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Most electricity and gas supplies have been restored, although property-by-property checks are needed where there has been flood damage. Some flooded sewerage plants might remain out of action for several weeks, although steps are being taken to minimise
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pollution. Many schools are reopening, although some will be out of action for some time to come.

The Environment Agency knows of at least 3,500 properties that have been flooded from main rivers in south and west Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and elsewhere. The final figure will be higher. When account is taken of flooding from surface water that has been unable to escape into drains and from groundwater, the total number of properties affected could be over 20,000. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the costs of flood-related claims could run to £1 billion. The costs to local authorities of responding to the flooding will be covered by the long-established Bellwin arrangements. More severely affected homes and businesses will take a considerable time to recover. Experience from the Carlisle flood suggests that some properties will not be fully habitable for many months, and that will mean that those affected will have to be temporarily rehoused.

I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the continuing heroic efforts of the many who have responded so magnificently to this exceptional rainfall. They include the staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and local communities—neighbour helping neighbour. I appreciate how hard everyone has worked; some people are very tired. I am grateful to them, and for the help they have received from other regions.

As the flood waters recede, we will move into the recovery effort, which will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has today agreed that the Minister of State at her Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), will take the lead on this matter. He will co-ordinate Government support for the local authorities and other agencies which will deal with this major task. Both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will be visiting affected areas later this week and will keep the House fully informed.

There will be lessons to be learned, and we will learn them. However, one thing was already clear before the recent floods occurred: the Government have always recognised the need to spend more on flood defence because of changes in climate, and we have increased spending from £307 million in 1996-97 to more than £600 million this year. I can today inform the House that we will further increase spending across Government on flood-risk management and defences to £800 million in 2010-11. I will, of course, keep the House informed if there are any further significant developments.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Before I welcome the Secretary of State to his new brief—and welcome his team, too—may I join him in offering my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who, tragically, lost their lives in the floods, and in congratulating the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities who worked so hard to deal with what was a very difficult situation? Opposition Members also send our heartfelt sympathy to those whose homes have been ruined,
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whose businesses have been wrecked and whose lives have been put on hold by these wretched events.

The Secretary of State is most welcome to his new role. He has a reputation as a thoughtful member of the Government and he will need to put on his thinking cap at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As he has already learned, it is one of those Departments where events have a nasty way of leaping up and grabbing the agenda. What has happened is particularly hard for him, as his constituency has been severely affected by the floods.

Where the Secretary of State and his team do the right thing, we will offer our wholehearted support, as there is a lot at stake in respect of the DEFRA agenda—too much for there to be party politics. We will offer our support when they do the right thing but, given what is at stake, we will not hesitate to hold them to account. We are not interested in playing the blame game on flooding—bad things just happen. The most that we can ever hope for is that we minimise the chances of their happening, and respond effectively and efficiently when they do.

Last week, the Chief Fire Officers Association raised a couple of issues. First, it warned that, despite its essential role in managing localised disasters, the fire service currently has no legal duties regarding flooding. This, the association warned, can make it difficult to get things done as quickly as it would like. Do recent events give the Secretary of State cause to rethink that? Does he think that there may be a case for involving the fire service in flood management on a statutory basis?

Secondly, the CFOA suggested that too many agencies were involved in handling the floods, and said that that had caused some confusion and overlap. A flood support centre has now been set up in Worcester to co-ordinate fire and rescue resources nationwide. Is that likely to be a permanent fixture, or is it merely a temporary arrangement?

Although the emergency services have done a sterling job, the damages, as the Secretary of State said, are still huge. The Association of British Insurers puts the cost of flood damage at £1 billion. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor promised to inform me of his estimate of the value of uninsured losses. Is the Secretary of State now in a position to tell us what that figure is and how it divides regionally? What support are the Government able to give those who are under-insured or uninsured? How much money has been allocated under the social fund in respect of these events, and how will it be distributed? What qualification criteria will be attached to any grants made? How much money is available to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme? Has the Secretary of State made an application to the EU solidarity fund to help with the restoration of vital infrastructure?

Turning to the question of flood risk and prevention, the Environment Agency has been warning for some years that increases in the amount of cash for flood defences have not kept up with increases in the rate of flooding. Indeed, according to some reports, cash increases have not even kept up with the real world. Reports that the proposed flood schemes in Leeds and York were shelved because of funding constraints are of particular concern. How many flood protection
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schemes have been shelved or postponed in the past two years because of funding problems?

We know that last year, because of financial difficulties at DEFRA, it slashed £200 million from its agencies’ budgets, including £15 million from flood defence work at the Environment Agency. According to the Environment Agency, that move was “tactical and opportunistic”. Can the new Secretary of State guarantee that under his management the agency’s flood defence work will be accorded a proper priority? I welcome his announcement this afternoon on increasing the budget for flood management in two years’ time. Would his Department’s funding problems have been so severe if the new Prime Minister, when Chancellor, had not repeatedly dipped into the Treasury’s contingency budget?

Does the Secretary of State not think that a good way of minimising damage from flooding might be to avoid building on flood plains in the first place? Half the post-war building in the UK is on flood plains, and a lot of new building is destined to be so built. At present, a quarter of all planning applications opposed by the Environment Agency still go ahead. Does he regard that as acceptable? As the Secretary of State knows, the Environment Agency was given new powers in January to refer such developments to him. Will he do everything in his power to see that the agency’s concerns are acted on by the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Finally, although we cannot prove that this year’s weather is due to climate change, all the expert advice suggests that climate change will increase the risk of flooding in the United Kingdom—by 20 times, according to the Government's own foresight report. Will the Secretary of State use the forthcoming climate change Bill to commit to an annual report on climate change adaptation measures? As the Stern review has stressed, the costs of dealing with the consequences of climate change will escalate each year, as will the costs of mitigating it. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a step change in the approach that we take towards flood defences? Is this not a classic case of a stitch in time?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very kind words about all the people who have worked really hard in response to the emergency, and about my arrival at the Dispatch Box in this new capacity. I look forward to working with him and his colleagues in the spirit that he has offered. I take this opportunity to welcome my new colleagues as part of the DEFRA team, because I look forward to working with them, too.

We are prepared to consider giving the fire and rescue services a flood rescue duty, if and when full equipment and training are in place—but they contribute enormously already, as I saw for myself in Doncaster on Thursday evening, when I talked to firefighters from that area and to some from Herefordshire and Wales who had come with high-volume pumps to help pump the water out.

On the question of too many agencies, I have to say that that is not my experience from the meetings and discussions that I have had every day since I took up post on Thursday. It seems to me that the agencies that need to be there are party to those discussions and,
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more importantly, are taking action. The system appears to have worked pretty well, and has been well co-ordinated, so I do not recognise the problem that was identified by one chief fire officer.

The flood centre has been set up in response to the particular circumstances we are facing. I do not yet have an estimate of uninsured losses. As soon as I do, I will provide it to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. On help for those who are not insured, which is a real problem—in one of the streets in a very poor area that I visited on Thursday, it was estimated that some 50 per cent. of households did not have insurances—leaflets have been produced and distributed. Staff from the job centres have been in the rest centres offering advice. Crisis loans are available for those who have left their houses with literally nothing, and there are community care grants. There is £170 million in funding for the latter and a contingency reserve. They are available for people on jobseeker’s allowance, income support and pension credit, but there is—as the hon. Gentleman will know—a capital limit.

The money that will go to local authorities through the Bellwin scheme will depend on the costs that they incur above the threshold, so I cannot give an estimate at this point. On the EU solidarity fund, the rules are that one can apply when the costs exceed either €3 billion or more than 0.8 per cent. of gross national income. I am not aware that we have yet reached that threshold. If we do so, it is something that we would consider.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there will be a proper priority for planning new flood defence schemes. Well, a new priority will certainly be given, not least because of the increase in funding that I have announced today, which all hon. Members who have constituencies where flooding is a problem—that includes mine, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out—will welcome. On the building of houses on the flood plain and other places where there is a risk of flooding, planning policy statement 25 clearly states that the Environment Agency must be consulted, and it has the power to ask the Government Office to call in applications where its advice is not being taken. I will indeed undertake to look at how that is being applied.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the flooding may be a consequence of the changing climate with which we all have to deal. I will look at the suggestion that has been made about reports on adaptation, because it is something that we are all going to have to learn to live with.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new appointment. He will find that it is never dull in DEFRA. Does he agree that still only very few people are on the Environment Agency flood warning system, and will he raise awareness of it? In relation to the work that is being done by the Environment Agency, people often look for someone to blame in these circumstances. Will he join me in emphasising the huge commitment of those who have worked round the clock to deal with this emergency, some of whom are invisible—such as those who operate the internal drainage board systems, which also contribute to dealing with floods?

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Hilary Benn: I very much welcome both my right hon. Friend’s points. First, the flood warning system is a good one, as I know from personal experience. I urge everyone to get plugged in to it, because it gives people notice and enables them to take action in such circumstances. Secondly, I agree that, faced with such difficulties, some people do get angry, and it is hard to say about what we saw last week, “This is pretty unprecedented.” The current estimate is that such things happen once in every 150 years. The truth is that, with rainfall at that level, even the best defences in the world are likely to be over-topped, and rivers will overflow. We have seen the consequences of that.

As the mood of the House reflected, it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to those who have worked incredibly hard over the past few days. If I may use the expression, they have bust a gut to help people who are distressed because of what has happened to their homes. We should applaud them for their efforts and continue to work with might and main to help those who have suffered.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I also join in the praise of those in the emergency and other public services who have struggled with the aftermath of the flooding, and extend our sympathy to all those families who have lost loved ones and whose property has been affected by the flooding? I also extend our best wishes to the new Secretary of State on his appointment to what is an increasingly crucial job of national security as well as environmental aspects.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the cause of the floods in Hull, Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Shropshire and elsewhere was, overwhelmingly, the failure of storm drains and sewerage systems to handle the enormous rainfall? It was therefore surface water, not traditional fluvial or coastal flooding. Will he now review the requirements placed on the private water companies to provide adequate drainage in co-ordination with their regulator Ofwat? Does he recognise that the Government’s last statement on the subject, “Making Space for Water”, has become substantially outdated since these events? Will he also ensure a mapping of flood risks from surface water, not just fluvial and coastal flooding? Will he publish a list of towns and cities that might be at risk of flooding as a consequence of similar extreme weather events?

The Liberal Democrats welcome the substantial increase in flood defence spending announced by the Secretary of State. Previous announcements of big increases in spending, however, have been substantially delayed, as the chief executive of the Environment Agency testified to the Public Accounts Committee recently. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us the path of the welcome build-up to £800 million in 2010-11? In particular, what figures has he now agreed for 2008-09 and 2009-10? Does he also agree that the increase highlights how ludicrous it was of his Department to cut flood defence spending by £15 million last year?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department and the Environment Agency were asked by the Treasury, as recently as two weeks ago, to make cuts of £20 million in their budgets for next year, before the floods struck? Is the belated and grudging conversion to the need for more spending just another example of the
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new Prime Minister’s lamentable failure to understand the significance of climate change? Does not that show a devastating lack of foresight on his part?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind words at the beginning of his speech, although it went downhill thereafter. I simply do not agree with what he has just said. When I have come to the House to announce a significant further increase in expenditure on flood defence, it is pretty churlish of him to have a go at the new Prime Minister; I would hope that the House would welcome our determination. Many Members in the Chamber represent areas that have been affected by flooding, and all will welcome the increase in investment.

I accept that the system was overwhelmed; that is true. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the considerable impact of surface water, as well as river flooding. As I indicated previously, however, even the best defences in the world will sometimes be over-topped and overwhelmed by such concentrated rainfall. The arrangements put in place are therefore not at fault. In the end, the cause is a lot of rain, and the House needs to recognise that.

I have already said that there are other lessons to be learned, and we will do so. I cannot, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, undertake to forecast which places might be likely to flood in the future because that depends on where it rains and what happens, but I accept that further work needs to be done to improve the quality of the information available about where particular properties are at risk.

We will publish the path to the figure of £800 million in 2010-11 later, but I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. We did not cut the capital budget for expenditure on flood defence, and it is important that I make that clear to the House.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the uninsured and he will know that people can be uninsured either because they are too poor to obtain insurance, or, like some of my constituents and his, because they are facing their third flood in three years so that their premiums have soared and they cannot afford them.

The Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), sent out a letter today stating:

Will my right hon. Friend undertake such consideration or reconsideration urgently, and much more sympathetically than just with regard to essential items? Will he assure us that the Department is speaking to the Association of British Insurers to persuade the insurance companies not to raise premiums to such an extent that further people are uninsured?

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