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As I described on Monday, the circumstances arising between Friday 5 and Sunday 7 September affected most of England, but the most serious consequences were felt in the north-east, with the constituency of Wansbeck and the town of Morpeth in Northumberland
being most affected. I applaud my hon. Friend for the strenuous lengths he went to to draw the issue to the attention of Ministers, albeit that we were first alerted by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck spoke personally to the Prime Minister about the impact of these events on Morpeth and he also secured a visit by the Minister for Local Government.
I thus congratulate my hon. Friend again on the efforts he has already made, as well as on todays debate and the various suggestions and requests that he has made. The issues that heand, indeed, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweedraised today will be studied in detail and given careful thought and consideration by me and my ministerial colleagues as we consider how the Government should respond to the experiences of Morpeth.
I also described on Monday how the severe rainfall that caused the flooding was first identified as a potential threat a number of days before the actual event itself. By Wednesday 3 September, the Environment Agency and the Met Office began to track the low pressure system and potential rainfall. By Thursday, they were beginning preparations in case of serious flooding. Heavy rainfall early warnings were issued for the north-east of England, and flash flood warnings were sent out across many further parts of the country on the Friday. Through the early warning system and the new and improved working arrangements between the Environment Agency and the Met Office, warnings were issued to alert local authorities and the emergency services, and preparations were made to prepare vulnerable people and areas.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the incredibly heavy rainfall that affected the north-east, with 150 mm of rain6 inchesfalling on to already saturated ground and full river catchments over 48 hours. The average monthly rainfall for that time of year is 50 mm, or 2 inches. I am afraid that I always convert metric measures to imperial in my head. In fact, according to the Environment Agency, the flooding that occurred was estimated to be a one-in-150-years event.
At the timeand sincea great deal of attention rightly focused on Morpeth, where the first flood watch alert was issued at 3.30 on Saturday morning, with warnings escalating throughout the day. I described that during Mondays debate. My hon. Friend mentioned the flood warnings. For the purpose of the Environment Agencys flood warning system, Morpeth is divided into five areas. Four warnings were issued. The severe flood warning intended for the Middle Greens area was issued as a downgrade at 12.49 pm. The residents would not have received that information: it went to professional partners only. A downgrade is normally issued when the Environment Agency believes that waters are receding and there is a settled outlook. Although the residents did not receive the level of flood warning service that the Environment Agency expects to offer, they were engaged in constant dialogue with the agencys professional partners, and the evacuation from Middle Greens was not compromised.
I do not entirely agree with the Environment Agencys statement that the evacuation was not compromised. Had it not been for neighbours and
friends in the area, a number of disabled people could not have been moved out. That happened long before the emergency services arrived. The problem was compounded by the fact that two burns burst their banks, which prevented the emergency services from getting in. Although I accept most of the points made by the Environment Agency, I am afraid that on that occasion it was wrong.
Jane Kennedy: It is the purpose of debates such as this to allow precisely that sort of representation to be made. I know that the Environment Agency will want to learn lessons, and indeed has already learned lessons, from the experience of Morpeth in September. It is trying to find ways of making the system more resilient, including rationalising warnings so that the whole town receives the same warning should such warnings ever need to be issued again. It is also instituting additional checks to ensure that the mistakes made in Morpeth are not repeated. It has apologised for the errors, and reaffirmed that although the warnings were not received as planned, it was in constant dialogue. It clearly believes that the evacuation was not compromised, but as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the residents of Middle Greens are very grateful indeed for the actions of their neighbours, to whom I pay tribute for their swiftness in rising to the challenge.
In Morpeth, approximately 1,000 homes and businesses were affected by the flooding, and around 250 families were looked after in rescue centres. As my hon. Friend said, and as I said on Monday, the evacuation of Morpeth was successful. As I acknowledged on Monday, flooding of homes and businesses is always devastating for those affected, but such events will take place from time to time, despite the substantial increase in flood defence spending that the Government are implementing. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friends description of ministerial readiness to respond to the events of that September weekend. I was also, therefore, pleased to hear of the success of the multi-agency approach, and that those involved showed what can be accomplished through strong partnership work. On Monday, I paid tribute to the emergency services for the excellent job they have done in dealing with the flooding events, and I know that that would be echoed on both sides of the House. The actions of many third-sector organisations following the flooding events has once again shown how our communities can pull together at difficult times. I hear what my hon. Friend has said about further financial assistance being needed by such organisations. Such matters will have to be considered while we await the full claim from Castle Morpeth for the Bellwin assistance.
In Northumberland, the local recovery and support operation is under way and will continue for some months yet. I am particularly grateful to all involved for having pulled together in the face of such challenges. I described the involvement of One NorthEast, the regional development agency, which has made more than £500,000 available to help with immediate costs for affected businesses, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has confirmed that the Bellwin scheme has been activated. Castle Morpeth has registered an intention to claim for Bellwin assistance and has been provided with the necessary information to help with a subsequent claim. The Department for Communities and Local Government awaits the details, and it is also expecting a request for
an extension to the normal arrangements for reimbursement referred to by my hon. Friend, and it will consider that when it is received.
On Monday, I described some of the emergency works the Environment Agency is carrying out in the area. However, more important for the longer term is the initiation of the EAs flood alleviation scheme, which commenced in December 2007. The River Wansbeck strategy study determined that a stand-alone flood alleviation scheme should be progressed with in Morpeth, and an initial site investigation was carried out and an environmental assessment is under way. In addition, in partnership with the Northumberland Strategic Partnership, a detailed business case is being carried out to determine the impact of flooding on local businesses. The scheme is at the end of year one of its current four-year programme. However, the EA is exploring the possibility of an accelerated time scale for construction of the works. I am delighted to hear my hon. Friends description of the EAs willingness to engage at a local level, listening to what local residents have to say about the EAs proposals. I commend that way of working, and I encourage the EA to continue down that path. I know that he will be quick to raise with me any concerns he might have should that approach begin to slip, and I will be very open to hearing them.
Although substantial flooding did occur in parts of the north-east at the beginning of September, it is important to remember the many flood defence systems that were not breached despite the very heavy rain. I referred to some of those in detail on Monday. The EA is responsible for maintaining and repairing flood defences, including the installation of temporary defences where needed. During the past year, it has inspected 180,000 assets and carried out work that now means that 95 per cent. are serviceable and will perform as designed during a flood event. The EA spent £377 million building and maintaining flood defences in England, as well as raising public awareness through greatly improved flood-mapping and warning systems.
Sir Alan Beith: When reassessments have taken place, there has tended to be an acceptance that more flooding of fields may help to save properties. Most people accept and understand that. However, will the Minister also accept that if that is doneand, effectively, that happened in parts of Northumberlandthe burden on agricultural businesses becomes much more serious, and we may need to look at ways to help agriculture to cope with its taking the bigger impact of floods, instead of homes?
I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has made that point. I discussed that very issue with the president of the National Farmers Union this morning. It is very important that the Environment Agency considers all stakeholders and all those affected as the country wrestles with the problems of rising sea levels and the threat of high levels of ground water and the sort of inundations that we saw that weekend in September. He is absolutely right that if the water moves somewhere else, somebody else is affectedperhaps not their life and limb and their homes, but agricultural businesses are also very important and the impact of flooding on them needs to be taken into account. As a
new Minister in this area, I intend to look into that and ensure that it is not discounted as we consider all the effects of flooding.
I have described the increased investment, and in recent years our experience of managing flood events has also increased. Last year, we immediately established an independent review of the lessons to be learned from the September 2007 flooding, led by Sir Michael Pitt. Sir Michaels final report was published on 25 June 2008 and includes 92 recommendations. The Government have already welcomed the report and announced initial allocations from the £34.5 million that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set aside for the next three years to take the recommendations forward. We will say more about our plans later this year, and I hope that a prioritised action plan will be producedin the autumn, it says on my notes, but it feels as though we are near winter given the weather outside. It will certainly be produced shortly.
Over the past year, we have undertaken a vast amount of work to increase preparedness against future flooding, and we have taken on board the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitts interim report on a diverse range of projects such as the encouragement of better surface water drainage, the exploration of resistance and resilience
measures for householders in high-risk areas, the finalising of national guidance on multi-agency flood planning and many more.
An important aspect of our work is the production of a floods and water Bill, and a draft is planned for pre-legislative scrutiny, for which it is an excellent candidate. We propose that there will be consultation in 2009. It is our intention that the draft Bill will simplify and streamline the rather complex and perhaps outdated flood and coastal erosion risk management legislation, including on the interrelationship of the roles and responsibilities of, among others, the Environment Agency, local authorities, internal drainage boards, the Department and Ministers.
Although we will never be able to eradicate the threat of flooding, I remain confident that the events of September demonstrate the preparedness and professionalism of those charged with responding at national, regional and local level. I am confident that we are much better prepared today for the challenges that we will face in the coming months and years, although for those people whose homes and businesses were affected, we can have nothing but sympathy and a commitment to do more to help.