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Storm Henk

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 8 January.

“The heavy rainfall following Storm Henk has affected communities across the UK, with the worst impacts being seen in widespread areas across the Midlands, including in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire; in parts of the West Country, including Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire; and in other areas. Parts of the country had a month’s-worth of rain in the first four days of January, and that rain fell on already saturated ground. Several of our biggest river systems—the Trent, Thames, Severn and Avon—saw record levels, or close to record levels, as they drained huge volumes of rain from across their catchments.

In the past few days, I have seen at first hand the devastating impacts that flooding can have on local communities. This morning, I returned from Alney Island in Gloucester, which saw the third-highest water levels in the last 100 years. Last week, I visited Nottinghamshire, where I met residents in Colwick with my honourable friend the Member for Gedling, Tom Randall, and spoke to residents in Radcliffe-on-Trent with my honourable friend the Member for Rushcliffe, Ruth Edwards, where unfortunately residents had to be evacuated to keep them safe. My thoughts are with all those who have been impacted.

Over the weekend, the Secretary of State visited flooded communities in Newark-on-Trent and Leicestershire. Together, we met farmers in Lincolnshire to see at first hand the impacts of flooding in their area. We discussed what more could be done to support agricultural businesses to prevent flooding and minimise the impacts of flooding in the future. I met Henry Ward at Short Ferry, whose farm has been completely submerged under water, and we discussed just how devastating the financial impact can be.

I also visited a primary school in Heighington, just south of Lincoln, that had been completely flooded. The head teacher, the Environment Agency, Councillor Carrington, my honourable friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, Dr Johnson, and I discussed next steps to get the school reopened and the children back into their classrooms.

The Prime Minister was in Oxford yesterday, talking to those affected and thanking the first responders for the fantastic job they have done over the past week to keep communities safe. I echo those thanks to the Environment Agency, emergency responders, local authorities, internal drainage boards and all volunteers for their tireless efforts to keep our communities safe right across the country.

This was a severe weather incident. Storm Henk caused high winds and large amounts of rain across England last Wednesday—Met Office amber and yellow warnings were in place across the country—and this was followed by heavy rainfall on already saturated ground, after a wetter than average autumn. There is now an improving picture across the country but, as we enter a dry spell, flood warnings remain in place. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely.

Since 2010, the Government have invested over £6 billion to better protect over 600,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. Over recent days, more than 75,000 properties have been protected as a result of the Government’s investment in flood defences. To date, unfortunately, 2,000 properties across the country are recorded as having been flooded.

In the east Midlands, a major incident was declared in Colwick when the Trent peaked at over 5 metres. In Leicestershire, 350 properties were flooded, including in Loughborough. In Lincolnshire, river levels exceeded 2000’s record on the Trent at Torksey Lock. In Staffordshire, we saw the highest recorded water levels in Burton-on- Trent, where the flood defences completed in June 2022 protected hundreds of properties.

The Government began planning for the elevated flood risk as soon as the Met Office forecast indicated an unsettled period of weather over Christmas and the new year. The Environment Agency started planning and preparing in the week before Christmas. River channels and trash screens were cleared to prepare watercourses for flooding, and there was continued work to repair assets following the damage caused by Storm Babet. The Environment Agency’s incident teams were double-rostered, with the national duty manager leading regular planning and preparedness calls with all areas. The Environment Agency wrote to all Members of Parliament in England to provide local contacts and information for use in the event of a flood.

Over the last week, the Environment Agency issued 300 flood warnings to communities. It deployed more than 1,000 staff to affected communities, set up 125 pumps and put in place over 12 kilometres of temporary and semi-permanent defences to protect communities. It worked closely with local resilience forums to manage the impacts on the ground. My department has been holding daily cross-government meetings to ensure that we are doing everything we can to minimise the impacts on our communities.

Over the weekend, the Government took swift action by activating the flood recovery framework earlier than usual to reassure people that we will step in. This support will provide immediate relief to householders, businesses and farmers affected by flooding.

Officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wrote to the chief executives of the eight county councils that will be eligible, based on the data on the impacts so far: Leicestershire, Gloucestershire, West Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Worcestershire. Others may well qualify, and we are monitoring the situation closely. Flooded households in eligible affected areas can apply for up to £500, giving them quick access to help with immediate costs. Affected households and businesses will also be eligible for 100% council tax and business rate relief for at least three months. Through the property flood resilience repair grant scheme, eligible flood-hit property owners can apply for up to £5,000 to help make their homes and businesses more resilient to future flooding.

My department has switched on the farming recovery fund so that farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land can apply for grants of up to £25,000, recognising the exceptional rainfall that has taken place. Small and medium-sized businesses, including farmers, can also apply for up to £2,500 of support from the business recovery grant to help them return to business as usual.

The Government’s UK-wide Flood Re scheme will continue to provide reinsurance for those UK households at high flood risk. Last year, that cover supported 265,000 household policies, and more than 500,000 properties have benefited since the scheme’s launch.

Outside the immediate response, the Government continue to take action to protect communities from flooding. Since 2010, we have invested more than £6 billion to better protect 600,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. We are on track to spend a record £5.2 billion on new flood defence schemes in the current six-year period. That is double the spend in the previous six years. It includes £100 million to support communities that have experienced repeated flooding, and last April the first 53 projects set to benefit were announced. We have made £25 million available for innovative projects that use the power of nature to improve flood protection, including actions by farmers and land managers. I will announce the successful projects shortly.

We are investing more in maintaining existing flood defences to help ensure that they are kept in good working order. The Government increased funding by £22 million a year at the last spending review, meaning that funding reached £201 million last year and £221 million this year.

The Government strengthened planning guidance on flood risk and coastal change in 2022. This asks local authorities to apply stricter criteria to new developments at risk of flooding before they are approved. In the year following that change, 99% of proposed developments complied with Environment Agency advice on flood risk.

In conclusion, working with local partners, we have acted swiftly to respond to the recent flooding and to provide funding support for the most affected. We will continue to lead the emergency response to flood incidents as they occur. At the same time, we will invest for the long term to create a nation better protected against our changing climate. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, the Statement refers to the dreadful floods caused by Storm Henk very recently. Unfortunately, extreme floods are becoming increasingly common. We now understand that up to one in six properties are at risk of flooding. The Environment Agency estimates that a 2 degree rise in temperature could lead to increases in winter rainfall of 6% and in peak river flows of up to 27% by the 2050s. Does the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, support his Government’s policies that are rolling back our climate pledges and risking even worse floods? How are the Government going to protect communities from this increased risk?

The Statement mentions the money invested to date to protect properties, but what steps have been taken following the Environment Agency revealing that its flood defence programme will protect 200,000 fewer properties than planned by 2027? The number of flood defences in inadequate condition has increased every year since this Government were elected. Before Storms Babet, Ciarán and now Henk, there were more than 4,000, with more than 200,000 properties under threat as a result. Can the Minister inform us how many defences failed in these storms and what action is being taken to tackle this? Does he accept the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation that the Government should set long-term plans with measurable targets to significantly reduce the number of properties at risk of flooding by 2055?

The Statement mentions the impact of flooding on farmers; I know the Minister has a particular interest in this. Persistent wet weather over Christmas and the new year caused further damage to farms that had already been hit by Storms Babet and Ciarán. Crops were ruined and livestock had to be rescued. The Secretary of State has said that the Government are helping farmers by investing in flood defences, telling the BBC that

“we are committing … over £5bn of investment in 2,000 schemes … over a six-year period from 2021”.

But NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw has said that farmers currently facing

“the huge financial stress and misery”

that flooding brings need more direct and immediate help. What are the Government doing now to support and compensate the farmers who have been so badly affected?

Floods take a huge toll on farmers’ mental health. In May last year, the EFRA Committee published a report into rural mental health. It found that extreme weather events and animal health crises left farmers, workers and vets dealing with mental health trauma with little support. The report called on the Government to provide dedicated emergency funding

“to enable local areas to quickly access more resources to respond to rural communities’ mental health needs during and, crucially, after crisis events”.

But the Government would not allocate specific funding, saying that current levels of support are sufficient. Does the Minister agree that there is sufficient support during such a crisis? Farmers are concerned that rivers and drainage channels are clogged up. What assessment has been made of the Environment Agency spending reduction on clearing essential drainage routes?

Following Storm Babet, the Association of Drainage Authorities wrote to the Secretary of State expressing its serious concerns about the condition of many lowland river embankments and warning that many had slumped and were seeping during high flows, with some completely breached. What action has been taken following this warning?

The Statement mentions planning guidance on flood risk being strengthened, yet last year the Government refused to support Lords Amendment 45 to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which Labour supported. This would have required the Secretary of State to have special regard to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change in relation to planning. Does the Minister believe he made the right decision in voting against it?

The Statement explains that the Government began planning for an elevated flood risk as soon as the Met Office forecast indicated an unsettled period of weather over Christmas and the new year, and that the Environment Agency started preparing in the week before Christmas—but we must be more proactive in our approach. Labour will establish a flood resilience task force to ensure that vulnerable areas are identified and protected, building flood defences, natural flood management schemes and drainage systems. It will meet every winter ahead of floods, co-ordinating preparation and resilience between central government, local authorities, local communities and emergency services.

Serious storms and floods are only going to get worse. We need a consistent and serious response.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA.

Storm Henk and those that preceded it have caused havoc across the country. Nearly everyone in this House will know someone who has been flooded by the storms; I have neighbours who have suffered flooding. I have great sympathy for those who have had their home, business or land inundated by flood-water. It is a truly depressing experience to see your life’s work washed away.

All the emergency services have been brilliant in responding to the rising water, evacuating those flooded out and trying to keep people safe, at the same time as initiating emergency measures to try to stem the flood-waters. We all owe them a great debt of gratitude.

However, sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Excessive rainfall over a sustained period of time has resulted in the ground becoming completely waterlogged, with new rain having nowhere to go but into the already overfull rivers. We have experienced the type of flooding that was originally assessed as a one-in-200-year occurrence. This type of flooding is now occurring on a regular basis, several times a year in some areas.

The impact on the farming community is dire, with the loss of crops and the impact on grazing stock, with farmland and buildings under water. Farmers have nowhere to keep their animals in safety. Although the Government and the Environment Agency responded fairly rapidly with relief and announcing packages of financial help for those affected, there was little preparation over previous years to ensure that flood resilience was sufficiently robust. In October, the Environment Agency found that 4,000 flood defences were rated “Poor” or “Very poor”. At the same time, its budget had been underspent by £310 million. Of the £11.7 million allocated two years ago for flood defences in one area of Nottinghamshire, less than 1% of that money has actually been spent so far.

There is an element of not really taking climate change seriously here. We are getting one storm after another; these are not freak occurrences. The Government have invested £6 billion since 2010 to protect 600,000 properties; that is roughly £10,000 per property. Decent and well-maintained flood defences protect properties and businesses, but farmland is a different matter. Depending on the area of the country, flooding farmland can be part of the solution to preventing towns and villages from being flooded—a sad but necessary fact. The Environment Agency had been working hard after Storm Babet to clear river channels to ensure that water could flow freely but, surely, these issues are part of routine maintenance which should occur regularly, not just when a storm is threatened.

The Government have activated the flood recovery framework to provide relief to all those affected by flooding. This is good news. Can the Minister say when this will come in? Eligible flooded households can apply for £500 to help with immediate costs, together with 100% relief on council tax and business rates for three months. But it could be six months before flooded householders will be back in their homes; some people may be out for a year. Would the Government agree to looking at extending this tax relief longer in some cases? I welcome the scheme for flood-hit properties to be able to apply for £5,000 to help with flood resilience measures; this will help. What it will not do is stop it raining.

I also welcome the recovery fund for farmers who have uninsurable damage, with grants of up to £25,000 and up to £2,500 to help towards business-as-usual recovery. This should help many who have been severely affected. However, I am concerned about the Flood Re scheme, with over half a million properties benefiting so far from the scheme. As flooding incidents occur more frequently, I wonder whether the scheme will cope with the additional numbers and would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance on this matter.

The Statement indicates that £5.2 billion is to be spent on new flood defence schemes in the current six-year period. The Minister in the other place indicated that there would be an announcement shortly on the application of successful innovative projects. Can the Minister give an indication of when “shortly” is likely to be? Will it be before the end of the month?

As for building on natural flood plains, I agree completely that local authorities should apply strict criteria covering new developments and ensure that they receive robust advice from the Environment Agency. It is also essential that future Secretaries of State do not overrule local authorities’ decisions to refuse developments on the grounds of potential future flooding.

The Statement gives a great deal of information on the actions taken in the wake of Storm Henk, but it makes little reference to climate change. The weather we are experiencing, which is causing such havoc, is the direct result of rising temperatures due to climate change. Last year was the hottest on record since records began. This is not going to change overnight unless the Government, businesses and the population take climate change seriously. Extensive drilling for oil in the North Sea, along with slowing down measures which would move the country more quickly towards reaching our carbon targets, are deliberately increasing the risk of more storms and floods. I hate to use the phrase “rowing back”, but that is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing when it comes to the implementation of the 25-year environment plan.

All government departments have a part to play in ensuring that the country tackles climate change. It is ludicrous to allow one department to deliberately throw caution to the wind and then expect another department to pick up the cost and mop up the mess caused. It really is time for co-ordination between all government departments to tackle this problem and help towards preventing yet another disaster for the farmer, householder and small business owner who will suffer life-changing events due to the lack of sufficient planning. If I were rating the Government’s actions on this issue, as other institutions are rated, I would give a “Good” for the last-minute emergency response, but for the long-term co-ordinated planning I fear I would give only a “Very poor” rating. It is time for climate change to be taken seriously.

I start by referring noble Lords to my entry in the register. I thank the two noble Baronesses for their questions: I will try to get through as many of them as possible and give other noble Lords a chance to ask questions. I know I speak for the whole House when I say we are very mindful of the impact that these floods have had on a great many households, individuals and businesses. Our thoughts are with them as they try to cope with the aftermath.

Several of our biggest river systems—the Trent, the Thames, the Severn and the Avon—saw record or close to record levels as they drained huge volumes of rain from across their river catchment areas. So far, 2,000 properties were flooded during Storm Henk and more than 80,000 properties were protected as a result of the Government’s investment in flood defences: we have to remember that there are a lot of people who did not flood because of the investment that has taken place. Over 1,000 Environment Agency staff have been working tirelessly in incident rooms to protect communities across the country—I thank the noble Baroness for raising the good work they have done. There is now an improving picture across the country as we enter a colder, drier spell and we see flood warnings continue to reduce over the coming days.

Ahead of the winter, early forecasting by the Met Office and the Flood Forecasting Centre enabled preparatory action to be taken at national and local levels, and I can assure noble Lords that that did take place, has taken place and will continue to take place. We exercise for these incidents. The largest civil contingency exercise ever undertaken, Exercise Watermark, took place a decade ago and since then there have been a number of others testing all the new systems we put in place following the Pitt review following the 2007 floods where we saw nearly 50,000 properties flooded. We have learned from that. Those who say that the way forward is some new, centralised system are ignoring the very important findings of that review, which said that we have to put more trust in local resilience fora, working with the emergency services, local authorities and the Environment Agency at a local level. It is really important that we continue to do that.

The Environment Agency wrote to all Members of Parliament in England to provide information for use in the event of flooding and launched its annual flood action campaign on 7 November, encouraging people to be prepared. Throughout the winter, Defra monitored the flood risk and chaired daily government meetings during Storm Henk to ensure that appropriate actions were being taken to minimise impacts to communities.

For all those who have, sadly, been affected, the Defra and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretaries of State activated the flood recovery framework, which the noble Baroness mentioned, on 6 January. This will allow eligible communities impacted by the flooding to apply for financial support. This will provide financial support to help with immediate clean-up costs and up to £5,000 to make homes and businesses more resilient for future flooding. Our flood recovery fund will support those farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land; they will be able to apply for grants of up to £25,000—I will come on to talk about support for farmers in a second. Small and medium-sized business will also be able to apply for up to £2,500 from the business recovery fund to support their return to business as usual.

On the points raised by both noble Baronesses that there is somehow a rowing back, I would just state that when the noble Baroness’s party and mine came into government in 2010, 40% of our energy needs came from coal; that is now 1% and the 1% will be eliminated in years to come. No Government in the G7 or the European Union have taken more action on climate change. Our predictions for decarbonising our economy in the roll-up to the net zero date of 2050 outperform so many of our near neighbours and other developed economies.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the Environment Agency has said that it will be able to protect fewer homes. Construction inflation has had an impact on public procurement right across the piece —there is no doubt about it—but we have put more money into the programme and we will continue to protect homes.

The noble Baroness asked a very specific question about asset condition. There have been three Environment Agency asset breaches in January 2024. All were raised earth embankments in rural parts of Lincolnshire. There was minimal risk to properties but some impact on farmland. The Environment Agency is working with local landowners to understand the impact, assess the damage and plan for repairs. There were eight breaches during Storm Babet across the East Midlands. They have been inspected and repairs are under way.

On farmland, under the current schemes some 45% of the projects that have been put in place were in rural areas. So that protects farmland: we have protected over 700,000 acres. We are taking the impact of floods on our food security, the rural economy and the businesses concerned very seriously and are busy doing what we can to protect land and ensure that farmers can be supported in recovering from this. It is certainly going to have an impact on our food security, because large areas of counties such as Lincolnshire are very important for the production of crops that we all need.

On asset condition, I also say to the noble Baroness that our target is for 98% of all assets to be in a good condition: at the moment, it is about 93.5%. In this comprehensive spending review, we will get to somewhere between 94% and 95%. We have increased the maintenance budget to £221 million, an increase of £20 million.

I am conscious that time is too short to answer other questions and will certainly write on any other issues that have been raised.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for coming to answer questions on the Statement. He referred to the Pitt review of 2007, in which Sir Michael Pitt clearly stated that we should end the automatic right to connect. A lot of the floodwater will contain sewage: it is sewage on farmland and in people’s houses. When is he going to introduce the consultation that will lead to the implementation of Schedule 3 to the 2010 Act that we were promised would be implemented this year? That is now absolutely urgent.

The noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches mentioned mapping and building inappropriately on flood plains. Can my noble friend give the House an assurance today that we are ensuring that local authorities are mapping to ensure that nothing is built on zone 3b land, where building should be an absolute no-no?

On my noble friend’s last point, 99% of planning permissions given in the last financial year were done in accordance with the Environment Agency’s advice on whether those developments should go ahead. Over the last 50 years there have been some appallingly bad decisions and we have seen housing going where it should not. But I absolutely do not agree, if that is what my noble friend is saying, that we should say that there should be no building on flood plains, because that would mean having no new buildings in cities such as York, Leeds, London and Exeter. Of course, it is not what you build but how you build it and how resilient it is, so building in resilience is vital.

I do not know a precise date for the final stage of our implementation of the Pitt review—a point that my noble friend raised—but as soon as I can find out I will drop her a line.

My Lords, I wish the Minister a happy new year. Given the increased frequency and impact of flooding, how confident is he that current assumptions on infrastructure adaptation and resilience are accurate? Will he take a personal interest in proposed flood defences for the people of Wyre Forest in Worcestershire? The good people of Bewdley were promised defences by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson but, since then, have been flooded twice.

The noble Lord raises an important point. I assure him that, through the various fora looking at weather patterns—not least the Environment Agency and Defra working closely together—and through our entire adaptation programme, we are changing our view of the risk, in accordance with the best available science, particularly meteorology. This is a requirement under our adaptation programme, but it is also something we have to do to make sure that our plans and the vast amounts of taxpayers’ money that go into these schemes reflect this.

An important difference that has allowed us to take many more schemes forward has been the partnership funding approach. I do not know the specifics of the noble Lord’s Wyre Forest scheme, but so many did not qualify under the value for money criteria in the past and were not built. Now that we have introduced our partnership funding scheme, with other sources of funding, planning conditions, local levies and a variety of other measures, we have seen hugely increased numbers of schemes and protections put in place. I hope the noble Lord’s scheme will benefit from that and I will raise it personally with the floods Minister to ensure that it is in the programme.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the Minister for the effort he made to visit some of the residents affected and also to the Prime Minister, who went to the East Midlands and Oxfordshire. That does them great credit. I understand from what the Minister said that 2,000 homes have been severely affected and badly damaged and that the vast majority will have full insurance. However, some have not been able to get cover, for a variety of reasons. Can anything be done to help residents facing that plight?

I thank my noble friend for his point about visits. It is hard to get this one right. Ministers should not be on site and getting in the way while an emergency is happening—but they should also not be too late. I think my colleagues hit the sweet spot; they were able to hear from people affected, feed that through to officials and make sure that, where changes needed to take place, they did. Our job is now to make sure that we learn from this, as we do from every incident.

On my noble friend’s second point, insurance available for people at flood risk has changed dramatically since we introduced Flood Re, which has meant that households that could not get insurance can now get it. That scheme must be constantly reviewed in the light of increased risk. Alongside that, £5,000 will be available to the households he mentioned and Flood Re can also fund resilience repairs under our build back better programme, which provides up to £10,000 towards the cost of like-for-like reinstatement after flood damage.