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Saddleworth and Tameside Moors

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question posed yesterday in another place:

“Mr Speaker, the wildfires on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester and across the border in Lancashire at Winter Hill near Bolton and into Derbyshire remain major incidents. The number of fire appliances and firefighters on scene fluctuates each day according to the immediate need. However, Manchester fire and rescue service has about 30 fire appliances currently deployed and 29 appliances have been deployed to the Lancashire fire. In addition, two high-volume pumps are in use, with a variety of specialist equipment and teams.

Support is being provided by other fire and rescue services from across the north of England and as far afield as the West Midlands, and a team of specialist wildfire firefighters from Wales has also attended the Winter Hill site. This wider support is being co-ordinated by a team in Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, directly funded by the Home Office, which provides specialist support in major emergencies such as this.

One hundred military personnel have been providing support on Saddleworth Moor since Thursday, and the initial three-day deployment has been extended to tomorrow, with a request now received for the soldiers to continue their support to Manchester fire and rescue service through until Friday. The response currently also includes one helicopter from the local water company, and support from the National Police Air Service.

We remain in regular contact with the fire and rescue services responding to the incident, and I have spoken about the fires with the chiefs of Manchester and Lancashire fire and rescue services, and the Home Secretary has also spoken to the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham.

I place on record my appreciation of the incredible work of the firefighters, military and other partner agencies in responding to these wildfires. The current hot, dry weather means that the fires are likely to persist for some time, and the Government continue to liaise with the responders on the ground who are tackling the fires and are ready to provide further support when it is needed”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Question in the other place yesterday. I join her in expressing my thanks to the firefighters, the Army, the local authorities and others for their tireless work in this extreme and hostile environment. Will she join me in condemning anyone involved in setting fires in the area as dangerous, irresponsible idiots, and confirm that the Government will give any assistance required to bring the perpetrators to justice?

I most certainly will, using exactly the same words as the noble Lord, although I shall not utter them. I understand that one arrest has been made, but he is right: it is an act of the most terrible folly to endanger both the countryside and, potentially, the lives of people and animals.

My Lords, this is a serious and significant fire for those of us who live in the north of England. Our thanks and recognition are due to all those who are fighting to contain the fire. Nine days on, the fire has been only contained, not put out. How much financial support is being given to the local authorities covering, I think, nine fire services which are now fighting the fire? What help is being given to combat the air pollution, which will have a serious effect on those who already have lung-related illnesses? Lastly, if the wind changes direction to its more normal westerly or south-westerly, which will drive the fire across into Yorkshire, what contingency plans are in place to stop it spreading even further?

In terms of financial support, there has not been a Bellwin request yet, but any help that is needed has been forthcoming. The noble Baroness will have heard in my Statement about the types of help that have been forthcoming. She asked whether the wind changes direction. A fire shield has already been put up that has stopped wind changes from spreading the fire even further but, of course, this is a process of ongoing monitoring and risk assessment, and the appropriate action will be taken as needs be.

My Lords, have the Government attempted to bring in those large yellow seaplanes which I have seen operating in Canada, France and Italy, and which are much more effective at dealing with fires of this nature than helicopters because they have infinitely greater capacity? That really would be a far better way in which to try to deal with a fire.

My noble friend is right to ask that, but we have to be clear here that we are guided by the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. In being guided by that service, I can tell my noble friend that helicopter assistance is in use with water buckets and is complementing the ground attack, if you like. There is one helicopter from United Utilities, and support as needed from a further helicopter from the National Police Air Service, but I will take his comments back.

Does the Minister agree, as she knows the area very well, that the beautiful and magnificent village of Rivington is in grave danger? Does she agree with me also that it is right that Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service makes this a top priority?

I do know the area very well, as I was nearly elected to a place near there. In fact, we passed the Winter Hill site on our way up to the Lake District on Saturday. The noble Lord is absolutely right to make that point about Rivington. As part of the risk assessment that is going on all the time, I am sure that everyone will be very mindful, given the proximity to Rivington.

My Lords, I endorse what has been said about the unspoilt beauty of the area. I too saw Winter Hill at the weekend, and have seen Saddleworth Moor too. As the Minister has said, it is a real tragedy to think of the risks that there have been to the countryside and wildlife. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, it is crucial that those who have been responsible for so irresponsibly lighting fires on these moors are brought to justice. I hope that the Government will speak out clearly that no quarter will be given on this. Huge damage is being done, which will have to be remedied in due course. There have been reports that some of the communication structures and masts on some of the moors are at risk. Can the Minister tell us anything about that?

If the noble Lord is talking about the communication mast on Winter Hill—anyone who lives in that area will know it well, because it sticks out so prominently—I understand that at this time it is safe. Clearly, risk assessments are going on all the time. I echo the noble Lord’s comments that anyone who is wilfully setting fires is not only endangering other people’s lives but endangering the beautiful countryside that they have up there.

I shall probably come in on the question of the RAF helicopters. Did my noble friend want to ask any other question?

As I said to my other noble friend, in terms of what is deployed and when we are guided by the fire and rescue service but have also been in close contact with the fire chiefs and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. We are guided by local knowledge and assessment, and we are providing what is requested as being needed to fight the fires.

My Lords, it was reported on the radio this morning that the Fire Brigades Union was appealing for baseball hats, sun cream and socks to be sent to the firemen who were working. These firemen work heroically in horrendous conditions. Surely the local councils and the Government should ensure that they have all these facilities and capabilities. It is quite ridiculous that the Fire Brigades Union has to make this sort of appeal.

Such is the danger of Twitter that I hope I can set the record straight: we understand that the tweet that went out to the public from Manchester FRS was not a formal request. If a request was put to us, we would certainly follow it up, but no such request has formally been put to the Home Office.

My Lords, as the climate appears to be getting warmer, will we invest in the sort of firefighting aircraft that the Mediterranean region has, which can carry much larger loads of water at any one time?

My Lords, it is important to put into context what has gone on in the last couple of weeks in Greater Manchester. The fires are terrible, but we have wildfires all the time. That process of risk assessment and deployment of emergency services is ongoing. I would not like to pre-empt what type of aircraft or firefighting equipment are needed to deal with wildfires, but it is certainly something that the fire and rescue service will be mindful of as it makes risk assessments, if indeed we see a continued trend of this type of warm weather.

My Lords, the Army has a wide range of cross-country water tankers. Why are they not being deployed? Will the Minister assure the House that it has nothing to do with difficulties in negotiating the finance?

My Lords, I reiterate to my noble friend that any request for assistance has been met and, therefore, if certain vehicles, aircraft and water pumps are not deployed, that is because they have not been requested.

My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who owns a heather moor. I wonder if the Government will look into whether the moor was subject to moorland management—some conservation bodies nowadays believe in not managing moors at all.

My noble friend asks a very pertinent question. I will refer it to my colleagues in Defra because I do not know the correct answer to it.