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I have said all that because the appointment will almost certainly be made before our next debate. I assure the House that I consider my new duty to be one
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of the most important that I have had to undertake during my time at the House of Commons. The man or woman who is the new Comptroller and Auditor General will have one term only, for a maximum of 10 years; after that, they will not be able to return to the public sector or any part of the private sector with which they have dealt. They will be unsackable for 10 years and nobody will be able to influence them. There is no more important job than that of the Comptroller and Auditor General in ensuring financial and general accountability. I hope that we get it right and I ask for hon. Members’ support as we try to do so. We will do our best.

Finally, I thank the Minister for what she said about the financial alignment project, which sounds boring but is unbelievably important. As every Hansard report shows, there is no doubt that we have one of the best audit systems in the world; however, we also have one of the weakest Budget systems in the world. We have a strong National Audit Office. Some of us have studied supreme audit offices around the world, and I am not sure how we could do things much better in respect of considering what has gone wrong in the past. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, one of the problems with our work is that we often look at things too much in the past.

I have tried to speed the whole process up to ensure that the National Audit Office works quicker, reports come to us quicker and we report quicker. The system works pretty well, but we have a very weak Budget system. One reason for that is that it is virtually impossible for Members of Parliament to understand the process. It is all much easier and better done in the United States Congress, where the President proposes a Budget through the Office of Budget and Management. It goes to Congress, and what emerges at the other end bears no relation to what the President has proposed. The President proposes; Congress disposes.

We will never get to that situation in this House, because the Government are drawn from the legislature; we will never go down the congressional route and perhaps we never want to. However, we have to get a much more transparent system of considering the Budget. Through a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee, I have been working with the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, and we have been working with the Government, who should take a lot of credit for getting the whole process moving. That was their initiative and they should be congratulated on trying to bring more transparency to the whole Budget process.

As usual, we have had a good debate. We will carry on trying to do our job, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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Flooding (Morpeth)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Chris Mole.]

4.44 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I am grateful to the House for allowing me to discuss the very serious flooding that occurred in Morpeth over the weekend of 5 and 6 September. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in his place. He introduced a similar debate in this House on Monday evening.

While other parts of the north-east of England were affected by the most intensive rainfall in living memory, the town of Morpeth was devastated. Morpeth has a population of about 19,000. It is located in the heart of Northumberland and lies in the valley of the River Wansbeck. It was a thriving market town and is the home of the administrative headquarters of Castle Morpeth borough council and Northumberland county council.

The first indications that anything was amiss came with a warning from the Environment Agency on the afternoon of 5 September that a flood watch would be issued for Morpeth and Ponteland from 1 am on Saturday 6 September. Early indications predicted an event similar to that which occurred in 2005. Although river levels were high and gave cause for serious concern in 2005, no properties were damaged. However, it became clear on the Saturday, following a period of unprecedented rainfall, which equated to three times the monthly average falling in just 48 hours, that a very dramatic event was unfolding. From 8 o’clock on the Saturday morning, the water levels were already much higher than in the 2005 event, and torrential rain was still falling with no signs of abatement. Indeed, from 9 am, the pleasure boats that were moored in the River Wansbeck and should have played an important part in the subsequent evacuations were being overwhelmed and were sinking. Staff from Castle Morpeth council were fully stretched in closing off roads and attempting to sandbag vulnerable areas. The whole of Northumberland was awash. Villages were being cut off and numerous roads were closed.

The emergency services were at full stretch. At 12 noon on Saturday, Gold Command was called and 15 minutes later the first evacuations started. The rescue helicopter from RAF Bulmer, the RNLI, the fire and rescue services from Northumberland and Tyne and Wear, the police, council staff and residents worked throughout the day and night to ensure that everyone was rescued. There was no loss of life. This was due in the main to the skill and dedication of all the people I have mentioned, but also to the spirit and courage of a number of friends and neighbours who acted quickly to evacuate the most vulnerable to places of safety.

The Environment Agency played an important role in the early flood warning system. For the majority of those registered under the scheme, it worked very well. Five hundred and twenty three homes were contacted with a warning. For the residents of the Middle Greens area of Morpeth, it did not work at all. There are more than 300 homes in that area, which is situated next to the river. Of those, 198 homes were registered under the scheme, but for them the system failed completely. I have met the Environment Agency’s new chairman Lord Smith and Ian Hodge from the region, who inform me
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that they have changed their procedure. The previous system divided Morpeth into a number of separate areas and issued warnings depending on the perceived risk. Middle Greens’ warning was not physically activated by an operator. In the light of that mistake, they have taken action to ensure that that will never happen again. In future, all the registered areas in Morpeth will receive the same warning at the same time.

The flood damage to Morpeth was extensive and devastating, with 1,012 properties affected—913 residential and 89 commercial. A total of 714 were privately owned, and of those 562 were seriously affected. Of those seriously affected, more than 300 households are currently displaced, and that number is rising daily. There are more than 30 properties where drying has not even commenced. Some 172 properties are owned by registered social landlords, and of those 150 are seriously affected. A total of 90 households are currently displaced, but it is accepted that that number will rise to 150. Tragically, of those numbers, 112 households are known to have no insurance cover at all.

Among the worst affected buildings were essential community assets, such as the ambulance station, a large doctor’s surgery, the library and the leisure centre. It is to the great credit of Castle Morpeth borough council that on Sunday morning, as soon as the water levels began to drop, it started the physical clean-up. On the same day, Gold Command handed over the ongoing work to Castle Morpeth. It set up the Castle Morpeth community recovery and restoration group, which has since adopted the name Springboard. It is a multi-agency partnership and it has been set up to assist the affected community, and to manage its recovery and restoration.

Drawing on the experience of other severely affected flood areas is of prime concern to the partnership. Best practice has been the driving force. Ascertaining that everyone in the affected area was safe and well was done without the need to affect forced entry into any of the properties. Morpeth now faces huge challenges. Many of the shops remain closed for restoration work, which is affecting those businesses that are still trading. Many are struggling to survive at present, and are eager to get the message out that Morpeth is still open for business.

To compound the problem, car parking is becoming increasingly problematic. The residential streets are narrow and easily congested. A loss of car parking owing to flood-related issues is further compounded by a massive increase in builders’ vehicles and skips. That in turn is acting against efforts to attract additional footfall into the town to support the existing retail trade.

Homelessness is expected to rise. About 400 households are currently displaced, and many of those people are staying with family and friends. From experience elsewhere, I know that that is unsustainable in the long term. The supply of temporary and emergency accommodation is virtually exhausted. Long-term contingencies are urgently required and I look to the Government to assist in the funding of those contingencies.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen, as I have done, the amazing work being done by voluntary organisations and public authorities, working together in providing continuing services to the people most affected. I have found the amount of extra effort put in by staff members and volunteers very impressive, and I am sure that he has too.

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Mr. Murphy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with him, and it is a subject I intend to tackle in more detail later. I have been hugely impressed by the voluntary sector and council officials in Morpeth.

Apart from the long-term contingencies, there is an increasing need for emotional and psychological support, which will have an even greater impact as people are unable to return to their homes for Christmas. It is important that the agencies responsible are able to identify and respond effectively to a need once it is identified. Additionally, there is a need to lift morale throughout the period of recovery. I am delighted to say that there appears to be no increase in criminal activity. However, there is genuine concern that household possessions kept on the first floors of houses in housing estates that are virtually deserted overnight could be at risk. The police are currently providing additional patrols in the affected areas, and I ask the Minister to press for the continuation of these much-needed patrols.

I mentioned earlier the large number of properties that were not insured. Flood damage repair and renovation to an insured property could be severely compromised if it is adjoining an uninsured property with similar levels of severe damage. There is no doubt that severe financial hardship is being experienced by everyone affected by the flooding, but especially those people who are not insured.

Unfortunately, many of the main public buildings were badly affected by flood damage. Morpeth library was immensely popular and well used by many residents. So severe was the damage that it will probably have to be demolished. It is therefore essential that a new library is built as soon as possible. The leisure centre suffered similar damage, but no decision has yet been made about its future. However, one thing is certain: it will be closed for a long time. The same applies to the doctors’ surgery and the ambulance station.

I have tried to outline briefly the extensive damage that the huge flood did to the town of Morpeth. I am here to seek Government support to help to rebuild the town and, more important, to ensure that we do everything possible to prevent a similar occurrence.

The Environment Agency has been heavily criticised for its failure to warn the residents of Middle Greens of the impending flood. That criticism was fully justified, but we need to ensure that the early warning system never fails again. The agency has assured me that the changes it has introduced will guarantee that everyone is informed in future. I also urge residents who are not registered to register now—it is a free service.

I have met the agency’s new chairman Lord Smith to press for early implementation of a new flood defence scheme for Morpeth. He has agreed to visit Morpeth in the next few weeks and he is keen to move forward quickly with the scheme.

The economic assessment is almost complete, and it is intended to consult the people of Morpeth on the options available no later than next January. The agency intends to run several items in parallel to enable it to commence the scheme several months earlier than originally planned. I am delighted to say that funding no longer appears to be a problem.

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In the next few weeks, work will commence on rebuilding a much stronger flood wall to replace the one damaged near the library. Urgent structural assessments will take place of all the various flood defences in the town and of the damaged weir at Highford. The agency is also considering my request, which residents affected by the floods put to me, to begin river bed dredging and clearance. There is a strong economic case for the scheme, which could bring huge investment to Morpeth.

A new flood defence scheme would release valuable riverside land for redevelopment to complement the current town centre development. A new health centre, providing state-of-the-art diagnostics and treatment, has been under discussion for more than two years. We should accelerate that development and include a new library on the site. If it proves necessary to demolish the leisure centre, consideration should be given to building a new one, perhaps on a new site. There are many other options—I merely make the point that enormous opportunity exists for the town and we need to maximise it.

While local business and commerce has been badly affected, 1,000 properties require extensive building works, new furniture and decoration. At a time of building slump, that could help many local businesses. I hope that people source those services locally, and of course we must endeavour to keep out the cowboy builders.

I was impressed with the Government response during and immediately after the flooding. I was contacted by the duty Minister—the then Minister for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas)—from 10 Downing street at 9 pm on the Saturday evening to warn me that Morpeth had been badly flooded. I was on holiday in Dorset and I returned home immediately. On Sunday morning, I was called again, this time by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), who inquired about the extent of the damage and sent his best wishes to the people of Morpeth. I spoke to him and the Minister responsible for flood recovery, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who said that he wished to visit. He did so the next day. The people of Morpeth also received a much-needed boost in the form of a royal visit by Prince Charles and his wife. They were accompanied by the Minister for the North East of England, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), whom I am delighted to see in his place today. He has done a great deal to help me and the people of Morpeth. By any standards, it was a great response.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will, in her response to the debate, show the same concern for Morpeth and assist its speedy recovery. Morpeth needs urgent funding in the form of Bellwin. It also needs another £600,000 to try to assist the local authority with the expenditure that it has already incurred. I will provide my right hon. Friend with the detailed breakdown of that expenditure.

Castle Morpeth council is a very small local authority; its chief executive Ken Dunbar, his deputy Trevor Walker and all its employees have performed remarkably. They are conducting an inquiry into the flood, and it is essential that all agencies co-operate with it. Their hard work, skill and dedication have been exemplary. They deserve our thanks and recognition for their excellent
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work during the flooding and for their ongoing work since then. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the necessary funding is in place for them to continue it.

The voluntary sector also performed exceptionally well. The Red Cross has been invaluable, as have the Lions and the Rotary club, which are raising a large sum of money to assist flood victims. The citizens advice bureau is under increasing strain, but understandably has to deal with many more cases. I request that the Government make a direct donation to the voluntary services in and around Morpeth to enable them and others to continue helping the people of the area.

In conclusion, the events at Morpeth on that terrible September weekend were both dramatic and dangerous. That no lives were lost is down to the skill and dedication of the emergency services and of many Morpeth residents—and, of course, some good luck. The Environment Agency’s decision to commence an early flood defence system means that it will probably not happen again. Morpeth needs all the help the Government can provide to help with rebuilding and regeneration. I hope that the Minister will confirm in her reply that that help will be made available.

5.2 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate. We had an interesting and useful debate on Monday night on the wider issue of flooding in Northumberland, which was inspired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). I apologise to those Members who were present—including my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and, indeed, the Minister for the North East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown)—in that some of what I say today may be a little familiar. It is important to reinforce some of the important points.

It may be worth saying that over the last 40 years, Morpeth has grown rapidly, with about 1,000 properties estimated to be at risk of a one-in-100-year event. Current standards of protection vary for different parts of Morpeth and the Environment Agency estimates the average protection at about 60 years. Several studies of the River Wansbeck flooding have been carried out, the most recent of which is the Wansbeck strategy study. My hon. Friend referred to it and I will return to it in a few minutes.

The Northumbria regional flood defence committee provided funding through the local levy to carry out investigations in Morpeth further to understand the flood risk and to establish whether any quick wins could be developed. As the scope of the local area project has been developed in 2007, additional flood defence grant-in-aid funding became available and the project transferred to that funding stream.

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