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11 July 2007 : Column 453WH—continued

2.59 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this timely debate.

My constituency has been devastated by the floods. Four towns in my constituency—Beverley, Hornsea, Withernsea and Hedon—have been affected, along with practically all the village communities in between, such as Thorngumbald, Ottringham and others up and down Holderness. In fact, at one stage, residents of
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Hornsea were cut off entirely by flood waters and were unable to get in or out. We often refer to the isolation of towns such as Hornsea and Withernsea in our ongoing campaign to protect community hospital services.

The local area including Hull received one sixth of its annual rainfall in 12 hours. In case I move on to any suggested or implied criticisms of authorities, it is terribly important that we recognise just how devastating the downpour was and that, no matter what preparations had been put in place, there would have been some flooding, and some misery would have been caused.

My constituents and I believe that more homes were flooded and for longer than was perhaps necessary. Like other hon. Members, I am asking the Minister to look seriously at the issue and to ensure that lessons really are learned and that there is follow-through. We all know the reality of political life—we recognise that attention is given to something but then moves on. Therefore, we are looking to someone of the Minister’s calibre and self-confidence at the Dispatch Box to maintain the issue at the level that it deserves and to see it through. I am confident that he, along with the Secretary of State, will do so.

I join other Members in offering my condolences in respect of those who tragically lost their lives, and I pay tribute to the heroic efforts—and there certainly were many—of those in the emergency and other services who went above and beyond what could reasonably be expected. Time and again, I met absolutely exhausted people from the council, from Yorkshire Water, from the Environment Agency and from the fire and police services working flat out. It was a real community effort. I also pay tribute to the community itself, which came together.

During the initial downpour, Humberside fire and rescue service received more than 3,000 phone calls and the police received a further 4,800 calls. When I toured the area on the first Wednesday after the flooding, I was struck by the generosity, kindness and unity of the people I met. Many people had to rescue each other.

One central issue for the Minister, which I believe has been taken on board—I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it already—is that no one agency is responsible for flood rescue. Clearly, that is ridiculous. The duty needs to be given 100 per cent. to the fire service, in my opinion. If the Minister has other ideas, I am sure we will all welcome hearing about them. The fire service needs to have the resources and equipment to ensure that its officers do not enter water in equipment designed purely for fighting fires. In fact, as I saw in Leven, boats were commandeered by local residents so that they could make rescues themselves, and that was despite the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services.

Hull, of course, has been terribly affected. The leader of Hull city council called it the “forgotten city”. Within 48 hours of his doing that, the floods Minister was travelling up the M1 to visit the area, and he was followed 24 hours later by the Prime Minister. I note in passing that I invited the Prime Minister to visit my devastated area in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but, unfortunately, he was unable to do so. In the first week, I invited the Secretary of State as well, but he also has
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been unable to visit. It would be appreciated if the Minister would come and visit our area, as people in east Yorkshire often feel neglected.

No one would begrudge the attention that is now being paid to Hull city council. It says that up to 17,000 homes—17 per cent. of the total number of households—have suffered damage, that more than 24 per cent. of the city streets have been affected, and that six Hull schools remain closed. It says that the estimated clean-up costs could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

According to the East Riding of Yorkshire council, 2,500 homes have been affected. I do not yet know precisely the number of homes that have been affected in my constituency. The most conservative estimate is that at least 1,200 homes have been flooded out and have suffered severe damage. On the basis of the average figure given by the hon. Member for Selby of £30,000 per house, one can see that the cost of repairing damage to homes in just my constituency—an area that has not yet merited a visit by any Minister at any level—will be some £36 million. That is greater than the total regional budget for flooding, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has suffered from cuts. I hope that the Minister will bear those facts in mind when he responds.

Much went right with the rescue and clean-up operations and, as I said, individual staff worked very well, but there was a distinct lack of communication and leadership, at least as perceived on the ground. I have spoken regularly to people from the East Riding of Yorkshire council. They feel that they have worked extremely hard—and I know that they have—trying to communicate through the local radio station, through the council’s website and so on. The point that I would make to them is that if the people at the receiving end do not feel that they have been communicated with—if Withernsea and Hedon town councils, and the parish councils of Leven, Burstwick and other affected areas feel utterly isolated and alone—the communication strategy has not succeeded. I hope that it will be reviewed.

I shall quickly pick up on some other issues. Yorkshire Water, which is responsible for much of the surface water drainage and has many of the assets to deal with it, was not invited to silver command in Hull until Wednesday, even though silver command opened on Monday at the beginning of the floods. Yorkshire Water was not actually invited until later. That is a small issue but one that needs to be addressed.

There is certainly a feeling on the ground that people did not come prepared. I shall be interested to hear the views of East Riding of Yorkshire council as we audit what happened. No one could come up with a bottom-drawer flood response booklet. Even if they were not trained, at least they would have been able to come out and make assessments. If the sewage is down, do we need portaloos, and how do we get them to where they are needed? Equipment did arrive, and people did come together, but there was a sense that problems had not been anticipated and that, in many cases, solutions had to be found by local communities rather than by the authorities to which they were looking for solutions.

As the Minister knows, in theory, the police take leadership in a flood situation, yet there was some
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confusion between the agencies, at least as far as people on the ground were concerned. I wonder whether he intends to review the issue of who takes a lead. I am no expert, but my personal feeling is that the council—the community leaders—is the most appropriate body to take overall leadership. It has the greatest range of assets. There may be many reasons why that is not the right solution, but we need absolute clarity about who is in charge, and who is supposed to rescue and who is not.

I am aware of the limited time and I have probably gone on too long already, but I wish to mention funds. The East Riding of Yorkshire council is not a shroud-waving council. It is very measured in what it says and does, but it estimates highway damage at between £5 million and £8 million. It lost a bridge at Spittal, highways and verges have collapsed, and ancient springs that have not been seen for a long time have burst forth. As the Minister knows, of the £14 million announced by the Prime Minister, £1 million has gone to the Department for Work and Pensions for, I imagine, some emergency help, £3 million has been put into highways, and £10 million is available for general purposes. Given that £5 million to £8 million is required in the East Riding of Yorkshire, we can see that the money is inadequate.

Six schools have been closed, five of which are not expected to open in September. Transport costs in a rural area such as the East Riding are immense. The costs of finding alternative accommodation are immense. The costs are huge. Where is the money to come from, and what will happen? The funding for the East Riding of Yorkshire council education authority is the fourth lowest in the country. Perhaps it has been driven by its financial needs, but it is recognised as the best financially managed authority in the country. What is it to do? If it redirects its capital budget, it will have to close down other programmes, which will impact on performance. If performance is affected, there will be cash implications.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the ongoing impacts, and that today he will commit to conducting an audit or assessment—I suppose that initially it will have to be a rough assessment—of, for instance, the damage to highways and other public sector assets. Once that information has been put together, I hope that he will make a commitment to give a funding boost to local transport plans in this year. That would probably be the appropriate way to deal with the matter.

Can the Minister also tell us what constraints there are on the supply of services? There is a limit to the number of contractors. The danger is that there will be sky-high prices if all the money is given this year, and that money will be wasted. Again, I would be interested to hear the Government’s response. Perhaps the work could be phased in over two years so that we can ensure that public money is best spent to that effect. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that. I certainly support the view of the hon. Member for Selby that surface planning should be looked at by only one authority, whose only interest and incentive is to get things right and which has no conflicting interests.

There is also the important issue of the insurers, which I hope that the Minister will take on board. Whole streets and estates have been flooded out and
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ruined. The Government have been working with the Association of British Insurers, and the East Riding of Yorkshire council has provided accommodation for the insurers so that it can work with them. It is working with them on planning issues to ensure that whatever needs to be done to help people can be done sensibly. However, the insurers all have different ways of working; they are bureaucracies, and some are less flexible than public bodies. Where whole estates have been taken out and there is a shortage of contractors, it could take 18 months or two years to deal with the problems. If we do not have a rational system, it will not be this Christmas, but next Christmas before we get people back in their homes. Can Ministers work with the insurers, bang heads together and get companies to act in a united way? It must surely be cheaper for a contractor to come in and deal with the whole estate at once. That will also cut down on the costs involved in subsidising people to live elsewhere and it will certainly be good for people. If the Minister can play a role in that, that, too, would go down well.

My last point relates to the Environment Agency. I hope that the Minister will have a close look at the issue of Burstwick drain. The internal drainage boards have been saying for years that the silt at Hedon Haven, where the outlet is, is not being removed, so the drain does not empty properly, even at low tide. We have a highly tidal system, of course, so although the water will flow out at low tide, it will stop and back right up at high tide. The outlet has not been de-silted properly and the doors failed. The outlet was also designed to have pumps, but none has been installed. It took till the Friday for a large pump to come up from Somerset, and it was Friday evening before it was working effectively. There was a real danger that there would be more flooding on top of the misery that had already been visited on so many villages and on Hedon town. I hope that the Minister can look at that and at the fact that, according to the internal drainage boards, the drain has not been properly maintained.

I have put many questions to the Minister and I appreciate having had the opportunity to ask them.

3.12 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Let me start by making it clear that there was damage and suffering across the country, which should remind us all of the importance of not claiming precedence for any one area in terms of its suffering. In that sense, it is unfortunate that Hull has claimed to be the forgotten city, because many areas have suffered serious flooding, and they include not only Hull, but the north and south banks of the Humber, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster and elsewhere. We are all in this together, and it is important to remember that.

Let me refer briefly to what happened in Sheffield. I want to do so partly to place that on the record; we have so far been unable to do so. I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is here today. It is important that we put what happened in Sheffield on the record because it underlines the significance of this debate about flood defence and flood prevention.

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The industrial damage in Sheffield has been well documented in the media. Corus had to close. Georgia-Pacific, a paper mill in my constituency, is now up for sale. Cadbury Trebor Bassett was also affected. Meadowhall, one of the biggest retail malls in the country, is still suffering and is now only partially open. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that hundreds of smaller engineering companies depend for their business on larger companies such as Forgemasters and Corus. Some of those smaller companies were also underinsured.

Many jobs in the city are at risk. The city has regenerated over recent years and desperately needs the help promised yesterday by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Those jobs are critical; indeed, the most important point over the long term is probably that we preserve them and prevent them from disappearing. The future of South Yorkshire’s economy is at stake.

It is often forgotten in all this that small charities and community centres are badly damaged in such circumstances, and they are not always well insured. The Newton Hall community centre in Chapeltown in my constituency was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. People there are now worrying about whether they can continue their good work in the local community. In addition, the A6102 Middlewood road north suffered a 60 ft landslip and will, even with the best of efforts and immediate funding—the funding needed for just that one small stretch of road is in the region of £2 million—not be open until 2008.

One old people’s home in my constituency was evacuated twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. Its residents are dementia sufferers, and their distress will be obvious to all, so I do not need to explain it. On top of that, a nursing home in Stocksbridge was flooded on Monday the 25th.

There were moments of light humour. One woman in Winn gardens described to me how she found a frog on her mantelpiece once the flood water receded, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside will remember that. However, residents from Mill lane, Deepcar, and Station road, Oughtibridge, were evacuated from their homes, and they are still not back. Most seriously of all, Falding street in Chapeltown was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. It was flooded not by the River Don, but by a local beck, and that underlines the seriousness of the situation. The cause of that flooding appears to have been a blocked culvert, which underlines the point made by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), and I shall return to that later.

There were heroes in all this. An individual called Craig Stenton not only rescued a boy from the beck in Chapeltown on Friday the 15th and saved his life, but rescued a local family from Falding street on Monday the 25th. Members of the family could not get out of their house, so he took them out on his shoulders and in dinghies. There were heroes, and the situation brought out the community spirit.

What do we need to do? There are several things that we need to do, and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) underlined many of them. First, we need a rigorous reassessment of the flood risk. I got some maps for my area from the Environment Agency website. I live at the top of the Don valley and I am
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told that my flood risk is 0.l per cent. That proved to be true on Monday the 25th. The residents at the top of Winn gardens were told that their flood risk was low, and that, indeed, proved to be the case, because the flooding of Winn gardens stopped halfway up the estate. The people at the bottom of Winn gardens were told that their risk was very high—so far, so good. The people of Falding street, however, were told that their risk was moderate, and of all the residential areas in Sheffield, theirs suffered the most. They have nothing left of their homes—their floorboards and everything else has gone. I visited the area twice, and the memories of what I saw—the raw emotions of the residents of Falding street—will remain with me for ever. So, too, will the bitter taste that the contaminated mud and muck left in one’s mouth.

People who live close to rivers, becks, streams, the sea and the coast need the best possible information and assessments from the Environment Agency. We therefore need a reassessment—perhaps in recognition of climate change—of what the genuine risk may be. That risk needs to be more widely publicised, and we need a debate about the issue. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also needs to front-load its spending on flood defence and flood prevention. However, it needs to allocate that budget according to a rigorous assessment of risk and in a transparent manner—we need a debate about what is necessary and where the priorities are.

If we had asked any citizen of Sheffield whether they thought that they would ever be flooded, they would have said, “No, we live on a hill.” Sheffield is built on seven hills, and nobody thought that it would ever be flooded. We have never suffered this before. The only other great flood in Sheffield was in 1864 and was the result of a dam bursting its banks because it had not been properly engineered or finished. However, we have never suffered before the flooding that we experienced recently and we need a reassessment of the risk.

We need to do more to make home owners and tenants aware of the level of risk that they face, and to give advice on how to minimise that risk. A pilot scheme is under way at the moment involving a £500,000 flood resilience grant from DEFRA. That is being tested and entails advising people on how to protect their homes from flood with water-resistant floors and walls, putting sockets higher up the walls to protect the electrics, and so on. Members of the House need to be made aware of the outcome of the pilot. If it proves to be a worthwhile exercise, and to save money in floods, we should roll it out, and I look to DEFRA to provide the funding.

We need to examine water management infrastructure again. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby pointed out that drains are the responsibility of local authorities, rivers and becks are the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and sewers are the responsibility of the water boards. That does not make sense. We need an over-arching body to oversee the maintenance of those waterways, and I agree with him that the local authority is probably the most appropriate body. However, we need to reconsider how effectively local authorities maintain their drainage systems. The comprehensive performance assessment includes in its performance indicators the cleanliness of public space and the condition of unclassified roads,
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but not the maintenance of the drainage system. My hon. Friend the Minister was a local government Minister so he may understand what needs to be done about that. Perhaps he will pass the message on.

We need a flood defence strategy that gives the necessary protection and gives insurers no excuse to refuse insurance to anyone in this country who lives in a potential flood area. We need to work with the insurance companies to ensure that they stick by their statement of principles and that the Government’s work is, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, watertight, with the result that the insurance companies will come up with premiums that are manageable and affordable for everyone.

I live in S6 in Sheffield. I phoned up for a renewal of my insurance policy last week and was refused insurance even though my flood risk is less than 0.1 per cent. DEFRA needs to do something to ensure that the Association of British Insurers gets a grip on what is happening with insurance companies, and that they stick by their statement of principles.

Finally, I want to mention the moorland management project that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred to. It is true that much of the water that came down the River Don on Monday 25 June originated in the Peak district. We have degraded our blanket bogs to the extent that they are now emitters rather than absorbers of carbon. They have been drained, over-grazed and polluted by the acid rain from Manchester and Sheffield, and, although my hon. Friend the Minister lives on the wrong side of the Pennines, he at least understands the problem. DEFRA needs to put more money into moorland management and the restoration of the blanket bogs, because, more than anything, along with adequate drainage systems and flood defences, it is the restoration of our natural moorland habitats in the Pennines that will probably protect large parts of the urban populations in the north.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): We have eight minutes, so, if the remaining two hon. Members who want to speak before the Front-Bench spokesmen take four minutes each, everyone who wanted to will have been able to contribute. Can we play fair by each other?

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