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17 Dec 2008 : Column 1098

Pitt Report

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, I shall make a statement on the Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s final report on the floods of summer 2007.

Last weekend’s flooding in the south-west, in which two people sadly died, reminds us of the ever-present risk that we face, and of the importance of Sir Michael’s comprehensive and impressive report. In his 92 recommendations published in June, Sir Michael identified a need to clarify who is responsible for what; to ensure that the public have all the information and guidance they need; to work with essential services to assess risk and protect critical infrastructure; to have a clear recovery plan right from the start of any major emergency; and to establish the right legislative framework to tackle flooding. I can tell the House that the Government’s action plan being published today supports changes in response to all his recommendations, but before setting out those changes I want to acknowledge the continuing effects of the flooding, as a second Christmas approaches.

The fact that most people are now back home, thanks to a great deal of hard work, will be of little comfort to those families who are still out of their homes, or who are living upstairs in them. Our thoughts are with them, and their plight reminds us of the toll that flooding takes not just on people’s lives, but on their emotions, and just how difficult it can be to get things going again. That is why, working with local authorities and the insurance industry, we will continue to do all we can to help. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, to whom I pay tribute for the extraordinary amount of work that he has done to help people affected, announced last month further help for those families.

We have taken action in the 18 months since the 2007 floods. The Environment Agency has spent £5 million on repairing defences that were damaged. Forty-nine flood defence schemes have been completed, protecting 37,000 homes, from Selby in Yorkshire to St. Ives in Cornwall and from West Bridgford in Nottingham to Worcester and Hexham, the town whose newly built defences successfully protected it from significant flooding in September this year.

Since summer 2007, more than 78,000 more people have registered with the Environment Agency’s telephone flood warning system; the total is now 280,000. All local resilience forums have been briefed on critical national infrastructure in their areas, and we have brought forward to 2009-10 £20 million of flood defence spending. That will mean an earlier start on those schemes, which, when completed, will protect more than 27,000 homes from flooding and coastal erosion. In total, our £2.15 billion investment in flood defence over the three years to 2010-11 will protect an additional 145,000 homes across England.

The further steps that I am announcing today draw both on the £34.5 million that I set aside to implement Sir Michael’s report and on funding from other existing budgets. We are creating a new national flood forecasting centre, bringing together staff from the Environment Agency and the Met Office. That will start operating in
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April and will improve our ability to respond quickly, by providing better information and more detailed warnings directly to emergency responders.

Having previously decided that the Environment Agency will take on a strategic overview for all forms of flooding, I am today announcing that local authorities will be responsible for ensuring that arrangements are in place to assess and manage local flood risk from all sources, including surface water. In two-tier council areas, that responsibility will rest with county councils, but we will encourage them to work closely with districts, internal drainage boards and others. I am increasing funding to local authorities by £15 million to allow authorities where the risk is greatest to take on that new role straight away. Part of that will be for the development of surface-water management plans. I can announce that the first six local areas that have successfully bid for the funds are Hull, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Warrington, Richmond upon Thames and West Berkshire.

In addition, I am establishing a £5 million grant scheme, for which local authorities can bid to help people better protect their homes from the risk of flooding—for example, through fitting flood boards and air-brick covers. That help will be available where it is not possible to provide protection through community-level defences. I am also providing funding to help the Environment Agency improve flood warnings, including moving to an opt-out system for ex-directory numbers. Furthermore, I am putting money into improving our flood rescue capability, so that we can make the best use of the skilled personnel and boats available.

The national flood framework will help to ensure that all the organisations involved in responding to floods, including those responsible for critical national infrastructure, understand—and are fully prepared for—what they have to do. An outline framework has already been published and the consultation that we are launching will enable us to complete the job. Meanwhile, organisations are already taking action to identify and protect infrastructure.

On reservoir safety, we are doubling funding for inundation maps for all the country’s larger reservoirs and we are providing support for local resilience forums to prepare reservoir emergency plans. We will be publishing a draft floods and water Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in spring next year to deal with those of Sir Michael’s recommendations, including clearer roles and responsibilities and strengthening reservoir safety, that require primary legislation.

On Monday, I informed the House that we intend to transfer to water and sewerage companies private sewers and lateral drains that connect to the public system. That was welcomed by Sir Michael, and it will release many householders from a liability that they often do not know they have until something goes wrong and they face a hefty bill to sort it out. The transfer will take place from April 2011. Finally, we are establishing a Cabinet Committee to oversee work on flooding. Sir Michael will continue to be involved in reviewing progress.

The House knows that we can never eliminate the risk of flooding, particularly as climate change takes hold, but we are all determined to learn the lessons from what has happened and to be better prepared in future. All of us—the Government, local authorities, emergency and other services, local communities and individuals—must
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take flood risk seriously. This report, and the steps that we are taking, will help us to do so and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and repeat my thanks to Sir Michael Pitt and his team for the excellent work that they have done. I also commend the work of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who has made a useful contribution on these issues.

The Secretary of State is entirely right to acknowledge the human cost of flooding. I am sure that the whole House will wish to send condolences to the family and friends of those two people who tragically lost their lives over the weekend. Anyone who has met people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed by floods knows only too well that there is often a lasting, less visible, but none the less real, emotional impact on top of the physical disruption that people suffer. Some things, such as personal possessions, simply cannot be replaced by insurance. Can the Secretary of State confirm that hundreds of people are facing a second Christmas out of their homes as a result of the floods of 2007? Why have the Government not published monthly summaries of the number of households displaced, as Pitt recommended? Is it because they are embarrassed about the rate of progress?

There are, of course, aspects of this statement which we welcome, particularly the establishment of the national flood forecasting centre, which seems an eminently sensible way to proceed. I cannot help but observe, however, that progress in this area is glacially slow. After three years of announcements and statements of good intentions, our country is still acutely vulnerable to flood risk. The number of homes at risk from flooding has increased by 20 per cent. in the space of a few years. Some 43 per cent. of flood defence projects have been delayed, and more than half are not in their target condition. Additionally, 6 per cent. of hospitals, 15 per cent. of ambulance and fire stations and 15 per cent. of power stations are at risk from flooding. When will the natural hazards team, which is responsible for identifying risks to national infrastructure, complete its assessment? Is it not extraordinary in view of the risks involved that that work has not already been done?

I have to say that the Government’s approach to this issue has been lackadaisical. In 2005, the Government knew that there was a problem and promised to put it right. Then they announced that the Environment Agency needed to have the strategic overview of flooding. Today it seems that local authorities will be made responsible. There is still uncertainty about who is in charge. We know the gravity of the risk, and have a wealth of recommendations on how to move forward. Pitt called for strong national leadership if his recommendations were to be implemented. Since when was dithering a feature of strong national leadership?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that all of Pitt’s urgent recommendations have been implemented? Does he agree that his statement is no substitute for legislation? The Pitt report called for a “rapid implementation” of the floods and water Bill. Will he confirm that, as a result of his announcement today, there is no real chance that the floods and water Bill will make it on to the statute books before the next general election?

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There is a sense that the Government are shunting the problem away, beyond the next election, on to local authorities. I note, however, that the Secretary of State has announced additional funding for local authorities, which must be welcome. Can he confirm where that money is coming from? Climate change will only increase the frequency and severity of flooding. As the Stern review pointed out:

My chief concern today is the slow progress that the Government are making in their response to these urgent issues.

Finally, some 2.3 million homes are at risk of flooding. It is essential that we do not add to that number, so will the Secretary of State join me in calling for a clear presumption against building on floodplains?

Hilary Benn: I echo the words that the hon. Gentleman expressed about the impact on individuals and businesses. When flooding happens, it is devastating. I can tell him that about 1,000 households are either out of their homes or living upstairs, and of those, 118 are living in caravans. The number is coming down by about 100 a week. We make an assessment every two months.

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of what has happened in the past 18 months. Protecting 37,000 homes since summer 2007 cannot, under any measure, be described as “glacially slow” progress. As he is pressing for faster progress and given that Her Majesty’s Opposition have indicated that from 2010-11 they will not be committed to the Government’s spending plans, a lot of people would like to know—he might not be able to say today—what their stance is on flood defence investment, because we are all waiting to hear.

Next, there is no uncertainty, because the steps that I have announced today and the action that we have already taken are all about people getting on with the task in hand, without waiting for the floods and water Bill, which we will publish in draft form, as I have indicated. Saying, “That’s what you’ve got to do,” to the Environment Agency and, “This is what you’ve got to do to deal with the problem of surface water,” to the six local authorities that will start the mapping in the areas that were affected is not about waiting to change the law to require that action; it is about getting on with the job now. Then we will look at the changes that are needed subsequently. The same applies to the mapping of the risk from reservoirs. We are getting on with the job. We are not waiting, but we will change the law as necessary.

As I indicated to the House when I made my statement in the summer, we have made good progress on implementing the urgent recommendations. Incidentally, the latest figures for people out of their homes are from mid-November, so there will have been further progress and a reduction in the numbers since then.

The funding that I am making available is from funding that I set aside and which I told the House about in the summer for implementing Pitt’s recommendations. As for not adding to the problem, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why the Government have strengthened the planning guidance
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not once, but twice. PPS25 is absolutely clear about the responsibility on local authorities when they take decisions to grant or not grant planning applications; and, at a practical level, we have already implemented changes to the planning rules on paving and concreting over front gardens.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that Gloucestershire is part of the pilot project on surface water. That will be welcomed by residents in Barton and Tredworth in my constituency, which were flooded at the weekend. May I also urge him to continue the work on flooding with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government? We know that removing Whaddon, which lies in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), from the regional spatial strategy, which is likely to be published in the coming days, will make a huge difference to surface water in Gloucester. That surface water has to go somewhere and at the moment it largely goes to that area in Whaddon.

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the huge amount of work that he did, as did many hon. Members in all parts of the House, in the wake of the flooding. I remember the conversations that we had at the time. The whole purpose of the surface water management plans is to get all the people who have responsibility for the water—where it goes and where it ends up—to see how they can better deal with it when large amounts of rain fall and to ensure that it can be taken elsewhere. That means dealing with a legacy of 200 years of drains and culverts that were not designed for the kind of rainfall that we have seen and for the climate change that is coming—the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is right about that—and planning who is going to do what as a result, and, at the same time, taking the right decisions on planning and providing places where the water can go when new developments are made. Designing sustainable drainage systems into development is a way of avoiding adding to the problem.

I wish Gloucestershire all the best in that work. May I commend Gloucestershire on the excellent booklet that has been published for residents? It is full of the most useful guidance and information. It is a model of its kind and I hope that other local authorities will follow it.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard to prevent flooding, mitigate its effects and provide support to those affected, not just in the summer of 2007, but in the 18 months since, and express solidarity with those who continue to suffer as a consequence of flooding.

In thanking the Secretary of State for his statement, I welcome the announcement of the action plan and the national flood forecasting centre, and the announcement that the Environment Agency will take on strategic overview responsibilities. Also, the announcement earlier this week that liability for private sewers will be passed to water companies is extremely welcome.

However, as we receive the statement on learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, many of us are working alongside our constituents who are still picking up the pieces following the floods of autumn 2008. That raises
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the question why the Secretary of State has taken so long to come to the House to give us a statement on a report that called for immediate action six months ago. Many incidences of flooding could have been avoided, had there been clarity about who was responsible for flood risk management at different levels. How many people have been adversely affected in the six months since the report was published, during which time the Government have failed to act? How many households and businesses have suffered this year because of the Government’s failure to implement the recommendations more quickly?

Furthermore, recommendation 86 in the report proposed the immediate establishment of a Cabinet Committee. We welcome the announcement today that that is going to happen, but will the Secretary of State tell us whether he thinks that waiting six months constitutes immediate action? As Scotland already has its own Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Bill in progress, why is this House being offered only a draft Bill, with subsequent legislation some way off?

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many of the 92 recommendations in the Pitt report he has already been able to implement? Will he expand on his plans for the establishment of a national flood forecasting centre? Will he also confirm that many instances of flooding this autumn have occurred because the lines of communication have still not been corrected? Is not that further evidence that the Government’s casual approach to the implementation of the report has cost many people dear? Does he accept that even a small improvement in the lines of communication could make a huge difference to those on the front line? Even half an hour’s advance warning of a serious flood risk could allow householders and businesses to take vital action to safeguard their property and protect themselves.

Will the Secretary of State also comment on the backlog in flood relief works in many parts of the country? Can he give assurances to residents and businesses, such as those in the Windermere road area of Grange in my constituency, that the long-awaited flood relief scheme planned for their area will actually come into being in the near future? Does he agree that there is now a strong argument for front-loading investment in flood relief schemes?

Will the Secretary of State comment on the continuing granting of planning permission for building in high-risk areas, despite Pitt’s recommendation for a strong presumption against such development, and will he now support a review of PPS25, to examine whether it is fit for purpose? Will he also take to task the insurance industry, which promised at the time of the floods that no one would go uninsured as a result of the flooding? Now that insurance policies are coming up for renewal, many insurers are refusing to cover flood risk. Will he also take action to ensure that speedy payments are made by insurance companies to householders and businesses?

Finally, will the Secretary of State comment on the concerns that many of us have about the regionalisation of fire control centres, given that that is highly likely to undermine the responsiveness of local fire crews to developing local situations?

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