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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con):
I begin by expressing my deepest sympathy, and that of the Opposition, to the families of those who lost their lives in the floods and gales that hit the north-west last weekend, and to the thousands of people who have suffered severe hardship, inconvenience and anxiety, along with damage to their property. I join the Minister in paying a warm tribute to the emergency servicesthey responded in very difficult conditions in order to
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rescue people trapped by the floodingto the work of the many volunteers who supported them, and to the role played by Cumbria county council and other authorities.
I welcome the application of the Bellwin formula and the statement from the Association of British Insurers. The priority is, of course, to provide help for the victims of the floods and get them back home as soon as possible, and to restore essential servicesincluding electricity and water suppliesvery swiftly. On learning lessons from what has happened, and given in particular the loss of life, will the Minister review the arrangements for warning those likely to be affected about the onset of extreme weather that might threaten their homes? Indeed, I understand that such warnings might be needed again in that region in the near future.
Once the immediate consequences of the floods have been redressed, questions arise about what other steps the Government can reasonably take. Inevitably, sudden and severe rainfall is likely to cause floods and I accept the Minister's point that no system of flood defences can guarantee total protection against adverse consequences. It is, however, a characteristic of climate change that sudden and severe rainfall will occur more frequently in future than it has in the past. It may be more than a century since this part of England suffered such severe floods, but we cannot assume that another century will pass before it happens again.
The Government have admitted that more than a million homes around the country are at risk of being flooded, so is the Minister satisfied that the planning process takes enough account of flood risks? Have not the risks been worsened by too much development taking place in areas that are in danger of being flooded and in places where the construction of buildings will increase the risk of existing buildings being flooded? Regardless of whether that was a factor in the latest incident, does the Minister agree that one way to reduce the risk of loss of life and damage to property resulting from flooding would be to require local authorities to adopt a more precautionary approach in respect of flood risk when giving planning consent for new development?
Turning to the broader issue of climate change, does the Minister accept that the severity of the rainfall that caused these floods is indeed a characteristic of climate change and is likely to recur? Does he also agree that it adds urgency to the challenge that Britain and the rest of the world face in tackling a threat that some may see as distant and global, but whose consequences can be very immediate and local?
Finally, will the Minister keep Parliament and the public regularly informed in a timely way about progress made on the immediate task of restoring public services to the affected areas and providing help to those who suffered, and on proposals for a new flood defence scheme to protect Carlisle and the surrounding area?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the sterling work done by the emergency services and his thoughtful and measured response. I can tell him that there will be a review of the flood warning system when the immediate emergency is over. It appears from early indications that the warning system was activated, but that only some people received those warnings.
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Some did not, so we obviously want to look further into the details of that. Given the extent of storms and floods, tremendous demands were made of the emergency warning system. I understand that some of the telemetry in the river systems was overwhelmed because of the speed of the water's rise.
The hon. Gentleman is right about climate change, and we certainly need to take into account its long-term implications. Climate change is a reality and a fact in respect of global warming. We know the figures and we can see the impact that various activities have made. We need to measure long-term trends in weather patterns. We have seen a series of extreme weather events not only in our own country, but globally, with hurricanes and typhoons. People would be ill advised not to assume that there is a link between global warming and climatic change.
We are trying to understand climate change better and, as part of our G8 presidency, we are hosting a major scientific conference in February at the Hadley centre, which is recognised as one of the world's leading centres of climatic forecasting and analysis. That is part of our attempt to understand the long-term implications, but we cannot be complacent. That is why the Government set up the Foresight programme and climate impacts programme to examine the potential consequences of climatic change and prepare to deal with it.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about flood plain development. It is certainly the case that there has been inappropriate development over the years on those plains. We now have new guidance under PPG25, which places an obligation on planning authorities to take flood risk into account when assessing planning applications. The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee, and also offers its opinions on planning applications. Those are all part of the Government's long-term planning and long-term commitment to reduce the risks that people in this country face.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I first ask you to pass on my thanks to Mr. Speaker for his kind words of sympathy and support for my constituents and myself yesterday? I also thank the Minister, not just for his statement today, but for his prompt action in visiting Carlisle. I rang him on the Saturday, and by Sunday lunchtime he was there. That was greatly appreciated by my constituents. The Minister was able to answer many of their questions about Government support. As I said, it will not be forgotten.
Last Friday night and Saturday morning were horrendous. The Minister said that it was the worst flooding since 1822 and there is a mark on the Eden bridge to show that flood level. The recent flood went beyond it. It was horrendous. Within 36 hours, we had 9 in of rain. Tragically, three people died: Mr. Scott was killed by falling farm masonry, and two elderly ladies, Mrs. Threlkeld and Mrs. Porter, who lived in Warwick road in my constituency, sadly drowned in the incident. I want to offer my sympathy and condolences to the families of all those people, and I know that the House is with me on that. Another consequence was the flooding of 3,000 houses, and almost 100,000 people were without electricity, many for three nights. It has been a very difficult time.
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I particularly thank the agencies involved in support. The police and the fire service did everything that they could, and more besides. We need to recall that both the fire station and the police station were under 6 ft of water, reflecting the seriousness of the problem. The city council and the county council were excellent, especially social services in looking after the elderly and the young. The reception centres were manned by volunteersthe Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the Salvation Army and the Churches. The Minister and I visited them on Sunday and we saw the tremendous welcome that people were given at those centres. The community spirit in the city has been brilliant. United Utilities and the Environment Agency pulled people in from all over the country to get services back to normal as quickly as possible.
A special thank you should also go to BBC Radio Cumbria. Many people have told me that it was a lifeline. The telephones were down and there were no proper communications, so people listened to their car radios or battery-charged radios. It was the only way to get the information out. Without that, things would be have been even more intolerable for many people.
There should be further investigation of certain problems. I believe that the early warning flood system failed for some people, including myself. The local authority may also have been hampered by a shortage of sandbags. I am not convinced that the insurance industry has done itself any good, either. It was very slow to respond, especially at the weekend.
What of the future? Many industries and businesses in my constituency have been badly affected economically and I am sure that redundancies will follow. I hope that the Government will be generous in giving help. I want to ask the Minister to think about what more the regional development agencies could do to help us. He has already touched on helping local authorities. I have asked him to talk to the insurance companies to see whether they can lift their performance. Will he also ask United Utilities to do its best on the ground to get services back to normal? I understand that at this very moment, accountants are looking at ways to fiddle the compensation awarded to my constituents. It is very bad indeed to see people trying to wriggle out of their commitments. My constituents need every penny to get themselves back on their feet.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister and ask him whether he will come back to Carlisle in a few weeks' time when we know the full extent of the damage, in order to talk to the stakeholders in the area and move forward. Finally, I want to say how proud I have been of my constituents over the last few days.
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