of flooding in those areas from seas and rivers.

My noble friend is absolutely right: we need to get our planning guidance right. That is why there has recently been a revision of planning guidance so that we avoid flash flooding as best we can. We are working closely with the NFU and our joint action plan on that is vital. My noble friend said that we need to reflect on how we farm near watercourses. We need to improve. Indeed, in relation to my noble friend who asked the Question, we are working on slowing the flow in Pickering, for instance. We have done great work in preventing flooding in Pickering by working with local farmers.

My Lords, as the Minister has already said, the memory of the last disastrous flooding of the winter of 2013-14 is still with us. Is the Minister confident that, when Flood Re comes on board next April, it will both cope and be fit for purpose?

My Lords, it was my privilege to take the Flood Re regulations through this House. We had an interesting and useful debate on them. Flood Re is expected to cover the 1% to 2% of households at the highest risk of flooding. It will protect people in those properties to ensure that they can find affordable flood insurance. It will come in next spring and it will be a great advantage for people in those situations.

My Lords, can my noble friend update the House on the progress being made with partnership funding? This can allow schemes to proceed that would not otherwise be able to do so.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Partnership funding is in addition to the £2.3 billion of government spending on capital expenditure, which we wish to have in our six-year investment programme. We think there is about £600 million additional partnership funding from private sources, local enterprise partnerships, public bodies and local levies. This will be very important. It will have a degree of flexibility, ensuring that we can work in areas that will be of the greatest benefit to the most people to protect their properties. It is a very important initiative.

My Lords, I declare an interest as my own village of Vernham Dean was badly affected by flooding last year, although I personally was not affected. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government have had discussions with the insurance companies to ensure that payments are made promptly when people are badly affected and have to leave their homes?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. I have not personally had those discussions but I will ask colleagues about it and write to the noble Baroness. My house was flooded and my insurance company—I had better not say which one—was very co-operative and worked extremely fast, so I think it is very important. As the noble Baroness said, it is about payment of bills. When someone is in the dreadful position of having their property flooded, we all need to rally round and the insurance companies need to pay.