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The local flood boards were asked only last month to plan for real-terms cuts for the next three years. Even after the Yorkshire floods, the Treasury conceded only that the flood defence budget should be boosted in
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2010—as the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said—while saying nothing about the next two years of the spending plans.

I heard the Secretary of State say that we should wait for the comprehensive spending review, but surely the urgency of the situation demands that we get some clarity about the Government’s intentions earlier than that. Is it not time that the Government recognised the urgency of the threat posed by climate change?

Hilary Benn: On the last point, the Government certainly realise the scale of the threat from climate change. One cannot attribute a particular incident to climate change, but it is clear that the climate is changing and that human activity is causing that. We are likely, the scientists tell us, to see extreme weather events with greater frequency. We are talking about a huge excess of water here; in other parts of the world, there are droughts. That is the future with which the whole world must deal.

On the strategic overview, I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that the sensible course of action is to reflect on that in light of the review that will be undertaken, which will need to look at a number of the points that he raised, of which I am aware. On the different bodies that are responsible for drainage systems, it is surely right and proper that each body that maintains the asset should have the responsibility of ensuring that it is in an appropriate condition. We must ensure that we look at how all the different pieces connect because surface water drainage may be the responsibility of the Highways Agency, the local authority or some private landowner. We will have to reflect on that as part of the review.

On the over-topping of the defences, even the best defences have been over-topped. As we speak, the new defences at Gloucester Quay, built some years ago, are about 4 in away from being over-topped. Everyone is waiting anxiously to see whether the peak will be reached without breaching that defence or not, but that is the result of investment that has already been made. There are new defences at Kidderminster, Newport Pagnell and Towcester and the new Jubilee river has been brought into play. It is, in effect, a flood relief bypass for Maidenhead in particular. It has not stopped all flooding in Maidenhead, but it has resulted in some pressure being taken off the Thames.

On the flood defence budget, I simply say that it was £300 million a year about a decade ago, that it has risen to £600 million and that it will rise further to £800 million. Le me also repeat that what happened to last year’s Environment Agency budget has not affected the capacity of the EA or the defences to deal with the current flooding. The money was restored and, as I told the House two weeks ago, we will significantly increase it. We need to do that because of the weather that we now have to deal with.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am mindful that many Members wish to contribute, but I am also aware that there are two further statements to follow and the main business of the House. I therefore
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request that Members ask only one supplementary question. If they are also answered briefly, more Members will be able to ask questions.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): May I first thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for visiting Gloucestershire? I also pay due regard to the emergency services, and to my neighbours in Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham who have obviously suffered more than I have in Stroud—although my visits over the weekend to properties made it clear to me that the situation in general is miserable.

On local co-ordination, it is a nice idea that we can rely on amateurs to open sluice gates and people to take seriously their riparian ownership, but it takes only one failure for the entire system to go wrong. I ask my right hon. Friend to look into that matter, and the operation of inland drainage boards. We could learn lessons from such investigations, and improve the effective, speedy, local action that is required in circumstances such as those we face.

Hilary Benn: I am very happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that that is one of the issues that the review will look into.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Although the Prime Minister has just left the Chamber, I wish to thank him for visiting the affected area this morning and to say that I entirely agree with his conclusion that we need to update the infrastructure. We also need to stop building houses on or near floodplains and to ensure that drains are clear and that emergency measures can be undertaken rather more quickly than they were on this occasion.

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the people of Tewkesbury for showing great strength during this terrible time? My constituency has been absolutely devastated. Only yesterday I personally helped people in wheelchairs leave their flooded flats—some properties might not have been given the right priority. Questions on such matters are perhaps for the future, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the most pressing task is to ensure that there is no loss of life and no injuries, and will he make sure that agencies have all the resources they need?

Hilary Benn: I certainly join in the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to all his constituents for their efforts and his expressions of sympathy to all who have been so badly affected. I know that this is a difficult time. From the beginning of the crisis, I have said to everyone I have met who is in charge of the emergency response that they should let us know of any further resources that they might need. I also ask the hon. Gentleman and all other Members—I met some on Saturday evening—to contact me about all relevant circumstances or events in their constituency because I want to make sure that every support is given.

In terms of floodplains, there will be an announcement on housing development to follow, but let me say that we strengthened in 2001 and then again, and more significantly, in 2006 the advice on that through the planning policy statement. It is clear that local authorities must now take into account flood risk in taking decisions
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on planning applications and the EA now has a statutory right to be consulted—it is the expert on flood risk and it will express its view.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The situation in Oxfordshire is very serious, and in Oxford it threatens to get worse as the Thames rises. Will he take note that the message I received from elderly evacuees at the Oxford United stadium reception centre, and from others I spoke to on my visit, is that the emergency response in Oxfordshire has been very effectively co-ordinated by the county’s emergency planning officer, the statutory agencies and volunteers, and moreover that the steps being taken are reassuring people who are desperately worried?

My right hon. Friend mentioned a review. I welcome the fact that it will be independent. Will he give the House some idea of the time scale it will work to, as it is important that the right lessons are learned?

Hilary Benn: I am glad to hear that from my right hon. Friend’s perspective the emergency response has been so effective. That does show the benefits of the planning that has been put in place and the structures that are operational. I hope that an initial report from the review will be available by the end of the year. The emergency phase comes first, and then looking at some of the longer term lessons from the clean-up. It is important, however, that we have a first look as quickly as possible, and that is what I will ask the independent person to do.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): What is the point of having flood defences that are not used when they are most needed? That was certainly the case at Upton upon Severn, despite what the Secretary of State says—and much to the distress of my constituents who are still stranded there now. Will he ensure that the Upton mistakes are part of the remit of the independent review that he has announced?

Hilary Benn: As I have already said to the hon. Gentleman, the Environment Agency very much regrets that in those two cases it was not able to get the temporary barriers through, although—as he heard me say a moment ago—even if they had been erected, the advice I have had from the agency is that it would not have made any difference, because they would have been over-topped in any case. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point: if there are temporary barriers, it is important that they are capable of being put up. I undertake that we will look at the situation to ensure that that does not happen again.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): When natural disasters of the severity that we have witnessed over the past few weeks occur in other parts of the world, the British public are extraordinarily generous in their offers of help. Can my right hon. Friend say if he is aware of arrangements to receive and harness offers of help from the British public, and will he give some consideration as to how the Government can encourage and support individuals and organisations to offer money, time and even temporary accommodation to people at this difficult time, in addition to whatever insurers and the Government are doing?

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Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the natural human response when other human beings are in trouble, which is to extend a helping hand. In the case of the flooding that we saw in Yorkshire and Humberside, several funds were established to provide support to those who lost everything. It is early days in the present case, but I am sure that local communities will want to take the same sort of initiative to provide support to people who have lost a great deal. We would encourage them to do so.

As for physical assistance, one of the benefits of the planning that has been put in place is the way in which emergency services from other parts of the country have come in. I talked to fire crews and other crews, and the system works well, especially for boat rescue. One of the most impressive things that I saw yesterday was at the new fire control centre in Worcester, which is co-ordinating the boat rescue facilities from around the country, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and other fire and rescue services, to deploy them where needed to bring succour and support to people who have suffered so much.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his visit yesterday to my constituents in Evesham, a town that has had its second dramatic flooding event in only nine years, and for enabling me to join him in his visit to Gold Command at Hindlip hall in Worcestershire. We were able to discuss issues of mutual concern and to congratulate the emergency services on the remarkable job that they have done in Worcestershire. I join him in saying that the co-ordination in the county was outstanding. However, the rain of course fell on the boundary of two if not three Government regions, and we also heard concern expressed about a problem with cross-regional co-operation. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the independent review will take proper account of the cross-regional issues, which could make a big difference to future flooding events?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and for the time that he spent yesterday morning, in addition to all the work that he and many other right hon. and hon. Members have done to support their constituents. He raises an important point, and, as part of the process, some of the new national arrangements have come into place. However, we need to ensure that if an emergency falls in an area that does not fit neatly in Government office regions or the Gold Command structures, the right people meet together to make things happen. That is another lesson that we need to learn.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take into account the experience of the residents of Moresby close in Swindon, whose homes first flooded in 2004? Ever since my election, I have been working with them to try to get Thames Water, the local council and the Environment Agency to work together to find a solution to the problem of the culvert that frequently floods their houses. Together, we helplessly watched sewage bubble up through the drains and lap at their garages on Friday. It was not pleasant, and solving this problem has taken too long. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that the independent review makes the agencies work together faster?

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Hilary Benn: I cannot promise that the independent review will look at each individual case of flooding risk in that way, but as I indicated in answer to an earlier question, it will look at the broader point of ensuring that there is a co-ordinated overview of what the different agencies need to do.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On 16 September 2004, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), will recall, the Select Committee requested a White Paper from the Government giving details of how they would deal with the type of extreme event and flooding that we have now experienced. In the light of the non-appearance of that White Paper, may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that when the independent review reports and the Government make their response, that response has the status of a White Paper?

Hilary Benn: I will reflect on the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. What I am most interested in, and what I know that he is most interested in, is ensuring that the lessons, once learned, are applied so that we can deal even more effectively with such emergencies in future. Certainly, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has helped to put in place arrangements that several hon. Members have said are working quite well, and we have to ensure that we get on and make the right things happen once we know what we can do better in future.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): My constituency is about to be flooded for the second time in four days. On Friday there were serious problems with surface water flooding, as the drainage culverts simply lacked the capacity to cope with the increased volumes of water. Tonight, the Thames in Berkshire will burst its banks, causing misery for hundreds of families. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the drainage systems are upgraded to increase capacity and that more money is spent on flood defences where they can make a difference?

Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend will have heard, we certainly will be spending more money on flood defence. Let me also say that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), is going to visit Reading tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) raises an important point about surface water. In part, the problem is a consequence of the fact that more land has been tarmacked over and paved over, so there is nowhere for the water to go when there is flash flooding. That is a lesson that all those with responsibility for surface drainage have to take on board.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): May I also congratulate the emergency services and everyone from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Gold Command and even BBC Radio Gloucestershire for their contribution to making the crisis in Gloucestershire less serious than it would have been? I also thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the personal interest that they have shown. However, may I ask the Secretary of State to ask the Environment Agency to extend its inquiry to the June floods in Cheltenham? May I also
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ask him to include in his own review some examination of why so much damage was done in Cheltenham in areas of relatively high ground close to culverts and drains? In one case, a stream that was normally a few inches deep rose 15 ft and inundated nearby homes.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words, and for his thanks. I will ask the Environment Agency, in reflecting on those lessons, to respond both to me and to him.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): In Sheffield we had our floods three weeks ago, and one of the sites that I visited at the invitation of National Grid was the Neepsend transformer station, which was flooded, leaving several thousands of homes without electricity on a rotational basis. Furthermore, if the Ulley dam had burst its banks, the Brinsworth transformer station could have gone down, which would have left whole sections of Sheffield and Rotherham without electricity for several days. Could I have an assurance that the Secretary of State will ask the review to look at the vulnerability of our electricity supply system and the lack of back-up when a transformer system goes down?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes a really important point. One thing that is very clear as a result of these recent events is just how vulnerable is the ecosystem of utility services—if I may use that phrase. One bit goes out, and there is a knock-on consequence; the power goes, and it is not possible to pump the water. By definition, water treatment plants need to be by a river because that is where they get the water from. The Mythe plant has not flooded before, as far as I am aware—I asked the chief executive about that last night. The plant is raised on the side of the river, but, even there it was overwhelmed. Looking at what arrangements are in place in future to ensure that utilities can be protected from this kind of event will be an important part of the review.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): In the cost-benefit analysis of flood defence work, one of the crucial factors is, quite rightly, the probability of a flood taking place. In my constituency we have had two “one-in-30-years” floods in the past nine years, and that is common, certainly in the west midlands. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can assure us that in his review, that formula will be reconsidered, because projects that did not look viable on a one-in-30-years basis may well have a very considerable positive value on a one-in-10-years basis.

Hilary Benn: I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I should be very content to ask the review to look at that very question.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I look ahead some hours and days, and ask what is the prognosis for managing the build-up of water in the Thames as it comes through areas such as Runnymede, Spelthorne and Elmbridge, hits Teddington and goes beyond that into the tidal area of the Thames, past this building and into my own area on the Thames estuary? Can we have some reassurance that those waters can
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and will be managed, and if not, what is being done to alert the various authorities, both in the non-tidal Thames and in my area of Essex and opposite in Kent?

Hilary Benn: Clearly, those managing the watercourses, the river and the defences in place will do their best to ensure that flooding is minimised. Clearly, the existence of the Thames barrier, which protects a large part of London which is, of course, built on a floodplain, will also help. Below the Thames barrier things are more difficult. Further up, one of the things that the Thames barrier could do is to close up to allow some further relief for the water to pass down the system, to try to take the pressure off the Thames in its upper reaches.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): In Herefordshire, particularly, and in Worcestershire, these summer floods are the worst in living memory. My own car was flooded, and I had to carry my daughter to safety on my shoulders through chest-deep water. The Secretary of State asks for suggestions about what could be done. The people of Tenbury Wells in my constituency have been flooded three times, twice in the past week. I do not know what the answer is for them, but I do know that he can look again at his plans for the single farm payment, because the fields that are flooded were full of crops, and if he could get at least 80 per cent. to the farming community before Christmas, he would have a tremendous impact on what is going to happen to the rural community.

Hilary Benn: I understand. I am sorry to hear about the personal circumstances that the hon. Gentleman, like many members of the public, found himself in. With the single farm payment, because of what has happened in the past, as he will be aware, what I am most anxious to do is to ensure that the targets that we have set are met. The worst thing would be to set targets that might not be achieved. But I have said that in the autumn, as we see what further progress is being made by the Rural Payments Agency, we will look into whether further targets can be set, but I do not want to do that until I can review the situation.

May I take this opportunity, since I know how many Members, particularly Opposition Members, have been affected, to express my thanks to the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) for the very considerable assistance that was given over the weekend to enable myself and my ministerial colleagues to contact right hon. and hon. Members?

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): My constituency is not a floodplain, but it has recently experienced two very serious flash-flooding episodes. My right hon. Friend has said that existing drainage systems will be looked at. Will he also insist that those undertaking the review plead with local authority planning departments to regulate properly new developments that link into the existing drainage systems, and please ask them to clean their grids more regularly?

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