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In fact, a whole range of organisations has worked together to give people the practical help that they need. I have seen fantastic co-ordination of services, such as the Sheffield humanitarian aid centre which was set up immediately. In Sheffield, the local authority
visited 2,000 families in the first 48 hours. I have been impressed by how very testing events have brought out the best in people.
Communities want to get back to normal as swiftly as possible. Our priority now is to support them in doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will continue to work closely with the local authorities, the fire and rescue services, the insurance industry and other partners, who have already done so much, to ensure that everything possible is being done.
We are providing vulnerable people with access to crisis loans and community care grants, so that they can afford basic essentials such as fresh clothes and bedding. We are giving people advice so that they can help to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. We are meeting the Association of British Insurers tomorrow to ensure that hard-hit households and businesses get the support that they need urgently.
We are working to protect jobs. The regional development agencies have set up a range of funds to support small businesses affected by the floods but there is much more to do. We are now gathering information daily on the scale of the challenges, and the visits will carry on. We know that we need to maintain our efforts and that there are long-term problems that we have to face across a range of areas. Where schools are still closed, councils have swiftly arranged alternatives to ensure that children are educated. The Department for Children, Schools and Families stands ready to work with schools to look at re-profiling some capital expenditure to help get buildings up and running again as soon as possible, and especially by September. While local authorities have undertaken sterling work in assisting with short-term homelessness, many homes are going to be uninhabitable for some time and we know that medium to long-term temporary accommodation will be needed.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keeping the situation under review and remains in close contact with the National Farmers Union. Transport and infrastructure is an issue; rail links have been affected, some roads are closed and others are seriously undermined. The Department for Transport will assist local authorities once the full scale of the damage has been assessed.
It is because there is much more to do that, on Saturday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government will be providing a rescue fund of £14 million. We are working to get these resources to local authorities as soon as possible. These funds will be in addition to the significant extra resources that local authorities can access through the Bellwin scheme.
Some £10 million will go direct to local authorities in the flood-hit areas to support the work that they and other organisations are already doing, particularly to help those who have lost everything and need immediate support. We will work closely with the Local Government Association to help local authorities deliver this support quickly and effectively, and with the minimum of bureaucracy. Communities told me that they wanted the money to get to them as quickly as possible. Some £3 million will meet immediate claims from local authorities to help with the cost of repairing roads and bridges, and £1 million will help some of our most vulnerable people to replace essential household items, such as cookers and beds.
The Prime Minister also announced that we are making changes to the Bellwin scheme, which is designed to help local authorities reclaim costs in emergencies. Instead of having only two months to claim under the scheme, local authorities will now have six months. Instead of being able to claim 85 per cent. of the expenses incurred, local authorities will now be able to claim back the whole costs of eligible expenditure. This will help to ensure that assistance reaches those who need it most. Debate has already started about what more we can do in the long term to reduce the chances of this kind of destruction happening again. This is a real concern among those who have been hardest hit by the flooding.
It is clear that we need to continue investing in the fire and rescue services, so that they have the equipment they need. The Government have invested £200 million in new dimension equipment for the fire and rescue services. I saw the crucial difference that this could make, with new high-volume pumps being used to drain flood water in the midlands and the north.
We also understand the need to continue investing in flood defences. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced to the House last Monday, Government investment in flood defences will rise from £600 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. We have strengthened planning policy on development and flood risk; this makes sure that planners and developers work together to locate new developments away from flood risk areas where possible. It also makes sure that any necessary new development in a high-risk area is safe and does not increase flood risk.
We must learn from the events of recent days. These rains were unprecedented, but it would be wrong to suppose that such an event could never happen again. We must consider what more could be done to prevent this scale of damage in the future. It is right to be thinking for the long term, but we should not let that detract from the urgent business of giving practical help to the people who are suffering now.
The new measures that I have outlined today are essential, but let me reiterate that they are a first step. In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to work closely with local leaders to help all our communities get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con):
First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new appointment and wish her well in her new role. I also thank her for the advance copy of her statement. I join her in paying tribute to the emergency services, councils and voluntary workers who have worked tirelessly over the last fortnight to help the victims of these terrible floods. I also join her in expressing sympathy to the victims of the flood. It will be a long time before those communities can enjoy anything like normal family life. It was evident from watching her on Saturday that she had seen peoples distress from visiting those dreadful scenes, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We should not be in the game of laying blame, but I have several questions regarding the right hon. Ladys statement. Financial support from central Government is essential to ensure that councils are able to rebuild; otherwise, they face cuts in local
services or hikes in council taxes due to the cost of reconstruction. In Saturdays statement, the Department said that the Bellwin scheme reforms would not be permanent. Why is that? In 2001, its predecessor Department warned that the main live issue with Bellwin was
local authority expenditure on flood protection and response to flooding.
Is there not a case for a complete review of the Bellwin scheme, including the capital costs of flooding, rather than using these short-term fixes? Councils such as Herefordshire and Carlisle have previously introduced local council tax discounts for the victims of flooding. Will the right hon. Lady encourage councils to adopt such measures? Can such expenditure by flood-hit councils be claimed back under Bellwin?
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the public are entitled to have the best information available on flood risk? The National Audit Office has warned that fewer than half the countrys high-risk flood defences are at target condition. Will she place in the Library a list of the defences that are below target condition? Do not residents deserve more information not just about coastal and river flooding, but about urban drainage problems and our creaking sewerage system?
If the right hon. Lady believes in openness, will she speak to the Environment Agency about its clampdown on websites such as OnOneMap, which seeks to make the agencys public flood map data more accessible to the public? Insurers are calling for full access to the agencys national flood and coastal defence database. Should not both the public and insurers be given free access to that data, provided that insurers continue to insure at-risk properties?
The Government are planning extensive development on the Thames Gateway, much of which is floodplain. What plans does the right hon. Lady have to revise building regulations to ensure that new homes are built in a way that will minimise damage if there is flooding? What funding mechanisms will be used to ensure that the new developments are constructed with robust flood defences? What steps are being taken to encourage the use of natural wetlands and the restoration of natural floodplains to prevent upstream flooding?
The Secretary of State says that the rains were unprecedented, but we have witnessed a succession of major floods in recent years. The Government created the regional resilience team and regional civil contingencies committees to improve co-ordination of emergency responses. What role have they played in tackling recent flooding, and what lessons can be learned to improve their responses to other disruptive civil emergencies?
The Chief Fire Officers Association has criticised the institutional confusion among the myriad public sector agencies responsible for tackling flooding incidents and has called for a single lead agency to co-ordinate responses, but was that recommendation not made three years ago after the Boscastle and Carlisle floods? Will the right hon. Lady place in the Library a copy of the conclusions of Exercise Trident, the flood contingency planning exercise of 2004, so that we can judge what advice was given? Will she confirm that the £14 million that the Chancellor announced is to replace last years £14 million cut in the budget? Are new moneys to be made available?
If the Minister is not to come to the Dispatch Box with ever-increasing frequency, we need to understand why our infrastructure could not cope with changes in the weather. We need to learn the lessons and to improve co-ordination. Above all, we need to know who is in charge.
Hazel Blears: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him very much for his kind words in welcoming me to my role. I am grateful for his tribute to the emergency services in these circumstances. I am delighted that he started his contribution by not seeking to allocate blame to any organisation. It is absolutely right that we all try to come together to ensure that we provide practical help to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the financial support. In these circumstances, the Bellwin scheme will be extended to cover 100 per cent. of costs, and he asks why that is not the norm. We have made the change because we are looking at exceptional circumstances; the rainfall was unprecedented. It is right that the Bellwin scheme should continue and that we should have the flexibility to extend it in exceptional circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Bellwin scheme should cover capital costs, as well as resource costs. I understand that, in exceptional circumstances, if resources would be better used for capital rather than revenue expenditure, we could consider some claims for capital costs, but that it would be very unusual for us to do so. More often than not, local authorities need revenue for things such as immediate rest centres and immediate cleaning up. They are not really looking for capital moneys in these circumstances; they are usually looking to cover revenue costs.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether local authorities could offer council tax discounts. One of the issues raised in my initial discussion during my visit to Doncaster on Saturday was whether there might be some relief from council tax in cases where people cannot occupy their properties. That is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I have no doubt that it will be an issue in the longer-term discussions.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that information is absolutely vital. People have been reassured when they have been given good, timely and swift information about what is happening and about the resources available. Our flood defence programme is indeed not just about physical flood defences; there is also an extensive programme of flood warnings and other information made available locally to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Environment Agency database is available to other bodies, and I will certainly look into that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Information is important, but what is crucial is getting the right information, not information that could lead people to panic about the circumstances or to make hasty judgments.
As for the Thames Gateway and building on floodplains, the hon. Gentleman will know that about 10 per cent. of properties in England are constructed on floodplains. We have recently revised our planning guidance in
planning policy statement 25, which provides a much more rigorous planning framework for building on floodplains. Plans must now be submitted to the Environment Agency for it to take a view. The presumption is that we try to direct development away from floodplains, but where development is necessary, there is now much more emphasis on risk assessment. I recently saw a scheme that diverted the watercourse to enable the water to spill over on to a wetland area, instead of it being constrained in a rigid watercourse, which in the past had led to flooding problems. Being more innovative and smarter about the planning regime will help in those circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the regional resilience teams established under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I hope that he would agree that that Act has put in place an effective framework whereby people can carry out exercises to cover the various eventualities. I was delighted to learn that the last exercise carried out in Sheffield in May dealt with the possibility of wide-scale flooding. Perhaps that contributed to the excellent provisions, including a humanitarian aid centre, that were put in place.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of institutional confusion and the absence of a single lead. I do not accept that, because there is a clear single lead under the 2004 Act. The police have the lead for a whole range of different emergencies. They establish Gold Command to take strategic decisions and Silver Command to look at situations across the area, and they usually have Bronze Command, which involves the taking of detailed tactical decisions on the ground. That kind of organisation has been proved to work in very many circumstances.
The hon. Gentlemans final point was about whether our infrastructure can cope with changes in the weather. What we have seen over the past few weeksand the devastation that has been caused to thousands of people, businesses and homes across the countryis perhaps a little more than a change in the weather, but he is right that we need to think ahead, to look at how the climate is changing and to see whether we need to take any further steps. The one overwhelming message that I received from my visits was that people were coping extremely well with what had happened this time, but that they would find it very difficult indeed if there were to be similar events in future.
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) (Lab): As a Back Bencher, I welcome my right hon. Friends statement. I echo the praise of the people of Hull for the emergency services, the voluntary services and the local authority workersthey all worked tremendously hard. The floods damaged more than 5,000 houses in Hull, closed many schools4,000 children were looking for a schooland caused great damage. Tragically, a man was killed in the process of trying to stop the floods and help a neighbour. In those circumstances, it is easy to understand why the people of Hull think that they are the worst affected on this occasion.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that in the past seven years, we have had floods in Carlisle, York, and Boscastle, and now we have floods in the Yorkshire area? These events are not just a matter of exceptional weather, although of course that is part of it. They are happening much more frequently. We had better begin to recognise that we have fundamentally to review our whole water management system. In particular, I draw her attention to the drains and sewage that have contaminated so many houses and schools. Cleaning those buildings will take a long timeeven before the repairs start. No doubt we will determine the long-term consequences. In view of the fact that the Government have committed some money for immediate application, will my right hon. Friend ensure that that clean-up is considered not only by her Department, but by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so that we can get youngsters back to school and people back into their houses? We have to do that. Will she send some officials to Hull to discuss how we can use that money immediately? I thank her for all her efforts, and particularly for agreeing a few days after the floods to send a Minister to Hull.
Hazel Blears: I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done in Hull both to try to alleviate the problems experienced by local people and to bring together the various local agencies, so that they were able to be very effective. I extend my sympathy to the family of the gentleman who died in Hull, Mr. Mike Barnett. That was a terrible tragedy and I know that there is to be a full coroners inquest into the events that happened.
My right hon. Friend is right that there have been recent incidents in Carlisle and Boscastle. In my previous role as Minister with responsibility for the police, I had occasion to visit both those areas and I was particularly struck by the fact that the effects were apparent many months after the initial events took place. One of the things that I am concerned to ensure is that the action both of central and local government continues for the long term, because many families will need support in the long term. Sometimes it is easy for the media circus to come and go. We have to ensure that all our agencies are working to support people.
My right hon. Friend mentioned schools. Many primary schools, in particular, have been affected. We are having discussions with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to see whether we can re-profile the capital programme in relation to building schools for the future to make sure that improvements are made, and to see whether some immediate extra funds will be available to get schools up and running as quickly as possible, and particularly by the start of the new school year. That will give the families security.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): May I first welcome the Secretary of State and her new team? We have regional and sub-regional connections and I look forward to meeting her across the Dispatch Box from time to time. I thank her for todays statement. It is extremely important that recent significant events be tracked carefully by Parliament and Government, and that we understand exactly how they will unfold and how the Government will engage with the problems that have arisen.
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