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Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of preparations against flooding in England in 2021.

My Lords, alongside our record £5.2 billion investment to better protect 336,000 properties over the next six years, our policy statement sets out plans to accelerate progress to better protect and better prepare against flooding and coastal erosion. We are fully prepared to respond to flooding this winter; this includes £120 million to repair flood defences damaged during last winter’s floods, 6,500 trained staff, 25 miles of temporary flood barriers and 250 high-volume pumps ready to deploy.

Does the Minister accept that in a car-crash performance at the Public Accounts Committee last week, his department and the Environment Agency failed to answer the criticism in the National Audit Office report on flood risk management? Of the 4,500 homes flooded last winter, a few are a hundred yards from my home in Ludlow, some still empty and with no extra protection. I ask Ministers to visit flood areas, as the one thing they do not get from television and the media is the smell. It is that smell that would wake them up to do even more.

[Inaudible] —report. I should say that we are pleased that the report highlights that government investment is making a difference by significantly lowering flood risk for thousands upon thousands of homes right across the country, on the back of the Government’s £2.6 billion flood defence programme, which has since been significantly increased. This programme is on time, it is on budget and it has yielded results, as acknowledged by the National Audit Office, but I fully take on board the noble Lord’s comments about the misery involved in having one’s life turned upside down by the horror of flooding. This is of course a priority for this Government.

The Minister is probably aware that it is not only homes, businesses and agricultural land that are flooded but our transport infrastructure. Last year, in Scotland, in Carmont, a train crashed into a landslip and three people died. Do the Government have an urgent national plan? It could not be more appropriate today, when Storm Christoph is hammering at our country.

As I say, this is a priority issue for the Government. We are now on track to better protect 300,000 homes from flooding through the £2.6 billion. We have committed to doubling that investment to what I believe is a record £5.2 billion, which will protect a further 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion over the next six years. We believe that will reduce national flood risk by about 11% and help avoid about £32 billion in future economic damage, providing benefits and supporting job creation. We are putting our money where our mouth is in tackling this issue. We are introducing a suite of measures on the back of that £5.2 billion and, of course, we hope to reduce the risk of flooding year on year, even against the horrors of climate change.

My Lords, 65% of flood prevention is in poor health since the National Rivers Authority was subsumed into the Environment Agency, and no further checks have taken place on the state of river and sea walls for nearly 30 years. I put it to the Minister that the sooner flood defence is separated off from the Environment Agency—and given to an independent authority in charge of flood defence and how large sums of money are spent—the quicker our flood defences will be restored to the good order they had under the National Rivers Authority.

I believe that Defra, the Environment Agency and local emergency services are fully prepared to respond to any flooding alongside the response required to Covid-19. Extensive preparations are being made to operate flood defences and flood storage reservoirs and to put up temporary barriers where needed to protect communities ahead of the incoming weather. I just make the point that the Environment Agency has 25 miles of temporary flood barriers, 250 high-volume pumps, eight principal depots spread around the country, 6,500 staff trained and ready to respond and 1,500 military on standby to provide mutual aid. The Government’s preparations have been made and we are, we believe, fully prepared. I do not accept the noble Lord’s comments about the Environment Agency.

My Lords, as a result of climate change, the sea level will rise and some of our coastal areas will be inundated in the coming decades. Have the Government assessed the eventual need to relocate some coastal communities due to flooding risk, and have they identified which are the most vulnerable? Related to this, do the Government have a policy on how much flood risk will be acceptable in future?

The noble Lord highlights an important point. We know that many of our coastal settlements are at risk if trends continue in the same direction. We are also investing, as part of our response and the £5.2 billion, £200 million to support more than 25 local areas to take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion, with a big emphasis on nature-based solutions. I cannot provide the noble Lord with a numerical answer on the level of acceptable damage, but we are increasingly emphasising nature-based solutions, because we know that, in terms of pound-for-pound investment, that is where we are likely to see a very significant return. That is as true on the mainland as it is on the coast.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests. The national risk register orders the reasonable worst-case scenarios for each of the risks that it considers in terms of their impact. Floods rank in the second-highest category of impact, only exceeded by pandemics and a large-scale CBRN attack. So I ask the Minister: what is the estimated cost to the nation of a reasonable worst-case flood scenario? Less than £1 billion a year is scheduled to be spent on flood defences over the next six years. Is that anything like enough?

The £5.2 billion is a record investment by any Government ever in relation to flood risk, but it is not going to be invested in isolation. The Government will shortly come forward with a tree strategy, backed up by a £640 million nature for climate fund. That tree strategy will lend itself in many different ways to help to reduce the risk of flooding. Land planted to trees in the right places can absorb water many times faster than land that is not planted to trees. We have a peat strategy, which has direct implications for flood prevention, and the flood strategy that I mentioned earlier. Combined, this suite of policies, backed up with significant investment, should be able to reduce the risk that the noble Lord has identified.

My Lords, flooding is becoming a way of life for many people. Flood Re, an insurance scheme for residents unable to get flooding insurance through usual means, has been running for several years. Do the Government use the information on the frequency of Flood Re claims to prioritise where flood defence budgets are spent, in order to bring relief to areas that are constantly flooded?

In terms of where to invest, where the Government invests and where the Environment Agency places its focus are entirely based on the data that we have. Therefore, the areas that are most at risk are prioritised. We do not distinguish between urban versus rural or north versus south. Priority is based on solid criteria that apply across the board. The noble Baroness mentioned Flood Re. There has been a big increase in availability and affordability since its launch. Independent research tells us that, before that, only 9% of households with previous flood claims could get two or more quotes on price-comparison sites, and none could get five or more. Now, 100% can get two or more quotes and 99% can get five or more, so the initiative seems to have worked.

I thank the Minister for telling us about the tree strategy, which I was going to ask about and is very important. Is it not also the case that improving drainage structures, even by following the Dutch dyke system, can prevent flooding?

My noble friend was, I think, referring to dredging, which certainly can play a part in flood-risk management. However, the truth is that it can also make flooding worse downstream. Over each of the past three years, the EA has spent between £50 million and £55 million to manage the flow in channels. This allows the EA to dredge around 200 kilometres of river channel every year. Where there is evidence that dredging will reduce flood risk without increasing flooding downstream, and where it meets the Government’s criteria and is affordable, we will do it. However, we need to make sure that it is done in the right place; otherwise, we might end up with perverse outcomes.

Sitting suspended.