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Mr. Morley: I agree that we must take into account the impact of climate change on infrastructure, such as overhead power cables, the whole national grid, and the water supply. The Government have a climate change programme to study that impact, and the hon. Lady should be aware of the work of the foresight programme, which tries to assess future flood risks as a result of climate change. The Government are committed to taking a precautionary approach to the potential impacts of climatic change, as it would be foolish to assume that those impacts would not be severe.
The hon. Lady asked about applications under the Bellwin formula. She will appreciate that the priority for local authorities is to deal with the immediate flood and gale damage. Local authorities have four weeks after such events to indicate that they intend to apply, so it is rather premature to talk about applications that have been made. However, authorities are well aware of the Bellwin formula rules. If they qualify, they will be assisted through the ODPM in the normal way.
The hon. Lady is right about building on floodplains; roads, hard areas and concrete can affect run-off, too. That must be taken into account in planning applications and guidance has been given to planning authorities, through planning policy guidance note 25, to make it clear that in some cases building may be inappropriate while in other cases where development is appropriate, the developer may have to make a contribution, not only to protect the new development but to mitigate against the possible consequences to existing development.
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David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): I add my appreciation to that of the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) for the work of the coastguards, especially those of Her Majesty's coastguard agency, Clyde, based at Greenock in my constituency.
This is the first significant test for the new provisions under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, although it may be too early to tell whether they have had an improved impact on the performance of the agencies. As the coastguard modernises, changes and takes on additional responsibilities, is not this a timely reminder that we must not lose sight of its core function, which is to save those whose lives may be in danger at sea? If it takes on other responsibilities, can we ensure that there is still specialised training for volunteers, who often put their own lives at risk to save those in peril on the sea?
Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend is right. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency played an extremely valuable role in the emergency. It is probably a bit too early to see the effects of the civil contingencies provisions, and I repeat the point that all local authorities, whether in England or in the devolved Administrations, have existing contingency plans and we have seen them put into action. I also repeat that, after a large-scale event of this kind, we would expect an evaluation and lessons learned, which will feed through to individual agencies, such as the coastguard, as well as to local authorities and other groups.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I join the Minister in passing the condolences of the House and of my party to those who died in such extreme weather conditions. We commend all those involved in the emergency services.
My question relates to one of the fatalities in Northern Ireland. The Foyle bridge in Londonderry is normally closed when weather conditions less extreme than those predicted yesterday occur. Will the Minister liaise with the Northern Ireland Office to establish why the bridge was not closed yesterday?
Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and serious point. As he will appreciate, I cannot give him an answer at the moment, but I assure him that I will contact the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that his point is addressed.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): Although the Minister gave reassuring information about the response of the insurance industry, will he hold discussions with insurers about the future terms and cover that they will offer people living in the affected areas?
Yes, I meet the Association of British Insurers, the trade body, regularly, as do my hon. Friends at the Treasury, who have the lead responsibility in dealing with insurance companies. We have a good relationship with the ABI; there is clearly a range of issues of interest, not least the provision of insurance cover, its availability and cost. We want a strong and robust market for insurance cover so that consumers have a range of choices and can thus choose the best price and the best cover for their circumstances.
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Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): My colleagues and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) on his urgent question, and we welcome the responses that the Minister has given so far. On behalf of my colleagues, I express our condolences to the relatives of those who lost their lives in those extreme weather conditions and pay tribute to all the emergency services.
The Larne to Cairnryan ferry was grounded overnight. Thankfully, there were no injuries or loss of life, as far as I am aware, but it is disappointing that the Minister was not fully briefed about the situation in Northern Irelandone would have thought that he would have been. Can he confirm that the 19 men on board the missing fishing vessel that had lost contact due to loss of power are safe and likely to be rescued?
Mr. Morley: I can certainly answer the hon. Gentleman's question about the fishing boat. I am glad to say that an RAF Nimrod, which has been operating from RAF Waddingtonvery close to my constituencyfound the fishing vessel. The boat has lost power and although the crew are safe at the moment, the vessel is in danger and in difficulties. I understand that the Nimrod is on standby in the area and has asked for assistance from other vessels to tow the boat to safer waters.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that although we cannot control the forces of nature, episodes such as this demonstrate why it is essential to have a Government who are committed to high levels of investment in the public infrastructure? I have two examples. Largs in my constituency has always been the victim of such flooding; in recent years, there has been a flood investment programme, funded by the Scottish Executive andtouch woodit appears to have been effective last night. Secondly, I spoke to Scottish Power this morning. In 1998, there was a six-figure number of disconnectionsmore than 100,000. The number is 6,000 for the current year. Conditions are not identical, but there has been a massive programme of tree lopping, strengthening the infrastructure and raising the wires. All of that makes the difference, when the day comes, between power cuts and continuity of supply.
Mr. Morley: I can certainly confirm to my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have given high priority to their financial commitment to flood defence and to taking the action on infrastructure that he outlined to try to minimise destruction and damage from extreme weather events of this type. In England and Wales, the flood defence budget has been increased from £300 million in 1997 to a projected £570 million for the next financial year. That is a significant commitment by the Government, who are working hard to reduce risk for people in all our countries.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD):
The Minister will be aware that this morning, by coincidence, the Environment Agency published its report on the devastating flood in Boscastle and surrounding north Cornwall villages. He has already indicated that it is extremely important to learn lessons from every episode, not least, as he has just said, in relation to
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insurance cover, risk assessment by the Environment Agency and planning. Can he go a step further than the Prime Minister was able to do earlier and indicate how important it is to see the direct linkage between incidents of severe weather impact on the United Kingdom and climate change? As the Government are in a leading position in the G8, what new initiative do they intend to take to raise the priority of dealing with climate change, especially in relation to our American partners and the United States President?
Mr. Morley: The Environment Agency report on Boscastle is significant and useful; it goes into the background to the Boscastle flood in considerable detail. The report is not only useful for the people of Boscastle; it concludes that the flood was one of the most extreme weather events ever recorded in this country, so in terms of risk, it gives some reassurance for the future. Furthermore, the findings of the report on the nature of the flood will be helpful in assessing risk for all communities living in steep-sided valleys, so it is also useful in that sense.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Prime Minister has given an international lead on the priority for climate change. In the G8 presidency, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, climate change and Africa will be key themes. As part of that, the UK is hosting a major international science conference at the Hadley centre in February, when there will be an opportunity to look at the science of climatic change and address important issues. For example, what is the risk in relation to global warming, and what are the long-term consequences? I agree that climate change is a global issue, and that it is essential that every nation plays its part, particularly industrial nations, including the one that is the biggest single polluter.
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