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29 Jun 2005 : Column 465WH—continued

29 Jun 2005 : Column 466WH

Floods (North Yorkshire)

4.15 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am delighted to secure this debate. It gives me an opportunity to congratulate again all the emergency services involved in the floods on their swift response, particularly the fire service, the councils, the Environment Agency, the internal drainage board, Yorkshire Water and, last but not least, the insurers.

On the afternoon of 19 June, we were faced with unprecedented conditions, with rainfall over a three-hour period of 2.5 inches per hour. That was against the background of a high water table and very hard ground.

I shall use this opportunity to put a series of questions to the Minister. However, I say at the outset that, although I am delighted that he is present, I am extremely disappointed, following a commitment that I received from the Prime Minister at last week's Question Time that the relevant Minister, the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, would meet me, that that has not happened. I would like to take up that offer on another occasion.

Before I come on to my questions and call for action from the Minister, there are a number of issues that I wish to bring to his attention, and I invite him to make representations to other Departments, in particular the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Although I recognise that what happened was an act of God, I am disappointed because I called for action in two Adjournment debates that I was fortunate enough to secure in 2000 and 2001, in which I rehearsed many of the arguments that I will put to the Minister today—that too many bodies are involved, that there is not a single agency with overall control, and that even more properties might be uninsurable. I am also disappointed that the flood alleviation scheme for which I called for Thirsk is not in place. That would certainly have helped prevent this type of flooding, against the unprecedented background of flash floods, in Thirsk itself, although it might not have helped outlying villages.

The Bellwin formula covers a number of situations, but Hambleton district council draws attention to the fact that, with regard to the recovery of personal items and possessions, the Bellwin scheme does not apply. For example, if Hambleton district council were to remove a car from the river, it would need to pursue the owner so that its costs could be recovered from that person's insurance claim. That is harsh when dealing with the restoration of a village community. If Hambleton or any other district council were to find a car in the river, they would of course remove it, but I hope that the Minister will make representations for that to be recompensed out of the Bellwin formula.

As on other occasions, North Yorkshire county council is hoping to join Hambleton and other district councils in this regard to make sure that the Bellwin scheme, which is only claimable after the threshold has been reached within the current year, pays the first £1.1 million. The timing for the claim is within one month of the incident, which is extremely difficult to achieve. Will the Government allow the county council to incorporate its qualifying expenditure into the Bellwin claim of district councils, and will they see fit to extend the timing for the claim?
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The Environment Agency has confirmed that it has no powers to intervene to undertake works on a non-main river. Following the 2000 floods, I was promised by the Minister's predecessor that Cod beck would be enmained, but there has been no progress. The EA commissioned a section 105 watercourse investigation study, which was passed to the internal drainage board and the local authority, Hambleton district council, and a further feasibility study. However, the EA has not used its powers to promote a scheme. Under the present arrangement, Cod beck is managed by Cod beck internal drainage board with a budget of a mere £20,000 a year. Hambleton district council also has residual responsibility.

The Minister will be aware that Hambleton district council is due to be capped in this financial year. That represents a double whammy and the Government must look favourably on the requests from me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and Hambleton district council for it not to be capped. This is the wrong year in which to seek to cap it. It would impose additional expenditure of £50,000 to send out further bills. I hope that the Minister will make representations, as I will, to the Deputy Prime Minister.

The watercourse at Cod beck is due to be enmained in April 2006, which is six years after the original decision was taken and the floods in 2000. The funding of any scheme by the Environment Agency will depend on confirmed priority scoring for 2006–07. At the moment, the points are almost being reached. However, I urge the Minister to look favourably on removing that mandatory and inflexible point-scoring system.

I want to take the opportunity to call for the action that has been requested by the Association of British Insurers and others. They are asking for the expenditure on flood defences to meet or to exceed that set out in the 2002 spending review; the implementation of the improvements in the system of flood defence planning set out in DEFRA's consultation paper "Flood and coastal defence funding review"; the full implementation of PPG25—planning policy guidance on development and flood risk—with full reporting of the level of compliance by local authorities; and consideration of administrative processes in the review of PPG25 in 2004.

There was an initial request for the Environment Agency's flood asset database to be made available to insurers by the beginning of 2003. It should be made as publicly available as possible. There need to be early improvements in the flood warning system, which broke down woefully. In the case of commercial properties in Finkle street, the flood warning was given at 10.45 pm on the Sunday evening, although the properties were flooded at 7 pm. I ask the Minister to investigate why there was no flood warning in that instance.

Full and detailed consideration, including a cost-benefit analysis, should be given to integrated drainage management for England and Wales, similar to that in operation in Scotland. There should also be implementation of realistic solutions to sewer flooding, including increased investment in improvement programmes.
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As for farming, there has been loss of livestock—cattle and sheep—and fences have been destroyed, many of which were paid for by DEFRA through the countryside stewardship scheme. Will DEFRA be able to fund the replacement of that fencing? The situation has led to many animals being displaced.

I have in front of me a letter from Harry Woodhead of Piperhill, Felixkirk. He is not just a leading member of the Thirsk auction mart and a leading local farmer, but chairman of the local parish council. He makes a plea to DEFRA to be "sensible" over the losses of stock. A farmer is expected to notify cattle movements within three days. He heard at the mart that a calf turned up nearly 3 miles from where it should have been.

I hope that the Minister and his Department will relax the animal movement reporting schemes. Crops have been ruined. There are uninsured losses. Houses, including farmhouses, have been flooded. There is structural damage, flooding and loss of livestock accommodation. Dead livestock needs to be discovered and removed. There are added complicating factors for farmers in the clear-up operation, in particular the implications of the recent regulations relating to agricultural waste. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that request, particularly in relation to animal movement restrictions where animals have been displaced.

I should like to put a series of requests to the Minister. Will DEFRA please be sensible about the losses of stock and relax the three-day notice period on movements, given the nature of the problems that farmers are facing, and given the lack of clarity in some cases? In one case, a calf turned up three miles from where it should have been, which was on the owner's farm. Many of the deceased animals are in inaccessible places, and they will take time to remove, at an additional cost to the Environment Agency. Furthermore, will DEFRA please guarantee that the collection of animal carcases, such as the removal of dead sheep from river beds, will be free of cost to the farmers, who are already facing a high financial burden?

Of the fences destroyed, will the Minister be able to fund their repair and replacement? Where crops that have been lost were uninsured, will the farmers be compensated for such uninsured losses, and will the Minister find the funds from DEFRA, and, if necessary, ask the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister for emergency funds to be made available for the clean-up of the countryside and the carriageways of people in possession of debris? The clean-up operation alone is running at hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Will the Minister please speed up the proposed enmaining of Cod beck, and the placing of it under the main rivers category and under the authority of the Environment Agency, instead of waiting for the expected enforcement date of April 2006? Will he also relax the point-scoring scheme in the regulation to ensure that the flood alleviation scheme for Thirsk, which has been flooded dramatically twice in the past five years and less dramatically more frequently than that, qualifies? Will he agree to expedite the flood alleviation scheme and ensure that the scheme for Thirsk and other suggested flood defence projects in the area are agreed to, and will he relax the point scoring?
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Will the Minister make representations on my behalf to the Deputy Prime Minister for extra funding for the repairs and the clear-up under the Bellwin scheme, and will he ensure that such payments are made swiftly? Will the Minister please ask the Deputy Prime Minister to consider relaxing the restrictions on the Bellwin scheme payments, which exclude payments for personal items such as cars? Will he ask the Deputy Prime Minister to reconsider the proposed tax capping for Hambleton district council this year? Capping has already posed serious problems for future budgetary arrangements, and now, in light of the inevitable additional costs faced by the council, it would be extremely punitive for the local taxpayer.

Will the Minister ask the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister to make emergency funds available to North Yorkshire county council to repair the damage to roads, estimated in excess of £1.8 million, and to bridges, estimated in excess of £1 million? Will he please ask them to pledge to have a moratorium on any planning applications for effective and functional flood plains? In particular, will he call for the turning down of the planning application for the construction of buildings adjacent to the recent flooding and bang next door to the Todd's court development?

Will the Minister make representations to Yorkshire Water to ensure regular maintenance is carried out on pipes, drains and waterways to reduce the risk of flooding? Will he ensure that there is an effective flood warning system in place, and that there is adequate sewage maintenance and drainage by Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency? Will he make representations to the ABI to ensure that everyone is eligible for insurance, that the dentists and other commercial properties in Finkle street will not be uninsurable, that for residential properties in riverside mews the excess will not be greater than the current £1,000, and that all properties will be considered insurable?

Will the Minister investigate why there was no flood warning, and why in some cases people have been told that there will be no insurance? Does he accept that there are too many agencies involved, and that there is not one agency in charge? Will the Government dig deep in their pockets to help the people of North Yorkshire in their hour of need?

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate on the important subject of the flooding in North Yorkshire. She has rightly asked a number of questions on behalf of her constituents, and has done a good job in representing the problems that the event created.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment is unfortunately in the main Chamber at the moment. He is due to speak on climate change once the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has finished talking, as he leads for the Government on that subject. That explains his absence from this debate.
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The hon. Lady asked a series of questions; sometimes it felt as though she were peppering me with them faster than I could write them down. I am aware of the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the House last week.

Miss McIntosh : I understand that the Minister will not have every answer at his fingertips, but I should be grateful for the opportunity to follow up with the relevant Minister any questions that he does not answer today.

Jim Knight : I was about to say that when I see my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment I will remind him of the commitment that the Prime Minister made and of what the hon. Lady has just said, so if there are questions that I cannot answer to her satisfaction, she will have another opportunity to raise them with the Minister and the Department.

I visited North Yorkshire over Whitsun. I went to Ribblesdale for the launch of the open access scheme in the north of England, so when the flooding happened, not long after I returned, I was very concerned. I am pleased that we have an opportunity to respond to the flooding of 19 June. I join the hon. Lady in offering my sympathy to those affected by what was to them a catastrophic event, and I pass on my congratulations to the emergency services, which did such a fine job in responding.

As was widely reported in the media, parts of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland were subjected to heavy thunderstorms on the Sunday. One month's rain fell in two to three hours in heavily localised thunderstorms over the moors. That concentration of rainfall, falling in so short a time, travelled down the valley and into the villages at the bottom. That led to flooding of the River Rye, the Cod beck—as we heard—and other minor watercourses. Together with surface water run-off, that caused flooding in Thirsk, Helmsley and other villages along those watercourses. In addition, other locations in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland experienced flooding resulting from surface water run-off.

Flooding is a natural event, and such storms have always happened. People need to be aware that flooding can happen at any time, and often in unexpected places. My house is on the edge of a flood-plain, and I subscribe to the Environment Agency's flood watch scheme, so I am acutely aware of the risk. The Met Office did predict the weather conditions over the north of the country, but it is difficult to predict exactly where and when rain will fall, and in what amounts. That makes the provision of timely warnings extremely difficult, although the agency did issue flood watch warnings across the region, and issued specific warnings for Thirsk and Butterwick, which are covered by the full flood warning system.

I heard what the hon. Lady said about failings that may have occurred in particular locations, and I will certainly look into that with the Environment Agency on her behalf. I will let her know what response I get from the agency about the reported incidents of failure of the system, and what it will do to rectify any problems.

So far, the full warning system has not been extended beyond Thirsk and Butterwick because there was no recent history of river flooding. It must be understood
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that the full warning system is subject to technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness. To provide a service, the agency requires equipment to be installed to feed data into the forecasting and warning system, and it is very difficult to provide a satisfactory service to communities in the upper reaches of catchments, such as those in North Yorkshire, where small water courses respond rapidly to rainfall. Nevertheless, the agency will review whether any improvements are viable.

I understand that about 100 properties in all were flooded from all sources, and a number of people were evacuated from a caravan site in Duncombe park. Some people who left their homes have now been able to return and I hope that others who left their homes will be able to return there quickly. As we have heard, local roads and bridges have been affected and some local minor roads were closed, but access to the village is being restored. There has also been flood damage to sewage works, which is now being made good. As yet unconfirmed numbers of livestock were lost, but the total will certainly run into the hundreds.

I would like to respond to what the hon. Lady said about fencing works, animal reporting schemes and the collection of carcases. Certainly, if local landowners and farmers are making applications to the Rural Development Service or other sources, I would be keen to see copies of those applications so that I can follow them from my end in the Department. I am mindful of the need to help those affected as best we can within the parameters we have.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): Even after the debate, we need to pursue some of the issues with the Minister. He mentioned Duncombe park in my constituency, and it is a miracle that no loss of life occurred there. There had been a major motorcycle rally in Duncombe park that weekend and an entire tented village flooded. Thankfully, most of the motorcyclists had gone home.

There are two issues that the Minister has already mentioned, but I would like to stress the importance of having support and help from Government. There is at least 60 miles of fencing in the Snilesworth and Arden moor area, which is where the boundary lies between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). The fencing is well over 1,000 ft high and more than 40 farmers are affected. Many of those fences were funded by DEFRA grants.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman knows the difference between a speech and an intervention.

Jim Knight : I have heard the hon. Gentleman reiterate the points that were made so well by the hon. Member for Vale of York. There were also cuts to power supplies in East Yorkshire as a result of lightning strikes, which have been repaired, at least on a temporary basis. The efforts of the emergency services, to which I paid tribute earlier, included airlifting one lady who seemed to have suffered a heart attack. The staff of the power companies have been working hard to restore the power, and we should also not forget the public-spirited residents themselves but praise them for helping their neighbours and others in difficulty in the community.
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Regarding the clear-up operation, the flood waters have now subsided and the job of clearing up continues. As part the process, the Environment Agency has been clearing water courses of debris and animal carcases, which we have heard about. The Government stand ready to consider any applications from local authorities under the Bellwin scheme, which is administered in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

I heard what the hon. Lady said about the scheme, such as whether we can extend the period in which people can make a claim. I shall pass on her comments to the ODPM along with those relating to capping. She asked whether this was the time to stop all further development on flood plains. Planning policy guidance 25 governs planning decisions and says that development should be based on a full appreciation of risks balanced against other community needs which may well result in some further development of currently protected areas. Developers should continue to have primary responsibility for any new or improved defences required for their development on flood plains. Long-term flood and coastal defence planning through shoreline management plans and catchment flood management plans should take account of the likely location of future developments and should provide information on long-term risks that can guide future development decisions. I know the strength of feeling the hon. Lady has on this issue and I shall certainly pass that on to my colleagues in the ODPM.

The Bellwin report provides for help from Government with the exceptional costs incurred in responding to such flooding events. However, it is too early for the local authorities involved to assess whether an application under the scheme should be made. That is the point that the hon. Lady made in respect of timing. Local authorities have been put in touch with the ODPM and that dialogue is ongoing.

We must learn the lessons from events like this. In the first place we will ask the Environment Agency, with others, to report on the causes of the flooding in each locality, as it is clear that flooding came from a number of sources, including rivers and other watercourses and drainage systems. Under "Making Space for Water", our new strategy for flood-risk management, we are advancing the complex issues of flooding from all sources in urban areas through urban drainage pilots. That approach may not always be appropriate for outlying and rural areas. As Minister responsible for rural affairs, I will consider that.

The hon. Lady mentioned insurance. The Association of British Insurers says that its members will adhere to the statement of principles, provided certain actions are carried out by the Government to reduce flood risk. The Government and the ABI agreed success measures in November 2003 to evaluate the progress of actions by Government, and the aim of insurers in conjunction with DEFRA and the Environment Agency will be to ensure that premium levels more closely reflect flood risk. It is for the ABI and its members to assess the availability of cover, but we shall continue to work closely with it to ensure that there is a full understanding of that risk in the light of decisions on funding that have been increasing markedly over the past few years. That and current developments in improved flood-risk mapping will enable the industry to continue to provide cover in most areas.
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I shall say a few words about the flood defences in the relevant communities. The hon. Lady has raised the matter of Thirsk on many occasions and has been a champion of it in the House. Thirsk has a history of flooding and I understand that Hambleton district council has commissioned feasibility studies to assess potential options for a flood alleviation scheme there. Early indications are that proposals involving town defences and upstream storage capacity may be considered.

The statutory powers to undertake those works currently rests with the district council, which is also in discussions with the Environment Agency about a transfer of responsibility for the watercourse involved—the Cod beck—to the agency. No decision has yet been taken on whether the council or the agency will promote a scheme, but in response to the hon. Lady's comments I will write to the Environment Agency and the council to encourage them to make more rapid progress. I have heard her frustration with the slowness of that progress.

Be that as it may, to attract Government funding any scheme must meet technical, economic and environmental criteria and come within the system for prioritising investment. At this early stage indications are that the proposals for Thirsk should meet those priorities.

Miss McIntosh : I understand that the Minister will not have every answer at his fingertips, but I should be grateful for the opportunity to follow up with the relevant Minister any questions that he has not answered.

Jim Knight : I was about to say that when I see my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment I will remind him of the commitment that the Prime Minister has made and what the hon. Lady has said, so that if there are issues that I have not been able to answer to her satisfaction, she will have another opportunity to raise them with him and the Department. In respect of Helmsley, the need for a watercourse investigation study has been identified. The Environment Agency will be taking that forward as a matter of urgency.

DEFRA's system of prioritising investment for improvement projects attempts to ensure that those proposals that will provide most benefit per unit cost are funded regardless of location. There is no doubt that significant sums are being invested, both inland and in coastal areas like mine.

I shall highlight the Government's continuing commitment to fund flooding and coastal erosion risk management. Funding has increased steeply from £310 million in 1996–97 to £478 million in 2004–05, and it is set to rise to £570 million this year and for each of the following two years.

I hope that my comments have been helpful to the hon. Lady, but if there are other significant issues that I have not been able to cover, I hope that she will have an opportunity to raise them with my hon. Friend. In addition, I can write to the hon. Lady to deal with anything else she would like covered.

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