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23 July 2007 : Column 563


3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the serious flooding that occurred over the weekend.

A band of rain swept across central and southern England on Friday, developing into intense rainstorms. In 24 hours, up to 160 mm or 61/2 in of rain fell. With already saturated ground, this water rapidly entered rivers and drainage systems, overwhelming them. Transport was severely disrupted, with the M5 and M50 affected and train services unable to run. Many local roads remain closed and the public are advised not to travel in the worst-hit areas. The most serious flooding has been experienced across central England, particularly in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I must emphasise that the emergency is far from over. Further flooding is very likely, as the Thames and the Severn fill with flood waters from within their catchments. There are currently eight severe flood warnings in place, covering the Severn, the Thames and the Great Ouse in Bedford, while 50 other flood warnings are in place across England and Wales.

We believe that up to 10,000 homes have been or could be flooded. Our thoughts are, of course, with all of those whose lives have been so badly affected by the floods. In addition, up to 150,000 properties in the area including Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Cheltenham have lost, or risk losing, mains water, following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury. This loss of water supply is serious and we do not expect houses to have service restored for some days. Severn Trent, the water company, is making provision for some 900 bowsers to be deployed and refilled by tankers for those people without mains water. The company reports that about 240 bowsers are already in place, and priority is being given to hospitals and vulnerable customers. Precautionary notices to boil water have also been issued in Sutton, Surrey, following rain water getting into treated water storage.

Electricity supply is also a concern. A number of local electricity sub-stations have been affected by flood water, and about 45,000 properties have lost power, including at Castle Mead and Tewkesbury. A major national grid switching station at Walham, Gloucester, remains under threat, which could result in 200,000 or more additional properties losing their supply. That would have a knock-on effect on water supplies. Yesterday evening, armed forces personnel were drafted in to help fire service and Environment Agency staff erect a kilometre-long temporary barrier around the site and start pumping out 18 in of flood water behind the barrier. So far those defences are holding, but the water is still rising, so it is touch and go. If the station does flood, the national grid will be used as far as possible, but properties in the affected area will lose power. Contingency planning is under way to ensure continuity of essential supplies and services.

Last night, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of COBR, and today he visited Gloucester. Other ministerial colleagues and I have also been to see the
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problems first hand, in my case visiting Worcester, Evesham and Gloucester yesterday. I am sure that the whole House will wish to thank the emergency services, the armed forces, staff from the Environment Agency, local councils and the utilities, and others for the way in which they have worked together in implementing the emergency plans. I would also like to thank the local communities for their huge effort in helping each other.

Because this emergency continues, I would ask the public to listen out for flood warnings, particularly on local radio stations, to contact the Environment Agency flood line on 0845 9881188, to respond to advice about evacuation and, of course, to look out for neighbours and anyone who might be vulnerable as a result of flooding or the loss of their power and/or water supply. People should not go into flood water and children should certainly not play in it. Even 6 in of fast moving water can knock people off their feet, and the water will often be polluted or hide dangers.

As the waters recede, the clear-up will begin. The revised Bellwin rules will assist local authorities in the areas affected to cover the immediate costs of dealing with the flooding and its aftermath, and the Government will now look at the further support required for these areas. We will also increase funding for flood defences to £800 million by 2010-11, as I informed the House on 2 July.

Finally, the review that I have set up to learn the lessons from the floods of this summer will, of course, look at what has happened over the past three days. I have decided that I will ask an independent person to oversee the review. I will keep the House informed of developments.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and join him in extending our sincere sympathy to the many thousands of people whose homes have been flooded, whose lives have been turned upside down, and whose business premises have been wrecked by the floods. People have had to endure miserable and frightening experiences such as being stuck in their cars overnight, waiting to be rescued from flooded buildings, or camping in temporary accommodation. And, as the Secretary of State said, the problems are not over yet. I also join him in paying tribute to the emergency services, including the Royal Air Force, the fire and ambulance services, local councils and all those who have worked tirelessly in very difficult circumstances to cope with those miserable events.

I have said before that we are not interested in playing a blame game. The extreme weather events that led to the current floods, as well as to those in the north of England last month, are not the Government’s fault. They are a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature. What matters is that everything feasible that could be done to respond to the threat of flooding and to the flooding events themselves was done, is being done and will continue to be done.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient action was taken by the relevant bodies following the Met Office’s severe weather warning, which was specific to the M4 and M5 corridors in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, last Wednesday? The Met Office deserves to be congratulated on this occasion for being absolutely spot-on, but did timely and helpful information filter
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down to the public in the areas concerned? Chief fire officers have commented on institutional confusion between the numerous agencies involved in dealing with floods. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a much clearer line of responsibility for flood prevention and tackling emergencies?

Is the Secretary of State aware that, three years ago, the Government undertook to extend the powers of the Environment Agency to include flooding from drains and sewers by the end of 2006? Will he tell us what has happened to that initiative? There are reports that the Environment Agency was unable to install vital flood defences because they were stored too far away from where they were needed and got caught in the general chaos that made the roads impassable. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that was the case? If so, does he regard it as acceptable?

Huge numbers of people are currently without mains access to fresh drinking water and power. Will the Secretary of State tell us what measures are being taken to ensure that vulnerable people are getting a fair share of access to bottled water? Will he comment on reports that Severn Trent has said that it may take a week or even two to restore fresh water supplies in the Tewkesbury area? Surely it must be possible to speed that up.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s remarks about the efforts to maintain the security of the Walham electricity sub-station. I understand that, were it to fail, it could plunge a further 600,000 or so people into darkness.

Will the Secretary of State clarify who in Government has overall responsibility for dealing with this crisis? There were reports in the press at the weekend that the Prime Minister—it is good to see him in his place this afternoon—had personally taken control of the situation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

On 2 July, I welcomed the announcement that spending on flood defences, which was cut last year, was to receive an extra £200 million in 2010-11; but is there not a case for making that extra money available now? Is there any good reason for the delay?

As the Secretary of State knows, I have previously raised the issue of uninsured losses. I accept that it is still too early to make an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem and how it may affect small businesses and people on low incomes. However, one sector likely to be hard hit is farming. Tens of thousands of acres of arable crops such as wheat have been destroyed and crops like potatoes are rotting in the fields. What consideration has the right hon. Gentleman given to the financial losses to the farming sector and to their implications. I am pleased that the inquiry will be led by an independent person and I look forward to hearing more about it.

Looking ahead, all the scientific evidence suggests that severe weather events are likely to continue increasing in frequency and ferocity. That is consistent with climate change.

Will the Secretary of State hold urgent discussions with the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Transport about the priority accorded by local authorities and the highways agencies
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towards the mundane but essential work of properly maintaining drains and culverts?

While the right hon. Gentleman is talking to the Communities Secretary, will he raise the possibility of extending the Bellwin scheme to cover capital spending programmes arising from flood damage? Local authorities are understandably very anxious to obtain reassurance from the Government that the medium and long-term costs of reconstruction and repair will not fall only on their local residents. He might also point out to the Communities Secretary that although there is broad agreement that more affordable homes are needed, nobody will thank the Government for building homes that are subject to flooding and are uninsurable—least of all the people who move into them.

Finally, all our thoughts are currently concentrated on relieving the plight of the victims of these dreadful floods and on preventing further disasters as the tide of water moves westward. We want to offer our support to the efforts of the Government and their agencies to deal with the imminent dangers, just as our local councils are working in close partnership with them on the ground. However, the Secretary of State will know that, once the waters recede and people begin the long process of rebuilding their lives, many searching and awkward questions about the adequacy of the systems in place in this country to deal with emergencies will remain to be answered.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his appreciation of the efforts made in response to this emergency and for the spirit in which he made his remarks. I would like to pick up the points that he raised.

First, yes, the Met Office warning was pretty clear, but as the Gold Commander told me yesterday morning in Worcester, we do not know precisely which river catchment systems the rain will fall into until it actually happens. That certainly applied in respect of the M5 and the M50. We should bear it in mind that these are relatively new motorways, built to try and accommodate the removal of surface water. That shows one of the lessons that we have to reflect on as we design such roads in the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred to institutional confusion, but I have to say that in all my discussions, including at meetings that I have chaired and talks with the Gold Commanders in Worcester and Gloucester, I have not found any institutional confusion at all. The system in place is the Gold Command system, which has complete oversight of what is required in the areas covered. The emergency response has included the evacuation of people, bringing supplies in and providing help and support—such as offering shelter even for some motorists who found themselves trapped because they could not travel on Friday evening. All of that happened precisely because of the arrangements that have been put in place.

On the two barriers, it is the case that temporary barriers for Upton upon Severn and Worcester could not be deployed because of traffic congestion. In the case of the Upton upon Severn barrier, I am advised by the Environment Agency that even if it had been deployed, it would have been over-topped because of the weight of the water. In the case of Worcester, it would have protected about 30 homes. I accept that one
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of the lessons that needs to be learned is that if there are temporary barriers, they ought to be stored in a place that will enable them to be put up quickly. I will take that thought away with me.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point on the availability of water supplies. Local authorities, together with the water company and, indeed, the general public, all have a part to play in ensuring that everybody who requires water will have it made available to them. On the Mythe water treatment works, I have asked the very question that the hon. Gentleman put to me of the chief executive of the Severn Trent company when I spoke to him late yesterday evening. I have said that we will give any assistance that he requires to get access to the Mythe water treatment plant once the water level falls so that the work of repairing it can happen.

On the Environment Agency, there has been, as the hon. Gentleman knows because we discussed this last time, no cut to the capital budget. Some feasibility studies were held back for a bit because of the reduction in the budget, but that has been made up this year. It has had no effect at all on the response to the flooding over the past month. The additional funding that I announced to the House will come on stream. The precise details will be announced once the comprehensive spending comes out. It will have to take account of the fact that as those feasibility studies come in place, there will be a programme of capital works that the Environment Agency itself will want to fund.

I am acutely conscious of the distress caused not only to members of the public because of what has happened to their houses and businesses, but to farmers. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the steps that I have already taken to lift the restriction on accessing water-logged land, which applies until the end of this month—I will review it in light of the current weather conditions—and to enable farmers to ask for access to set-aside land for grazing or foraging in the light of the damage caused to their crops, although many of them are still under water.

As for looking ahead, the whole question of surface water drainage is a big one. The truth is that we are dealing with a system that has been in place for more than 150 years, and the surface water drainage system was not designed to cope with the unprecedented rainfall that we have been seeing. The most important lesson we can learn is that as we build from now on in we ensure that drainage can accommodate the flow of water that we currently see.

As for the Bellwin rules, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that they were extended in response to the flooding that took place at the end of June. Those extensions were applied by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Saturday to the local authorities affected. Capital work—repairs to possible damage to bridges and other structures—will be a matter for the individual Departments that are responsible for agreeing capital funding and approvals to discuss with the relevant local authorities.

Finally, a lot of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised and the questions that I and others have got about what can be done better in future will be picked up by the review. I am grateful to him for welcoming the fact that an independent person will oversee it.

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Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): We also wish to express our sympathy to all of those affected by the floods. They are severe and there has been an enormous amount of hardship caused for many, many people. We also wish to join in the congratulations offered to the emergency services and, indeed, to join in the pride that the House should rightly feel in their dedication and devotion to duty.

An independent review of the lessons to be learned from these events is surely welcome. Will the Secretary of State also confirm that he intends to proceed with the strategic overview for the Environment Agency of all flood risks, which the Government announced in March 2005? There is a confusion between what has been a good set of co-ordinated responses through Gold Command by the emergency services and the much less clear response of the agencies responsible for the prevention, forecasting and warning of flooding. After all, that commitment in March 2005 was before the revolving ministerial door in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took its toll. Ministers should now proceed with this.

Is it not crazy that the responsibility for preventing floods and for protecting us against flooding remains split between councils, water companies, the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency, all of which operate on different assessments of risk? Perhaps the Secretary of State will clarify that point.

Drainage is assessed as adequate when it deals with one-in-10-years events; river flood defences are expected to be proof against one-in-100-years events. When will the Department insist that those be brought into line, while, we hope, clearly taking account of what is happening because of climate change? When will the Department ensure that there is a proper map of drainage and sewerage systems that are poorly maintained or otherwise inadequate?

It is already clear that official assessments of river flooding are now woefully behind reality. For example, the new £23 million flood defence on the River Chelt at Cheltenham was meant to be proof against events once in every hundred years, yet it has been over-topped not once but twice in three weeks. On that reckoning, either the Environment Agency has to redo its sums or Cheltenham need not expect another flood for 200 years. Will the Secretary of State now review all existing provisions and future ones as, clearly, the greater likelihood of flooding means that many more schemes will pass the Government’s investment threshold?

The Prime Minister, whom I am delighted to see in his place, has to take particular responsibility for the Government’s flood failures, as he was the person who cut the flood defence budget by £14 million last summer. There is no point in saying that the capital budget was not affected; those are weasel words. The truth is that the overall flood defence budget was cut and effecting feasibility studies meant that capital projects are likely to be delayed. If he doubts that, I suggest he talks to some of the people involved with the flood board in Yorkshire and Humberside.

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