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Flooding in Cumbria

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered flooding in Cumbria.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I wish to speak about the situation with regard to flooding in Cumbria. In the days following Storm Desmond in December 2015, in response to our collective call for action, I was promised by David Cameron that funding would be provided to protect those towns and villages along the River Kent and its tributaries. I thank the Minister for her support in holding to that; it is genuinely appreciated.

This week, the Kendal flood defence scheme will come to the council’s planning committee. MPs are generally advised to stay neutral on planning issues, but I have chosen to intervene on this occasion because, having won the funds to deliver that flood protection, I am determined to do everything I can to give families and businesses the protection and peace of mind that they so desperately need. Having waited more than three years even to get to the planning stage and having been through many iterations during the consultation, those who still live with the trauma of Storm Desmond should not be made to wait any longer, so I place on the record my concern that the proposal should not be dragged out further by an unnecessary public inquiry.

Storm Desmond’s impact on communities in Cumbria was unprecedented and long-lasting: 7,465 properties were flooded, affecting an estimated 14,694 people, the largest number of whom were in South Lakeland. Some people were out of their homes for three years, and 3,000 children were unable to return to school until the new year of 2016. They missed a vital part of their education; for some, this was in the run-up to very important January exams. In addition, 1,029 businesses were flooded, causing huge economic damage to our communities. Jobs were lost and some businesses went to the wall. Flooding caused poverty as well as heartbreak.

The long-term toll on the tourism industry is also unquestionable. In terms of popularity, the Lake district as a destination is second only to London. UNESCO recognised that in 2017 by granting world heritage site status. The Cumbria visitor economy contributes £3 billion a year and employs more than 60,000 people. However, Storm Desmond saw a 76% decrease in tourism business profits and a drop-off in visitor numbers of about the same proportion; 57% of Cumbria’s tourism businesses also reported reduced numbers of international visitors. Four months on from the floods, 77% of businesses continued to suffer reduced booking inquiries.

As well as people’s property and livelihoods being affected, there was a significant impact on Cumbria’s infrastructure. The A591 north of Grasmere was simply washed away, cutting the Lake district in two, as its most important road was then closed for more than five months. There were 107 other road closures; there was damage to 792 bridges and the closure of the west coast main line. The impact on other vital services was devastating. More than 1,000 hospital operations were cancelled, causing significant suffering and distress.

In the light of the widespread and long-term impacts, both personally and economically, it is clearly in both the national and the local interest that the Government should invest significantly in preventing a repeat of the devastation. The current plans for flood defences in my constituency provide protection for residents and businesses in Kendal, Burneside and Staveley and are welcome, but many badly affected communities are being offered nothing by the Government.

The Derwent river catchment, which is in my constituency, has no significant flood alleviation projects in the pipeline, despite being flooded multiple times during the past 10 years, and does not qualify, under the current funding formula rules, for significant funding. The Minister is aware of our concerns, and I thank her for taking the time to listen to us on this matter, but recent alerts have led to more concerns about mental health problems among my constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a serious and thorough review of the current spending formula in order that all our constituents can be properly protected, as well as those in other rural areas that fall foul of the current system?

I thoroughly agree with all that the hon. Lady has said. The funding formula for Cumbria works massively against us in terms of both resilience and response to crises. I will talk later about the impact on mental health. The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point in that respect. The lasting consequences of flooding are very often huge when it comes to people’s wellbeing and their fear of what might come next.

We welcome the funding that we have got, but it is insufficient. Many areas, such as those that the hon. Lady has referred to in her own constituency, have not received that support. In my own community, we look at the failure to come forward with funding and support for places outside Kendal in particular. Windermere Road in Grange has flooded for many years, and only now has the Environment Agency been given approval to do a 12-month appraisal. We were expecting spades in the ground by now, not more chin stroking. I would appreciate the Minister’s intervention to ensure that the residents of Grange are not kept waiting for the flood protection that they desperately need. People will be reassured by tangible, visible construction and action, not by meetings and promises. The funding has been allocated for the scheme and plans have been made; we now need to move forward with actual delivery.

Flooding in the village of Holme, along Stainton Beck, in Burton and on the Strands at Milnthorpe remains unaddressed. Those places are on a list of flooding hotspots where action remains to be taken. The same is true of many other places throughout Cumbria. The Burneside and Middleton Hall bridges have been closed for more than three years, dividing and damaging communities. In the year and a half for which the Staveley bridge was closed, the community found itself cut off and isolated, without any financial support from the Government. Kendal’s bridges, including the Victoria bridge, were closed following Storm Desmond because of safety concerns. However, when Cumbria local enterprise partnership put in a bid for £25 million to make the county’s bridges and infrastructure more flood-resilient, it was rejected by the Government.

Meanwhile, the Government have failed to come forward with any plans for protections for the communities around Windermere: Bowness, Waterhead at Ambleside and Backbarrow in particular. Those communities have been completely ignored in the Government’s plans. They remain exposed and vulnerable, subject to whatever the weather throws at them next. Of all the businesses in Cumbria closed by Storm Desmond, more than one tenth were around Windermere lake.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on the powerful case that he is making. It is extraordinary that when the Government can, at the stroke of a pen, assign £4 billion to a no-deal Brexit that it is in their unilateral power to stop, these relatively minor sums are not being spent even though they could alleviate the misery felt by thousands of our constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and local businesses that the Government, in allocating money for alleviation schemes, should take more account of the impact on businesses?

I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman has said. He makes an important point, which is very significant to his constituents, but also to mine around Windermere lake. Residences are affected, but so are dozens and dozens of businesses, all of which are the backbone of our local economy and have a massive impact on the wellbeing of local people. The Government must now take responsibility for the failure to invest in protecting those businesses. We cannot get away from the impact on families and businesses, which cannot plan for the future because they feel that they might get hit again. Even a modest downpour can trigger real panic in people of all ages, especially children. Flood prevention is about protecting not just properties, but the wellbeing and mental health of the people who live in them.

I was hugely affected by what I saw and experienced on the morning after Storm Desmond, as we helped stricken people to empty their homes. I saw the forlorn Christmas decorations and sodden Christmas trees left out on the front garden or yard. I stood with people who had been made destitute. Barely able to afford to feed their children or pay the rent in the first place, they had forgone insurance because, frankly, they could not afford it, and they were left facing utter ruin. We cannot guarantee people that there will not be floods again, but we can massively reduce the risk. We can help people to give themselves permission to have confidence in the future and reassure their children, so that they can sleep easier at night.

A survey carried out by the Cumbria community recovery group reported that in the areas hit by the floods, a sense of vulnerability and loss of control was created, which re-emerged following further heavy rainfall of any kind. People reported anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which worsened further for those facing the loss of their employment, as well as their home.

For those flooded communities that have not received help—such as Grange, Windermere and Backbarrow—I ask the Minister to change the Government’s position and agree to intervene. There are deliverable schemes that will protect all those communities around England’s largest lake, as well as the community in Grange-over-Sands. I ask that she agrees to fund those as a priority.

The failure to hold water companies to account is a further area of concern. Despite the Kendal flood defences being built to withstand a one-in-100-year event, the water companies—in our case United Utilities—are only required to meet the standards for a one-in-30-year storm event. That is ludicrous. Millions of pounds are being spent on flood defences for our community, but the area will be just as vulnerable from surface water flooding. Surface water is one of the biggest factors to cause homes to be flooded in Cumbria over the last 10 years. On Steeles Row in Burneside, poor drainage means that residents have to deal with raw sewage overflowing into their homes and on to the street every time there is even a moderate downpour. I challenge the Minister to hold water companies, such as United Utilities, to account—to a one-in-100-year standard—so that homes receive the protection that they need.

Let us be clear that we are talking about not simply flood protection, but the mitigation of a human-created disaster—the consequences of climate change, which is more properly described as a climate catastrophe. The Government have moved away from renewable energy. They have changed feed-in tariffs, so that it is harder for businesses to invest in solar energy, while giving licences for fracking. The Guardian recently outed the Government as providing some of the heaviest bursaries for gas and oil companies. The cancellation of the Swansea tidal lagoon proves that the Government have stopped even pretending to care about climate change. Britain has the second-largest tidal range in the world, and yet we fail to use that natural, renewable resource to cut carbon and create jobs.

I want us to mitigate the consequences of our failure to tackle climate change in time to protect my communities from flooding, but I am also determined that the Government take the big strategic decisions to fight climate change. That requires a revolution in renewables and a push for energy self-sufficiency, which would protect our environment, boost our economy and give us vital energy security. I see no sign of any appetite for that from this Government. I was with students in Kendal last week, protesting against inaction on climate change. That was a reminder that the coming generation will not let us get away with it, and they are absolutely right not to.

I was in Cockermouth on Saturday with students from Cockermouth School and other primary schools, and they take the issue very seriously. In my constituency we also have to deal with coastal erosion and coastal flooding, which are greatly impacted by climate change. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to build coastal protection into the broader funding formula for flooding protection?

Yes, I agree, and I will come on to the need to treat Cumbria as a special case when it comes to flood funding allocation. We have a very long coast with many tidal estuaries, which could be a source of energy but are also a source of flood risk. The hon. Lady makes a very good point.

Flooding is a problem in my patch, as well as for my constituency neighbours, the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), but it is a problem that only stands to get worse. The extreme weather events that we face are becoming more frequent. According to the Met Office website, Westmorland has the highest average annual rainfall of any place in England. The most beautiful place in the country turns out to be the wettest—who would have thought it? We have a lot of lakes to keep topped up.

I ask the Minister to re-evaluate the funding criteria, to ensure that Cumbria is treated as a special case with recurring support for flood resilience, because for us it is not a question of whether it will flood, but when and how severely. I want the Minister to intervene with emergency funding to protect the communities around Windermere, such as Grange and Backbarrow, which currently face the future with no protection. We need more than just one-off lumps of money to deal with crises; we need a fundamental change in the funding formula.

The current partnership funding mechanism focuses on the value of assets protected. That obviously favours wealthier communities and parts of the country where house prices are higher and homes more densely built. It dilutes any consideration of how likely an area is to flood. The system of classification is, frankly, not fit for purpose. Many communities flooded in 2005, 2009 and 2015; that is three floods in 10 years, each of them at least a one-in-100-year event, meaning that flood frequency estimations are now wildly inaccurate for Cumbria. Properties should now be placed in the higher risk category, based on the reality of the past 10 to 20 years. The current figures are based on statistics that are so far out of date that they have basically become fantasy.

In short, the steps that the Government need to take are clear and threefold. First, we need urgent investment now. We need to build capacity to take water out of Windermere at times of high rainfall in order to protect the communities on its banks. I have presented the Minister with a case for such a scheme made by one of my constituents, and I look forward to hearing her response. Secondly, we need the Government to hold the water companies to account, so that communities are given the long-term protection they need. Thirdly, it is clear that the Government need fundamentally to shift their thinking when it comes to the allocation of funding for flood defences, so that we in Cumbria—England’s wettest county—get the recurring funding we need to make ourselves resilient, and to keep our families and businesses safe.

I am massively proud of our people and communities in Cumbria. In the face of devastation, they pulled together to support one another at great personal cost. For example, the Kendal Cares initiative sprang up literally overnight after Storm Desmond, to meet the needs of those who had lost so much. Today, I want the Minister to commit to supporting our communities in an enduring way, so that we can prevent a repeat of the devastation that occurred in December 2015. Cumbria surely deserves that protection, and I hope that the Minister will provide it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate. We have spoken previously on this topic, one to one as well as in the wider group of Cumbrian MPs, two of whom are present—the hon. Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). I commend them for the representations that they have made on behalf of their constituents. They are rightly passionate about trying to secure more flood funding for important projects in their constituencies.

Flood and coastal risk management is a high priority for the Government, and I am acutely aware of the impact that flooding can have on lives and livelihoods, which was the case in my constituency following the 2013 surge. People face ongoing challenges and have ongoing concerns, whether those are to do with aspects of weather or surges and high tides combining. Compelling evidence suggests that climate change may lead to increases in heavy rainfall and increased risks from fluvial and surface water flooding by the middle of this century. Both present significant risks, so we are putting in place robust, long-term national strategies to protect our communities. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise the £2.6 billion Government investment made in flood defences over six years.

There has been no major flooding since I have been the Minister responsible for flood risk management—perhaps that is why I have been in post for nearly three years—but I take a keen interest in the latest developments in Cumbria, which is an area particularly prone to the devastating impacts of flooding. That is why I think I have visited Cumbria on more occasions than any other county during my time in office, to hear the community’s experiences at first hand.

I am very aware of the extreme flooding events that have been suffered and the damage that has been caused, and I recognise the impacts, including on mental health, experienced by people and communities. I pay tribute to the responders and volunteers from across the county, and indeed the country, who worked around the clock in challenging circumstances during Storm Desmond, and for their ongoing work in flood action groups.

I also praise the ongoing work of the risk management authorities and the local community groups that contribute their time and vast local knowledge to protect their local communities. They are also involved in discussions about different projects, and they recently produced a report on how to improve funding in Cumbria, as well as a practical guide to natural flood management measures. Together with the expertise of the Environment Agency and local councils, those actions are leading to strong local decisions.

The Government have committed to spend £68 million in Cumbria as part of our current programme, which began in 2015 and will complete in 2021. Hon. Members may be aware that £10 million was initially allocated under today’s funding formula, but I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), when he was the Minister responsible, allocated an extra £58 million to tackle the issues resulting from Storm Desmond. The Environment Agency continues to maintain its flood risk management assets in the county and has spent £1.4 million on maintenance since 2015.

To better improve the flood resilience of properties, a grant of £5,000 per property was made available to homeowners and businesses that were flooded in December 2015 for additional resilience or resistance measures. I understand that 4,307 properties have received that money, which equates to more than £15 million of grant.

The important 2016 Cumbria flood action plan continues to be a living document. Of the 100 actions agreed in it, 74 are now complete, with 96% of short-term actions also complete. The remaining actions are being reviewed to determine whether they are still valid. Recently, the Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill successfully completed its stages in this House and is now going to the House of Lords for consideration. If the Lords do not amend it and it becomes an Act of Parliament, I hope that it will provide a welcome opportunity to meet three actions in the plan that aim to develop water level management boards in the Eden, Derwent and Kent Leven catchments.

Several schemes to reduce the flood risk in Cumbria are progressing. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale pointed out, some will go out for planning consultation shortly. He referred to the preferred option for a £45 million scheme in Kendal, which is expected to reduce the risk of flooding to more than 2,500 local homes and businesses. As he points out, the determination date for planning permission is Thursday. In line with Government guidance, multi-criteria analysis has been used to assess the merits of each option against economic, technical, social and environmental criteria. That is why the Environment Agency has considered the feedback on the options to shape the scheme.

In Carlisle, following public engagement in January, a planning application was submitted for a scheme last month. The completed scheme will cost approximately £25 million and is expected to reduce the risk of flooding to more than 1,000 homes. The flood defence scheme in Egremont received £1.6 million of additional funding from a £40 million national fund to support economic growth and regeneration in 2018. The scheme will cost approximately £6.2 million and is predicted to reduce the risk of flooding to 221 homes and commercial properties. I hope that will get planning consent in May. A further 44 properties will be protected by the installation of property-level protection. In Rickerby, the flood alleviation scheme has received planning approval and, subject to the approval of the final business case, work is expected to start in the next few months.

To respond to national emergencies, the Environment Agency has 25 miles of temporary barriers, which it deployed in Braithwaite, near Keswick, when there were concerns. We continue to work hard on natural flood management to gather evidence on how best it can, or whether it can, be a key part of how we reduce the impacts of flooding. Overall, 11 communities in Cumbria are involved in the pilot project, into which we have put £2.5 million out of a total investment of £15 million. Of that, £800,000 was allocated to the River Kent catchment across eight projects.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to some specific bridges. I went to the Middleton Hall bridge—on a political visit, rather than a ministerial visit—and I know that the county council are working hard to repair the Ford and Middleton bridges that were damaged in Storm Desmond. My understanding is that it expects to complete the works this year. I am conscious that, particularly in Middleton, cars can get over the temporary bridge but emergency services and small buses cannot, which is a real source of disruption to the everyday lives of people in the area.

Will the Minister and her Department keep in mind that, notwithstanding the terrible damage that Storm Desmond did, they should not let that displace the suffering of other residents, such as my constituents, who are still feeling the effects of storm damage from previous years?

Of course, the storms of 2005 and 2009 have had a long impact, which I recognise.

On the funding policy, our current investment programme is due to protect more than 300,000 more homes, although I am conscious that not all of that will be in Cumbria by any means. I am sure that hon. Members, while fighting for their constituents’ needs, also recognise that the Government have to consider projects across the country. In the current programme, it is not possible to deliver every scheme that would reduce flood risk, but I assure hon. Members present that I am fully alive to the issues raised about Cumbria.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to wealthy communities and the funding formula, but the funding formula specifically gives a boost to parts of the country that are not as prosperous, so that is taken into account. Our main impact and focus has been on people, rather than businesses, but I am looking at the funding arrangements ahead of a review of funding needs beyond 2021. We are working closely with the Environment Agency and the Treasury to consider future investment needs and the Government’s role in supporting the resilience of communities. My Department launched a consultation in January, which began the discussion on enabling more local funding to be raised for flood management. While considering the requirements for future programmes, I am looking carefully at the impact on Cumbria.

I am aware of the £58 million, which I have explained to hon. Members, and I am keen to build on that work and continually improve overall flood resistance in Cumbria. I reject the comments of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that the Government have given up on renewable energy and climate change. He will be aware of the situation regarding the tidal lagoon, which was deemed poor value for money. I think I am right in saying that a prominent non-governmental organisation also challenged the scheme because of its impact on tidal habitats and birds. We have to take a balanced approach.

As the only Member with the word “coastal” in their constituency name, I am conscious of the issue of coastal erosion, which my constituency also suffers from, and I recognise that extreme weather events cause people worry. I do not want to reject what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said but, dare I say it, the Government have to be responsible in preparing for a no-deal Brexit. I repeat the mantra that if hon. Members do not want no deal, they have to vote for a deal. The £2.6 billion investment has been put to good effect, however, and I will push for more to be done in the next spending review, if we can.

I have corresponded with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about water companies before. We have a different perspective. Some of the challenges of surface level flooding will be due to the county council not managing to drain the gullies or whatever—it will be a variety of things. Sewers are expected to have only a one-in-30-year event design standard, based on the rainfall return period, which is surface water flooding. That is different from the one-in-100-year river flood event experienced in Kendal, so it is not necessarily the case that we should compare them and make them identical.

Regarding the other aspects of the scheme that the hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned, he knows that we have considered it and that we are waiting for an Environment Agency report. He will also be aware that there is a big gap between the grant in aid for which it is eligible and the cost of the scheme. That is why I continue to encourage businesses to take advantage of the tax relief that they can get if they make capital contributions. I know that it will be an ongoing challenge for many people around the country, but I hope that we have considered it today.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.