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Flooding Update

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a Statement to the House on recent flooding caused by Storm Dennis, which followed Storm Ciara and affected many parts of the country. I would like to begin by extending my condolences to the families and friends of the five individuals who sadly lost their lives through the storms. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with those grieving families today. Our thoughts are also with all those who have suffered damage to their properties as a result of the storms. To have one’s home flooded is an incredibly traumatic experience, and I am conscious that some have been flooded repeatedly over recent years.

Storm Dennis cleared the UK during the course of Monday 17 February. However, this remains a live incident and I urge people in at-risk areas to remain vigilant. We are monitoring the situation closely and most areas are moving into recovery phase. However, rainfall over the last few days is still leading to higher water levels, so we will continue to see the effects this week.

Communities have been affected across our union. We have had an incredibly wet winter. Some areas have already received almost double their average rainfall for February, with others experiencing a month’s worth of rain in just 24 hours. Records have been broken. Some 18 river gauges across 15 rivers recorded their highest levels on record during, or triggered by, Storms Ciara and Dennis, including the Colne, Ribble, Calder, Aire, Trent, Severn, Wye, Lugg, and Derwent. Storm Ciara flooded more than 1,340 properties. The latest number of properties flooded by Storm Dennis stands at more than 1,400. Wales has also seen significant impacts and we are in close contact with the Welsh Government.

The scale of the response has been huge, from setting up temporary defences to knocking on doors and issuing residents with warnings. In anticipation of the storm, we stood up the national flood response centre on Friday 14 February. The Environment Agency issued 348 flood warnings for Storm Ciara and 514 flood warnings for Storm Dennis. On 17 February we saw a record concurrent total of 632 flood warnings and alerts issued in a day; two severe flood warnings, 107 flood warnings and 207 flood alerts remain in place in England. There are an additional 13 flood warnings and 39 flood alerts in place in Wales, and one flood warning in Scotland.

We have been sharing information with the public, so people can prepare for flooding wherever they live. We have deployed over three miles of temporary flood barriers and 90 mobile pumps, and we have been keeping structures and rivers clear of debris. Over 1,000 Environment Agency staff per day have been deployed, with the assistance of around 80 military personnel. In Yorkshire, the military helped deploy temporary defences in Ilkley, and kept the road open between Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge in Calderdale. I would like to record my thanks to all the response teams, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, our emergency services and the military. They are still working hard—over 20 government bodies, local authorities and volunteers, all over the country. The Government acted swiftly to activate the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities cope with the cost of response in the immediate aftermath. On Tuesday 18 February we also triggered the flood recovery framework to help communities get back on their feet.

I am working alongside the Secretary of State for Housing to help households and businesses recover. This includes making available hardship payments, and council tax and business rate relief. Households and businesses will also be able to access grants of up to £5,000 to help make them more resilient to future flooding; a ministerial recovery group is co-ordinating efforts across government. Storms Ciara and Dennis affected thousands of acres of farmland, so we will consider the need to extend the farming recovery fund, once we have all the data.

Investments made in recent years have significantly improved our resilience, but there is much more to do. We are investing £2.6 billion in flood defences, with over 1,000 flood defence schemes to better protect 300,000 homes by 2021. To put this in context, in the floods of 2007 55,000 properties were flooded, but with similar volumes of water in places this year, thankfully far fewer properties have been flooded, and flood defence schemes have protected over 90,000 properties in England this winter. Our manifesto commits us to a further £4 billion in new funding for flood defences over the next five years. Since the incidents of 2015, we have strengthened and improved our system of flood warnings. In 2016 we introduced the Flood Re scheme so insurance cover for floods is accessible for at-risk properties. An independent review of the data on insurance cover will help us ensure that it is working as effectively as possible.

Of course, none of these steps will take away from the anguish of those who have suffered flooding in these storms. Climate change is making the UK warmer and wetter, with more frequent extreme weather events. We need to make nature’s power part of our solution, alongside traditional engineered defences. We are already investing £10 million to restore our peatland habitats, planting enough trees to cover an area the size of East Anglia, with a new £640 million nature for climate fund, and supporting farmers to be part of preventing flooding through our new environmental land management scheme, to reduce and delay peak flows in our landscapes. Later this year, we will set out our policies to tackle flooding in the long term, and the Environment Agency will publish its updated flood and coasts strategy. This country will also lead global ambition as the host of COP 26, urging the world to achieve net zero in a way that helps nature recover, reduces global warming and addresses the causes of these extreme weather events. I therefore commend this Statement to the House.”

With your Lordships’ permission, I would like further to update the House about the situation since this Statement was made yesterday. The number of properties impacted by Storm Dennis now stands at more than 1,500 and there are 106 flood warnings and 156 flood alerts in place in England, with an additional six flood warnings and nine flood alerts in Wales. There are no flood warnings currently in force in Scotland.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. We echo his condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives and offer our solidarity and sympathy to all those whose homes have been flooded, particularly those for whom it has become an ongoing trauma. We also pay tribute to the emergency services and the staff of the Environment Agency, who have been battling the effects of these storms for several weeks without let-up. It is a shame that the Prime Minister could not find the time during his holiday to visit these shattered communities, to listen and learn from the voices on the ground as well as offer practical support.

The Minister rightly listed the scale of the challenge, with 632 flood warnings issued in one day and over 200 still in place. This is not a normal winter and these are not normal circumstances. There has never been a starker reminder that our weather is changing, with warmer and wetter winters an inevitable by-product of global warming. This is why, time and again, we have urged the Government to take more urgent and decisive action to address the climate emergency. Does the Minister now accept that the Government’s aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is too little, too late? By then the tipping point will have been reached. Does he accept the evidence from the Committee on Climate Change, which has estimated that there are 1.8 million homes at significant risk of flooding in England? That number will rise unless we hit net zero in the next 10 years.

We agree that harnessing nature and delivering better land management are part of the solution, but we have known this for some time. Does the Minister accept that the promise of a long-term flooding policy later this year is simply layering delay on delay? When will the Government take decisive action to stop any more houses being built on flood plains, an issue we discussed in Oral Questions? It has been reported that there are more than 11,000 new homes planned in areas with high flood risk. This cannot be right. When will the Government put a complete stop to this reckless profiteering by housebuilders or make sure that they take full responsibility for the long-term clean-up costs if flooding later occurs?

Of course we welcome the new flood defences that are being erected, but many areas flooded in 2017 have still seen no sign of improvement. Local authorities continue to protest that the current emergency funding system is not working properly, particularly where the need for match funding is emphasised. Can the Minister explain the proposed annual allocation of the promised £4 billion in new flood defences, and does he accept that it should be front-loaded to deal with the immediate and ongoing threats we now face? Can he clarify how quickly individuals will be able to access the £5,000 flood resilience grant that has been reported? I am sure he recognises that the money needs to be available now, as the clean-up repairs are put in place, to have any real effect.

During the last Statement on flooding, on 10 February, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, about funding for the Environment Agency but did not get a reply. It has said that it needs at least £1 billion a year to provide an effective response to flood risk. Is that money now forthcoming? The Minister also referred to the review of the Flood Re insurance scheme. We accept that Flood Re has provided a solution to many households, but many others are still excluded from the scheme and remain in uninsurable properties. Does the Minister accept that the review is rather urgent? When does he anticipate its conclusions being published and acted on?

I doubt that the communities under threat of flooding will be very reassured by the Government’s Statement today. The truth is that they feel supported by the emergency services and local staff, who are working alongside them day and night to alleviate the threat, but they feel let down by a Government long on promises but short on action. None of the issues we are discussing today is new. The Government have had 10 years to come up with a credible flood defence plan and an action plan to mitigate the impact of climate change. I hope the Minister can reassure us that there will be a more immediate, urgent and responsive plan for the future than we have heard so far.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and draw the attention of the House to my register of interests, which include being a councillor in Kirklees, which is in West Yorkshire, where there has been significant flooding.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches, I wish to record my admiration and gratitude for the amazing dedication and sheer hard work of the staff from local councils, the Environment Agency, the emergency services and, of course, the many volunteers.

When the flooding is no longer news and when the water has receded, local people will still be picking up the pieces of what is left of their lives. A resident in my town whose home was flooded is living in a local hotel, where she will be for months. A profitable manufacturing business in the next-door town is to close permanently, with inevitable job losses, because it can no longer afford recovery costs. It is simply not worth its while. My understanding is that due to escalating costs, businesses are not eligible for the Flood Re insurance scheme. Are the Government content to see businesses close by not extending this scheme? If not, will the Minister commit to providing the House with a definitive and—I trust—positive answer to this problem?

The flooding experience has been intensive and devastating. We have heard what steps the Government are planning, but anyone living in a flood-prone place will probably not feel reassured if other places are being protected while they are not. The Government must make flood-water retention a key element of their approach, which currently appears to be more about physical barriers. Does the Minister agree that it is simply not possible to build ourselves out of this regular flooding crisis?

There are alternative approaches which, to coin a phrase, go with the flow. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, who is not in her place, has recounted the success of the Slowing the Flow at Pickering scheme. The peat moors of the Pennine uplands will act like a massive sponge where landowners allow that to happen, and the University of Exeter has reported that beavers on the River Otter have successfully contributed to flood alleviation. Beavers everywhere: what fun that would be. What is so thoroughly disappointing is the Government’s commitment to building defences when natural approaches may well be more effective and enable natural improvements to our environment. Will the Government’s flood alleviation policies include many of these ideas?

I have referred previously to the issue of the number of organisations responsible for different parts of the drainage system. Every part is under considerable stress, which inevitably contributes to flooding. Local authorities are under extreme financial pressure. As part of the flood prevention approach, will the Minister consider government funding for flood-prone councils, so that highway drainage systems can be properly cleared and, if necessary, upgraded?

Finally, there is the thorny issue of development on land at risk of flooding, which the head of the Environment Agency has spoken about today. It is not as simple as that, of course. Local authorities avoid allocating land that is set aside for flood plains, but developers are not required to take responsibility for building on land that will cause flooding elsewhere, and are not required to construct homes that include flood prevention as an essential element. Will the Minister ask his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to instruct all local authorities to review land allocation to ensure that no such land is in an area with a high risk of flooding? Further, will he request that the necessary regulation are introduced to include responsibility for buildings to be part of the Hackitt recommendations, which the Government have accepted in full? The Environment Bill provides the opportunity to set out a long-term approach. Meanwhile, thousands of people, communities and businesses need the assurance that the Government will provide a significantly more generous financial offer than currently exists, and that the Government have recognised the fact that, once the media headlines have long gone, their needs will not disappear with them.

I thank the noble Baronesses for their questions and statements. I join them in acknowledging the heroic efforts of our emergency response teams and volunteers. That has been an extraordinary endeavour and, in many respects, a success story in terms of the sheer number of people who have stepped up. I of course agree that recent events are yet another wake-up call in relation to climate change. We are seeing records broken, not just in this country but around the world. I sometimes wonder how many wake-up calls we need before we globally agree and accept the responsibility that falls on this generation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to the Government’s target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. I would love us to achieve net zero sooner; I do not think anyone would disagree. But we must be realistic when we set policy and even the Committee on Climate Change has been clear that there is no path to net zero that does not involve a major commitment on tree planting. However, trees do not tend to be able to absorb significant amounts of carbon until they are about 15 years old. If nature-based solutions are to form part of our endeavour to meet net zero, there is no way we can meet that target by 2030. When we legislated, we were the only serious industrialised country to make such a commitment in law and I am proud of that. We are in many respects world leaders in tackling climate change at home and contributing against it abroad.

The question of building on flood plains has been raised numerous times in the debate and will no doubt continue to be raised. It is a legitimate point: we should not build in areas where homes are at risk of floods if there are alternatives. As was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield in her answer to an earlier question, I am standing at a Dispatch Box on a flood plain right now—London is largely constructed on a flood plain. It is not possible or realistic simply to have a blanket ban. Equally, we should absolutely ensure that homes are not built in areas that put residents at risk and, where there are no alternatives, that such homes are built to be resilient—with raised floor levels and so on.

We have been asked about the review of the insurance scheme, Flood Re. It is correct that it does not currently extend to businesses. However, there is a review, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, knows, and part of that will look at what answers will need to be provided by government in relation to businesses. I should say that a number of specific mechanisms have been available to local authorities to help businesses following the 2015 floods, such as business rate relief and a broader package, none of which would leave a local authority out of pocket. It is not enough, and there is no taking away from the fact that the lives of people, as well as homes and businesses, affected by floods are turned upside down. There is nothing that any Government can do to make that not the case. However, the Government are reviewing the issue and Flood Re may well be extended beyond its current scope, depending on the evidence that is returned.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised but one final issue relates to working with nature as a means of trying to prevent an increase in this problem in the years to come. That is very much part of our strategy and there is no doubt that if we want to prevent the ever-increasing ferocity of floods, we will need somehow to increase the absorbability of land and slow the flow of water across its surface. We know that planting trees massively increases that absorbability and that, when we restore peat lands, the same effect is true. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned beavers. I am a huge fan of the beaver experiment that is unfolding across this country. There is no doubt that where beavers form colonies their activities, not least building dams, enable that particular catchment to hold much more water than it otherwise would. There is some quite strong evidence that where beavers form a colony it reduces the impact of flooding.

As a Government, we are doing a number of things that will ensure that we increasingly put the emphasis on nature-based solutions, not least the new land use subsidy system that we will introduce to replace the common agricultural policy. Instead of paying landowners more or less simply for owning farmable land, we will ensure that those payments are entirely conditional upon the provision of some kind of public good, whether that is flood prevention, biodiversity support or access for people in cities. Equally, we have committed to establish a nature for climate fund worth £640 million. Much of that will be spent to ensure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment to plant trees on 30,000 hectares per year, but it also includes money for restoring our valuable peat lands across the country, among other things.

There is an enormous amount of work to do but, from the commitments that this Government have already made, which I hope we will continue to build on over the coming months in this hugely important year—the super year for nature—it is clear that the Government have taken these issues extraordinarily seriously and are responding to the challenge as they should.

Before this Minister sits down, I have asked this question several times, but so far I have not had a reply, so I will press him on it. It is about funding for the Environment Agency. It has said it needs at least £1 billion a year to provide an effective response to flood risk. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, about this and did not get a reply and the Minister has similarly not replied. I will be grateful for a response.

I thank my noble friend for her question. I believe that when that question was put to my noble friend Lord Gardiner on the previous Statement he promised to write to noble Lords, and he did so today.

I have not seen that letter so I cannot argue with the noble Baroness. It is not an answer that I am able to provide, so I will ensure that we follow this up and that the information she has requested is provided.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the situation in Wales. He was in the Chamber when the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, referred to initiatives being taken by the Welsh Government in relation to the dangers to households and businesses, and to the danger of coal tips sliding down mountain sides. Can the Minister give an assurance, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, was not in a position to give, that there will be additional money for the Welsh Government in order to fund this work?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I am not in a position to pledge any additional funding from this Dispatch Box, but I can tell the noble Lord that my colleague the Secretary of State is looking closely at this issue and is working closely with his colleagues in all the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, my noble friend listed a number of rivers that have been affected in the recent bad weather. I do not think he mentioned the River Wey, in Surrey, which flows through Guildford. Does he have any information about it, and will Guildford be eligible for any of the support to which he referred?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I cannot provide him with specific information in relation to that river, but I will gladly do so following this exchange. Government support will go where it is needed. There are a number of different supports available centrally and locally for those areas most badly affected.

My Lords, I am from Herefordshire, my wife is from Herefordshire and most of our family lives in Herefordshire. It is a county under an unprecedented amount of water. The short-term clean-up measures announced in the Statement are very welcome, but it goes much deeper than that. The already appalling state of the roads has been made much worse now that they are rivers. They are frankly little more than rubble in some cases. The flooding in people’s homes has been exacerbated by the raw sewage that is coming out of poorly maintained sewers and drains. A big reconstruction job is needed. Will the Minister undertake to recognise the scale of reconstruction required if a place such as Herefordshire is to recover? Will he take the county’s case—my county’s case—to the Chancellor so that when the Budget is announced, there is money not just to clean up but to rebuild places such as Herefordshire? Herefordians need to see that their lives are valued by this Parliament.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I absolutely make the commitment to take the case of Herefordshire initially to my colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As I said earlier, there is no exaggerating the impact of what happened to the people affected. I can stand here and provide figures showing that the areas affected this time were affected even more so a few years ago. I can provide all kinds of examples of our intervening with conventional flood defences having yielded very impressive results. However, none of that is going to improve the situation for people who have sewage in their homes or whose businesses risk going bust as a consequence of this natural disaster. Yes, I will emphasise the Hereford case when I talk to the Secretary of State later today.

My Lords, absent from the discussion has been farming and the crops lost due to the flooding—not just winter planting but spring as well. What are the Government going to do to provide for our farmers and to counteract any rise in food costs resulting from this natural catastrophe, which has not yet come to an end?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The farming recovery fund is specifically designed to provide compensation for loss that is currently uninsurable; it particularly relates to agricultural land that has been damaged. I may be wrong but I believe that it does not apply to livestock, which, on the whole, can be insured. We are not yet in a position to determine how big that fund should be or how it should be deployed, because we do not yet have the data on the damage to farmland. The noble Baroness makes a very important point—this is going to be a priority for the Secretary of State when the data comes in.

My Lords, climate change is a challenge facing all the regions of the United Kingdom. Flooding has occurred right across the United Kingdom, and the Minister referred to the issue throughout the devolved regions. Will he have immediate discussions with the Defra Secretary of State and consider using the vehicle of the British-Irish Council for an emergency summit with ministerial colleagues throughout the devolved regions, in order to address the impact of climate change and to look at new solutions to flooding?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The various parties in this House and those who do not belong to any particular party agree that we face a climate emergency; there is already consensus on that. A number of commitments have been made relating to England, and a number relating to the UK. Combined, these are designed to take us towards net zero by 2050. They all involve a major uplift of our focus on nature-based solutions, which have been largely ignored in the climate debate for many years. We should not forget that at the end of this year, Scotland will host COP 26 on behalf of the United Kingdom. We should set ourselves the ambition that that will be the moment when the world finally comes together to move the dial on its collective approach to tackling climate change. There are an enormous number of moments this year where we will be required to work together, both within the United Kingdom and globally, in order to solve this problem.

My Lords, will the Minister invite a review of the planning system in relation to the issue of flooding?

I thank the noble Lord for his comment. I and the Government are clear that we should not build homes in areas at risk of flooding. That is not to say that there cannot be any building on flood plains. The point was made earlier—I think by my colleague—that a number of important places, not least London, are built on flood plains, so we cannot have a blanket ban. What we can do is have a default position that says, “No building in areas at risk, where there is an alternative”. Where homes are built in areas that are at risk, they should not be built in such a way that makes it hard for their owners to secure insurance. If the new owner of a new home built in an at-risk area is unable to secure insurance through an ordinary route, that, I suggest, is a symptom of planning failure.

Storm Ciara had a devastating impact on Llanrwst in the Conwy valley in north Wales. Homes were flooded, businesses were devasted and our historic Gwydir Castle fell victim to the deluge. I know that residents will find some comfort in the announcement about financial support made today by the Welsh First Minister. However, heavy rainfall is no respecter of devolution. Rain falling on Welsh hills eventually finds its way to English rivers, contributing to the floods that we have seen recently in Shropshire and Herefordshire. To alleviate problems in the Conwy valley and other areas, even in England, what discussions have the Government had with the Welsh Government about guidance on updating catchment management plans in the light of these more frequent and serious events? What guidance will they give to local authorities and other landowners regarding the identification of land to enable them to meet their manifesto pledge of planting at least 30 million more trees every year and to reinstate woodlands, particularly in the uplands?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. On her first point, there has been continuous dialogue between Defra officials, Environment Agency officials and their counterparts in Wales and Scotland. We have seen an extraordinary coming together of the various agencies—the fire service, the police, the Environment Agency, local authorities and volunteers—and that collaboration and co-operation will clearly need to continue. On her broader point about tree-planting targets, we will be publishing a tree strategy in the coming months and a flood strategy will be published around springtime. We are very keen to ensure that those two strategies are not developed entirely in isolation. Inevitably, part of the answer to the flood strategy will be found in the tree strategy, and it is very important that when we honour that 30,000-hectare commitment, we do so in a way that solves as many problems as possible. We should not aim only for carbon absorption, which is merely one of the benefits of planting trees in the way that we have committed to do.

My Lords, in response to the Oral Question that I asked, in relation to the flood recovery fund for local businesses and households, the Minister said that responsibility for the first 25 houses and an unspecified number of local businesses falls on the local authority. However, will the Government have another look at that? I understand that this new rule has only just come in, but local authorities really cannot be expected to budget for something that has just happened. Furthermore, who is responsible if, as a result of the recent storms and downpours, flooding comes from an active building site because of disturbance to the land? I remind the House that I am a local councillor in Lancashire and I refer to a site in the ward that I represent. Persimmon is developing a site on a steep hillside there and some pre-existing properties, as well as some of the new properties that are occupied on the site, have been flooded. Persimmon is telling the occupiers of those properties that the damage is not its responsibility because it is an act of God. Whose responsibility is it?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. His first point related to the property level flood resilience, or PFR, scheme. He is right to say that this scheme is deployed locally. The view is that local authorities are much better placed and know more about their local areas than central government when it comes to providing the support that is needed. I do not believe that the policy is new, but I am happy to be corrected or to provide a correction if that is wrong. I am afraid that I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question about building sites, so I will have to get back to him about who is responsible in the grey area between development and keys being handed over.

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to publish a comparative table to indicate what funding was available to communities hit by flooding pre-Brexit and what is now available, with precise detail of both so that we can make that comparison public?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I am not entirely sure of the relevance of Brexit to this. The Government made a commitment to provide £2.6 billion up to the end of 2021 in every region across the country. The commitment in the manifesto on which the Government were elected was to increase that to £4 billion. That figure is obviously subject to negotiations in the run-up to the Chancellor’s Budget in a few weeks’ time. I do not think that Brexit has had any real impact on this at all, other than allowing us to change the land use subsidy system so that, instead of encouraging flooding, we can introduce measures to reduce the flow of water and invest in nature. In my view, this is an enormous Brexit bonus for nature. Other than that, the record and the commitments made show that funding is increasing, not decreasing. Brexit is just a thing that happened in the middle.