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9 July 2007 : Column 1194

We associate ourselves with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for the many thousands of families who have been affected and the businesses that face disaster as a result of the flooding. We also associate ourselves with the thanks given to the emergency services, the local councils and the voluntary sector—they have done so much work.

We welcome the extension of the Bellwin scheme, but will the Secretary of State confirm that there is to be no threshold on claims made under the scheme by local authorities? Will she also say more about the exceptional circumstances in which capital claims might be considered? As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made clear, some of the damage is significant and, in some cases, it will be more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild than to clean out and refurbish—one course of action involves capital, and the other revenue. Clearly, if the reconstruction process is to represent value for money, the Bellwin scheme should reflect that fact; it should not be a difficult case that has to be argued. Those decisions need to be made within days and weeks, not months. The plan of action for Hull, for instance, which has many schools out of action and 4,000 damaged council houses, must be developed quickly.

In the medium term, we must consider the resources available for assessment, as loss assessors from the insurance industry seem to be in short supply. There is perhaps a capacity problem in the building industry, too. Will the Secretary of State undertake closely to monitor those issues and to ensure that, if necessary, resources are drafted into the affected areas to maintain steady progress? She herself has said that it is important that the effort should not be relaxed once the media circus has gone. Previous disasters overseas have shown that that is exactly what happens. Those apparently trivial points about capacity are often at the heart of the difficulties that people face in resolving such issues.

Will the Secretary of State give special consideration to the pleas made by one or two local authorities for additional help and support in dealing with the crisis that they face? I am particularly thinking of Hull as, by all accounts, it is the most severely affected local authority. Looking to the longer term, she has referred to the changes that will be made under planning policy statement 25. However, she will be aware that a large slice of the planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected, on the ground that they would result in building on floodplains, has been approved. I would like an assurance that those cases will be given particularly careful consideration, so that we do not build in problems for the future.

Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned the £800 million for flood prevention work, and said that the work would take place up to the year 2010-11. Will she say what the phasing is for that increase? Will she give the House an assurance that that money will kick in, and will be available for expenditure, at the earliest practical moment?

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I have no doubt that Greater Manchester will figure significantly in our discussions. He asked me to make sure that progress is tracked carefully; I entirely agree that we need to make sure that we keep our focus on the events that occurred.

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I am particularly pleased that our regional Ministers will also be playing a role, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, who has been extremely involved in taking these issues up in recent days.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of support to businesses, which is important. I visited Meadowhall, the shopping centre in Sheffield, which had been quite badly affected by the flooding, and that was particularly true of the retail businesses. Yorkshire Forward has set up a scheme and has provided £1 million to help small businesses. Advantage West Midlands is looking at something similar, and there is something similar in the east midlands as well. The regional development agencies will therefore help businesses with their immediate costs.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Bellwin threshold, which is 0.2 per cent. of local authority budgets, will still be in place. We have extended the grant to cover 100 per cent. of costs, which is a significant expansion, but the threshold will still be in place. He asked about the capacity of the insurance industry, particularly in relation to assessors. The Association of British Insurers indicates that the process of getting assessors in is well under way. Certainly, on my visits, I found some variation in the responses of different insurance companies. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, and the relevant Ministers from the Treasury, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, I hope, from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are meeting the insurance industry tomorrow, so I hope that the House appreciates how seriously we are taking the issue of insurance to make sure that claims are dealt with speedily and fairly and that there is sufficient capacity to get on with things, because that is a top priority for members of the public. The hon. Gentleman mentioned builders, and we need to be careful that reputable builders are involved in the restoration work.

I mentioned the new planning guidance, PPS25, and we need to make sure that it operates properly, that we manage the risk of building on the floodplain and, where there is development, that it is appropriate to the area. We will continue to keep a close eye on that. The £800 million for flood prevention is to be made available for the next comprehensive spending review period. I am not in a position, and nor is my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, to give the profiling of that expenditure as yet, but I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s request that it kick in as soon as practicable to meet requirements.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): In Wakefield, 2,000 homes were directly affected by the flooding, and I was contacted by Rev. Mike Croft of St. Catherine’s church on Doncaster road about the lack of information that people received about personal hygiene and about their inability to wash their hands. That was solved by a generous donation from Boots the Chemist in the city. However, when I tried to write to the homes that were affected last week, the Environment Agency told me that its useful eight-page guide about what to do before,
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during and after a flood was available only online and that I had to download it and photocopy it. When I rang the agency up again this morning to say, “Actually, I think you should deliver that guide to me”, I was told that it would take three to five days for 500 leaflets to travel from Leeds to Wakefield—a distance of only 10 miles. May I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that information on hygiene and Environment Agency advice are distributed to every household affected in the country?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although, like her, I am grateful to Boots for helping out in these circumstances, it is our responsibility to make sure that households have proper health advice. Clearly, there are problems relating to toxic water, drainage and sewage, and it is essential that those are dealt with for public health reasons. I take on board what my hon. Friend said about the Environment Agency not having leaflets available, and I will certainly work with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary to make sure that that is remedied as a matter of urgency. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should get that information out to the households concerned.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State appreciate the frustration of people in Ripon, who have been expelled from their homes for the second time in seven years, as they were told that the scheme that was approved three years ago does not have sufficient priority to go ahead? Losing one’s home must be treated as a priority. Will the Secretary of State look at agro-environmental schemes to give farmers an incentive to hold water on the land through the way they manage their farms? At the moment, those schemes do not incorporate that element. Will the right hon. Lady also discuss with the Treasury whether local authorities, which contribute a derisory amount to local flood defence committees, can increase their contribution without those amounts falling foul of the capping criteria?

Hazel Blears: The right hon. Gentleman makes a telling point about the effect of repeat flooding on households. Having recovered from one flooding episode, there can be nothing worse than to be faced with the same circumstances again. I entirely understand that. On the flood scheme priorities, I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary about these issues. The matter of farmers holding water on land has been brought to my attention. It may well be that more can be done with innovative planning schemes and by finding different ways for the water to be held or to be discharged harmlessly, rather than causing the flooding problems that we have seen. We will certainly look into that. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the various capping criteria and whether there is the possibility of some leeway. That will have to be considered as and when we get to that position. I hope that we do not get to that position, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman shares that hope.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): I am fresh from the retraining course for ex-Ministers, so I shall try to keep within the rules. I associate myself
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with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I thank all my colleagues for the work that they have put in over the recent past. It has been welcomed and appreciated in the affected areas.

In relation to my constituency and its industrial base, there are some serious problems. The industry there is heavy industry, and eight or a dozen of the major companies—large companies—are facing real difficulties. Even smaller companies which have not been affected by the flooding but which are in the supply chain to the larger companies view the situation with concern. The chamber of commerce, in discussions with many of us in Sheffield, has asked us to raise the matter in the House and ask the Government to look specifically at the large companies in the Don valley, which are major producers and on which the smaller companies in the supply chain rely. That is important. In this world of globalisation, many of those companies are not funded from within the UK. Foreign investors and the parent companies will be looking at those companies, as some will have to relocate. That relocation may not be in the UK. That are some genuine concerns, which I hope my right hon. Friend will convey to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, as that wealth creation is extremely important to the whole of south Yorkshire and, indeed, to the nation.

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his—as ever—incisive, succinct and effective contribution on behalf of his constituency. I am well aware of the effect on businesses. I know from visiting Sheffield last week that companies such as Forgemasters and Corus Engineering, which are big employers, have been very badly affected. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I do not know whether we call it DBERR, or perhaps DEBRA—is visiting tomorrow and will meet representatives of the chamber of commerce to discuss the matters. The chief executive of the regional development agency, whom I met last week, is conscious of the need to give assistance. I am concerned about the message that this sends out, both to investors and to developers. We need to be conscious of the fact that in many areas, for regeneration and for industrial investment, it is important that proper steps are taken to maintain the confidence of those communities. Many of our areas are now thriving through regeneration and we need to keep that confidence going.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I thank the Minister for her statement, and I thank her colleague the Minister for Local Government for visiting my constituency last Friday afternoon to see the damage. Three rivers flooded in Chesterfield—the Rother, the Hipper and the Whitting. Between them, they closed three of the six main roads into town, and affected 60 businesses and up to 1,000 houses. That they flooded is no surprise, because they have a track record going back well over a century. Prevention, of course, is better than cure and cleaning up afterwards. The defensive works on the River Rother are planned to start in 2011 and the feasibility study for the River Hipper is drawn up but with no date attached to it. Will the Minister assure me that she will be lobbying her colleagues in Government to make sure that money for
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these planned preventive works are brought forward, otherwise we will be back in a few years, going through the same story?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I am aware that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there has been significant damage. It has not figured quite as much on the media as some other areas, but I understand that 500 homes, two retail parks and between 60 and 80 other premises have been quite badly affected. Obviously, we want to ensure that we help people as far as we possibly can. He makes a telling point about prevention being better than cure. These matters will be considered across Government. There is always a need to prioritise, but with events such as these and thinking of the changes in climate, we need to make sure that we put our money where it can be used to best effect to try to protect as many people as we can.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Wherever flooding occurs, it disrupts lives and homes. Will the Secretary of State particularly consider rural communities such as Lowdham, Woodborough and Lambley in Nottinghamshire to ensure not only that they get their fair share of resources for the immediate clear-up but that, in the longer term, they are given priority when it comes to allocating resources for flood defence measures?

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, in representing his rural communities, always ensures that they are not left out and are at the centre of concerns. He makes an important point. People in rural communities can often feel more isolated and, particularly where there is a settlement of only a few houses, the effects of flooding can be devastating. That is why I said earlier that it is important to ensure that the Government keep a long-term focus on these issues. When I went up to Carlisle after the flooding there, I found that some people’s mental health problems had lasted for a significant period, so help from health and social services was important, as well as dealing with physical flood defences. I will certainly ensure that rural areas remain a focus of our concern.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): At the present moment, the Environment Agency has to allocate funds competitively among schemes in very large areas. That means that a town such as Banbury, which has the River Cherwell and the Oxford canal going through it, and has had a scheme worked up for some time, suddenly discovers that although it is still at risk—weather patterns are changing, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said—it is losing out because the Environment Agency thinks that there is a higher priority scheme in the Thames Gateway. I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. When this has settled a bit, could the funding of flood defences be considered on a cross-party basis? Under the current system, local government does not seem to be able to make much of a contribution, we are all dependent on going to the Treasury cap in hand, and a lot of communities are starting to feel very vulnerable.

Hazel Blears: This is clearly an important issue to people right across the country. Inevitably, there will be limits to the amount of money that can be put in. However, I would draw to the hon. Gentleman’s
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attention the fact that in 1997 we spent about £300 million on flood defences, whereas we are now spending double that—£600 million—and it will go up by another £200 million over the next couple of years. Significant extra investment is being put in. I have no doubt that it will never be enough to meet every single scheme that is proposed. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) who raised this in relation to his constituency, we must try to ensure that our finances are spent where they can have best effect and where they can protect people who are most at risk. I have no doubt that that assessment will be ongoing.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Northern Lincolnshire was also badly affected by the severe weather; in fact, we are just on the other side of the River Humber from Hull. I appreciate the comments that my right hon. Friend has made about helping the local authorities that have been affected. When I was out and about in Barrow upon Humber looking at the rescue work that has gone on there, everybody was full of praise for the emergency services. However, people have obviously been devastated, so can she give a little more detail about the rescue funds, particularly the £10 million extra for flood-hit areas?

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning an area that perhaps has not had a great deal of the public spotlight, although clearly the problems for people there will be just as dramatic. I understand that 160 residential properties in north Lincolnshire and 400 residential properties in the whole of north-east Lincolnshire have been affected, together with businesses, so it is a significant problem. In terms of the rescue funds that are available, £10 million will go direct to local authorities, and we hope to have that money in their hands very quickly. We want to ensure that that is then distributed to people with the minimum of red tape and bureaucracy and that it is allocated to the people who are in the greatest need. That is rightly a matter for local authorities; central Government cannot micromanage it, and nor should we. However, we want to ensure that we help local authorities to do it as quickly as they possibly can to try to help people who in some cases literally walked out of the door with what they stood up in. The crisis loans and community care grants should therefore be available so that we can get a reasonable package to people who have found themselves in such distress.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why were more than half the flood defences maintained by the Environment Agency in an unsatisfactory condition last year? What urgent action will the Government take to improve the standards of maintenance carried out by the agency, and to do the most important capital works to increase capacity where people are most at risk?

Hazel Blears: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the events of the past couple of weeks have in everybody’s terms been unprecedented. It is inevitable that whatever the defences we had put in place some would be breached in such circumstances. As I have
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explained, a significant amount of extra investment has already been made in flood defences, and even more will be put in during the next couple of years.

Rightly, the right hon. Gentleman calls for urgent action. We all want action to be taken as quickly as possible, but it is important that extra investment is targeted at the areas where it will have the most effect, and where we will get the best value for money. It is without doubt that there is a significant amount of investment, which I hope will help in future, but it would be tempting fate for any Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box and say that we could have prepared for what has been a series of unprecedented events.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Sheffield so promptly, and for the rightful praise she gave to the efforts of the city council. I also thank the Government for the initial financial help of £14 million, the improved Bellwin formula and the help given to small businesses through Yorkshire Forward. However, one of the major needs in Sheffield is help with the capital costs of the repair and, in some cases, replacement of roads and other public infrastructure. Initial estimates say that in Sheffield that could run into tens of millions of pounds. I know that my right hon. Friend cannot give a commitment to a particular sum of money, but will she give an assurance that when the assessments are made of these detailed costs, she and her colleagues will listen carefully to the requests made and respond positively to them? There is no way that the city council can meet such significant costs out of its existing budget.

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I was particularly impressed with Sheffield’s co-ordination of information for the local community. It has been one of the areas that piloted the 101 number, bringing together a whole range of services, which was extremely impressive.

On the capital costs, assessments will be carried out and we need to deal with the immediate practical help that we can give. My right hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Department for Transport is more than willing to visit Sheffield, and to sit down with the local authority to ensure that we have a proper assessment.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): My constituency suffered enormously 18 months ago from the Buncefield explosion, and I share my community’s concern about residents who have left their homes. Losing a home is one of the greatest difficulties that anybody can go through, and 18 months on from the explosion there are still people in Hemel Hempstead living in hotels.

During the next few months, will the Secretary of State look carefully at how the loss adjusters and builders carry out work? In Hemel, building work has been done and people have returned to their homes, but they have had to leave them again because cowboy builders had been in. The loss adjusters are not so friendly once the cameras are gone. As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) knows, it is a really difficult situation. Perhaps some of the experiences we have had in Hemel will help hon. Members in other areas.

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