Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I am extremely grateful to have secured time for a debate on a matter of great importance to many of my constituents. I should, perhaps, particularly thank the previous Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who allocated this time as one of her last acts in the Chair.
The flooding that hit Lewes on 12 October will have been seen on television news bulletins by many Members. The flood water came suddenly and rose quickly, submerging whole areas of Lewes and making the town unrecognisable. Within hours, 400 homes had to be evacuated and the main commercial area of the town had been wrecked. Some streets, such as Morris road in the Cliffe area and Spences lane in Malling, still look like war zones. In those places, contaminated water ran up to 12 ft deep, submerging not only the ground floors of dwellings but penetrating the upper floors as well.
I pay tribute to the work of the emergency services, especially the fire service, which was superb, as was the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Members may have seen footage of institution workers rescuing people from their homes in boats. It is a tribute to the emergency services that no one died in the floods and very few were injured.
I thank and express my admiration for Lewes district council, which has, in football vernacular, played a blinder. Within a couple of hours, emergency rest centres were established so that no one from the 400 evacuated houses went without food or shelter. In the hours and days that followed, the council issued regular updates to local residents, which were posted through every door in the town, arranged for mass clearances of flood-damaged goods, handed out mops, buckets and detergents and even provided disposable cameras to help residents with insurance claims. It also arranged for a free bus to the supermarket in Newhaven, given that the two in Lewes were unavoidably closed. I also acknowledge the sound contribution made by county council social services staff in helping victims of the floods when they were at their most vulnerable. The co-ordination with the district council's housing team was both impressive and reassuring.
The people of Lewes have also responded with real community spirit. Within a day, the number of bed spaces offered by Lewes residents to those temporarily made homeless was greater than the number of homeless people. I could mention many individuals, but I shall pick out three names. First, Superintendent Simon Parr masterminded police operations on the ground with a commitment and professionalism that inspired confidence in others. Secondly, Lewes district council's
The response of the authorities and the people of Lewes made a real difference and kept up morale. The floods have brought people together; I am told that neighbours who have not talked to each other for years have been seen helping each other out, and I hope that that will continue. That is the good news. However, none of that can compensate for the fact that a terrible disaster has hit Lewes. Indeed, such is the scale of damage and devastation that I believe it is right to call the flooding a national disaster.
I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for taking the trouble to visit the town so soon after the floods occurred. In fact, I am surprised that he got through the traffic and the water. Perhaps he knows a secret way into Lewes of which I am unaware. His visit was very welcome. I was also pleased to receive his letter of 17 October, letting me know that, rightly, he had asked the Environment Agency for a full report of the incident, and promising me a copy of it. I was grateful, too, for Prince Edward's visit to the town on Tuesday last week. The visits underline the fact that what happened was a national disaster. Under such circumstances, it will not surprise the Minister to learn that I am here today to ask for national help to put Lewes back on its feet.
I referred to the superb local work of the public authorities; they could not have done more. However, the fact remains that the district council in particular is running up a huge bill because it has to house hundreds of homeless people, some of whom might be in that position for six months. Their houses will have to be completely stripped and replastered. The massive clearance work is also costing the council a great deal of money, and many other calls are being made on it besides that. I therefore unshamedly ask the Minister for some cash to help my town.
First, will the Minister give me an assurance that the district council will qualify for significant financial help under the Bellwin scheme? I know that he is sympathetic to the case, but I should be grateful if he confirmed that for the record and said how much money will be forthcoming. I hope that the Bellwin scheme will enable the majority of extra costs that will be incurred to be met, although there is some doubt about that. For example, I understand that the county council's insurance policy stipulates an excess of £105,000 per building. A number of its buildings have been damaged significantly. One building, in particular--the Phoenix centre--might cost more than £500,000 to put right, so it is clearly inadequate that the Bellwin scheme offers compensation of only £100 per building. Will the Minister comment on that point and, if my information is correct, ensure that the figure is updated in order to deal with the situation in Lewes? Otherwise, the public authority will be hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket simply because of what has happened to its buildings.
Thirdly, I shall refer to insurance claims. The Minister might say that that is a matter for individuals, but I shall try to melt his heart a little. Sadly, many people affected were uninsured. Such people are often the poorest in the community--pensioners who are living on nothing but the basic state pension and cannot afford the insurance premiums. All that they had was wiped out in a matter of hours or, in some cases, minutes. They left their houses in the morning to go the shops and returned to find them wrecked. That is difficult for any individual, let alone those who might be vulnerable. Some people have been left with only a shell of an uninhabitable building, and without a home for six months. It is bad enough when people aged 75 or 80 lose everything they have, but when they have no idea whether their homes can be replaced, the situation is even worse. The flooding is not only a tragedy for the town, but has resulted in a series of individual tragedies. People have been adversely affected and they need help.
I applaud the action of the mayor, Jim Daly, and the chairman of the district council, Maureen Messer, who have set up a fund to help the people who have been hit so badly. I am pleased to say that contributions are already flowing in from the public. Will the Minister pledge that the Government will either contribute to that fund or find a creative way in which to raise funds to help those people?
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I do not represent a Sussex constituency, but my constituency suffered flooding on 15 September when 65 mm of rain fell in fewer than eight hours. It was interesting that my hon. Friend did not mention the actions of Southern Water when he thanked people for their help. What will the Minister do about Southern Water's attitude? Several people in my constituency were either under-insured or not insured. If the Minister is considering contributions to hardship funds, will he look sympathetically at the fund that has been set up in Portsmouth?
Is my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) pleased with the reaction of Southern Water? I am far from pleased with its reaction to what happened in Portsmouth. It is failing to honour the Office of Water Services' guaranteed standard scheme for people affected by sewage flooding. It is not even honouring that basic commitment. I wish also to ask my hon. Friend--
Mr. Baker : There are legitimate questions about Southern Water, on which I will touch later. To pick up my hon. Friend's point about compensation, it is not enough for the Minister to tell me that people can apply
The fourth matter that I draw to the Minister's attention is the catastrophic impact of the floods on business. Some businesses have told me that they have lost seven-figure sums; that is not an exaggeration. A great number are still far from being able to trade. There were only two shops open on Cliffe high street in Lewes on Monday, which is the last time that I checked. That is terrible. Sussex Enterprise tells me that it estimates that the loss to business in Lewes may be as high as £3 million per day.
The district council has responded positively to that unprecedented situation by announcing what is called a business-rate holiday for affected businesses. Will the Minister undertake to lobby his Treasury colleagues to give businesses a respite--not in terms of money, because businesses must be insured, but by extending the deadlines for both VAT and tax returns? Many businesses lost all their paperwork in the floods, which came upon them very suddenly, and it will take a long time to reconstruct that work. It will add insult to injury if the Inland Revenue then penalises them for not returning their tax returns on time. Perhaps the Minister will write to me on that if he cannot give me an answer today.
Fifthly, I need to draw to the Minister's attention the plight of the local farming community. He will know only too well from his role at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the problems that farmers everywhere face. Local farmers needed a flood like they needed an aperture in the cranium. Many fields in my constituency are still under water and crop loss is not insurable.
It is interesting that the south-east regional chairman of the National Farmers Union, John Robinson, who happens to be one of my constituents at Iford, wrote to the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), two days before the floods, warning of the impact that rain had had, even at that time, on production levels and hence productivity. Sadly, the post-flood position for Mr. Robinson and many farmers in my constituency is much worse. What will the Government do to help farmers in my constituency whose fields are still covered with water?
The Minister will be pleased that I have no further requests for money, but I wish to raise other issues, which I hope he will agree are legitimate. The first is on the state of flood defences in the area. I make a serious accusation in that regard. The Government were told about the inadequacies of flood defences in East Sussex but did not do much about it. The Environment Agency told them two years ago. The Agriculture Committee told them shortly afterwards--I believe that the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who has a neighbouring constituency, will pick up that point.
The Environment Agency has identified work which needs to be undertaken urgently and has warned that if it is not done the river walls are at risk of collapsing.--[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 535.]
In spite of the warnings that the Government have received, flood defence moneys have been cut from £320 million five years ago to £301 million this year. Those figures are quoted from The Sunday Times.
The Environment Agency maintains that flood defence work in Sussex alone is underfunded by £4 million a year. However, a more serious issue is legislation relating to flood defence responsibilities. The Minister may recall that I raised the subject on the Floor of the House in the two debates to which I referred, and the Agriculture Committee reported on it at length. The problem is that there are many bodies with powers, but none with responsibilities. Such passive legislation does not work. In Lewes, a flooding problem could be a matter for the Environment Agency, Southern Water, the county council, the district council, the Crown Estates, the riparian owner or a combination of them all. That is a recipe for inaction and buck-passing.
To make matters worse, the Environment Agency identifies works that need to be undertaken and it is then up to flood defence committees to authorise them--or, all too frequently, not to do so. Those committees have the budget but they do not have the expertise, and many
We need two changes. The Government need to bite the bullet and increase significantly the money earmarked for flood defence work, irrespective of the figures of which I am sure the Minister will inform me. The climate is changing and the increasing incidence of floods will heighten, so the Government's increase for that aspect of their expenditure must be above inflation if they are to keep even the present situation at bay.
Responsibilities must be clarified. A lead body, probably the Environment Agency, should have a duty, not a power, to ensure that flood defences are adequate. We need to ensure that the body responsible for identifying problems and their solutions has the responsibility to fund them. That means either that flood defence committees should be abolished and their budgets handed to the Environment Agency, or that the Environment Agency should become a direct agency of those committees for flood defence purposes. The present hotch-potch cannot be allowed to continue any longer. It is intolerable that the Environment Agency should identify works in my town as essential but that they should go unfunded for years. Will the Government sort out the mess, or must we wait for another flood before they do so?
So far as strategic issues are concerned, it is clear that there must be an overall assessment of the river structure, from the Uck in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Wealden, through Lewes and to Newhaven. I have seen no evidence of such consideration of the rivers. I hope that the Minister can tell me that it will happen, and that the works identified will be properly funded and carried out.
Finally, some planning issues must be tackled. In 1960, there was a serious flood in Lewes. It was not as bad as the recent one, but bad enough to flood large areas of the town. Why were houses built shortly afterwards in areas known to be vulnerable to flooding, with predictable consequences? Does the Minister share my alarm at the fact that two of the first buildings to be knocked out of operation in Lewes were the headquarters of the fire brigade and the ambulance service? Clearly, they were not built in appropriate locations.
The district council's excellent director of planning, Lindsay Frost, is struggling to meet a Government target of 4,600 new homes in the district between 1991 and 2011. Given the restrictions that apply, whether natural, such as hills, or man-made, such as designated areas of outstanding natural beauty, it is almost inevitable that some of those homes will be earmarked for flood-plain areas. Those areas are often in line with Government guidance--they are often brown-field sites or on the edge of town, for example. I understand that the Environment Agency has made no objection to the specific sites identified in flood-plain areas, subject to measures such as increased floor levels that would not have prevented houses in those areas from flooding. Five planning applications are pending in the Lewes district for new buildings on the flood plain. What does the Minister suggest that the council should do with them?
This subject has arisen suddenly. I do not want to pretend that, with a crystal ball, we could all have foreseen such planning problems. However, building on the flood plain is a serious issue. The countryside will be under pressure if homes are not built on the flood plain. The Government need to make a clear statement on the issue.
To summarise, I have two main points. First, the scale of the disaster to hit Lewes is such that it needs financial and other help from central Government. The town is doing a great deal itself, but it cannot do everything. Will such help be forthcoming? Secondly, the Government need to acknowledge that legislation relating to flood defence responsibilities is in a mess and needs to be sorted out, and that more money needs to be found for flood defences. Does the Minister accept that?
Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): I commend the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on the timeliness of this debate, so soon after the House has returned after the recess. His comments, to which I am sure the Minister listened with care, about the need for funding in the devastated communities will receive widespread support.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the floods that occurred the week before last in East Sussex and parts of Kent, such as Lamberhurst, had a devastating effect on many local communities. In my constituency, the River Rother overflowed its banks at Bodiam, submerging the National Trust shop and tea room, while further upstream at Etchingham, the railway station, the church and at least three homes were flooded. However, the damage at Robertsbridge, which lies between those two villages, was by far the most severe and extensive. Almost 100 properties in Robertsbridge--on Northbridge street and Rutley close, part of the high street and Station road, including the nearby, newish village hall--were deluged. The water rose to more than 3 ft deep in some houses, and occupants were helpless to do more than move what belongings they could upstairs.
Last week I visited two such constituents, Alan and Sue Winspear, who had been away during the flood itself, but whose home, Quaker house in Northbridge street, is one of several whose back gardens follow the course of a stream that, in normal circumstances, is little more than a large, overgrown ditch containing a trickle of water. Last Christmas, the Winspears, like many other people in Robertsbridge, saw that stream become a torrent that advanced across their back gardens, and there were floods again in May, but none of the previous water havoc compared with the disaster of the week before last. Parked cars were ruined; as the hon. Member for Lewes said, business premises were engulfed; and homes were contaminated by the dark slime and sludge that the floodwaters left behind as they receded.
There has been widespread praise, to which I add my congratulations and thanks, for the efforts of the police, fire crews and medical and other emergency services, including many local authority staff and volunteers who rescued the stranded, helped the elderly and set up evacuation centres. However, in spite of the exemplary behaviour of many people in the face of adversity, the Environment Agency urgently needs to answer many questions. It has been asked to produce a report for the Minister, and the House will be grateful for the Minister's prompt reaction to the disaster. The people of Robertsbridge and, I am sure, many others in East Sussex and Kent want answers, too, as the House will appreciate.
The area flood defence manager, who is based at Addington in Kent, has said that the level of the floods was so far in excess of what existing flood maps show--in some cases several metres above previous highest recorded levels--that it will take some time before a complete picture can be constructed. The area flood defence manager acknowledges the need to hold a public meeting in Robertsbridge, but anxious residents are in no mood to be left waiting for the answers that they want without delay. They want much more than the list of flood warnings issued in the Robertsbridge area and a recital of the common-sense flood advice guide that was on offer, which was the gist of the information faxed to me from Addington in reply to my first inquiries.
Many local residents are convinced that the opening and closing of the tidal sluice gates near Rye affected water levels upstream on the Rother, at Robertsbridge. Last Christmas, when those gates were opened, the water levels at Robertsbridge subsided rapidly and noticeably. What effect did those gates have on this occasion? Other residents are understandably suspicious that the Robertsbridge bypass, which was constructed over the nearby flood plain outside the village, now acts as a dam, diverting the flow of floodwater. The residents of Northbridge street are angry that a plan to erect a flood defence wall and divert the stream behind their houses, which was first proposed five or six years ago, was dropped, apparently because it was too expensive.
The Environment Agency should convene a public meeting in Robertsbridge at the earliest opportunity--I hope that the Minister will encourage officials in the agency to do so--so that they can answer these and other key questions fully and openly. The agency must demonstrate to worried local residents, who are reeling from the recent damage to their properties, that, as far as possible, the forces of nature will be matched and contained in the most effective way possible before floods again hit East Sussex.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) made it clear that the flooding of the town was serious for many homes, but owing to the topography much of the damage occurred in the villages. To the north of Uckfield is the high Weald, which rises to 700 or 800 ft. It receives heavy rainfall, which causes little streams, some of which flow into the River Medway, which stretches towards Maidstone. The River Rother to the east and other streams running south affect Uckfield and continue downhill all the way to Lewes. Topography plays an important part in the problem.
The storm that hit us recently cannot be described as a freak because we might have other, similar ones. Recent rainfall seems to have been heavier than we are used to. The recent attack was particularly savage because the rain clouds seemed to remain above us instead of moving on. Normally, they move on and after a few hours the weather improves, but that was not so during the few hours of the recent burst, when some 80 mm of rain fell. No authority could anticipate such a storm or have remedies to minimise the effect--and we understand that.
Before I consider in detail some difficulties associated with the problem, I want to pay my own tribute to the men and women of the public services, who arrived quickly, dealt with the flooding and cleared up the mess so effectively. However, although few homes in Uckfield itself were flooded, the downtown area of the high street and the industrial estate were badly affected. Many small businesses were flooded--some for the second time in a matter of months. In retrospect, one might argue that the flood plain that existed before the industrial estate was built might have coped with the overflow from the River Uck, but I doubt it. In any case, we must accept that the industrial estate has created a great deal of wealth and many jobs, and has attracted a number of well known international companies. It would be the height of folly to assume that the problem cannot be solved; it can, and I shall deal with the matter later.
The problem of farms was mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes. On my travels, I noticed that some crops still needed harvesting. Crops that were drilled prior to the floods are either under water or have been washed away. Other crops were harvested, and the land is waiting to be drilled. If land set aside for corn, for example, is not drilled now, the corn either cannot be planted at all or will be planted late, and crop quality will prove insufficient. In addition, cattle have been marooned. The impact of the flooding on dairy farming is bad enough without farmers having to cope with that as well. Many fields of spring rape, linseed and flax have gone. A constituent of mine has lost some 40 acres of flax, and stands to lose £11,000 to £12,000. Another farmer has lost 10,000 chickens.
Such problems have badly affected farmers at a particularly serious time for the British farming industry, and we must return to the question of compensation. I do not want to dwell on the subject, but there is a need for compensation and we must tackle it. As one farmer said, losses are extensive and damaging. It is not a question of insurance: one simply cannot insure against some of the problems that farmers face. If insurance companies will not deal with those problems, are we to leave farmers to face the consequences of such a storm? I hope that we can agree that a positive view must be taken on the extent of compensation.
The National Farmers Union has argued that there is a strong case for applying for outstanding agrimoney, and I believe that such payments commence from 16 October. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to that request. I pay tribute to him for his prompt appearance on the scene in Lewes and in my constituency. It is clear that he understands the seriousness of the problem.
Not only farmers were affected. As has been pointed out, given that the situation is clearly exceptional, communities themselves should do something, and the mayor of Uckfield has set up a fund to which we can subscribe. It is tragic that small businesses have had their stock destroyed by floods for a second time. It is quite pathetic to see such debris and mess on those premises. Will the Minister take into account the plight of small businesses that are uninsurable or cannot afford insurance?
The traumatic effect is profound. I should not like people to assume that we must admit defeat and that nothing can be done. Extending our sympathy to those who have suffered is simply not good enough. Sympathy will neither help deal with the flooding nor address the circumstances that gave rise to it in the first place. A fatalistic shrug of the shoulders will not ensure safety. If nothing is done, there will be more devastation and we will find ourselves debating the same problem again. We cannot and should not walk away from that problem. We are proud of our community in Uckfield. It is a prosperous town; we want to keep it that way, and we can.
I have touched on the issue of compensation, which the hon. Member for Lewes covered in some detail. We must grasp that nettle; it will not go away. Clearly, Government funds are not inexhaustible, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that compensation is not ruled out. The NFU estimates damage of some £3 million.
I should like to focus on the extent to which we can protect the community in my constituency from such serious effects in future. As the Minister will recall, there is a mill about 100 yds from one side of the high street, in front of which is the usual mill pond. It fills up too easily, the water rises and the outlet to take the water downriver is insufficient. That problem must be tackled; it is not necessarily too expensive to do so.
Water under the high street bridge rises quickly and can disappear quickly--it caused the damage in the high street and to the industrial estate to which I referred. To those of us who have studied the matter, it seems that the flow of the water under the bridge is held up too much, so it backs up. That situation, together with that of the mill pond, alerts us to the fact that, if the risk of further
The rains were so heavy prior to the final downpour and flooding that the flood plains were already saturated. However, that should not lead us to believe that the flood plains will be of no use in future. We could make better use of them if they were better drained. I live nowhere near a flood plain, but on the morning when the flood was at its height after 88 mm of rain had fallen, my lawn--which is about 100 ft above sea level--looked as though it had turned into a lake. That is because the storm had been preceded by two or three weeks of heavy rainfall. We should not automatically assume that that will happen next time; we are often concerned with flash floods. The flood plains need to be properly managed, which I believe is possible. They were already wide open to flooding--having being saturated by rain before the heavy downpour during the few days before the flooding--and therefore unable to carry out their role.
I come to the question of housing. A few houses in Uckfield were built further and further down the slope towards the flood plain, and some were badly affected. We must face the fact that, in the light of the demand to build more houses, Wealden district council is seriously worried about where to site such dwellings. If one went south of Uckfield, one would probably face a greater flooding risk, yet we are told that we must address the need to build more homes. East Sussex had a programme to build up to 33,000 homes by 2016. The ill-fated Crowe report said that we could do better than that, and that we should have 45,000. The Government have split the difference. Anyone in East Sussex knows that it would be fatal to try to develop housing on that scale.
Of course, there are wider problems than that of flooding: there is the transport question, and the fact that more and more people are now drifting into the south-east. I do not want to introduce a suggestion of NIMBY-ism. The issue has nothing to do with "Not in my back yard". It has to do with the fact that we are seriously overcrowded, which puts enormous pressure on our resources--financial and otherwise--and our hospitals, roads and so on. We must examine the problem of where to build the houses if we are to play our role as responsible people and not put them in areas that we know will flood.
Several points were made in the Agriculture Committee report, some of which have already been raised by the hon. Member for Lewes. I could quote from many pages in it, but will not. However, there is no doubt in my mind after reading it that we need to reorganise the system or take some initiatives--not necessarily leading to a fundamental reorganisation--to clarify who is responsible for what. The report states:
funding should be provided from central Government, which need not necessarily involve higher expenditure: indeed, it might provide some savings though reducing the convoluted bureaucracy of the current financing system. The hon. Member for Lewes referred to that system, so I shall not explore the matter further. That leads me to several further recommendations, but, looking at the clock, I know that it will not please hon. Members if I go into too much detail on those points.
One could continue, but I should just like to thank the Minister for the close attention that he has paid to the problem. I have not covered everything in the report and there is no question of trying to apportion blame in any way, but we need to know to what extent progress has been made, not only in accepting the recommendations on paper, but putting them into action. If we do not, I am afraid that, as the hon. Member for Lewes said, we shall be back in a couple of years' time going over this ground again.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): The coastal area of my constituency was flooded a couple of years ago, and the experience of Lewes is not dissimilar to the experience of Chichester in 1994. The question now is
I discussed the matter with the Minister in August. He is always extremely courteous and approachable and he always makes himself available. I am grateful to him for that--I only hope that his gentle, kind and friendly manner is not too much in evidence behind the scenes, in the corridors of power where decisions are made on how much money is to be made available. I notice a slight firming of his physiognomy as I say that, which suggests that there is grit behind the openness and friendliness that I encountered when I came to discuss these issues with him.
The need to address a short-term problem is not the sole issue: as hon. Members have pointed out, the whole system of funding flood relief needs urgent review. An extraordinary mix of responsibilities are held by district councils, county councils and the flood defence committee, which embodies three authorities--East Sussex, West Sussex and Brighton; the Environment Agency plays a crucial role; several Government Departments also have important roles to play; and all that interacts with the planning process. It is a hugely complicated and cumbersome set of arrangements. I strongly agree with the Agriculture Committee, which concluded:
Secondly, will the Minister give urgent attention to the need for extra funding to deal with sea flood defences? We will have a repetition of the flooding in Selsey if we are not careful. We must move on from arrangements to keep up a shingle bank as emergency and temporary provision to a more permanent scheme. The current arrangements are burning up Environment Agency money that could be used in Lewes and all over Sussex. We are in a catch 22 situation: unless the Government take action, money that could be used will never become available, because that stock of capital is being used as current expenditure. According to Environment Agency estimates, Sussex as a whole is underfunded by up to £4 million per annum. There is a money problem and the shortfall has to be made up by central Government.
My third question has also been touched on, but perhaps I can put it more directly. The plain fact is that our constituencies have all been asked to absorb large extra quantities of housing, and they cannot cope. That is a major problem in itself, but it becomes even bigger when it interacts with the flooding danger. Can the Minister say anything about planning policy guidance note 25? I understand that it will give guidance on the construction of housing in areas that are vulnerable to flooding, so can we have that soon?
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on initiating this debate. I join him and other hon. Members in thanking everyone who was involved in ensuring that the crisis was rapidly brought under control. He outlined the impact of the floods locally in great detail, and he asked the Minister a number of pertinent questions that I hope will be answered in detail. First, there is the question of funding for flood defences and financial assistance for Lewes and neighbouring communities. Secondly there is the question of the clarification of responsibilities in relation to flood defences.
I should like to focus on the wider picture. When something happens on our doorsteps it grabs our attention--the fuel crisis, for example. It is difficult to ignore it when we cannot find an open garage or have to queue for hours at the last place in town with petrol. But when the problem is far away, as, for example, with floods in Mozambique, India or Japan, it is easy to feel sympathy, and even to do what one can to help, but there is not such an urge to solve the root cause of the problem. It is not so immediate. We are not the ones who must pay for the clear-up. However, it is our problem. We must face the truth that what happens in other parts of the world affects us, and what we do affects others.
I am pleased that my constituency was affected only in a limited way by heavy rainfall. One group of houses was affected, and one of Thames Water's sewage plants overflowed as, regrettably, it tends to do when there is heavy rainfall. Several houses in Buckhurst avenue were contaminated. I am pleased that Thames Water responded fairly quickly and cleared up the mess rapidly. However, I hope that the appearance of distant floods on our doorsteps will serve as a timely counterpoint to the clamour surrounding the fuel crisis, just in case any politicians are more worried about the election next year than about those to come in 20 or 30 years' time.
The fuel crisis and the recent floods in south-east England bring to our doorsteps the contrasting sides of the most important problem facing the world: climate change. We must balance economic competitiveness, social justice and environmental needs. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Encouraging people to switch to more fuel-efficient cars by applying the fuel duty escalator seems to be a logical way to do that, but people must live their day-to-day lives, and when someone must work out how to pay the next bill, the future can seem a long way off.
For that reason, two things must be made clear and become central considerations in policy-making. First, to save people money on fuel now could prove a false economy in the long run. Fuel costs are significant for some rural dwellers--although the majority of the rural poor do not own a car--and for hauliers. However, the recent floods in Sussex caused damage estimated at £40 million. If that is combined with the costs of the other serious floods in the United Kingdom this year--in the west country, Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire and Belfast--the price of using fossil fuels begins to climb. We will all be paying for that additional cost, in higher insurance premiums, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes outlined, some people in Lewes and neighbouring communities will pay the full cost of the damage to their property, because they were without insurance.
Climate change is not solely responsible for the floods. Inadequate flood defences and the building of houses on flood plains have not helped, but climate change is a significant factor. There is a clear link between climate change and floods across the world and in the United Kingdom. World temperatures and natural disasters are on the increase; 1998 was the hottest year since records began and encompassed the highest number of natural disasters on record. A report by the World Health Organisation earlier this year stated:
Protecting the environment means taxing differently, not more, which is something that my party has called for. The Government should not be scared into reducing fuel duty without proper consideration. A small cut in fuel duty is a wonderful gimmick, but it would save the average car user only a small amount. It would fail to tackle the varying needs of different types of car user and would result in no environmental gain. If there is to be a reduction, alternative environmental measures must be taken to offset the environmental damage that that will
Dealing with climate change goes beyond the immediate crisis. Short-sighted and opportunistic policies demonstrate that a comprehensive approach is needed to climate change in the United Kingdom and globally. The number of severe floods and humanitarian disasters this year goes far beyond what I described earlier. The floods in Sussex cost £40 million, which is regrettable, but 400 lives were lost in the flooding in India in August. If those were British lives, how would we react? This is our responsibility. Developed countries such as Britain generate 62 times more carbon dioxide pollution per person than the least developed countries. Arguably, people are dying because of what we do here. If we are beginning to suffer some of the same effects, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
As a nation we are beginning to take our responsibilities seriously. The problem affects us locally and globally and we must act at both levels. As to acting locally, the Government have so far failed to live up to the environmental promises that they made in opposition, although, to their credit, we compare well with other countries. I welcome the fact that the United Kingdom has at least set a target of a 12.5 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions, even if that is substantially lower than the target of 20 per cent. that was a manifesto commitment. I am pleased that the draft climate change programme that the Government have put forward has identified 17.5 per cent. cuts in CO2. I hope that that will make it possible to reach the 20 per cent. goal, which cannot be compromised. The royal commission on environmental pollution has recommended that a 60 per cent. cut on carbon dioxide emissions will be needed by 2050. The Prime Minister recognised that fact in his speech yesterday.
Even if that ambitious target is achieved, there is a desperate need for preventive measures until climate change is stabilised. That means spending more money on flood defences in such places as Lewes and Uckfield. For that reason, the Government need to put the environment at the heart of their policy making, and not just to pay lip service to the fact that people care about the issue and might vote on it. Local action must be matched with global action. As one of the industrialised nations that have contributed so much to the problem of climate change, we have a moral obligation to take a lead in solving it. Britain's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, above and beyond what is required by Kyoto, is an important message to the rest of the world. However, we need to be even further ahead.
At the COP 6 summit at The Hague in November, where the Kyoto protocol will be finalised, it is likely that some countries, including Canada, Australia and, most disturbingly, the United States, will push for it to be watered down. Of the EU countries, only Britain and Germany are coming close to achieving their targets for reducing emissions. Although it is welcome news that the Deputy Prime Minister is going to the COP 6 summit, it is regrettable that the Prime Minister will not be there, to push the agenda and lead from the front. He should be there to show other countries how serious the issue is and that it cannot be fudged. If the countries of the world do not work together on the project, we can
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on obtaining this debate, which is prompted by the terrible events in his constituency. He has used the occasion to raise some important issues of a more general nature, which apply to all hon. Members who have spoken today who have constituencies with a serious flood defence risk. I represent North-East Cambridgeshire, which was the Isle of Ely many years ago. From the map reproduced in The Sunday Times recently, one can see that hundreds of square miles in the fens are liable to flood. The risk there is probably as high as anywhere else in the country.
It is easy enough to be demoralised by the events that are the subject of the debate, but I would point to the other side of the coin. In the main, we have had a good track record for many years. If it were not for the flood defence schemes in place in the fens, whole areas of this country would be under water. We can achieve results when dealing with the problem, but it is a question of resolve, funding and, as many hon. Members have said, of organisation.
The debate has raised a number of key issues, on which I will touch briefly to give the Minister plenty of time to respond. The Government's record on the funding of flood defence in the past few years has been challenged. Planning guidance for development on flood plains has also been an important ingredient of the debate. The ramifications for insurers, individuals and companies and the question of compensation have rightly been referred to, especially by hon. Members whose constituents were affected by recent events. On compensation, perhaps the Minister can confirm that, under section 155 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, local authorities can apply for emergency funding under what is known as the Bellwin scheme. That may be a course of action open to the local authority in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewes.
The Minister needs to clarify whether the spending levels that were recently published by a newspaper are accurate. Those figures suggested that we were spending £320 million on flood defence about five years ago and that that dropped to £301 million last year. The Minister needs to confirm what the actual figures are, if those figures are not accurate, and give assurances to the Committee that the Government are treating that key matter responsibly.
The hon. Member for Lewes said that some years ago he and the Environment Agency's director of water management warned the Minister and his Ministry about the seriousness of the situation in Lewes and Uckfield. They also said that, in terms of the global figure, flood defences in this country were underfunded by about £40 million a year. The Minister should tell the Committee whether those warnings were given and received.
Mention has been made of the recommendations of the Select Committee to revise the 50-year-old funding system through cash-strapped local authorities. It has been suggested that those ideas were put on hold at the time by both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Treasury because of cost implications. We understand now that they have been resurrected and that a review is to be held in the near future.
I shall comment on the current scheme. It has been said that lack of funding was to blame for the flood events and that that was due to the present method of funding whereby flood defence committees receive a substantial majority of their income through a precept on the county council. It was suggested that the committees do not raise sufficient money, hence flood warning systems and defences cannot be put in place. While there has always been a problem--it would be surprising if there were not any problems with financial matters--the system has worked well for many years. The flood defence infrastructure is testimony to that.
The major sea and tidal defences in my area, particularly following the 1978 flooding in Wisbech and parts of the fens, were all funded through the current mechanism. The biggest scheme in the fens was the barrier bank on the Ouse washes, which cost between £20 million and £25 million. That substantial scheme was funded through such a measure. It is not a question of saying that such a system cannot be undertaken now; it can be done, provided that the right mechanisms are in place.
A change that has been made--one that can clearly cause difficulties--is that the Environment Agency, unlike its predecessors, can no longer borrow from the Public Works Loan Board to finance major schemes. Consequently, schemes that cost £20 million with an estimated life of 50 years are funded from revenue, which places enormous demands on the funding base. In the past, when flood defence was considered to be a long-term business, loans were taken out as part of financial management. That approach has the benefit that, ultimately, the beneficiaries of the works pay for them.
Borrowing powers are available to the Environment Agency in legislation, but it is believed that the Treasury does not favour their use. To date, the agency has not therefore sought to borrow for flood defence works. In my view, any funding problems would be removed or at least seriously reduced if prudent borrowing were pursued for flood defences providing long-term protection. It is often argued that borrowing powers are to be made use of only in emergencies. However, most people would view an inability to pay for immediately available funds as an emergency. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that point and say if renewed borrowing powers are being considered in the Government's review.
The Environment Agency was so unhappy with the Government's inaction on planning guidelines that it decided to publish flood risk maps on the internet, so that individuals could access them and determine whether they were at risk. A recent report from the agency showed that in the six months to April this year it had advised local authorities to refuse 190 planning applications because of the risk of flooding. In 83 of those cases--44 per cent.--the local authorities granted permission regardless of that advice.
It is not only the recent flooding that has raised the question of building new homes on flood plains. As recently as 14 October, the Minister said that new policy guidance was being drawn up; it would be helpful if he could elaborate on that. When he said:
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on securing the debate, which is very timely following the floods that have affected Sussex. He has raised several issues that I will try to address. Other hon. Members made excellent contributions on pertinent points about flood defence strategy.
As hon. Members know, the flooding in Kent and Sussex was the worst for more than 30 years. The situation was exceptional, and that needs to be stressed. About a month's rainfall fell in 24 hours. The scale of flooding overwhelmed the defences, even where they had been uprated. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, it is likely that the identified defences in Lewes would have been overwhelmed by such extreme rainfall. I place on record my sympathy for all those who have been affected. I visited the area and talked to members of the community, including business owners and residents. The floods have caused great inconvenience and loss.
I congratulate the emergency services, which responded superbly. It was fortunate that they carried out emergency exercises over the summer--as one of the high-level targets that I set, as the Minister responsible--with the Environment Agency following the Northampton floods and the Agriculture Committee inquiry. It is good to see such an exercise delivering the results that people need.
The automatic voice-messaging system, which is available to people in flood-risk areas, also works well. I have talked to people who have the facility and who received the warnings. The upgraded national warning system also appears to have worked well: people were given warnings and the floodline emergency number was broadcast on the national news and the weather forecast. The Environment Agency's floodline dealt with approximately 40,000 calls from the public between 8 and 18 October, so awareness is increasing.
The Environment Agency has also produced flood-risk maps, which have been helpful to local authorities in predicting flood risk. The Sunday Times article claimed, in one of its many inaccuracies, that the agency had introduced flood-risk maps out of a sense of frustration with the Government, but they were in fact another high-level target that I set as the Minister responsible, working in conjunction with the agency. I shall return to other inaccuracies in that article.
I shall now deal with points made by hon. Members. It is true that local authorities--including that of the hon. Member for Lewes--can make applications to central Government for exceptional spending under the Bellwin scheme. All local authorities are expected to have contingency reserves to deal with emergencies, but there will clearly be additional expenditure when there is an emergency of the scale of the floods in Sussex and Kent. There is a formula for the matter, which involves thresholds. Once an authority has spent beyond the threshold, it can apply to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for additional funding for the problems.
Following my discussions with local authority members in Lewes and other areas, I wrote to my colleagues in the DETR to say that, although the Bellwin formula was appreciated, the process had been felt to be slow. Local authorities need applications to be dealt with as quickly as possible so that funds are released. I asked my colleagues to see that applications are dealt with as speedily and sympathetically as possible, so that required help can be given.
The point about insurance is difficult. As has always been the case, the Government cannot provide compensation for insurable risks. Some historic properties may qualify for support from English Heritage, but that depends on the details and merits of individual properties. I am happy about the fund that has been set up by the mayor for people who have no insurance. Such floods have happened in other parts of the country, resulting in people without insurance needing help. The issue is complicated, but it has been dealt with successfully elsewhere. I might assist the hon. Member for Lewes by putting him in touch with people with experience of handling such matters, so that he can learn from them.
Several hon. Members raised the subject of agriculture, which is difficult as there is no Government facility to deal with compensation for extreme weather conditions. If memory serves me, I am right to say that there are sometimes problems with re-sowing and arable-area payments, so we may have to make some representations to the European Commission about flexibility for those who have to re-sow due to losing crops as a result of flood damage. I give hon. Members an undertaking that I shall consider the issue with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to see whether we can assist on it.
The hon. Member for Lewes was right to say that he raised the subject of flood walls in previous debates. Disputes about ownership and liability have been a problem, but are now on the way to a resolution. Grant aid from the Ministry is available for such schemes, so they must be resolved locally.
I want to deal robustly with the allegations in the article in The Sunday Times. There has been no cut in the Ministry's flood defence expenditure, but a significant increase year on year. I am not sure where the figures in the article have come from. I can give hon. Members the budget figures as they stand. The Environment Agency's total flood defence expenditure, which is derived from levy income and MAFF grant, was £261.8 million in 1998-99. In 1999-2000, that rose to £276.1 million. The budget for 2000-01 is £283.1 million, although planned expenditure for 2001-02 is £290.1 million. There is a rising spend on flood and coastal defence in this country; there has not been a cut. There might be some regional differences owing to regional flood defence committees not passing on the full standard spending assessment levy. That has been a problem in some parts of the country. I have drawn that to the attention of the relevant committees and will do so again if necessary.
Several hon. Members mentioned institutional funding. How funds are raised and the different bodies that are involved, such as local and regional flood defence committees, are subject to a review that is due to report in September 2001. Hon. Members will have an opportunity to read that report.
I understand that the catchment plan for Lewes is being considered in order to examine how to deal with flood defence. As hon. Members know, I have asked the Environment Agency to examine the causes and effects of the recent flooding in Sussex and Kent; the accuracy of weather forecasting; how the response was managed, including the operation of emergency plans and flood-warning arrangements; and the lessons that can be learned from the floods.
No Government, including ours, can guarantee that floods will not happen in this country. Sometimes there is no obvious engineering solution. Defences can be overwhelmed, and defences put in one place can have detrimental effects in others. The problem is not simple. However, we can try to improve, and have improved, the national flood-warning system. In addition, we can try to ensure that people receive warnings and that people who are at risk are aware of them.
Development on flood plains is not precluded, but its effects must be considered. Development must be appropriate, and mitigation measures might have to be implemented, which developers may have to fund. All those issues must be taken into account.
To respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), I am sure that the Environment Agency's evaluation will examine the issues of the sluice gates at Rye and of flood plain development. As the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) said, development issues are involved. He mentioned agrimonetary compensation. As a result of the small print in the Fontainebleu agreement--the rebate agreement negotiated by Baroness Thatcher--no money is available in Europe for which we may apply. The £91 million requested will have to be found out of Treasury funds, from United Kingdom taxpayers, and, given the extra £221 million package that was announced recently, there is pressure on finances. Difficulties are being experienced, but all aspects are being examined.
Following my correspondence with the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) after we met, I understand that £800,000 is being committed this financial year to start the scheme to which he referred, and that it is proposed that it will be finished in Chichester in 2002. Some compulsory purchase issues are being resolved. Capital grants from the Ministry for Chichester and Selsey are ready and waiting. It is merely a question of devising the schemes and submitting them to the Ministry. We are waiting for the preferred option for Selsey following the Environment Agency's consultation.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) is right about global warming. A case can be made for environmental taxes, and the Government have introduced the climate change levy. We have made more progress than many countries in meeting our carbon dioxide targets. It is too early to say whether we are experiencing a pattern of extreme weather, but there is no doubt that the issues of climate change and carbon dioxide are serious. In contemplating environmental taxes, people must examine what happened in Sussex and Kent and appreciate the end result and implications of climate change.
I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) that, considering that this country is surrounded by sea, and has heavy rainfall and many river systems, our flood defence record is very good. Of course, that does not mean that it cannot be improved. We should not be complacent, and we are considering the lessons that can be learned. We want to improve schemes, and we are increasing our budget year on year.