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Flooding (Somerset)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

8.32 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Seven thousand years ago, half my constituents were fish. The Somerset levels were part of the seabed, Bridgwater was a bustling port, and if one wanted to go anywhere outside that area, one had to go by boat. Six thousand years ago, the tide turned; I was not there myself, but perhaps one or two hon. Members were. The peat bogs began to develop and the landscape started to look a little like what we see today. There has always been a lot of water and a high risk that high tides and high rainfall will bring flood. They still do, but why on earth does it have to be that way?

I asked for this debate because political memories are often far too short, in this place and others. We have had a long, hot summer and a lack of rain ever since, and the reservoirs are still half empty. It is easy to forget what happened at the start of the year, or during the previous year or the year before that, but unfortunately my constituents, as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) and of most Somerset MPs, cannot forget—and, as the Minister knows, many do not forgive. The rivers broke their banks and the sea surged inland: people were driven from their homes and farmers watched valuable fields sink beneath the torrent. Millions of pounds worth of damage was caused in a very short space of time.

I am sure that the Minister knows the figures, but I want to give him some idea of the frightening price of flooding in this country. The national cost of the last floods was £800 million. I obtained that figure from Britain's biggest insurance company, Norwich Union. Unfortunately, it will probably not surprise the Minister to learn that I also got from the company a rather strong taste of how it feels about flood defences. This year, it issued a helpful pack to all its policyholders—including me—entitled, "How to lobby your MP". Some hon. Members might have received it; if any have not, because they are not policyholders, I will let them have a copy. The insurance industry is far from satisfied that enough is being done to protect us from flooding, and I fear that it might be right.

This year, the Government have said that they will spend roughly £564 million on flood protection in the financial year that ends in 2006. The insurance industry is far from satisfied with that. It might sound like a great deal of money, but let me put it into perspective. Two years hence, the Government intend to shell out £250 million less than it cost to clean up the last big floods that we had two or three years ago. They simply are not aware of the risks involved in that. If I may be so presumptuous, I should like to quote the Prime Minister's own website, which states:


Far be it from me to criticise the Prime Minister's sums, but, set against a £200 billion risk, an annual expenditure of £564 million is obviously not enough.

I should like to give the House a couple of home-grown examples. The experts—the very people whom the Government employ to protect us from flooding—

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tell me that the water levels in the parts of Somerset represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and me could rise by up to 3 ft in the next 50 years because of global warming and other effects. Let us just think about that. I know that the Minister is a fine, upstanding fellow with a good, solid girth, and he would be waist-deep in water if that were to happen in my constituency. He would certainly see birds of a different feather in those circumstances.

There is a cure, however. Those same experts have worked out how to defend Bridgwater, Taunton and other areas of Somerset. The Bridgwater barrage—or sluice, or whatever you want to call it—is going to cost about £40 million at today's prices. Down the road, however, in the middle of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, experts have calculated that the defence work needed to protect Taunton will cost about £130 million in today's money.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): No doubt my hon. Friend is aware that recent calculations by the Environment Agency show that Taunton now has a one in 30 year risk of flooding, which worries people such as me who own a house in the centre of the town. Does he have any comment to make on that?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The most appropriate comment probably comes from Norwich Union, which says that incidence of flooding is becoming more and more frequent. I remember that, two years ago, Taunton came within an inch of being under water. Unless we spend the money now, the generations that follow us here and in our constituencies of Taunton, Yeovil and elsewhere are going to be affected by flooding for many years to come. I am afraid that, if we continue as we are doing, the one in 30 year risk will decrease rapidly to one in 20 or one in 10. I know that, across the levels, the risk used to be one in 75 years and is now down to one in 30, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton so eloquently said.

So where is the money coming from? This year, Somerset has about £15.7 million in the bank to spend. Big bucks, you say; well, maybe. I agree that it is enough to tackle the short term problems, but it would not buy one third of the Bridgwater barrage or pay for an eighth of the work that we have to do in Taunton. I have not come here to advocate a profligate increase in public expenditure. I shall modestly leave that to the Liberal Democrats. There is, however, a powerful case for the Government to identify the intense flooding risk in Somerset and to set about finding—dare I say it—new and adventurous mechanisms for tomorrow's vital defences. It is in the national interest to do so, and the Minister has spoken eloquently about this on many occasions. I pledge tonight that the Minister can rely on my co-operation and that of other Somerset Members. We have all said that we will co-operate. My Somerset colleagues and I are prepared to talk any time about what defends our constituents against nature's worst.

May I make an initial suggestion? The Minister is aware of the responsibility of the South West of England Regional Development Agency. Perhaps he or his

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colleagues can encourage that body to spend a little of its money on conducting a long-term scientific study. I know that the agency, which I have visited many times, regards Bridgwater as a vital industrial area. Such a study might cost, say, a third of a million pounds, but it would protect the long-term viability of not just one part of the area, but the whole of it. It must be remembered that the agency covers an enormous part of Somerset, parts of Devon, Dorset and a little bit of Wiltshire. It could produce a very intelligent, long-term flood protection brief for the south-west—it is an ideal organisation to do so.

I am impressed by some of the recommendations of Lord Haskins to streamline the way in which flood defences are managed. The Government will soon implement those recommendations. From next April, some long-overdue administrative common sense will begin to kick in. At last the people who know how to deal with floods and undertake the major defence work can start to get on with their job properly. I refer to the Environment Agency.

I pay tribute to Dr. Tony Owen at the Environment Agency and his team in Bridgwater, who have done a phenomenal job, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances. They have a vested interest. If Bridgwater floods, their building goes underwater. Let me assure you that they are good at keeping their control room on the third floor. If you have not visited, Minister, I suggest you do. It is a most impressive organisation.


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