4 Feb 2003 : Column 29WHcontinued
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I was lucky to be chosen to lead the debate, but the issue goes beyond party politics and my constituency all the way up the River Thames. Some hon. Members had worse experiences than mine, and they were at least as heart-rending.
I asked for the debate because I want help from the Government, not because I want to play the blame game or to point a finger, although it may come to that. We also need help from elsewhere, but that is not the subject of the debate.
I want help from the Government on three counts. First, I want to get the facts and the truth. Secondly, I want the Government to draw up plans for the future now that we know what can happen. Thirdly, inevitablyI am sure that the Minister guessed what I would sayI want to request money.
It may be self-evident, but the message time and again from people who have lived in my constituency for a long time is that they know about flooding, they have seen it before and they understand it, but this time something different seems to have happened. I keep hearing that; it is a subjective view, but we need to address it. Some have argued that there was more rain than there had been before, and some that there was less, but there certainly was rain, and the river rose rapidly. Some say that they have never seen it running so fast and we need to know about that.
The result, inevitably and predictably, was flooding. The flooding of land is inconvenient and a nuisance, but if open spaces flood, up to a point one can say, "So what? That is what open spaces are there for." However, it is the flooding of properties that hits the headlines and in that respect the constituencies of other hon. Members may have fared worse than mine. It surprises me how difficult it is to get the facts, but the best estimate is that between 100 and 150 properties actually had water inside them, but hundreds of others nearly did and the residents are worried about next time.
I do not suggest that people whose properties were flooded with river water and rain water did not suffer a huge personal crisis, but I want to concentrate on flooding with sewage, which is in an entirely different category; it can be linked with other flooding, but it can occur on its own. In some groups of houses in my constituency, the sewers were blocked because the pumps would not work, with the result that people had sewage all over their gardens or in their houses. They had to use a mobile toilet at the end of the road, whatever their age, and whatever the weather and the time of day or night. That was a horror above all horrors, and that is what hugely exercises my mind.
The overarching debate about flooding has two parts. First, what happens to the rain and river water and, secondly, what happens about the sewers? The first concerns the Environment Agency and the second Thames Water. The issues overlap, but they can be considered separately.
I speak only for Spelthorne, and leave other hon. Members to say what happened in their constituencies, but in the most recent emergency the councils certainly came across as having learned from the flooding two years ago. Their response was better. I would not say that it was perfect, but lessons have been learned. The police have also learned some lessons, as their gold and silver command response appears to have worked better than two years ago. The fire and rescue services have similarly improved. I think that they have been buying boats, and I plead with the Minister to let them buy a few more. The emergency plans have been worked on, and I will say something about the need to improve them, but it would be churlish of me not to recognise that lessons have been learned since the last flood.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and apologise to hon. Members that I will not be able to remain for the full debate because, as they know, I am deeply involved in the subject that is being debated in the House.
I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his tone of inquiry. The most important task is to find out why the flooding happened and what can be done in future. I am concerned by the speculation in and around Slough about whether the Jubilee river is the cause. The case is not proven, and I hope that in the debate we will be able to uncover what difference the river has made and the lessons that we need to learn.
Mr. Wilshire : I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady. Like her, I have many constituents who are convinced that the Jubilee river caused the flooding. My response is that it could have. I can see the argument that it was the cause, but I can also see the argument that it was not. As a layman, I do not know. That is why my first plea is for the truth, because only when we have it can we make plans. If the Jubilee river is not the cause, we will have wasted money spent on trying to improve it. If it is the Jubilee river, we must do something further.
We must get to the facts. Three themes and theories have emerged from my constituency about the river and rain flooding. The Jubilee river theory is the first. Some of my constituents are convinced that the Thames barrier was the cause, and other constituents believe that the flooding was caused by a lack of dredging. They believe that, and we have to give them enough information to work out whether their beliefs are right or wrong. We cannot just leave them with those assumptions. I hear regularly that Thames Water has not invested enough money in the sewers, has lacked interest in the problem and was incompetent during the emergency. I say that with some trepidation, because I do not believe any of that, but it has to be put in the open. It is being said, and if it is untrue, we have a duty to dispel the myth. If it is true, we must act on it.
I hope that the Minister will respond. The first question is whether the Government can help us get the facts. There is no point in having plans for the future based on fiction; we need them to be based on fact. We
During the emergency, Thames Water was overwhelmed, and there must be a lesson to learn from that. It was difficult to get hold of, although I accept that it had enough people demanding help without being annoyed by an MP. However, it has also been difficult to get hold of since the flooding. I am sorry to say that it has been a little coy, so perhaps we can work on it to be as open as the Environment Agency. It must tell usthe Government can persuade it if necessaryexactly where the real sewer problems are, as they are not always where they appear to be. It must tell us what needs to be done to solve those problems, and when it is going to take that action.
We also need independent verification. Understandably, when people face such difficulties, they tend to say, "Ah, well, how do we know that the body that we hold responsible is being open and honest when it does the research?" I applaud Spelthorne borough council, which is running Elmbridge borough council, by all accounts. It has jointly commissioned an independent expert to do some research to be compared with that done by the Environment Agency. That might sound wasteful, but I support it because people need reassurance. Will the Minister lend his support to that independent verification and reassurance, rather than merely saying that it is the agency's responsibility? There is a limit to how much local authorities can afford to do, but the Government have the power to make grants available. If they do nothing else, will they help to fund the exercise of reassuring local people and commissioning research to be compared with other research that is being done?
We must decide what we intend to do to protect people in the Thames valley against further flooding. Nature being what it is, I accept that there will always be problems, but what do we intend to do to minimise the risk and the damage? It would be churlish not to admit that there have been improvements. The Thames barrier and the Jubilee river stop flooding, whatever one might say about them. Whatever one might say about local issues, a scheme at Stanwell Moor in my constituency has prevented some 150 houses, which are regularly flooded, from being flooded.
Work has been done and progress has been made, but it is blindingly obvious that more must now be done in the light of what happened a few weeks ago. I accept the Environment Agency's argument that the recent floods were comparable to, but not as severe as, those in 1947. However, it also says that if we want a quick fix, we will have to double the width and the depth of the Thames to cope with the extra water that goes down the Thames past my constituency. I am not calling for that, as it would lead to the destruction of heaven knows how many houses and most of Staines town centre. It is not a solution. I mention it merely to indicate that quick
I hope that the Government will support the argument that a short-term solution would be to find ways of diverting the floodwater away from properties on to open land. We should try to find quicker and cheaper ways of taking limited action. There is a caravan park in my constituency that is right by the Thames, and I am told that it should be possible to send the water around it rather than through it. Such a measure would help. We could become locked in a debate about dredging. However, this is not such a debate but a request simply to clear the rubbish from the tributaries. My attention is regularly drawn to the fact that that work has not been done. All these measures are short term and easy to carry out if there is the will and the Government help.
There must be a commitment greatly to invest in upgrading the Victorian sewerage infrastructure. I look to the Government to help with that. Other practical measures need to be taken that do not cost money. The Minister will be pleased to hear that I shall leave the subject of moneythe best bituntil last, although he will not escape a request for a cheque or two.
With regard to the planning guidance, much comment is made about inappropriate building in the flood plain. Planning policy guidance note 25, which was introduced in July 2001, is scheduled for review in 2004. Will the Government please review it now to see whether it is still appropriate in the light of what has happened?
I draw the Minister's attention to the Deputy Prime Minister's wish to build more and more houses in the south-east. My constituency has a quota to be met. We do not have much choice but to build on the flood plain because there is nowhere else left. Will the Government get rid of the ridiculous request to build more houses in Spelthorne?
Norman Baker (Lewes): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Is he aware that the current absence of regional policy means that houses are being built on the flood plain in the south-east, while in Hull 10,000 houses are being knocked down?
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is more about flexibility around housing targets than housing need, which in my constituency is very high. We have to find places to build houses, especially affordable ones, but I accept my hon. Friend's point that inflexibility leads to pressure for inappropriate development.
The Minister might want to consider another practical and technical issue. Some roads in my constituency needed closing. The procedure for closing roads and keeping them closed does not work. The result was fisticuffs and the police became involved. The Government could deal with that issue.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Does my hon. Friend agree that a principal problem, which I also experienced in my constituency, was the lack of manpower available to Surrey police, which as we all know results from the swingeing cuts in grant to that force?
Mr. Wilshire : Absolutely right. I would love to have a debate about that too, but I might get a chance tomorrow afternoon to slag the Government off about the way they have treated my local police. For the moment, I shall stick to flooding.
I noticed in Hansard on 27 February last year at column 1351W that the Government said that they were reassessing the methodology governing their economic appraisals of flood schemes. Quite right too. Will the Minister tell us how that appraisal is going? Has he now changed the methodology? Will he also tell us what plans he has to get emergency plans revised quickly, and will he publish the results when he obtains them?
Financial matters are the key area in which the Government have a role to play. When we have plans to implement, when we have the facts and have done the design work and know what has to be done in the short term, will the money be available? Who will provide it? I hope that the answer is the Government.
The outcome of the floods in 2000 was that, as recorded in Hansard on 14 May 2002 at column 555W, the Government made available £16.35 million to meet the emergency costs and repairs. How much money will be available this time? The problems have been worse. Can we therefore assume that the amount of money will be greater, and, if so, by how much? Are the Government willing to help us meet the cost of independent verification?
My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) spoke about police grant. The same is true of the fire and rescue services. The formula does not seem to take any account of the need to deal with such emergencies. Will the Government review their formula for funding fire and rescue? More boats are needed by the Surrey fire service and, I suspect, in Berkshire too. How much money will be received?
What will we be told about the flood defence committee grant? I understand that the Thames region grant in the year 200203 was £1.1 million, and that it has just been announced that for this year that amount has been cut to £300,000. What is it about the Thames valley that means that the same amount of money is no longer needed? If the Government are tempted to say that that is because the flood committee has balances of £17 million, I have a further question for the Minister. Why have those balances been allowed to build up when work needed to be done? The Minister cannot hide
My final question with regard to finance concerns what should be done about Thames Water. Thames Water has spent a huge amount of money on the priorities of the day, which are, generally speaking, Government driven. The amounts of money available for investment through Thames Water are determined by Ofwat in its settlements. I accept that a large amount of money has been made available for improvements to the sewers. However, the past few weeks have demonstrated that nothing like enough money has been released to Thames Water to carry out the work needed on the sewerage systems of my constituency and elsewhere.
What will the Government say to Ofwat about releasing more money into the system to make those improvements? I could go on at length. Sometimes, in a debate such as this, one has the wonderful opportunity to speak for an hour and to put the entire world to rights. There are many other things that should be said, and many other things that are important. However, I urge the Government to accept the debate in the spirit in which it is intended. This is a request for help and not for finger pointing. We need help to establish the facts, to develop practical solutions and to pay for those solutions.
I reiterate that this is not merely an academic exercise, nor is there a need for another report, another debate or a committee meeting. The image that I leave with the Minister is that of some of my constituents, who have had to walk around their living rooms with raw sewage up to their ankles. That sewage is still in their gardens and in the roads. This debate is about individuals in crisis and is a problem that cannot be ignored. I urge the Minister to accept that we need help now, and that action must be taken very quickly.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. I remind hon. Members that the winding-up speeches should start at 3 o'clock. Hon. Members wishing to participate should gauge their contributions accordingly.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)a place where I spent some time when growing upon securing the debate. I remind him that the floodwater that passes through his constituency flows through mine a few hours earlier and through that of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) a day earlier than that. It is a problem that we share.
I will adhere to your strictures to be relatively brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not least because I had prepared a speech on reform of the House of Lords, which would probably not go down very well in this Chamber. I have considerable interest, both as a Member of Parliament and as a fisherman, in the levels of the River Thames, and in some of the appalling devastation as a result of the floods this year and in 200001.
What is the cause of flooding? I shall come to the urban myths later, but primarily flooding is caused by the quantity and location of rainfall, which catchments are most affected, and the state of the aquifer at the time. That is the difference between the flooding in 2000 and the flooding that we have just experienced. The aquiferthe underground reservoirwas denuded during the exceptionally low rainfall in the late 1990s, and so was not fully charged as we approached the winter of 2000. Consequently, although there was a phenomenal amount of rainfallsome of the heaviest rainfall to be recorded in recent yearsit was able to go somewhere before the rivers overtopped and the flood damage occurred. Sadly, that did not happen earlier this year. The aquifer was fully charged and the combination of heavy rainfall in the Thames catchment in Gloucester, in the Cotswolds and further down the valley resulted in the highest levels since 1947.
I shall describe what happened in a small part of my constituency called Purley on Thames, which is not well known. It has an interesting history but, sadly, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, it was built slap bang in the flood plain, and perhaps even in the functional water meadows.
The Environment Agency, which was responsible for providing flood warnings, did its job. On Tuesday 31 December, a flood warning was issued to local authorities and to the local population. The floodwaters did not begin to enter the properties in Purley until the evening of Friday 3 January, three or four days later, and 200-odd properties in my constituency were affected.
Purley is on a bend in the river, just below Mapledurham weir, downstream from Pangbourne and up from Reading. It was a camp site in the 1930s, which slowly transformed itself into a collection of shacks and riverside bungalows. I know it from the 1970s, when I drove there from west Londonironically from the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Spelthorneto go fishing. I always thought that one day I would like to live in one of those little shacks, although I do not think that any more.
The shacks were developed, some without planning permission and intuitively, as people nailed cladding to the outside of temporary buildings and after five years established user rights. The community was not built by Barratt or Wimpey or to planning guidance. The ad hoc building activities in Purley would have caused a lot of problems, but Purley parish council, an organisation not renowned for its commitment to socialism, did its job diligently and spotted the problem, and in 1966 it produced local planning guidance. A datum level was established some 1ft above the 1947 high water mark. Some of the properties were built to that level and some were not. The question for the local authority is how efficient or effective was their building control and planning enforcement process.
What happened to the people I represent earlier this year? I received a call on the morning of Saturday 4 January from Mr. John Chapman, the Conservative councillor for Purley, for whom I have a high regard. John and I get on fine; we are both passionate about representing our constituents to the best of our ability. I provided John with a set of waders that I borrowed from the local fishing tackle shop and we spent that Saturday morning paddling round Purley.
We saw a good many distressed people who were angry because of the lack of emergency response. People who had just moved into the area and did not realise the house that they had bought was below the 1966 flood planning guidance level were livid. We looked along rows of houses, none more than 30 or 40 years old, and saw properties where the garden had flooded but the house had not. In others, built a foot or so loweryou do not notice that until the floods comepeople were distraught and crying because their houses had flooded. One young woman had invested her life savings in a property and the local shop, and was completely flooded out. For the people of Purley on Thames, the planning regime might as well not have existed.
As one would expect in any flood-risk area, there was a compound that held sandbags. Despite a flood warning from the Environment Agency, West Berkshire council failed to provide sandbags. People in the know got the few remaining available sandbags and the rest fell apart in their arms, because despite being given four days' clear notice by the Environment Agency, it was beyond the wit of West Berkshire council to fill bags with sand and make them available for the council tax payers in the flood-risk area. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is listening, because West Berkshire is a Liberal-controlled council and it has many questions to answer about its conduct.
The emergency response, of which I am most critical, was mixed. I have nothing but praise for South East Berkshire emergency volunteer force, but the sad fact of life is that its members were the only people on site that Saturday. Did I see anyone there from the local council? In fact, the police were pretty tardy: not many turned up on time. SEBEV was there only because one of its prime co-ordinators happened to live in Purley on Thames. The organisation functions from Bracknell. I have repeatedly looked into this problem. There was no guarantee that it would have done such an excellent job of using its boats, evacuating people from property, liaising with the parish council and putting people in emergency accommodation had it not been for the lucky coincidence that one of its co-ordinators lives in Purley.
Yes, the Environment Agency did its bit. The flood warning went out. I advise constituents who live in flood plains to subscribe to the automatic flood warning system. It sends an automatic message to the telephone answering service. Sadly, the Environment Agency's website crashed. I see one or two people from the agency in the Room. I should like to receive assurances that that will not happen again, because people rely on such information. I would not be so forceful if it were not for the arrogant way in which it has behaved subsequently, but my most damning criticism is of West Berkshire council and its failure to trigger an effective emergency planning procedure.
Not only was there a lack of presence on the Saturdayapart from my good self, some volunteers and the local councilthe West Berkshire council did not even set up an emergency incident point until the Sunday. People had been flooded for some 36 hours and were distressed. The icing on the cake was the e-mail from West Berkshire council. I am sure that hon. Members would not want a council that they have affection for to send such an e-mail. The council's emergency planning officer sent it to the volunteer chair of Purley parish council, Mr John Southall. Purley
I attended a meeting the following Friday with Councillor John Chapman. Hon. Members should bear in mind the fact that I am a member of the Labour party and he is a Conservative. We were treated to a display of breathtaking arrogance from the Liberal Democrat party, especially from its chief executive, Jim Graham. In my presence, Councillor Chapman was told by the chief executive that he took a dim view of councillors criticising his council in the local paper, and that it is the job of a councillor to represent the interests of the council to the people of Purley, not the other way round. What a perverse notion of democracy.
I have vented my spleen long enough on West Berkshire council. I imagine that hon. Members have taken the point. I can assure them that, for all the nonsense that West Berkshire council has come out with in private, in public it has finally set up a review chaired by Councillor John Chapman into the reasons for the flooding and how the emergency response procedure can be improved. I give the councillors credit for that, but only with their hands twisted half way up their backs were they prepared to concede any point. The review should be completely unnecessary because lessons should have been learned from the floods two years previously.
What can we say now and what can be done to reassure my constituents? Some of the urban myths must be debunked comprehensively. I have heard it saidI am sure that it was also said in Spelthorne, Oxford and elsewherethat the Thames flooded because the Woolwich barrier was not shut. Absolute nonsense. If that were the case, St. Paul's would have flooded regularly. The Jubilee river can have no effect upstream of the point at which it leaves the River Thames, because water does not flow uphill.
Engineering solutions could help the people of Purley, and I hope that the Environment Agency is able to fund those. I want the Government to ensure that no local authority can hide from the fact that its emergency plan is not working as it should due to lack of support from central Government. That is a challenge to us all, especially to the Minister.
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): The recent flooding of the Thames had severe consequences for many of my constituents, especially for the communities of Datchet, Sunnymeads, Ham island, Wraysbury and Hythe End. I visited those places, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), when the river broke its banks, and I saw the disruption and distress caused. People were understandably angry, but it is vital to point out that people performed many acts of kindness and helped their neighbours.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne said, it was clear from the start that local people blamed the new Jubilee river for the problems. Although there was substantial rainfall at the end of last year, most people did not think that it had been exceptional. They thoughtprobably intuitivelythat they had seen rain just as heavy and continuous during recent years, but that that had not caused the dire consequences that they faced. One of my constituents wrote,
I remember the inquiry into the Jubilee river well, and I often visited the scheme during its construction. There were remarkable civil engineering achievements. The river had to go under the old Great Western line, and engineers had to burrow under the M4. The environmental side of the project has been a great success.
However, important questions were raised from the start about how the scheme would work in practice and the effect that it would have downstream of the settlements of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton, which it was designed to protect. I remember struggling with the complicated mathematic formulathe hydraulic modelthat was used to show what should happen in different circumstances.
We were told that when the rivers met at Datchet, a certain volume of water would arrive faster than it otherwise would, but that the river level should not rise significantly. That should have meant that there would be no change downstream of Datchet, but given recent
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Is my hon. Friend aware that some of my constituents in Marlow and Medmenham are convinced that they experienced similar problems to those encountered by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead? Is he aware that both they and I want to be associated with his comments on introducing an independent element to the inquiry?
Mr. Trend : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will return to that point in a minute. People who live upstream of the beginning of the scheme feel intuitivelyI hope that this is not an urban myththat there may have been a bottleneck effect.
The Environment Agency tells us that the Jubilee river performs the service for which it was designed, which is to protect Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton. That seems to be correct. From the point of view of people who live there, the scheme can be judged a success. Downstream, however, the story is different. The word "sacrifice" came up many times in talking to people and in correspondence. People downstream feel that their interests have been sacrificed for those of Maidenhead and Windsor. One correspondent wrote:
The maintenance of the river must also be considered. The Environment Agency has told us about the dredging that has been done in the last half century, but we should consider urgently whether more dredging could be done. A constituent who lives on the river told me that jetties and landing stages may not have been constructed properly and they must be examined, as they may be causing obstructions. Ditching and drainage have been mentioned. There were some apparently isolated examples of water welling up some way inland from the river. That was perhaps due to a raised water table being compounded by poor drainage and ditching. That must be considered.
The flood warning system was not satisfactory. For example, the telephone system did not work well in my area. Good local plans must be in place, and I would advocate the return of sirens along especially vulnerable stretches of the river. I remember the old post-war civil defence siren system, which was tested every so often and people knew when it was going to be tested. As a child, I thought that that was wonderful. The people who lived on the banks would have been saved from a great deal of trouble if a siren had sounded when the situation became acute. The other systems did not work well.
I believe that the Government, the Environment Agency and local authorities should consider a range of questions relating to the management of the Thames and its flood plain. Much has been said about building in the flood plain and about terminal 5, which will surely have some effect on the Colne, Colne brook and the Thames. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne in his comments on planning policy guidance note 25.
It is important that we reconsider the plans put forward during the original public inquiry for a further scheme to cover the stretch of the Thames from Datchet downstream. Much was made of those plans some years ago, but it has been lost sight of in the intervening years. When I inquired a few years ago, it was perfectly clear from the Environment Agency's answer that the plans had been dropped. A new scheme should be considered as a matter of urgency, and the Government have a role to play in that.
Key responsibility for the management of the Thames belongs to the Environment Agency, although some of the matters that I have raised, such as ditching, sandbags and cleaning up, will have to be dealt with by local authorities. The royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead did well in that regard. However, some of the main issues can be pulled together only by the Government. I ask the Minister for a number of assurances. First, I ask the Government to play a part in the investigation into the effects and operation of the new river, which is a substantial public project of national importance. The Government have sources of expertise and experience that could be very helpful.
Secondly, a major review of the various factors that cause flooding throughout the Thames valley needs to be undertaken. That is clearly too large a task for local authorities, and I ask the Government to take overall responsibility for such a review. Thirdly, the Government should try to clarify where liability lies. If it can be shown that the problem originally faced by the towns of Maidenhead and Windsor has not been solved, but simply transferred to Datchet and places downstream, then surely there is an important question of liability.
Finally, I ask the Government to revisit the question of flood insurance for homes such as those belonging to my constituents which were recently flooded. As we know, a new system was introduced on 1 January. The Association of British Insurers speaks of using its best efforts for people living in areas liable to flooding, and has said that flood insurance
As we all know, that means that insurance will not be available for many households in future. If my constituents could not get insurance, the value of their properties would clearly be damaged, and that is not fair. The ABI has tried to pass on to the Government the responsibility for dealing with the problems of flooding. In my view, the Government will have to deal either with the problems or with the ABI.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): I shall be brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for securing the debate, and for introducing it, and I join him in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services in combating some of the distress, anxiety and difficulty that my constituents in Marlow and Medmenham experienced during the recent flooding. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Jubilee scheme was either partly or wholly to blame for the exacerbated levels of flooding, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we do not know whether they are right.
The Minister will forgive me if I do not take that as a categorical denial; the agency merely "takes the view". I notice that the agency is also conducting its own inquiry into what happened. Trevor Goodhew of the agency was quoted to that effect recently in the Marlow Free Press:
My constituents feel that unless the agency is open and publishes in full information about what happened in January, an independent inquiry along the lines of the one suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) is needed. Unless the Minister can persuade me otherwise, I am inclined to think that that is correct. The levels of flooding were so exacerbated that my constituents are right to ask for an explanation for what happened. I look forward to the Minister's response.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I would like to take this debate upstream but not necessarily upmarket from some of the excellent contributions that we have had, and talk about the flooding that occurred in parts of Oxfordin South Hinksey, Kennington and on the Botley roadjust as it did two years ago. For the first time, there was flooding in a few properties in Old Botley and Abingdon, as a result of the River Ock flooding. Like the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), I spent much of my Saturday and Sunday seeing the problem first handworking with the emergency services and council workers and trying to let people know what options were available. I fear that I was not as well equipped as the hon. Gentleman. I had no waders. I had only a pair of inadequate wellingtons that were too short. There is concern about whether the equipment provided for the workers was adequate.
We have heard about the impact of flooding, which can be set out in various ways. First, there is the stress from the fear of one's property being inundated, which is followed by the impact of the actual flooding. I do not recommend removing properties in the flood plain and building them somewhere else, so the only solution is the provision of adequate flood defences.
With the exception of Abingdon, all the areas that I mentioned are affected by the same tributaries to the Thames flooding over the flood plain, so the key question for the west Oxford area is whether there will be an adequate flood defence system. Without one, I fear that it will be difficult to overcome the problems of insurance. I entirely endorse the wise words of the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) about insurance problems.
Mr. Salter : The hon. Gentleman and I have constituencies with a similar geological make up. A substantial gravel seam in the Thames valley runs from Reading upstream to Oxford. Does he acknowledge that one of the problems is that, as the aquafer rises, water can literally enter people's properties without overtopping the river purely as a result of the rise in the
Dr. Harris : That may apply to a small number of properties, but the ones that I am concerned about could be improved by flood defences because they suffer from direct inundation from the street rather than from within. Flooding has an effect on house values and, therefore, the mobility of the population, because people find it difficult to sell their houses and move. The problems experienced by houses in the flood plain have been exacerbated by subsequent developments in the flood plain when those involved in the planning system should know better.
Guidelines could be toughened up in the review of PPG25. The Vale of White Horse district council in my constituency has a new policy. It not only treats the Environment Agency as a statutory consultee on developments in the flood plain, but never disagrees if the EA advises against planning permission for flood plain developments. That is not the case with other local councils, but such practice could be included in guidance to beef it up.
During flooding in the Oxford area, some things went well and some went badly. The emergency services performed well, particularly the fire and rescue services. They were there, they were available, they had their mobile phones and went from house to house when requested. Another thing that went well were some functions of the Environment Agencytheir workers on the ground and the supply of pumps, which in many cases kept the water at bay.
I pay tribute to Innes Jones, Geoff Bell and Peter Collins, the engineers, who were on the ground with me on those days. They made themselves available to see the situation at first hand and helped to deploy their facilities. Council staff worked hard and the supply of sandbags was better. The flood defences that had nearly been completed in Kidlington were not called into action, but at least people in that area were not as stressed as they feared that they might have been in view of the 1998 floods. Another thing that worked well was the action and initiative taken by local people, such as Mr. Andy Webber of Earl street, and Mr. John Mastroddi of Kennington road in Oxford, who took matters into their own hands by alerting their neighbours and getting stuck in with the deployment of pumps.
What did not work well, according to a council debrief that I attended, was the command structure, which was not up and running quickly enough and was not centralised enough. Road closures were not clear. The Botley road should have been closed; the wave effect from large vehicles going down it directly exacerbated flooding and it was not clear why the police did not close it earlier. The warnings were inadequate. Websites are there to be updated and they can be specific. They can warn, "People in Botley road in Oxford ought to know that flood waters are not predicted to peak until tomorrow, so even if one thinks it is getting better, please do not remove the precautions." It would have been better for us to have had loudhailers, because that would have got across the message. Some hon. Members perhaps do not need
Thames Water did not work well. We have heard about the sewage problem. There will always be sewage contamination of the highway drainage and vice versa, but Thames Water has since got its act together and has set out a second stage study. It will take six months to complete, at a cost of £25,000. In a letter of 29 January, Thames Water states:
Finally, we must consider the performance of Railtrack in dealing with the culverts for which it is responsible under the railway line at Kennington. It has delayed and that is still considered to be a problem by people in that area. Therefore, there is a great deal for the agencies to do and I look forward to the Minister's response.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on securing the debate. I want to express sympathy to my constituents and my thanks to the Surrey fire and rescue service and Runnymede borough council for their sterling efforts during the crisis. My hon. Friend said that we are not in the blame game. Everybody here will understand that the initial reaction of people whose houses flooded just two years after what they thought was a once-in-a-lifetime event is anger. As that sentiment subsides, cooler heads are prevailing and, as my hon. Friend said, people want to make sure that they find out what happened, so that there is a firm base of evidence to build on in planning for the future.
Hon. Members have mentioned the maintenance of water courses, the contribution of the Jubilee river; and the operation of weirs and barriers on the Thames. There is a huge need for an independent element in the analysis of those problems. The Minister was shaking his head earlier, when my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne was talking about the lack of independence in that one department of the Environment Agency audited another. However, I think that the Minister will accept that there is at least a problem with the public perception that the Environment Agency is both the promoter of major infrastructure projects, such as the Jubilee river, and the regulator that ultimately has to assess whether those projects are working.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I will deal with that in my reply. First, the EA schemes are subject to independent assessment by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs engineerswho are not part of the EA. As for the
Mr. Hammond : I am grateful to the Minister. If he can elaborate on those remarks during his reply, it would be helpful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne said, Runnymede, Spelthorne and Elmbridge borough councils have immediately taken the initiative in appointing an independent hydrologist. He will review the events, so that they can talk to the EA on a qualified basis, rather than retelling residents' anecdotes, which is important, but not definitive. I join my hon. Friend in asking the Minister whether he can help with the funding of that initiative by councils.
There are questions about the effect of the Jubilee river, other man-made influences and river maintenance, but there is also a willingness to recognise that the end result of the analysis might be that climate change is ultimately responsible for what occurred. If that is the case and we must accept that such events will happen more frequently, given that river defences in London were improved 30 or 40 years ago to good effectthere has been no flooding sinceare the Government prepared to support the major expenditure on infrastructure that would be required to take that approach further up the Thames to secure the defence of areas such as Chertsey, Egham and Staines? We know that the Government propose to abandon the flood defences of several rural areas, but I hope that the Minister will assure us that the flood defences of urbanised areas will remain a Government priority.
May I suggest to the Minister that if climate change is responsible for the floods, there would be no more appropriate source of revenue for the funding of flood defences than the climate change levy? When that was announced, it was supposed to be revenue neutral, but the Government have since reneged on the reduction of employers' national insurance contributions that made it revenue neutral.
If it turns out that heavy rainfall and climate change are the root cause of the problem, we shall look to the Government for investment in effective management in order to allow those of us with constituencies along the river to live with the changed situation. That will mean making necessary resources available to the Environment Agency and other bodies.
Tomorrow, the Deputy Prime Minister will announce his communities plan to the House of Commons. The Government recognise that development in the south-east is inevitable and necessary in order to maintain national economic growth. The policy will be hollow if the Government do not address the significant investment that will be required to protect vulnerable areas of south-east England from coastal and fluvial flooding over the next decades.
Norman Baker (Lewes): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his case. May I offer my sympathy to his and other hon. Members' constituents who were affected by floods? My constituency of Lewes was severely hit in 2000 and I am only too aware of how severe and traumatic floods can be for individuals who are caught up in such unfortunate events.
I understand from a parliamentary question answered by the Minister earlier this month that the flood was the third worst in the Medmenham and Marlow areas since records began. The flood was worse than that in any other year except 1894 and 1947. We know that 645 homes were flooded during the new year holiday period, and we have seen on our televisions that this is the anniversary of the terrible floods of 1953. Floods are sadly always with us, and they will always be with us. There is nothing that any Governmentnot even this Prime Ministercan do to stop floods from occurring. We can try to ensure that we put in place measures to minimise the impact of floods on our citizens and the Government can put in place measures to slow down climate change, which several hon. Members rightly mentioned.
Climate change is undoubtedly occurring. The Thames barrier has been mentioned, and hon. Members might be aware that in 1982, it was planned that the barrier would last unchanged until 2030. It was anticipated that there would be 10 closures per year in this decade and 30 closures per year by 2030. However, there were 24 closures in 2001 and there were 19 closures this winter. It already seems that the Thames barrier is under increasing pressure, which must be caused by climate change.
I understand that the Environment Agency has a £4 million project to plan for flood risk management in the Thames estuary. It would be useful to know what progress has been made on that and what further expenditure the Minister anticipates along the Thames to protect London, which is key to our national position.
In the context of climate change, it is important that we put in place measures that minimise the requirement for flood defences to try to solve the root problem rather than deal with the sore that arises as its consequence. It is interesting that building is now taking place on flood plains, although the Government are taking steps to stop it. However, we have an overheating of the south-east compared with almost dereliction in some parts of the north, because the Government fail to have a proper regional policy. It has been predicted that carbon dioxide emissions from air travel will double between 1990 and 2010, the Government are abandoning road traffic reduction targets, and the amount of energy generated from renewable sources went down last year from 3.3 to 3.1 per cent. There has also been an international failure to ratify the Kyoto agreement by some of the key players, not least the Americans and President Bush. All those factors, which may seem a long way away, have an impact on the Thames valley, as they do on my constituency and all others in the country.
The Minister can do his best to erect flood defences, but it will not solve the problem unless his colleagues in Government take the necessary steps to deal with climate change, and I am sad to say that they are not. However, there are steps that the Minister can take to improve matters in his own Department as well. We are seeing an increase in the money allocated for flood defences, to which the Minister will doubtless refer. However, we have not yet seen any Government action to sort out the bureaucratic and shambolic arrangements that have been in place for so many decades, if not centuries, in this country to deal with flood defence. So many bodies are involved. All have powers, but none has a specific duty to get on and do something.
When a flood occurs, after we have tried to deal with the immediate aftermath, the question is who is responsible. Is it the Environment Agency, the water company, the Highways Agency, the county or district council, the internal drainage board, Railtrack or the riparian owners? The Government need to get grip on that and ensure that a clear, workable structure is in place. By putting money into flood defences, the Government have put more fuel into the car, but they have not dealt with the fact that it is barely roadworthy. Until they do that, we will continue to struggle.
We need to ensure that we do not always leap to the assumption that the best solutions are always hard engineering measures. It may be that they are the best option for individual towns, but I do not think that sufficient attention has been paid nationwide to the opportunities presented by soft measures. We could examine the use of farmers' fields for flooding and riverbank heights to the north, south, east and west of towns. Those measures have a role to play, but the Environment Agency seems to look to hard engineering measures first, just because it has always done that. I will stray briefly to the subject of Lewes. The Environment Agency has been able to come up with a complicated plan for Lewes, but it has been unable to reach agreement with half a dozen farmers south of the town to use their fields for flooding if necessary. If that is replicated in the Thames valley and elsewhere, something is wrong with the system.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) raised the question of West Berkshire council. I thought that he was uncharacteristically acerbic in his presentation, and I wonder whether he would have been like that if it the council had been Labour run. I am sorry that he brought a party political point
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman brought into the debate a party political point that had been happily lacking in other contributions. I also think that he was wrong to refer to an officer of the council in critical terms rather than a councillor. Those officers are not elected, and it was wrong to say that he had a party allegiance.
Norman Baker : I am grateful to hear that. I always have time for the hon. Gentleman and that helps to put the matter in context. I am always wary of attacking individual councillors and others in Westminster, when they are unable to answer back effectively. I could say many things about my own county council, which is not Liberal Democrat, but I usually restrain myself for those reasons.
Finally, I want to speak briefly about the planning of flood defence schemes for individual towns. Evaluation of properties is an important issue: they are often grossly undervalued, so the cost-benefit ratio of what can be achieved in a particular town is sometimes out of line. More proper calculations are necessary and we should also examine the Environment Agency's requirement to apply cells to specific towns. Again, they often fail to provide a townwide solution and leave some areas unprotected, causing conflict in the communities. Some of those undesirable aspects of the problem apply nationally, so when plans are brought forward for the Thames valley and elsewhere, I hope that the nationwide problems will be addressed as part of the process.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on securing this timely debate and on the tone of his speech, which was greatly in the spirit of inquiry. He made some thoroughly practical suggestions and sparked off useful contributions from other hon. Members.
This year we commemorate the 1953 flooding disaster when the North sea took England by storm. On the night of 31 January 1953, wind speeds of 125 mph were recorded before the tidal flood descended on the east coast. Three hundred and seven people died, 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 30,000 people were evacuated. Nearly 200,000 acres of land were inundated and 100 miles of road and 200 miles of railway were seriously damaged.
Speaking on 30 January this year at the 1953 floods conference in Norwich, the Minister assured his audience that the Government were committed and on track to meet the challenges of flood and coastal defence for today and tomorrow. He contrasted 1953 with today, stating:
In the light of the flooding disasters of Christmas and new year 200203, the Minister might be accused of a certain wishful thinking. Despite 136 flood warnings, 645 properties were flooded, some in my own constituency. Many were left stranded and without communication when the Environment Agency's website crashed due to over-use. Apparently, the problem was 40 times worse than in the year 2000 and, as we have heard, the Thames valley was particularly affectednot just by river water, but by overflowing sewers bringing the most stinking of consequences.
If the Minister acknowledges that flooding is a natural phenomenon that cannot be eliminated, and admits that the risk to people and property can be managed, why were contingency provisions omitted from the consultation? I recognise that it is also a Home Office problem, but we are told that we have joined-up government.
Mr. Morley : The answer is simple: the Home Office is carrying out its own review on emergency planning, dealing with some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, particularly in respect of funding and organisation.
Mr. Sayeed : DEFRA is the lead Department. It is extraordinary that DEFRA's consultation paper, "The Flood and Coastal Defence Funding Review", did not deal with emergency planning and emergency funding arrangements. Will the Minister tell the Chamber when the conclusions to that consultation will be published? I have asked the Minister that question several times and have yet to receive an answer.
Flooding is often mentioned in the same breath as admirable terms such as sustainability, strategic approach and integrated management, but how much of them did we see in relation to the flooding in the new year, and how far have they been put into practice in the Government's long-term vision for flood and coastal defence? Operational responsibility for flood defence rests with the Environment Agency, the internal drainage boards, the local authorities, the maritime local authorities, the water companies, the riparian owners, and so on. That is hardly conducive to an integrated strategic and streamlined approach that would have the flexibility to recognise and react to specific local needs.
There is a case for a statutory duty for operational authorities to carry out flood and coastal defence activities rather than their current permissive powers. Will the water Bill, which is due to be published very soon, include powers to rationalise the two-tiered flood defence committees? How will the Government ensure that decision making does not become too remote from local interests? What consideration has been given to the establishment of a single executive operating authority, possibly the Environment Agency, funded by a central grant, that would require action to be taken in the event of an emergency and apportion responsibility and costs afterwards in order to prevent a problem from becoming a disaster? Such decisions could be subject to an appeal system, and should be monitored to ensure impartiality.
When will the Government realise that flood plains contain areas that provide general economic and environmental benefit to the greater community, not for capital gain by the development and building industries, but as water-absorbing land that can reduce the risk of flooding elsewhere? Some 27 per cent. of new property by value throughout England and Wales, including £80 billion of property in and around London alone, is built on flood plains. How many more millions of households
Last year, the Government approved 288 of the 758 planning applications that the Environment Agency objected to on the grounds that they would mean building on flood plains. One in five of the rejected applications were then passed on appeal, against the agency's advice. The Deputy Prime Minister's regeneration scheme for the Thames Gateway region would put another 1 million people at risk from flooding.
Will the Minister confirm that he is considering a new tax on property developers to pay for the erection and maintenance of flood defences on flood plains? Will local authorities also be expected to top up the flood defence funds in addition to all the other burdens that central Government places on their shoulders? Who will be required to pay for the increased drainage costs? Will it be the existing shareholders who, by and large, do not want even more urban sprawl? Will it be local authorities, which are usually opposed to building on flood plains? It may be the water companies, which will then pass on the costs to their existing customers, who do not want the development in the first place. Those costs may include the cost of new, otherwise unnecessary main drainage systems. How much of the money for flood defences promised by the Minister on a year-by-year basis has been spent on, or earmarked for, flood defence plans agreed by the competent authority? If there has been an underspend, how large is it, why has it occurred and what are the Government going to do to remedy the situation?
Surely it is time that the development of flood plains was capped. The Minister should spend more time and energy researching soft defencessustainable farming practices that assist water retention and the streamlining of responsibility in view of the increased risk of disasters threatened by climate change and rising sea levels. The exercise of the forces of nature is out of our control, but the minimisation of their impact lies in the hands of the Government. The delivery of a policy that looks beyond sandbags to a long-term preventive strategy is essential before the next disaster catches us as unprepared and underfunded as we were in 1953.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on the way in which he has raised the debate. He made a number of pertinent points. I regret that in the 10 minutes available to me it will be difficult to answer all the points made by hon. Members. We have had some good contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), and the hon. Members for Windsor (Mr. Trend), for
I have every sympathy with those, in the Thames valley and elsewhere, who were affected by the floods over the new year. It is very unpleasant to have one's property flooded. I want to place on the record my appreciation for the Environment Agency staff, who worked long hours throughout the holiday period, the local authority staff, the emergency services and the volunteers, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West stated, gave their time willingly and freely.
I echo the point that this is the anniversary of the devastating 1953 floods, which affected my constituency when the Trent burst its banks. Even though north Lincolnshire is quite a long way inland, the floods reached the edges of Scunthorpe. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asked many questions, which I cannot answer in 10 minutes, but the Government are going to arrange a three-hour debate on flooding this month, which will be an opportunity to go into the details in greater depth.
I point out that the hon. Gentleman might have arranged such a debate in his own party's time. This subject is of interest and there are serious issues at stake. We are confident that we are on track to reduce risk. We are not complacent. One can never entirely remove the risk of flooding, as hon. Members have acknowledged, but we have done a great deal in the past few years. There will be an opportunity to discuss the details of the funding review in the debate, and during proceedings on the water Bill, which I expect to be published around that date, we will be able to answer some of the questions raised by the review.
Although the January floods affected about 600 people, for whom I have every sympathy, they were comparable to those of 2000 as there were similar groundwater levels. In some parts of the country the water levels were higher. In the Thames area water levels were at their highest since 1947. In 2000, 10,000 properties were affected. In 2002, 600 were affected. That is no consolation to those involved, but it shows that steps are being taken progressively to reduce the risk.
The 1947 figures for people affected in the Thames region are dramatic. I must qualify them by saying that there are differences in every kind of flood, and the 1947 flood was caused largely by snow melt, whereas this year's flood was caused by intense rainfall over a short period. The way in which the tributaries behaved in 1947 also differed, although some of the tributaries were higher in 2003 than they were in 1947.
I will give hon. Members some indication of the scale of the problems in 1947, although I am surprised at the figures because there has been a lot more building since then. In January 2003, approximately 120 properties in the region of the Thames from Windsor to Teddington were affectedthe figures are not yet exact because information is still being receivedwhereas in 1947 the number was 6,956. We do not have information on whether all the properties in 1947 suffered from internal flooding.
I shall struggle to respond to all the questions that I have been asked. I shall respond first to the hon. Member for Spelthorne, since it was his debate, so he has perhaps a greater entitlement to answers.
I do not often do this in such debates, but I shall agree to the three points about which the hon. Gentleman asked me. First, he wanted the facts, and we are keen to provide those; secondly, he wanted the plans to be examined in an attempt to minimise the risk to his area, and we are happy to agree to that; thirdly, he asked about funding, and I can assure him that funding will increase year on year.
Mr. Morley : The actual details are published by the regional flood defence committee, and it has strong reserves to deal with the legitimate issues concerning contractors and land purchases which may arise from the plans. The committee has a very good record.
I shall comment briefly on the Jubilee river, because I know that it is of concern to hon. Members. I should make it clear that, based on the information that I have seen, I am satisfied that the Jubilee river did not have an impact on the properties on the Thames which were flooded.
The Jubilee scheme protected approximately 400 properties from flooding and a further 1,000 properties from disruption by the floods. I understand that people may be concerned about the scheme, which is new. However, its details were examined by a public inquiry in 1992 which concluded that the downstream effects would be minimal.
This year, the water levels rose very fast, faster than in 2000, both upstream and downstream of the Jubilee river. The impact of the Maidenhead flood release scheme on peak water levels upstream was also negligible. The water levels downstream were measured using the best data available from the gauges on the tailwaters of the weirs; the readings of the peak flood levels from those weirs cover all major floods since 1894. If the Jubilee river were causing downstream levels to rise, we would expect to see evidence of that at the gauges downstream of where the Jubilee river re-enters the Thames. However, there is no such evidence.
I may be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the reviews. The Environment Agency has commissioned Gibb Ltd., which is an independent engineering consultant. That is why there is no case for funding further independent reviews, although I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Environment Agency and DEFRA will be happy to co-operate with any sort of review. Gibb Ltd. was commissioned to re-run an updated hydraulic model, using the 2003 flood data, to determine the impact on downstream flood levels. That model was run with and without the flood alleviation channel.
The preliminary findings presented to the Environment Agency showed no significant difference between levels in the Thames just downstream of where the Jubilee river joins it, with or without the flood alleviation channel. Residents will, of course, be invited to examine the data that have been collected, and to speak to staff about their origin and the analysis. In due course, when the full data are produced, they will be made available to all interested parties.
I hope that in the three-hour debate there will be more chance to talk through the details, but I make it absolutely clear that although I understand residents' anxieties, and we will take steps to reassure them, the Jubilee river was not responsible for the recent flooding.