Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to put to the Government the Question before us. If there was a sound track to this debate it would probably include Phil Collins’s “In Too Deep”.
It is important to note the destructiveness of the recent flooding, given that the news agenda moves on very quickly and communities which found themselves at the heart of a sympathetic nation quickly feel themselves to be forgotten. For some of the communities in my diocese, the recent floods come in the wake—almost literally—of other occurrences in recent years. For them the need for longer-term and more joined-up measures is obvious.
I pay tribute to civic leaders, emergency services, public service workers, members of the Armed Forces, the Environment Agency and local volunteers, many of whom sacrificed holidays and family time over Christmas to support victims of this appallingly destructive flooding. Churches in many of the affected communities offered refuge, sanctuary and practical support in providing meals, clothing and the distribution of emergency resources. In places such as Kirkstall in Leeds, Bingley, Ilkley, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Sowerby, people got stuck in. The Sikh charity Khalsa Aid helped in Hebden Bridge, and I know that Muslims worked hard to provide relief and help in Cumbria as well as affected parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. These impressive stories demonstrate that perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan still echoes through this generation in the costly and practical support of one’s neighbour. It is also appropriate here to salute the insurance companies, many of which have been praised for the speed and nature of their response to those flooded. Affected churches have greatly valued the service of the Ecclesiastical Insurance group in particular during recent weeks.
The Government’s response to the latest flooding in Yorkshire and Lancashire has involved repeated use of the word “unprecedented”. Of course, by definition a unique event is unprecedented, but it is of no comfort to people who have lost their homes or businesses that an event is unprecedented, nor does it help when the enormity of the immediate flooding happens to be greater than the last time, which also ruined homes and businesses and in some cases left people uninsurable—hence the Question in this debate.
I shall give some numbers. Around 16,000 properties have been affected in northern England and Scotland. At the end of December, KPMG estimated that the total cost of flood damage would exceed £5 billion. The Association of British Insurers estimates that claims will total £1.3 billion. The average domestic claim will amount to £50,000, up from an average of £31,000 in 2013-14. Around 3,000 families are now living in alternative accommodation while their homes are being repaired. In Calderdale alone, flooding hit 2,500 homes, nine schools and 1,250 businesses, and as many as 40% of those businesses could be uninsured. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be at least £20 million. Damage to homes and businesses also has a knock-on impact on the wider ability of the local economy to recover and function.
There is still the possibility that more flooding could be on the way because the winter is but young. Understandably, the Government are moving into recovery mode. Almost £200 million has been made available for investments in recovery, including money for repairs and upgrades to existing defences, money for local authorities to repair infrastructure, grants to home and business owners for the improvement of personal flood resilience, and grants for farmers whose land has been flooded and crops destroyed. All this is welcome. However, the much-publicised Flood Re scheme, which will help to provide flood insurance to at-risk homes, will be launched only in April. This will guarantee affordable premiums, as many homeowners cannot afford the current premium levels in high-risk areas. But Flood Re is not going to be available to small businesses or buy-to-let properties, meaning that they will almost certainly face an increase in premiums. The fact that Flood Re is not yet in force means that many people will not have been insured for damage caused by the December floods, potentially those who would have been waiting for Flood Re to come into effect before securing insurance. The Times reports that up to £1 billion of damage will have been sustained by uninsured people.
No rational person believes that all risk of flooding can or should be eliminated. But people do not always understand why, when following one disaster a case is made for enhanced protection, yet that protection is quickly scaled back once memories begin to fade. During the recent flooding in Leeds, the Lord Mayor of Leeds went as far as to question whether this would have been tolerated in London, and whether England’s third city deserves the same level of investment as its first. Furthermore, in this context it is clear that swingeing cuts to local authority funding must inevitably diminish the ability of such authorities to respond effectively to local disasters and recovery from them. It is claimed that northern metropolitan councils have faced disproportionate cuts which have then had an impact on the maintenance of bridges, drains and other essential infrastructure. We are also seeing the threatened closure of local front-line services at the same time as emergency response needs are evident.
Two immediate points must be addressed by all parties to the debate about planning for future flood protection: first, the amounts that have already been spent, and which might have to be spent in the future in reactive recovery, should not be counted against the resources needed for long-term protection planning; and secondly, the insurance costs and access to adequate insurance by people and businesses in what are now vulnerable areas must be managed in a way that allows both recovery and a future for those affected. Surely the changes to weather patterns in recent years indicate that similar events can be expected in the future and we need to be building resilience to address them. Prevention might be financially expensive, but it will certainly be cheaper than the cumulative costs of non-prevention over, say, a decade or two.
However, the finances only hide the human costs: businesses closed or lost, homes ruined, families and children forced into temporary homes with all the consequent disruption to schooling and the best circumstances for learning and growing. These costs go beyond pounds and pence. So questions remain about how the Government will address these challenges in the longer term, and no doubt other speakers will touch on other aspects of this matter. But noble Lords might well seek reassurance that the recently instigated national flood resilience review, chaired by Oliver Letwin, will pay serious attention to the strengths and weaknesses of current worst-case-scenario planning in the light of the future impact of climate change, recent substantial cuts to the Environment Agency in the form of a 15% funding cut and the loss of 1,500 staff, along with the need for whole-catchment approaches to flood prevention and water management.
Rural communities are particularly vulnerable where funding decisions are driven by a return-on-investment calculation which means that many schemes will not be considered cost-effective on paper. I hope that this debate will touch on such challenges and urge Government to take long-term views in future planning. I look forward to hearing how the Government intend to review their long-term strategy for flood management, particularly in rural areas that do not qualify for large-scale flood defences.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate and I echo his thanks to all concerned in the recent floods which particularly affected North Yorkshire, rural areas in Cumbria, and parts of Leeds and Lancashire. I refer to my interests in the register, in particular that I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I would like to answer the right reverend Prelate’s question directly by saying that to tackle the long-term strategy, we should simply work more with nature. I shall draw on the example of a project that I was particularly closely associated with while in another place as the Member of Parliament for the constituency that includes Pickering.
I believe that the Pickering pilot project was a partnership approach that could be used in other places, particularly those that feed into catchment areas around Leeds, Cumbria, Lancashire and York. We have to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so we have to adopt a mix-and-match attitude to land management. We should drain where drainage is appropriate, dredge where dredging is appropriate, desilt and clear away weeds where that is appropriate. Working with nature is less capital intensive and less physically engineered. It allows water either to slow down, as we did in the Pickering scheme, or speed up so that it moves away from flooded areas, whichever is appropriate. In adopting a full catchment management system, or in the case of Pickering a sub-catchment management system, that is precisely what we did. We took a smaller reservoir, which was less engineered and therefore less costly, and I am delighted to say that the scheme really stood the test of the recent floods in North Yorkshire.
Farmers have a role to play in this by temporarily storing water on their land but hopefully without falling foul of the reservoir safety Act. I believe that the European Commissioner in Brussels, Phil Hogan, is keen to reward farmers through the new system of basic farm payments for the public good that farmers provide by retaining water upstream and taking it away from areas downstream, be they farmland, towns and villages, or even cities like Leeds and York, thus keeping them safe.
The key is to work with nature and to adopt a full capital management system. As regards funding, perhaps I may say that there is no bottomless pit. We have to lever in private sector funding. The Pickering approach was exemplary. It was a partnership approach involving the county council, Ryedale District Council, the town council of Pickering, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, all planting new trees and cutting down existing ones, creating dams and, indeed, taking 200 years to create a new peat bog. I believe that Pickering shows the way forward. It does so also by merging the total spending budget and having a capital spend that is the equal of £2.3 billion and matching that with maintenance. I think that that answers the right reverend Prelate’s question.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Environment Agency who did, along with my chairman, turn up when there were floods. I am also chairman-designate of the Woodland Trust. Flood prevention, of course, is not about flood defences or inappropriate development in the flood plain: it is much wider than that.
I want to make two points. First, to echo the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, it is about managing land at a catchment scale for resilience against the increasingly frequent warmer and wetter winters, and more extreme events, that we are likely to see. It means better soil management by land managers to avoid compaction, bare ground and run-off. It also means appropriate planting of trees in the upland upstream areas to help alleviate flows.
I commend the Environment Agency in working with the natural processes programme, which is looking, among other things, at the right trees in the right place and on the right scale; tree cover in the flood plains in riparian woodlands; cross-slope woodland; tree shelterbelts; gully woodlands; and the restoration and creation of increasing numbers of wet woodlands. We cannot say that this is a single-bullet solution—planting trees will not solve the entire problem. But tree cover in the appropriate place can reduce flood peaks by up to 40%. Infiltration of water on the ground is 60 times more effective in treed areas than in grazed areas.
I urge the Minister to ensure that all regional flood and coastal committees consider how natural flood risk management can best be deployed in their areas. The Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission opportunity maps showing where trees and woods are most likely to reduce flood risk in England should be promoted more widely to help projects use them across the country. I also urge that the new Countryside Stewardship scheme’s first-year arrangements are closely watched to make sure that they are having an impact in supporting woodland planting in areas where it is likely to reduce flood risk. I also commend to the Minister the Woodland Trust’s report, Stemming the Flow, about the role of trees and woodland in flood protection. Indeed, I commend the Pickering experiment, which the noble Baroness clearly described.
Secondly, floods do not just happen in flood plains. Surface water flooding is becoming an increasing problem. We need to build resilience into new buildings and to retrofit property-level protection measures in existing buildings, which means waterproof surfaces, resilient electricity supplies and individual housing flood defence remedies. The measures are known to pay for themselves after simply one flood. In flood-risk management, the cost of remediation of floods is almost directly proportionate to the degree of heartache. Such measures are the least we can do for those recently flooded and those who, without such measures, will be flooded again in the future.
My Lords, I remind the House of my registered council interests. This is a tale of two small towns and what happened on Boxing Day. Barnoldswick and Earby are twin towns in that part of the Lancashire district of Pendle which used to be in Yorkshire. They are both prone to flooding. Water rushes down from the surrounding moorlands on to a glacial plain where they are built and the two towns straddle the Pennine watershed at its lowest point. Both have suffered from periodic, catastrophic flooding over the past 150 years. This year, on Boxing Day, the heavens opened.
Barnoldswick, which is locally known as Barlick, escaped this time for two reasons. The first is a series of local works over the past 20 years and more which were mainly the initiative of the local district council and local people. I pay tribute particularly over that time to the work of my colleague, Councillor David Whipp, whose decades of work in this area have been heroic. At the danger point, when it happened, a small estate called Ghyll Meadows turned out to be the most vulnerable point. Early on Boxing Day morning, David went out to inspect the defences and decided that they were not going to hold. He called on what I can only call a heroic local community to turn out, particularly using social media, networks and contacts which had been built up for this purpose over the years. More than 200 people turned out. They built a new barrier with sandbags provided by the district council. Improvised sandbags came from all sorts of places. A local builder’s yard opened to provide material and a local farmer provided machinery. Legions of people swept away the water that was seeping through the new improvised barrier.
Unfortunately, they were not so successful in Earby. They managed to withstand Storm Desmond but then came Storm Eva. Earby had the same history and the same storms in December. On Boxing Day, the local becks overflowed. More than 50 houses and local businesses were badly flooded. Earby has a local scheme ready and waiting to go. It has been agreed by staff at the Environment Agency but is waiting for funding. It is not the district’s responsibility but the district council has £168,000 in the bank account towards it but it is waiting for the rest.
The problem of Earby is unique. It is part of Lancashire. Therefore, it is part of the north-west Environment Agency. In all ways, its administration and representation of councillors and others is with Lancashire and the north-west. But, unlike the rest of Lancashire, the water in Earby drains eastwards. It joins the great River Aire and flows through Leeds. No doubt, some of the Earby water joined the rest of the water to flood Leeds this year. It is part of the Environment Agency in Yorkshire. It comes under the Yorkshire Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and is in direct competition with the rest of Yorkshire and the horrific events that happened there.
But east is east and west is west. Earby is stuck between the two on the Pennine watershed. Will the Minister spend a little time looking at Earby and working out how its problems can please be funded?
My Lords, I thank my right reverend colleague for today’s debate. Due to the shortage of time, straightaway I shall focus a little more on whole-catchment flood management. A renewed focus on this approach has been one of the notable outcomes of the current flood crisis, helped of course by the exemplary work of the Pickering slow-the-flow scheme, which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, described so eloquently.
The potential of whole-catchment approaches—for example, using meandering rivers, planting trees and building permeable dams to slow water in upland areas and reduce peak flow further downstream—is enormous. In the long term, it provides a cheaper, more environmentally friendly method of flood management, which works, as a number of people have already said, with natural processes rather than constantly trying to hold back the tide. Such approaches also have the benefit of being effective across a catchment, rather than simply focusing on one or two high-value areas, and so can help to lower the flood risk in rural hamlets and villages that might otherwise not qualify for flood protection.
Yet, generally, Governments and local authorities have been slow to embrace such proactive approaches, for a number of reasons. First, the whole-catchment approach will help to mitigate the risk of small and medium-sized floods but there is little evidence that they will protect homes from floods with the highest levels of water. For towns and villages to be protected from the heaviest flooding, some form of flood defence barrier is usually needed. It would generally be cheaper for the Environment Agency to build that barrier a bit higher than to invest in both a barrier and a whole-catchment approach to flood management.
If the Government are serious about a whole-catchment approach, Defra and the Treasury need to look again at how they value those projects and be willing to take into account a wider range of factors—for example, environmental benefits—when they make those valuations. Will the Minister assure the House that a review of how the Government value measures such as this will be included in the national resilience review?
Secondly, a proper whole-catchment approach to flood management will require reconsideration of how we currently approach planning and development, not just on flood plains but in upland areas, too, where increased run-off can raise flood levels further downriver. According to the CEO of the Environment Agency, 13% of housebuilding is currently being undertaken in flood plains and that percentage is increasing. Will the Minister inform the House whether the Government will consider giving the Environment Agency new powers to properly regulate developments across at-risk catchment areas?
Finally, dialogue with farmers is vital if we want to take more proactive approaches to slowing the flow of water off upstream land. Redirecting subsidies to incentivise farmers to plant more trees in key areas, to build temporary reservoirs that can hold floodwater back, and even to allow their land to flood in instances of high flood risk, are all things that I hope the Government will look at closely.
My Lords, to people who have recently suffered flooding, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, or who are fearful that they may well experience flooding in future, it is no consolation at all to know that the science of flood prevention is not wholly agreed on or resolved in every area all of the time. That is a very important point. Secondly, many of the ideas that will lead to flood mitigation over the years, which both right reverend Prelates have highlighted—it is good to see the Anglicans here en masse this afternoon talking about flooding issues—will take many years to take effect.
On the first point, if you put a bunch of hydrologists, geologists, geomorphologists, soil engineers, arboriculturalists and others into a room and ask them what can be done to mitigate flood problems in different areas, such as both right reverend Prelates have pointed out so clearly, you will sometimes find very different answers coming forward. Mr Rory Stewart, the responsible Minister in another place, who is very far-sighted and has great clarity of mind, has pointed out that we do not have a settled scientific agreement in some areas. We need to work very hard to bring that about. We have to be open about that to flood-prone and flood-threatened areas.
The second point is that many suggestions can be made about how we can get rid of or stabilise water flow. My noble friend Lady McIntosh pointed out that we can reinstate bogs, but also that that can take a century or more to have an effect. Even reinstating peat bogs where there are some remnants of them can take many decades. While it is a very good piece of rural housekeeping to ensure, whether it is local authorities or farmers with their bridges and culverts, that pinch points are clear on a regular basis on a very local scale, it is also clear that we need to look at longer-term suggestions, such as letting rivers meander more once riparian interests are taken into account. You cannot just tell a river to get meandering: it takes 10, 20 or 30 years before meandering takes any effect.
Lastly, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that tree planting is very good at anchoring the soil, as it also is when you can persuade farmers not to plough or plant uphill or downhill in rows. There is great debate about tree planting: what sort of trees should be planted, their effects on the landscape, and the interrelationships with natural habitat. There is no doubt at all about it: whatever else, whether you plant little whips or bigger standards, it takes a while—sometimes decades again—to get the trees coming up to the right height to do this.
It is very important that we are honest and open as a Chamber and across the party-political divides that these things cannot just be fixed overnight and that we need long-term, integrated strategies, as was again pointed out by both right reverend Prelates. I am absolutely sure that my right honourable friend Mr Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Minister responsible, will take that fully into account in his far-sighted review that is coming down the track towards us.
My Lords, I believe that the House should be deeply grateful to the right reverend Prelate for having had this debate. I can say with practical experience of some years as director of Oxfam that the real challenge is to keep the focus when the reality of the long-term consequences of what has happened are being felt by the people in the front line. That is when our support and interest becomes vital.
We are faced with an immediate, immense humanitarian economic and social crisis, but also with another example of an inescapable wake-up call of the relevance and importance of what happened at Paris. We must not allow that to become empty rhetoric or a self-congratulatory exercise in successful diplomacy. We have to make a reality of the aspirations of Paris and we should be judged by what happens and how soon it happens.
Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the size of the problem. I live in Cumbria. Bridges are down all over the county and communications disrupted. Yes, mountains, at least in part, actually shifted. Families are broken and incomes ruined for individual families and for communities. All this must, of course, have immediate remedial action, but immediate remedial action cannot be allowed to become the enemy of the strategic priorities. I mentioned Paris, but more practically on the ground—I am glad to note that some of these points have been mentioned in the debate—is the attention to tax structures that encourage flood defence work by all those who want to undertake it.
This means recognising the inescapable link between the uplands, the flood plains and those in the front line. I live on a fell side. I look down on the flood plain below me. It fills with water. Of course, we in the local community say, “Where does all this water go?”. It does not get rid of the water. That is why a far greater range of upland activity is necessary. Tree planting, upland reservoirs, farm reservoirs, the rest: all this must be looked at.
I conclude simply by saying that, in this situation, amelioration can become the enemy of strategy. We have to be as firm on the strategy as we are on the practical immediate action. Paris could too quickly become a gigantic historical irrelevance.
My Lords, I declare an interest in this debate as a trustee of the Tyne River Trust. I know that I speak for us all when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this dreadful flooding. I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for proposing the debate. I firmly endorse his comments on Flood Re.
We would be naive to think that this will not happen again or that it is as bad as it gets. We need to ensure that the UK has a long-term flood management strategy in place to prevent damage to property, farmland, roads and disruption of people’s lives. I recognise and commend the swift action taken by the Government in response to the flooding crisis, but the problem is that we need to cease being reactive and instead put in place a long-term strategy that will help prevent events such as this.
The floods that affected Cumbria also affected Northumbria, where I live. Here, the flood barriers that were reinforced and rebuilt 10 years ago were not breached; the water just overflowed. To build ever- higher flood defences is not the solution. We would simply demolish the bridges if we did that.
I stress the seriousness of the situation for the farmers who have been affected by this. While it is very welcome that funds have been made available—the charity sector in particular has been very helpful and made significant impact; I am a trustee of the Prince’s Countryside Fund which has been delighted to help in this crisis—my deep concern is how difficult it may prove to be to access these funds. The application for funds during the Somerset flooding proved to be too arduous and complex for many farmers to benefit. For busy farmers trying to clear their land and cope with the stress of the experience, it was far from helpful. Will the Minister ensure that the system is as simple as possible, while still of course adhering to public sector requirements?
A further issue is that farmers can claim the support only after the funds have been spent. This policy fails to recognise the massive cash-flow problems that farmers will experience off the back of this bad winter. The fact that some have still not received their BPS payments is a major concern. Some have had stock losses. Therefore, the cash-flow issues are serious. I hope that the Government will look at changing this policy to consider advancing payments—either 50% or 75% of the payment—to allow farmers to carry out the work and invest as proposed. What we need—this has been reinforced this afternoon—is a policy for flood risk management that is integrated with other land use. Reliable and evidence-based policy is needed to inform both the practitioners and the policymakers to design appropriate solutions.
A balance needs to be struck between the interests of environmentalists while not being detrimental to the livelihoods of farmers. It is clearly inappropriate to dredge every ditch, stream and river. Precious environment would be lost if we did so. Neither should we rule out carefully selected targeted dredging where it is appropriate. We need to see much more integration between the range of bodies that have responsibilities within individual river catchments, not just the Environment Agency but Natural England, the river trusts, national parks, local authorities and so on—the LEPs and others. One size does not fit all. Not for the first time we often see individual bodies operating within silos. Farmers need to be compensated for the work they do in holding water to protect urban areas downstream. At present this service is unrewarded and comes with great costs. Clearly, we need to include that within integrated solutions.
My Lords, as I think many of your Lordships may know, I am a Cumbrian. At the outset, I declare the interest that I am making a claim in respect of flood damage. Somebody put it to me: do you think you have to declare property currently under water? I have also been a member of the North West Water Authority’s regional land drainage committee. However, I must emphasise at the outset that I am a great deal less badly affected than many of my neighbours. I pay tribute to my local MP, friend, neighbour and Floods Minister, Rory Stewart, for the way he has led the Government’s response.
In thinking about flooding, it is terribly important that we all recognise that, despite being within the national jurisdiction, the British weather does not recognise parliamentary sovereignty. If it is getting wetter for whatever reason, and regardless of those reasons, we have to deal with the consequences of that. Against that background and what seems to be the likelihood of future flooding, we need as a country to be absolutely clear about what is a public responsibility, and what flows from that both administratively and financially, and what is a private responsibility and the same consequences that might flow from that.
I was very pleased that the right reverend Prelate talked about insurance, because it seems to me that the role of insurance in this area is of considerable importance. For example, I heard tell locally—this may be apocryphal for all I know—of a person who has been flooded more than once. His insurance company said, “Yes, we shall certainly give you some more insurance but, of course, the first loss is half a million”.
Something very important that has not been touched on is the attitude and role of the banks in the context of their corporate and social responsibility when their customers get into financial difficulties because of this kind of thing. As an individual, I believe that it is important that we respond to these general problems by working with nature, but there is a whole series of nuts-and-bolts issues that need to be thought about and clarified. Do you canalise water or let it spill out over open land? How should we deal with, and respond to, problems directly caused by earlier mitigation flood defence works? How do we respond to problems caused by people constructing buildings, living in houses or working in premises that are known to be liable to flooding? In extreme cases, should we approach these premises as we approached slums in the old days and simply demolish them? Reference has been made to future building on the flood plain. Should we allow it and, if so, under what conditions to mitigate any possible disaster that may ensure?
It is of paramount importance that we are clear about all these things, because unless and until we are clear, we will never have a sensible, long-term policy about flooding and all we can do is do what we have done recently, which is clear up the mess. In the longer term, the only way of making sure that we do not have a mess is to have a good long-term policy.
My Lords, in July I spoke in the Moses Room, warning of imminent flooding. The right reverend Prelates might be amused that I joked that my Hebrew name, Abram, should be changed to Noah. In biblical times, it seems that he was the only human who knew what was coming. Today, we all know that the changes in climate mean that floods are more likely. I shall not talk about this global effect of human activity now. I want to bring to the notice of the Minister the causes of flood damage resulting from our inability in this country to apply proven community methods of river management, working with the water cycle to manage rivers so that they do not flood.
As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, many recent trials have shown the success, affordability and financial effectiveness of natural catchment measures in the UK. For this to happen on a larger scale, we need to encourage the buy-in and engagement of the whole river community, develop financial support for these projects from bottom up and arrange long-term financial backing, and we need to allocate a small proportion of land, both private and public, to create natural interventions. The Flow Partnership is a social enterprise and charity that is known and respected by the Government and has long-term experience in India, Sweden, Slovakia and here in the UK in dealing with both floods and droughts in this manner. It can help Her Majesty’s Government, first, to create practical examples of what works at low cost and then to form a long-term strategy that would address these difficulties and save millions of pounds in future damage liabilities.
Employing natural catchment measures has multiple benefits. As well as climate change mitigation, it involves the whole community working together, increases biodiversity, improves river quality and, of course, prevents flood damage. Her Majesty’s Government ought to see the diversity of landscapes—wetlands, forests and ponds—as an interconnected system of the whole water cycle. Working with it communally could build for us a resilient future and make the population safer from floods.
In December, I wrote to the Prime Minister’s office about the way flood defences are mistakenly financed and contracted by the Government and fall into the trap whereby the construction companies are judged by output, not outcome. A huge structure is built. Yes, it is on cost and on time, but it does not work. That is why the Flow Partnership is developing a strategy of community-funded natural catchment measures. These measures are effective and relatively easy to put in at a 10th of the cost. They increase the storage capacity of the river catchments and can be implemented widely. Its methods have been successfully trialled in Belford, Northumberland, and three other catchments by the Environment Agency. Despite the success that such trials evidence, the work is at the moment stalled due to the lack of appropriate funding sources. A river and landscape bond—an enterprise bond—which could be created if backed by the Government, would attract local and business investment and would reduce flood risk in the riparian areas of the UK at a fraction of the cost, time and effort than is now the case. I suggest that the Government should meet the people involved, allocate a small budget for them to work, say, on the River Dearne, and enable them to put the river and landscape bond into place. This would be a way for us to make safe 100 rivers in the UK, and perhaps even to export this methodology in future as a benefit to the world and, of course, to the UK. Thank you.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to those who have assisted those who have been devastated by the recent floods and commend the Government for the level of financial assistance supplied so far to those local authorities. However, on that point, is the Minister now in a position to answer the question I asked in this House on 7 December—namely, given that it is a time-limited application, will the Government be applying to the European Union Solidarity Fund for assistance that can be given to local authorities to invest in new infrastructure?
It is clear from what colleagues have said that we need a comprehensive review of our ability to manage flood risk in the future, first because of our need to adapt to climate change. We need only consider the extremes of weather in December and the fact that already nearly 2.5 million homes are at between one to 100 years’ risk in the UK. On that point, it is disturbing to note that in Defra recently the staff of the climate change adaptation team have been reduced from 38 to six. That is an extremely worrying indication of the Government’s priorities in this area. I hope that the review looks at staffing levels as well as overall resources elsewhere.
I wanted to briefly cover two points. First, the current conventional approach to flooding that has been taken by both the Environment Agency and the Treasury focuses very much on project-specific approaches and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said in his opening remarks, on a cost-benefit ratio, which does not help those in rural areas in particular, where the numbers are far less than in urban areas. We have therefore seen political pressures from Members down the other end, and rightly so, for more concrete measures to be put in places where they can be seen. While it is welcome that £2.3 billion has been spent on concrete proposals and flood defences, we cannot see that there has been any real forward movement to ensure that natural capital is taken into consideration in the decisions about where flood defences can be put, particularly, as others have said, around the upper catchment areas.
Under the coalition Government, the Natural Capital Committee was established, which made it quite clear that although, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, there is underlying uncertainty over some areas of the science, in three areas there was a clear economic rationale for where money could be spent and benefits could be seen: woodland planting, peat restoration, and wetland restoration. At the moment, the national infrastructure plan seems to stand in splendid isolation, with no consideration of any forms of natural capital. It merely looks at hard, concrete forms of roads, flood defences and other infrastructure. I would hope that the review would look at the national infrastructure plan.
Secondly, as other noble Lords have said, the scale of housing that this Government are looking to move is incredible. I do not doubt their commitment to achieving that, but we have to ensure that the review also looks at the planning implications of this massive increase in housing and infrastructure.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for promoting this debate and to all noble Lords who have taken the opportunity to look beyond the short term. I apologise that I cannot refer to all the excellent contributions but, in the limited time that I have, I would like to raise the following points.
First, it would be helpful if the Secretary of State would acknowledge, unequivocally, that the unprecedented rain and flooding we are confronting today is the result of climate change. It is not an unusual freak of nature; it is part of a trend. It was predictable that climate change would make the UK warmer and wetter and that is exactly what has happened. This is why, as my noble friend says, the outcome of the Paris talks is so important.
Secondly, we welcome the Government’s announcement of a national flooding review. It is crucial, however, that it is based on the best independent research and evidence about river flows and catchment management—I take the point, of course, that this is a developing science. We know, for example, the advantages of reafforestation in upland areas in absorbing excess water, but we need better scientific advice on where to locate new plantations of trees and woods to maximise their impact. Equally, sustainable drainage systems have a role to play, for example, in reinstating lost wetlands and providing essential flood relief. They also have the added advantage of providing social and environmental benefits.
Every time we add something new to the landscape, or interfere with natural water flows, we risk unforeseen ecological consequences and potential conflicts. All the evidence so far suggests that leaving rivers and streams to meander—with wood and vegetation accumulating as natural obstructions—will slow the river flow and limit flooding. Yet the Secretary of State announced last week that farmers are to be given greater powers to dredge and clear water courses to prevent their fields flooding. Apart from the adverse impact of speeding up rivers and streams, this seems to contradict a previous Environment Agency report, which concluded that rivers that are artificially dredged silt up more frequently and the only real solution is to tackle the creation of silt upstream. What independent advice was received before this announcement?
I do not pretend that managing the sometimes conflicting interests of farmers and urban communities is easy. Flooding fields may be necessary; farmers need to be properly compensated and we need to properly evaluate the effects on food production. Surely, though, we also need to take a stronger stance on clearing land, for example, for grouse shooting, which has little public benefit and has been identified as one of the sources of the recent flooding above Hebden Bridge.
Finally, these conflicts underline why the government resilience review needs to be free from the influences of vested interests, transparent in its work and authoritative in its recommendations. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on these issues in his response.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate. Across the United Kingdom, many people have endured their homes and businesses being flooded and devastated. I echo what other noble Lords have said today in expressing my deepest sympathies to all affected. December last year was the wettest on record and the wettest calendar month since records began in 1910. In relation to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said about climate change, the view is that the recent heavy rainfall is consistent with this general picture, but it is not possible—and many scientists will say it is not possible—to say that any individual event is directly caused by climate change.
The impacts were, undoubtedly, particularly severe in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and, more recently, in Scotland. Our thoughts are with all those who suffered and we must now use all our energies to help them to recover from this dreadful experience. We clearly owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those who served during this extremely difficult time, including the fire and rescue service, police, military, Environment Agency, and local authority workers. I also echo what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said about what churches and other faith groups did and what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the many volunteers in his part of the world. It shows that we have a great country where the good Samaritan is at large.
Recognising the threatening weather forecasts, the Government held daily COBRA meetings, allowing all necessary resources to be deployed early and ahead of the flooding. The emergency services, Environment Agency, and military were on the ground and able to provide immediate help. Supporting assets, including high-volume pumps and rescue boats, were made available to local commanders in all areas. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds has referred to this. The Government have committed almost £200 million for recovery in addition to our significant, ongoing investment. This funding includes £50 million to rebuild and improve damaged flood defences and £40 million for transport infrastructure. A community recovery scheme for councils to spend on local priorities will provide grants of up to £5,000 for resilient repairs to properties and funding will provide help through rebates on council tax and business rates. Farmers will be able to claim up to £20,000 to restore damaged agricultural land. The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, spoke of his support and, clearly, we need to ensure that support is engaged in a user-friendly manner.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked about the EU Solidarity Fund and I will write more fully to her on that. However, the UK taxpayer would still pay for the majority of the funds received, because we would pay more into the EU budget and it would reduce our rebate. We feel that we needed to act quickly; the support packages we have already announced are designed to deal with the urgent needs of those affected.
In terms of investment in flood infrastructure, the Government have committed to spend £2.3 billion on a six-year capital programme to 2021. That means that we will be investing £2 billion in flood defences over this Parliament—a real-terms increase on the £1.7 billion invested in the last Parliament and a real-terms increase on the £1.5 billion spent between 2005 and 2010. Our six-year capital programme gives communities a much clearer view of when schemes will be built. It is intended to reduce the flood risk for over 300,000 households and around 420,000 acres of agricultural land, while avoiding more than £1.5 billion worth of direct economic damages to farmland and securing 205 miles of railway and 340 miles of roads. In addition, government investment will be supported by a further £600 million of partnership funding—£250 million has already been secured, with sources for the other £350 million identified.
The right reverend Prelate’s Question is about how we can help rural areas which may not qualify for large-scale interventions. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering referred to partnership funding, an approach which means that some rural locations that previously had little prospect of any government funding could now be eligible for a share. The Stroud rural sustainable drainage project is an example of successful rural schemes going ahead with partnership funding. While capital schemes increase the number of people protected by flooding, we know it is also vital that we keep our existing flood defences in good condition. That is why the Government have also committed to protecting the £171 million per year spend on maintenance in real terms over this Parliament.
Partnership working is a key part of flood risk management. I welcome the work of the 118 internal drainage boards, or IDBs. These locally funded and operated public bodies, based predominantly in rural areas, manage water levels and reduce flood risk for local communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about dredging and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, also referred to this matter. Dredging will be effective in some areas and inappropriate in others. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s announcement about making it easier for landowners to dredge relates to agricultural ditches in low-lying areas, where maintaining the flow of water is important to lowering flood risk in the local area. This bears out the fact that different scenarios will work in different parts of the country by having, for example, different trees and uses of contours, as has been said. It is all about the flexibility that we now need to have.
In many places, however, the IDBs are now working on behalf of the Environment Agency to the benefit of the local community. There are numerous examples where this approach is working well. In Lincolnshire, for instance, the excellent partnership of the Environment Agency, IDBs, local authorities and others has produced a strategy for flood risk management across the county. After the dreadful flooding in Somerset, moreover, the Somerset Rivers Authority was established to give local people much more control and power over flood risk.
In Cumbria, my honourable friend Rory Stewart has worked tirelessly as Flooding Minister—that is an absolutely non-partisan thing to say. Those in the locality have echoed this. My noble friends Lord Inglewood and Lord Patten also referred to it. My honourable friend will chair a new floods partnership, bringing together local expertise to publish an action plan this summer. The partnership will consider improvements to flood defences, review upstream options for slowing tributaries to key rivers and build stronger links with the local community. My honourable friend Robert Goodwill is also acting as flood envoy to Yorkshire. Such partnerships are to be encouraged across the country, led by groups of local people who know the flood risk in their area and what should be done about it, with government playing a key role in strengthening and facilitating them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and other noble Lords asked how we intend to review flood risk management. Recent events represent an important opportunity to assess our approach and there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from what has happened. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced the national flood resilience review, to which my noble friends Lord Patten and Lord Inglewood referred. This is to be set up to ensure that the country can deal with its increasingly extreme weather events. Work to consider forecasting and modelling, the resilience of key infrastructure and the way that we make decisions about expenditure has already begun. It is expected to conclude this summer.
That review’s work complements the Natural Capital Committee; I think this was the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, was taking us towards. The committee is already developing the catchment-based approach, including slowing the flow upstream. Many of your Lordships referred to this. I listened very carefully to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, made. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering spoke of the Slow the Flow project in Pickering, which is working with the natural environment to reduce flood risk. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke of the range of opportunities for working with and enhancing the natural environment. That is a way forward for us to ensure that we are in a much better position and was echoed by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of St Albans.
We all have an extremely interesting and valuable range of reviews in prospect. I very much hope that we are now into a period of recovery, where we can look to help those affected back into their homes and businesses—although, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said, we are clearly in a position where the winter and its floods could continue. We should all be very grateful for what the emergency services, the military, the fire service and volunteers may have to do. However, our aim in government is to ensure that long-term investment will help to make our country more resilient. Partnership funding has already made many more rural schemes viable and through working in partnership, and with the active engagement of local communities, we can help to manage flood risk. I assure your Lordships that I will take all the comments made today and share them with my ministerial colleagues, and that the Government and Ministers will be using all the energies that we have to ensure that the whole country is as well protected as possible.