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A total of 140,000 properties remain without mains water following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury. Distribution of water is now the priority. Since yesterday, Severn Trent has deployed about 500 bowsers, and the company says that that will rise to 900 by tomorrow morning. Eighty tankers are available to keep those bowsers and static tanks topped up, and a further 20 tankers are being organised under mutual aid agreements. Three million litres of bottled water a day are being made available, and the Army is helping with distribution. Priority is being given to hospitals and vulnerable groups. Advice is being issued to householders on how to cope with the
loss of mains water supply. Severn Trent does not expect full water supply to be restored for some days. However, it hopes to gain access to the Mythe works today to assess the situation and to make a start on putting a flood barrier around the works to enable water to be pumped out. That should allow work to start on restoring the plant as soon as possible.
I am only too aware, as are all Members of the House, of the very considerable human distress that many people are experiencing, with homes and businesses ruined. I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary community effort as people are helping their neighbours. The Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), visited Gloucester and Tewkesbury today, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) was in Reading this morning.
I informed the House yesterday that the revised Bellwin rules will assist local authorities in the areas affected to cover the costs of dealing with the flooding and its immediate aftermath. I can today tell the House that the Government will supplement the existing £14 million flood recovery grant fund with up to a further £10 million, which will be made available to affected local authorities on the same basis.
Finally, I will be holding a briefing meeting for Members of Parliament of constituencies affected in the Moses Room at 5.30 pm today. Officials from the Environment Agency, civil contingencies unit and other departments will be there to provide further details of what is being done, to answer questions, and to pick up particular issues that I know Members will wish to raise. I hope that this will be helpful.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the increase in the flood recovery grant fundalthough in the greater scheme of things, it does not look like it will go very far.
The whole House will be very relieved to hear about the better situation at Walham, and I know that the Secretary of State will wish to keep us informed as matters progress on that front. I thank him for the way in which he has not only kept the House informed of events so far but gone out of his way to keep in touch with hon. Members whose constituencies have been badly affected by these events.
Once again, our first thoughts are with the thousands of people whose lives remain on hold as a result of these terrible floods, and with the emergency services and local authorities who are continuing the struggle to contain the problem and to mitigate its impact on local communities. I am pleased to report to the Secretary of State that experience and feedback from our own Conservative-controlled local authorities is that the relationship with the Government and their agencies on the ground, in dealing with the immediate crisis, is working pretty well. I also pay tribute to the local media in the affected areas, particularly local radio stations, which have become a vital source of information and advice.
As the Secretary of State said, the immediate crisis is by no means over, as the surge in the Thames heads eastwards into Berkshire, threatening further destruction,
and many thousands of people in Gloucestershire remain without access to fresh mains drinking water. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) advises me that there have been problems with the delivery of bowsers to people without mains water. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that that situation is now properly managed? My hon. Friend also tells me that food supplies in the town are running low, as it remains cut off from the surrounding road and rail network. Are there emergency plans in place to deal with food shortages if they start occurring?
It is becoming increasingly clear, I am afraid, that last years £14 million cut to the Environment Agencys maintenance budget, together with a general failure to maintain watercourses, may have played a part in increasing the risk of flooding in the latest floods and in the floods in the north last month. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that that issue will be addressed by the independent inquiry? These events have posed serious questions about the vulnerability of our public infrastructure. Will he ensure that the inquiry also looks at the siting and resilience of key water and electricity installations? One lesson is already clear: it is folly to build water and power plants in places where they can be taken out by floods.
The devastating impact on farmland, and the knock-on consequences for food prices, is becoming clear. I strongly endorse the suggestion made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) that the floods make it all the more essential to speed up payments from the Rural Payments Agency. Given the increased risk of extreme weather events, it is essential that our systems and structures are fit for purpose to meet the challenge. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in the next review of water prices, Ofwat takes proper account of the need for water companies to upgrade the physical capacity of their networks? Of course nobody wants to pay higher bills, but recent events have dramatically illustrated the huge costs to the wider community of underfunding investment in water infrastructure.
On costs, has the Secretary of State applied yet to the European Union solidarity fund for assistance? Will he undertake an urgent assessment of the likely total cost to public funds of repairing or replacing damaged infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, and railway assets, and buildings, such as schools and hospitals? Will he also resolve the uncertainty as to how that work is going to be paid for? Will he clarify the maximum amount that an individual council can apply for under the Bellwin scheme?
As I said yesterday, we welcome the announcement of an independent lessons-learned review, rather than the originally planned review that was to be conducted by the Cabinet Office. However, is the Secretary of State aware that a review of exactly the same name was carried out after the floods in 2000, and that it reported in March 2001? In the light of todays crisis, is it not fair to ask whether lessons from that review were actually learned? In fact, will the Secretary of State make an early statement on how many of the various recommendations from previous lessons-learned inquiries have been implemented? So far, we have identified at least 25 different reports published since 2000 by public authorities, Departments and Select
Committees, all of which have made recommendations and issued warnings about our countrys readiness for extreme floods.
Once the floods are finally over, and the media interest has moved on, local communities will be left with the lonely and miserable task of clearing up, and people will be left trying to piece together a semblance of normal life. It is likely that many will effectively remain homeless for months. Will the Secretary of State consider supporting an initiative to put those who are now in emergency accommodation in touch with others who are generously offering to house them? Above all, local councils and people with flooded homes are worried that, with the holiday season approaching, they will be left to cope with the aftermath on their own and with inadequate resources. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that there is no let-up in support for the flood-stricken areas in the coming months?
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the additional funding, which is of course in addition to finance that will be made available under the Bellwin scheme. There is no maximum to the Bellwin scheme; once a local authority goes above the threshold, 100 per cent. of the costs of dealing with the immediate aftermath is made available for up to six months. I am also pleased to hear from him that in his experience, and that of other hon. and right hon. Members, the emergency co-ordination arrangements have worked pretty well on the ground. That reflects my experience, as I told the House yesterday, and it demonstrates the degree of planning that has gone into ensuring that those services work effectively when such events occur.
On the question of water bowsers, I spoke to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) about water distributionlast night, I think; a lot has been happening. We are keeping a close eye on the issue because I know from talking to the Gold Commander late yesterday evening that everyone on the ground is anxious that the promised number of bowsers materialise in the right places. That is the responsibility of the Severn Trent water company. We are continuing to follow that up, which is why the armed forces are helping with the distribution of water. I have already raised the question of food supplies in relation to Tewkesbury because I got a message earlier today from the hon. Gentleman, and we will have an opportunity shortly to follow that matter up with those responsible for the operations, in the briefing to which I have already alluded.
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is absolutely right on the matter of public infrastructure, and we discussed that yesterday. Of course, one of the lessons is to look at appropriate siting and protection of infrastructurefor obvious reasons. Water treatment plants, such as Mythe, which was already lifted above the side of the river, have to be located next to rivers because that is where they draw their water from. It is evident that big bits of infrastructure and, in some cases, small pumps, might be taken out, but cannot therefore do their job. Those lessons need to be learned.
On farming and the impact of the flooding on many farmers, we are in contact with the National Farmers Union. I take the hon. Gentlemans point, which the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made yesterday about the Rural Payments Agency. We are keen to try to speed up the way in which the RPA works, but, as I said yesterday, the most important thing for me is to keep the promises that we have made and look to improve performance in the light of what has happened.
On infrastructure, it will not yet be possible to know whether some bridges have been so badly damaged that they need extensive repairs or replacement. As I said yesterday, those decisions will have to be made in consultation with the relevant Department.
The hon. Member for East Surrey is right that there have been several reports and recommendations. Let me say a word about Making space for water. We set up that programme in 2004 precisely because the Government realised that the complex co-ordination of the response to surface-water flooding and river flooding was a problem. The Government response was made in 2005. The coastal overview has already been announced and is going ahead. We aim to have policy decisions on the inland overview in place by 2009, but we wrote to all the stakeholdersthe Environment Agency, water companies, local authorities, drainage boards, flood forums, the Association of British Insurers; all the bodies that have an interest in dealing with flooding and surface-water drainageto say that we were considering giving the Environment Agency a strategic overview and asking for their views. Fifteen urban drainage pilots are already starting and the next step is to consider risk mapping. As I said yesterday, the interim results of the review will help inform that.
On the hon. Gentlemans last point about housing, I am sure that local councils have heard his commentsand what is doubtless being said in local areasabout peoples willingness to provide accommodation to those who have been displaced. I will ensure that that is raised.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for their tremendous efforts and for personally telephoning me to keep me in touch and hear my concerns. I also pay tribute to the people who saved Walham power station, which was crucial.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) mentioned the problems with bowsers. We do not have enough and I should like to mention the areas that are deprived of water. They are: Deerhurst, Apperley, Sandhurst, Hucclecote, Twyning, Dumbleton, Southam, Toddington, Oxenton, Great Witcombe, Brockworth and Snowshilland, indeed, Northway, despite what the website says. That is a long list of villages in my area that do not have enough water. I am informed that there are large tankers at Ashchurch barracks, which could be used if a direction were given to the Army at the barracks. I understand that it is waiting for a decision. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State looked into that urgently.
I also hear reports that two premature babies were airlifted out of the area but died on the way to hospital as a result of the floods. I understand that another person is missing. Those are the tragic circumstances that we face in Tewkesbury. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to consider whether the recess could be delayed. I know that that will not be popular, but, given the circumstances, I ask the Prime Minister to consider whether a delay to the recess would be in order, or at the very least, the same access to Ministers as they have been good enough to make available so far.
Hilary Benn: On the bowsers, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can attend the briefing at 5.30 pm. If he cannot, will he please give me a list of all the locations so that I can take it with me to the meeting and relay it so that action can be taken?
Secondly, the whole House will very much regret what happened on Saturday morning when a pregnant woman in Tewkesbury requested medical assistance. When it became clear that the paramedics would not be able to reach her because of the floods, RAF search and rescue was called and a helicopter carrying an experienced paramedic was immediately diverted to the scene. The mother and the unborn babies were taken to Cheltenham general hospital, but sadly the babies did not survive.
On the hon. Gentlemans final point, I give him an absolute guarantee that Ministers will remain accessible even though the House has risen. I hope that the contact and the relationship that has been establishedit is a practical relationship, to try to deal with the practical circumstances that all hon. Members representing constituencies affected are trying to deal withwill continue whether the House is sitting or not.
Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches would like to join others both in expressing sympathy for those affected and in praising the emergency services. The staff who saved the operation of the Walham switching station are due for particular congratulation. It is also good news that an assessment of the Mythe works is under way. I understand the difficulties in doing this, but will the Secretary of State give an indication of the likely timescale for bringing Mythe back into operation, however tentative that assessment might be? Coming hot foot from his constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has just informed me that flooding seems to have started in Oxford. I wonder whether the Secretary of State was aware of that and whether he can say anything about the potential in that area, because he was clearly not anticipating any significant extra flood damage further down in Oxfordshire.
What arrangements will the Government now make to protect critical infrastructure, such as the national grid switching stations and water treatment plants in other areas, should we unfortunately face similarly enormous inundations over the rest of the summer? How many sites throughout the country are at risk of facing the same sort of problems as those that the Walham switching station and Mythe water treatment works have faced? Can he make a tentative first assessment? How many pumping stations are at risk of
encountering the same kind of flooding and inoperability that might have occurred during recent events, and which certainly did occur in Hull? As the emergency enters its fifth day, can he assure us that the emergency services are receiving proper back-up from outside the counties affected, so that their no doubt exhausted staff can be given proper breaks and time for recuperation?
On the strategic overview...the sensible course of action is to reflect on that in light of the review that will be undertaken.[ Official Report, 23 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 569.]
Do I understand from his answer to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that preparations and the continuation of that policy will in fact continue, as he seemed to imply today? After all, the delays seem unjustified, given the 2004 consultation exercise to which the Secretary of State referred, Making space for water. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government of which he was a part at that time stated that the
Extension of EA strategic role to other forms of flooding and coastal erosionlegislative and organisational considerations
The existing legislation that governs urban drainage has resulted (unintentionally) in an over complex system with diverse responsible bodies.
responsibilities are unclear and at times conflicting?
What happened to the Governments efforts to deal with the problem? Why did they fail to deliver? Was it because of the wholesale change in ministerial staff, which has meant that there has been no follow-through? Does the Secretary of State accept that moving every Ministeror, indeed, sacking Ministersis no way to run a Department, as there is then no political or institutional memory from March 2005? What is the point of participation in a consultation exercise or a review if it leads to precisely nothing? What arrangements has the Secretary of State now put in place to ensure that when his Department says that it is going to do something, it actually does it?
Chris Huhne: Will the Secretary of State confirm that those cuts worsened the situation found by the National Audit Office when it reported that the Environment Agency had failed to meet its target of maintaining 63 per cent. of Englands flood defences in target condition?
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