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Environment Agency and Bromford Estate

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the disgraceful story of the prevarication, delay and disrespect from the Environment Agency towards the good residents of the Bromford estate in my constituency of Birmingham, Hodge Hill. The upshot of this terrible saga is that the overrunning of flood defence work denied those from one of the poorest communities in Birmingham access to their public park for two years throughout the length of lockdown. This estate has one of the worst health outcomes in the west midlands, yet throughout the pandemic and throughout this health crisis the green space that was the preserve of our community was fenced off and denied to residents and their children.

I know that the Minister will have studied her brief and will have come to the House as an expert on the Bromford estate, but should that not be the case, let me just very quickly set the context for the House. The Bromford estate is built along the great River Tame, where once its mills were recorded in the Domesday Book. It was of course the home of the Birmingham racetrack until the 1960s, whereupon, to provide greater housing for Birmingham, the Bromford estate was built on new town principles along what is actually the longest bridge in the country—the great M6 viaduct. However, for years the estate has suffered neglect, and I have made it a mission for my time in the House to campaign for the investment that it deserves.

We started with £10 million-worth of new health centre in the Firs, towards the east end of the estate. We were successful in bringing in more than £1 million of big local funding over a long period of many years to help build up community initiatives. We have now secured tens of millions of pounds for a transformation of housing on the estate, and it will also be home to the new retrofitting pilot which, as chair of the East Birmingham inclusive growth taskforce, I have helped to deliver.

We still have miles to go if this proud estate is to gain the investment and the attention that it deserves, but we are blessed with the most extraordinary wealth of community leaders and community activists who are, together, determined to renew the bonds that connect the neighbours on the estate. They are people like Tim Evans of Worth Unlimited, which has transformed youth work on the estate; people like Paul Wright of the Open Door Community Foundation, which has created, in The Hub, a real anchor for the community; people like Phil Howkins, one of the driving forces behind the new pantomimes we have at Christmas; people like Flo Parkes, Clare Maclean, Linda Dunkley and her daughter Charlotte Dunkley. They have together not only done the good, hard work of community-building, whether it involves pop-up parks or organising festivals, but created a vision for the estate—the Bromford village vision of a place where we get the investment we deserve, and renew the sense of community.

That is why we gave such a warm welcome to the prospect of Environment Agency investment in the flood defences along the River Tame. The River Tame does not flood very often; it floods, to a serious level, perhaps once in a century, but that will obviously have a devastating impact on the communities of the Bromford and, indeed, Castle Vale. The flood defences were important, and they help us to unlock new housing development, which in turn is a catalyst for renewal. However, we wanted to bring the Environment Agency into a real partnership with Birmingham City Council and our community organisations, so that this was not money dropped in from above, with the investment made and agencies then just disappearing. We wanted a true partnership in which we worked together as a team to overhaul the estate with the investment that was provided. That was the dream, but the reality was very different. With the House’s indulgence, I will, very quickly, share the chronology.

The first details were confirmed to us on 22 June 2020. That is when we got a green light from Birmingham City Council to co-invest alongside the new flood defence work. The completion date was to be March 2021; that was the promise. It was at about that time that the Environment Agency told us that it would remove the under-12s play park in Bromford Drive. We were pretty unhappy about that, but we were given an assurance that new parks would be provided within the next two years. The next update was just nine months later, but we were then told that the entire project was running 12 months late. New project sponsors were brought in. There were clearly a host of problems. I was advised by the city council that

“The new Environment Agency Project Team have freely acknowledged communication has to date been inadequate”.

That was putting it mildly. At that point, we were promised that the existing play facilities would be reopened in late July 2021.

We also learnt at that time—this was just as bad—that the council would not have unfettered access to the housing development sites, as it had been promised, because the Environment Agency had decided to use the site as a compound for the work that it was undertaking. As a result, the council had to brief me that

“The delays to the flood defence works will delay the Housing development programme and the associated play area and open space improvements.”

A few days later, on 1 April 2021, local residents were sent a letter stating:

“We had a break in our embankment construction work”.

The work, the letter said, would restart shortly, but

“To allow us to do this safely we will need to close the Skate park in addition to the play park. The park will be closed for approximately 7 weeks”.

The letter promised that it would be reopened in time for the 2021 summer holidays.

The next communication was dated 14 July 2021. We now learnt that the Environment Agency had issued an updated programme advising that the flood defence works would not be substantially completed until the end of March 2022, and it would not be returning control of housing sites before the end of October 2021. That knock-on cost pushed back the housing proposals by a couple of years and put up the cost by 10% to £3.2 million.

At that point, in exasperation, I started tabling questions to the Minister. In answer to my written question of 17 September 2021, the promise came that the Environment Agency was

“fully committed to completing this scheme at the earliest opportunity”—

and the Minister said that the Environment Agency ensured that the multi-use games area and skate park were going to be handed back, along with the under-12s play area at the start of the summer holidays. But the play park is still closed. I then had to convene everybody on 5 November 2021 to make sure that we had a 10-point plan that everybody had signed up for, and we now have an agreement that the park will be made available in the spring of 2022.

This is a terrible saga of the mismanagement of a project. We have good people such as Jimmy and Imky on the ground from the Environment Agency, but frankly, they are clearly good people in bad systems. I have asked the Minister to come to the House today because, in my letters to the chief executive of the Environment Agency, the answers were inadequate, and they were answered by a junior official in the agency. Frankly, if that is the way that the Environment Agency is going to treat Privy Counsellors in Britain’s second city, what hope, frankly, do residents have of getting a straight answer?

Our asks are very simple. First, we would like the Minister to give us an apology—just to say sorry for this saga and the denial of our park to our children for the past two years during lockdown. If we can build a Commonwealth games stadium in Birmingham on time and on budget, the Environment Agency should be able to bring a play park to completion on schedule. Secondly, we would like compensation in the form of new investment in new parks on the estate. Thirdly, we would like a commitment that work under way on the timetable now agreed will not be delayed. We want it specified not in terms of a season, but to the nearest date. Fourthly, we would like a commitment to transforming communications with our community. We have that from the local staff from the Environment Agency, but I want to be sure that we get the back-up from the higher-ups in the Environment Agency, so that that commitment is made real, and I would like the chief executive of the Environment Agency to come to the Bromford estate and actually front this up in person with the residents of the Bromford. Finally, we would like to know how on earth this has all cost £26 million of taxpayers’ money, and we would like to know, please, how much extra is being shelled out because of the delays.

You will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for feeling strongly about this, but while we have had a Prime Minister partying in Downing Street, the children of my constituents have been denied a play park on their estate during covid. I do not think that is acceptable and I am here to say to the House that we are not having it. I am sorry that we have had to ask the Minister to come to the House. It is a last resort and a measure that I have taken in desperation, because I am determined that the people of the Bromford are going to be treated like first-class citizens and get the respect and the investment they deserve from this Government. I speak for the whole of the Bromford tonight when I say that we are looking forward to answers from the Minister.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) is somewhat—I think “frustrated” is too gentle a word, is it not? I can understand his anger—I think it is that really—and I say to him that my door is always open to speak to colleagues. It does not matter what side of the House they are on, and I think my noble Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), would vouch for that. I am always opening to hearing about where there are problems and frustrations. I know that he has written to me, but as far as I understand it, he has not come to me face to face and, in a way, perhaps he should have—but there we go. I am pleased to hear from him tonight, speaking up as the MP for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and actually, it has been great to hear about the people from his constituency who have that vision for his area. It is always good to hear about people working locally to make their area better and I congratulate him on the work that he is doing. I certainly understand the frustration about the issue of having no park, particularly during lockdown, and I will come to that later.

I will focus on the flood risk side of things, because that is what I am responsible for as a Minister. I am not the Communities and Local Government Minister, a role that is very much about the community side of things, the developments and so forth. I will focus on that, but it obviously all links into what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.

Flood and coastal risk is a priority for the Government. We are well aware of the impacts that flooding can have on communities, homes and businesses. With that in mind, the Government have doubled flood funding in our latest programme to £5.2 billion to support 2,000 new flood defence programmes, which will protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion—I just wanted to put that on the record. In England, the statutory responsibility for managed flood risk falls to risk management authorities such as the Environment Agency and lead local flood authorities, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware.

The Environment Agency works with the lead local flood authority to manage surface flood water risks through strategic planning and supporting the development of projects—particularly when it comes to making business cases—and to access Government flood and coastal erosion risk management grant-in-aid funding and regional flood and coastal committee local levy funds. The lead local flood authorities and county and unitary councils have the lead operational role in managing the risk of flooding from surface water, ground water and ordinary water courses. They are responsible for ensuring that the risks are identified and managed as part of a local flood risk management strategy.

Let me turn now to the Bromford estate. I pass on my sympathies to those in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency who have been impacted by the delay in the construction of the flood defences that run through the estate. I understand how frustrating that has been, particularly the impact that that has had on vital recreational spaces. I believe that there has also been a great deal of anxiety about the construction work around the flood schemes and other significant developments. While the right hon. Gentleman was talking about lots of other benefits in his constituency, he did highlight the fact that, when flood defences go up, they can have lots of other spin-offs. He is right about that. Once the defences are in place and the community is protected, other spin-offs happen. For example, I have seen that happen in Lytham St Annes.

In the summer, I did a whole lot of flood work all around the country—I could even have come to the right hon. Gentleman’s area had I known what was happening there. I saw for myself how investment in defences brought with it safety and security for business. New businesses were attracted to the area. Even tourism improved, with people being attracted to the area. It just improved the whole feel of the place, and I think that that is one of the things that he is getting at. There will be a spin-off when all this is sorted out, and, trust me, it will be sorted out.

The Bromford flood risk management scheme aims to reduce the risk of flooding from the River Tame, extending over 4.5 km from the River Rea, through Bromford and Castle Vale, and downstream to the M42 crossing at Water Orton. The Government are investing £27 million on the scheme—a huge amount of money—which is expected to be completed by winter 2023. However, things will happen before that.

The scheme will see more than 1,500 homes and 42 non-residential properties better protected from the risk of flooding. I know that the place has not been flooded for a long time, but the strategy that has been done shows that the area is at risk, so the scheme is really important in protecting those homes and businesses. It will then unlock new housing development projects worth more than £40 million. That is a big commitment that we have made to the right hon. Gentleman’s area.

The right hon. Gentleman highlighted the fact that the completion of the embankment area of the scheme has taken much longer than it should have done, but that was because of an emergency. I am sure that he is aware of this, but a wall collapsed in two sections of the defence area. It had to be repaired before the new flood defence work could continue. It was very complicated. I have quizzed the EA about that, which I am sure he will understand. In addition, as with loads of construction works all over the country, there has been a squeeze on materials, poor weather and third-party landowner issues to be sorted out. That has had an impact on progress, and it has been complicated. The Environment Agency has committed more funding to complete the scheme and deal with the various challenges the project has faced. The contractor’s senior management have also provided commitments to improve delivery confidence—I think that is really what the right hon. Gentleman is after as well—and they are fully committed to completing the scheme at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps I could give the right hon. Gentleman the dates before he intervenes. I have spoken with the Environment Agency, and it has assured me that completion of the embankment works running through the estate is expected in May, except for one small section—the Bromford turning circle, which is due to be completed by September. Large sections of the embankment may be complete prior to May, and the Environment Agency intends to hand back these sections earlier to Birmingham City Council, on contractual completion. Shall I go on to the play park?

Let us go on to the play park, because that is obviously crucial. The Environment Agency is working closely with the council’s parks team on the under-12s play area, which the parks team is aiming to reopen in June, as the right hon. Gentleman said. The EA is committing £200,000 towards the refurbishment of the play park. I hope he welcomes that. I know it is a little late, but it is under way and I am sure it is going to be a play park well worth waiting for—I hope it is. I will now give way.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has just slipped the timetable back two months on the assurance that I was given on 5 November, so I hope that she will be able to re-check that with her officials. The broad point I wanted to make is that the project management arrangements have been among the worst I have ever seen. For example, the collapse of the wall was communicated to me only about two months ago, long after the fact. May I therefore urge her to ensure that she is doing everything she can to ensure that integrated project management arrangements on such complex schemes are much tighter and that communication with local residents affected by the works is an awful lot better?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I could not agree more. Communication is essential in such projects, and clearly this is a complicated one. I promise that I will check that that is going to happen in future and why it did not happen in the past. As he is the MP, and one so involved in his local community, it would be right to involve him.

I have spoken to the EA and it gets the message about engaging with the community. In its defence, covid and the lockdown did not help, because it had to put on hold a lot of its normal face-to-face engagement. I have had good reports around the country of that face-to-face engagement on the ground, particularly when there is or has been flooding, or when it is trying to advise on what flood defences one might put in one’s house. The EA is really good at that, so I am sad to hear what he says, but I think it was partly affected by covid when the EA paused its face-to-face engagement. It tells me that that has been ramped back up again and it also kept in touch electronically, by post and through newsletters.

Following the Government’s easing of covid safety measures, the EA met community members on 5 November 2021—I believe the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that date—and more recently. I believe it met him on 21 January, so I hope that relations are improving.

The EA is committed to regular engagement with the community, and I urge it to ensure that it keeps to that. I would be pleased if it would let me know how that is going. It has said that it will continue to attend the quarterly board meetings organised by the council, either virtually or in person, and the quarterly partnership meetings once they are resurrected by the local community group, Worth Unlimited. I am sure the right hon. Member and his fellow councillors welcome the investment in the flood defences to which I have referred. They will bring multiple benefits for his area when they are completed.

Our ambition is to create a nation that is resilient to flood risk and coastal erosion. We are working to manage and mitigate the impact of flooding at pace and continuing to implement our flood risk management policy statement and the EA’s national strategy. We are working across the country on projects far and wide, and I really look forward to hearing about that park being opened and the projects coming to fruition. I hope that this has given the right hon. Member a little bit of reassurance, and I will be very happy if he wants to keep me posted.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.