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House of Lords Hansard
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08 November 2016
Volume 776

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether flood defences are in place to protect vital infrastructure this winter.

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My Lords, we have been working with essential service industries and communities to ensure that energy, telecoms and water are better protected. Industry is making a large investment to secure that protection through a mix of temporary and permanent defences. More key investments have been made to protect transport and medical facilities. The Environment Agency has purchased a further 20 miles of temporary flood defences, in addition to more than 60 new high-volume pumps and other equipment.

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I thank the Minister for that reply, but is it not the case that most of the additional money being provided is for temporary defences which will help only a small number of sites under threat; that the recent National Flood Resilience Review identified 530 key infrastructure sites across England which will still be vulnerable to flooding; that there is an urgent need to fund more geographically specific water-catchment initiatives, a model which we know works; and that according to the Commons EFRA Committee, the Government’s plans so far are “fragmented, inefficient and ineffective”? In the light of all of that, what reassurance can the Minister give that there will not be a repeat of the devastation and the heartbreak that affected so many communities last winter?

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My Lords, I would start where the noble Baroness finished—I thoroughly endorse what she said about the great sadnesses and difficulties of many communities after the floods last year. That is why we are investing £2.5 billion over six years in improving flood defences and spending more than £1 billion on maintaining defences over the course of this Parliament, much more than in the last Parliament. Of course, we all need to work on this. That is why I sent a letter to your Lordships about what is actually happening through the Environment Agency. So far as the EFRA report is concerned, we are in fact implementing many recommendations already, and managing watercourses on an entire-catchment-area basis.

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My Lords, the limitation of damage depends very much on an early and quick response to risk. Can my noble friend tell us what has been done to make sure that the emergency equipment that he has referred to is available in relatively local terms, rather than having to be shipped across four or five counties?

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My Lords, that is why, for instance, more than 100 specialist flood rescue teams and associated equipment are on standby across the country, as part of the National Asset Register. It is absolutely clear that early warning is important so that the preparedness that I spoke about in my letter is adhered to. We are certainly working to ensure that as many communities as possible are well aware of flood risk.

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My Lords, storing water on flood-lands and tree planting are cost-effective means of alleviating flood risk. Given our exit from the common agricultural policy, do the Government agree that in future our farmers should be paid for providing public goods, including managing land to alleviate communities’ risks of flooding?

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My Lords, I am not in a position today to say what our domestic arrangements will be after we have left the EU. However, as I think we all know, “slowing the flow”—Pickering is a good example, as is the Defra-funded demonstration projects at Holnicote in Somerset and Upper Derwent in the Peak District—clearly demonstrates that natural flood-management measures are very important in reducing flood flow and height downstream. So, I think this is a very interesting proposal.

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My Lords, can the Minister explain why government agencies have not been providing real-time warnings to individual houses and communities about flood levels, as happens in the Philippines’ NOAH system, where special hand-held communication devices are widely distributed so that people receive and send flood messages to control centres, leading to more accurate flood warnings for emergency services?

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My Lords, that is precisely why—as set out in the letter I wrote and the Environment Agency paper Winter Ready 2016—the Environment Agency is extending flooding-warning service to more communities and improving the range of digital services on GOV.UK, to help people take action to minimise the impact. I very much hope the noble Lord will think of going to the meeting on 29 November, when the Environment Agency and other departments will be in Parliament so that all these matters can be discussed in more detail.

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My Lords, will the Minister provide the House with an update as to whether Flood Re, the insurance solution which can provide affordable insurance for homes, is a success in its first year of operation, and what plans the Government might have to extend Flood Re to small businesses?

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My Lords, the first thing to say is that 53,000 home insurance policies are now backed by Flood Re. In fact, 40 insurers representing 90% of the market are now participating in Flood Re. I am very pleased that the insurance industry has responded so enthusiastically. We want to see how that works first. It seems to be extremely successful. It has meant that policyholders have reasonable premiums. We will certainly look at any future issues.

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The Minister has already referred to the EFRA Select Committee report, Future Flood Prevention. One of its recommendations is the imposition on developers of a statutory liability for the cost of floods where those developments have not complied with planning regulations or the local planning situation, thereby causing additional flooding. Does the Minister agree with this eminently sensible suggestion, and will Her Majesty’s Government adopt it?

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My Lords, what the right reverend Prelate said is interesting and important. With the need for more housing and development, we must ensure that flood protection is very much considered. I will need to reflect on some of the detail of what the right reverend Prelate said. In terms of planning, although London and Hull are all parts of flood plains, we need to ensure that we do not develop where there is a danger of floods and we must have defences.