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Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) not only for giving way but for initiating this debate. I want to emphasise--not to him, but certainly to the wider public, including the Minister--that the anxiety is that, although we know that a long-term scheme can be prepared, we want some immediate compensation for the damage that has been done. So far, we are not getting the information that will give people hope that a start can be made in alleviating the awful problems that they face.
Mr. Baker: I wholly concur with that intervention.
I remind the Minister that in 1987 the county council claimed £9 million for what it thought was legitimate expenditure under the Bellwin scheme, but it was paid less than £2 million--less than 25 per cent. I do not believe that it was adding things on for the sake of it; it was a genuine claim. As the right hon. Member for Wealden rightly says, the consequence is that we have problems with current services. It is estimated that the damage to the county council's road network will cost £3.5 million to put right. I have a list of closed roads--the Minister is welcome to a copy if he wants one--which the county council has no money to open. There are pages and pages of roads that are shut until further notice in East Sussex.
I previously mentioned to the Minister the impact on listed buildings in the conservation area in Lewes. He said, in his helpful way, that English Heritage might look into that matter and provide funds. Indeed, his colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, helpfully sent the district council information about that. However, I am afraid that Ministers have been misinformed because when the district council contacted English Heritage's south-east regional office, it received a very discouraging letter. The letter, which is dated 8 December--it is very recent--states:
As you will see from the desk instructions, the Emergency grant scheme refers to emergency in the restricted circumstances in which events have caused significant damage or structural instability which may lead to imminent collapse or subsequent loss of historic fabric. My guess is that the main impact of flooding on buildings in Lewes has been to create a situation where the buildings need to dry out and be "restored" before they can be brought fully back into use . . . I am very sorry not to be able to write with a more positive message.
I remind the Minister that 134 grade 1 and grade 2 buildings in Lewes have been damaged by the floods, together with 230 unlisted buildings in the conservation area. That has had a major impact on the townscape of one of the top 50 towns in the country. The owners cannot rectify all the problems themselves, and the insurance companies will not cover problems that
On insurance, I have previously raised with the Minister the plight of those most affected. The Government's response--I entirely understand it--was that they were not responsible for making up the deficiencies of those who have not taken out insurance. I accept that view, but it does not cut much mustard with the 70 or 80-year-old pensioners who cannot afford insurance. They went out for a bag of beans and came back to find their houses under water. They have been out of their houses ever since and they have lost everything.
The district council chairman, Maureen Messer, and the mayor, Jim Daly, have set up an appeal fund and the Government could salve their conscience at little cost--without paying to individuals--by making a significant contribution to the fund. The money could be used to help those most badly affected. Will the Government contribute to the appeal funds set up by local authorities to help those who are most in distress? The Government make great play in their policies such as the new deal of helping the most vulnerable. Here is a classic case of people who are vulnerable. If the Government put in money, it would be very well targeted and used effectively.
The Minister has considered the issue carefully, so he will know that there has been wide variation in the response times from insurance companies and in how sympathetic they have been to householders. Unfortunately, some insurance companies have been unnecessarily difficult or have asked for ridiculously increased premiums. I am aware of one business in Lewes that has been asked for a sixfold increase in its premium by its insurance company. The Minister will also be aware that some insurance companies are reluctant to renew the policies at all.
In one case, the insurer of a commercial property wants to deal with a claim on the ground of diminution in value. That means that the insurer will pay out less on the claim because it says that the property is now worth less and that it is unlettable because it is on the flood plain. Such an attitude cannot be allowed to continue. Other insurance companies have been very good, but there is clearly a need for the Government to introduce a regulation of standard terms and conditions for insurance companies to ensure that such wide variations do not occur.
Insurance companies should be encouraged not simply to replace like for like. It may be in their interest to upgrade the protection available to buildings because that would reduce future claims on themselves as well as providing extra protection for the insured. Like for like has no future in this regard.
On council tax exemptions, the Minister may have seen national coverage--in The Guardian and elsewhere--of my constituents who have unfortunately been asked to pay council tax on the temporary buildings, such as caravans, mobile homes and shacks, that they have occupied since they were forced out of their houses. I have looked into
The Minister might be aware from previous conversations and from representations that have been made to him--either directly or indirectly--of the severe impact that the floods are having on businesses in the town. Even multinational companies such as Safeway are yet to reopen. That company is not short of money and could pull a shop off the peg, but it remains shut. If Safeway cannot reopen, what hope is there for small individual businesses?
The Government need to help such people. I am not asking them to give each business a sum, but the businesses are doing well to get themselves back on their feet. They intend to have a promotion in Lewes early in the new year and it would be a nice gesture for the Government to help that promotion by providing seedcorn funding, perhaps to Sussex Enterprise, so that businesses are made aware of their support. That would help local businesses to communicate with the public so that they get people to come to Lewes and get used to the idea of the shops being open.
The Environment Agency is dealing with some businesses unsympathetically. I refer in particular to Caffyns, the motor dealers, which has asked me to mention its case. It lost a multi-million pound sum in the floods, but received a letter from the Environment Agency saying that, following the floods on 12 and 13 October:
On farmers, the Minister's office has been helpful about payments for flax, which I raised with him. However, he should take note of other issues. As the right hon. Member for Wealden said, farmers have suffered. Their fields are still under water and they face a desperate winter. That issue needs to be considered separately.
Sussex Enterprise is going to help, but its budget for this year is running out. It needs help. Will the Minister consider supplying extra funds for those businesses through such channels? Lewes people are responding well and with spirit to a desperate disaster. Against all the odds, a late-night shopping event was successful because the people of Lewes came out in their droves to support the shops. It was great to see. Lewes people and the council will do all they can to get the town back on its feet, but we cannot do that alone. The floods are a national disaster and need a national response. We need Government cash. Will we get it?