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I should like to associate myself with my hon. Friends earlier remarks about all those whom he thanked. I should also like to thank the ministerial team, who played a significant role in keeping us informed. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; the
problem now is defining and redefining the floodplain, but also recognising the fact that where building is allowed can sometimes have an impact on other places further downstream. That is very worrying. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that, when an application is proposed, we need to look not only at the impact on the immediate area but at the impact further down the river, the brook or whatever.
There are areas of Tewkesbury, such as the Wheatpieces estate and the Stonehills estate, of which people said, Well, there you are, they didnt flood. It wasnt a problem. That misses the point entirely. The next estate, Priors Park estate, was very badly flooded. We are also losing gardens. Houses are being built on gardens, which are defined as brownfield sites, and that land loses the ability to soak up water.
That raises the question of why so many houses are needed. I do not want to go through all the issues. We know about ageing populations, about couples separating, about people wanting more than one house, and about immigrationwe have had net immigration of well over a million in the past 10 years. All those factors put pressure on the housing situation, and we have to think about this very sensibly.
Unbelievably, there are proposals from the regional spatial strategy in my constituency to build thousands of houses north of Gloucester and north of Cheltenham. That is asking for trouble, and the proposal must be rejected. We must find a better way forward, and better places to put the houses. We cannot build thousands of houses in the areas that have suffered so badly over the past few weeks.
When we have to build houses, the builders should have a greater responsibility to ensure that the drainage system is adequate. In answer to my parliamentary question number 146214, the Minister helpfully replied but his answer was not strong enough. Things need tightening up. We also need to ensure that ditches and drains are cleared regularly, and that they are repaired when necessary. I had some displaced people living with me for a while; they were delightful. They lived much higher up than me, but their house, unlike mine, had flooded because their drains did not work. In fact, they had worked in reverse and thrown the water out into the property. I accept that that was an exceptional time, but in many cases, the drains were simply inadequate and the ditches were not cleaned.
We need to draw up a list of priority people and priority buildings, so that we can help more quickly in times of difficulty. I went for a walkabout on the Sunday, and I came across some sheltered accommodation. Nobody had been there, and water was surrounding the buildings. It was coming up through the floors of the flats, and we had to push people out in their wheelchairs to avoid what could have been a terrible situation. We then had to wait for ambulances and police cars to arrive. This place was called Lanes Court in Priors Park, the estate that I mentioned earlier. Nobody had been round to check up on it; it had not registered on anyones radar screen. There was no emergency relief for those people.
Under central guidance on the requirements of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, it is the responsibility of all the statutorily designated Category 1 responders, including local authorities, emergency services, Primary Care Trusts and the Environment Agency to identify and make plans to assist vulnerable people in any emergency.[ Official Report, 26 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 1523W.]
Well, in spite of what I am sure were the best efforts of all involved, that did not happen. It certainly did happen to some extent, but many people, such as those whom I have just mentioned, did not get rescued until they happened to be stumbled across. Many old and disabled people had bottled water brought to their houses, but that did not happen across the board. There were still many vulnerable people.
The fire and rescue service made an absolutely tremendous effort, but I do not think that it was quite prepared for a disaster of this scale in terms of the number of its officers who have been trained to carry out rescue operations in water. Some are trained to do that and did an excellent job. Others also did an excellent job, but we need to reflect more on whether there are enough fire rescue officers trained in that particular line of service.
I spoke to the chief constable of Gloucestershire this morning about the tri-service centre. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Stroud is no longer in his place, as I hoped that he would agree with me about it. On 20 July, the emergency services people were able to talk to each other immediately at the operational level. Nothing needed to be set up: they managed the emergency very well indeed and it would not have been as effective if it had had to be managed regionally. The local emergency people all knew the local council people, people from the utilities, MPs and so forth. It is interesting to note that when the merger of police forces was first discussed, relevant documents observed that a force as small as Gloucestershires would not be able to handle an emergency on this scale. In fact, the force handled it very well indeed. I thus make a plea for the tri-service centre to be retained. It is working well and should be allowed to continue to do so.
As to securing water and electricity supplies, which the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, we have to ensure that the Mythe water works, located close to my home, is protected. We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of people to lose their drinking water again. In respect of the Walham electricity worksone sub-station apparently serves 600,000it cannot be right to put people into such a vulnerable position. I understand that Hesco bastions, which are protective borders, have been put around the Mythe works on a temporary basis, with the possibility of them becoming permanent, but I have to say that this is not rocket science. It should be simple to provide those protections, which must become permanent at Mythe, Walham and elsewhere.
We also need to secure a network of alternative supplies. It is strange that so many people who could lose their water supplies are dependent on just one service or one water treatment plant. When the Prime Minister went there during the crisis, his first remarks were something like, This is rather an old building or
an old service station, isnt it? Well, he had a good point. The plant usually works very well and the people employed there work hard, but so many peoples water should not be dependent on one particular water treatment plant and the same applies to electricity.
I want to touch on the role of Severn Trent. It is perhaps understandable that it was totally overwhelmed by what happened. However, it operatesI suppose inevitablyas a monopoly, so it is in a different position. People cannot choose to go elsewhere for their water. A great deal of anger was directed at Severn Trent: some of it may not have been justified, but I can certainly understand quite a lot of it. I suggest that Severn Trent should be more a part of the community and should update its emergency planning. There was a tremendous effort in Tewkesbury to get bowsers and bottles of water to everybody. I believe that we ended up with most of the available bowsers in the country, so what would have happened if there had been a similar emergency somewhere else in the country? All the water companies need to be aware of what can happen and ensure that they can respond to these situations more strongly if they occur again.
I come on to the Environment Agency. Some years ago, the Environment Agency was monitoring a chemical treatment plant, operated by Cleansing Service Group and based in Sandhurst in my constituency. It was watching it so closely that the whole thing blew up one day and it simply did not carry out its job properly. I have many criticisms of the Environment Agency and I shall run through a few issues that are linked to it. If they are not currently its responsibility, perhaps they should be.
Drainage is a complex issue and responsibility rests with water and sewerage companies, the Environment Agency, local authorities and private owners.[ Official Report, 16 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 9W.]
The Environment Agency has become a statutory consultee in planning applications. That is not strong enough. It needs to have a much greater say in whether certain planning applications are granted. It needs a better and faster warning system: the Environment Agency claims to have warned many thousands of people, but many people were not warned about what was coming. Farmers were particularly affected, and while I pay tribute to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Farmers Union for their excellent work in getting water to many livestock, there was a big problem with the warning system, which needs to be examined.
Spending on specific national flood defence projects is necessary, but individual flood defences also need to be up to scratch. The Environment Agency needs more responsibility, more powers, adequate funding and more confidence to sort out problems, or else it needs scrapping. As it stands, it serves no useful purpose; we cannot leave it as it is.
We heard a lot about the weather that led to such problems being unprecedented. I shall steal a phrase from the chief constable of GloucestershireI warned him that I wouldwho was the head of Gold Command. He said that if such weather happens again, it will not be unprecedented; we will have gone through it before, in July this year. I am glad to welcome to the Chamber the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who also suffered and worked hard during these difficulties. I thank him for offering to help me out when it was difficult for me to be in three or four places at once.
The weather might have been unprecedented this time, but if it happens again, it will not be unprecedented. It might have been a once-in-150-years event. We are told that the effects of climate change will be severe, so we cannot take the view that it will not happen for another 150 years. Heaven forbid, it could happen tomorrow, next week, next month or next yearperhaps it will not happen for another 150 years, but we simply cannot take the chance.
As we know, Tewkesbury is an area that will flood, but let us not make it worse than it needs to be. Let us do everything that we can to lessen and mitigate the damage of any future heavy rainfall. More than anything, people who have suffered, and are still suffering, want to see lessons learned. Please let us learn those lessons.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Owing to an administrative error, a petition from the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was not called before the Adjournment was moved. In the light of the time available, I am prepared to call him to present his petition now.
The petition is from my constituent, Mr. Jeremy Small, who is a journalist. The petition concerns the North Yorkshire police budget. The petition, run by Mr. Smalls newspaper, the York Press, has been signed by 1,000 residents of York and North Yorkshire . I shall present those signatures to the Home Secretary, who has kindly agreed to meet me to discuss the issue.
To the House of Commons
The Petition of Mr. Jeremy Small
Declares its concern that the Home Office may reduce its grant to the North Yorkshire Police Force.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Home Secretary to abandon any plans to reduce the grant and to retain adequate funding for the countys police force to keep crime levels down.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Thank you for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be very brief. As I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) has covered a number of the matters that I shall raise, I beg your forgiveness if I am repetitive. I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate; I was serving on a Public Bill Committee.
Given that a number of my constituents were affected by the flooding, I want to record my thanks to all the emergency services, and the armed forces, for the tremendous work that they did. I know my hon. Friend agrees that although the loss of life was tragic for the families and individuals directly concerned, we have the emergency services to thank for the fact that it was not very much greater. The way in which our emergency services in Gloucestershire, with Gold Command based at the tri-service centre, worked so closely together demonstrated the success of that model, and I hope that the lessons learned inquiry will make recommendations to the Government that will make them think again about the attempt to regionalise fire control.
Those of us whose constituencies were affected by the flooding welcomed the fact that Ministers were responsive throughout the recess and kept Members properly informed. We were able to question them on what was going on, which gave us a valuable opportunity to raise issues and secure action on a number of matters that affected us locally. I also thank Ministers for the £10 million that they have given Gloucestershire county council to help with the repair of roads that were damaged across the countybut having thanked the Minister for the down-payment, I should remind him that another £17 million is needed for further repairs. I know that his colleagues in the Department for Transport are working with officials from the county council to settle the details, and I hope that the money will be forthcoming.
I want to make two more points. The first concerns council tax. I am aware that the Department has provided money for a number of the authorities concerned. Tewkesbury borough council, part of which covers my constituency, has used the money very quickly. Much of it has been used directly to help constituents and to defray some of the cost. The Minister might consider encouraging the Valuation Office Agency to be as flexible as possible where constituents have suffered property damage.
A case in my constituency is being examined, and I hope that the right decision will be made. My constituents have been unable to live in their main residence, but because they are occupying a caravan on the site they are having to pay the full council tax on the property. That is clearly not appropriate. To be fair to the Minister, I should add that the Valuation Office Agency is considering the case. I hope that it will be able to observe the state of the property, and will charge the appropriate council tax for occupation of the caravan. I know that Ministers have been flexible when such issues have arisen in the past, and I hope that they will be so in this instance.
I raise my second point not necessarily in expectation of action in a specific case, but in the hope that Ministers may, as part of their response to the lessons learned inquiry, consider the rules governing utility companies and loss of water supply. In Gloucestershire a number of residents across the county were without mains water for a significant period. Because of the exceptional nature of the event, it has been decided that the compensation scheme, which would normally require Severn Trent Water to compensate both domestic and business users for the loss of their supply, will not take effect. Severn Trent Water has made a payment to local authorities in lieu of that, but it will not surprise the Minister to find out that that amount is significantly less than what would have been due under the scheme. It may be worth looking at whether it is appropriate that the compensation scheme does not operate in a case where a significant number of consumers have been affected.
To add insult to injury, Severn Trent Water is not even considering not charging them for water supply during the period for which they were without water. Constituents will have to pay their full annual bill. For a significant period, they were greatly inconvenienced. They would welcome the Government looking again at that matter.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is extremely appropriate that we have this Adjournment debate in the first week of the return of Parliament. The last Adjournment debate before the summer recess was on flooding. I was grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to reply to that debate. I want to put a few, I hope, serious points on the record.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and I want to thank him, because my experience throughout the summer, during the many meetings, telephone conference calls and visits, and in reading letters and other correspondence, was that he acted with due diligence on behalf of his constituents. He criticised the Government or the authorities when it was helpful to his constituents and not when it was only helpful to him. He asked for what we could give him but did not ask for things that we could not give him. He behaved as an entirely responsible Member. If I were his constituent, I would be very proud of him. I would not say that I would vote for him, because that would bring party politics into it, but the serious point is that I would like to put that on the record. It says in Dods Parliamentary Companion that the hon. Gentleman has run six marathons. He must be a Lancastrian to have such stamina. I seriously congratulate him on the role that he played.
I said in the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall that, if ever there was proof of the case for single Member constituency Members of Parliament, it was the flooding events recently. Members of Parliament for constituencies across the political spectrum throughout our country were able to solve problems on behalf of their constituents. I hope that Ministers were able to play their part, too.
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