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I think that this is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post from the Dispatch Box. I thank him for a little
bit of what he said, but I must express sorrow that he did not seem to have listened to what I was saying or, more importantly, to have noticed the action we have been taking since the summer of 2007.
The hon. Gentleman raised a point about lines of communication in recent instances of flooding. If he, or any other hon. Member, has an example of something that did not go right or that they are worried about, will they draw it to my attention? I am determined that we should learn the lessons and try to get things right.
On early warning, one thing that has happened is the piloting of the extreme rainfall alert service, which I did not have time to mention earlier because there are quite a lot of things that we have done. When the hon. Gentleman has a chance to read the action plan that I am publishing today, he will see the answer to his question on that point. I should like to give the House an example. On 5 September, the Met Office forecast thunder storms and heavy showers in the south-west, and it put out one of those alerts. We have subsequently heard from Cornwall county council that the alert enabled it to pre-deploy the fire service, which, as a result, was able to rescue someone from their car at a time when the flood waters were rising by 1 ft every 20 minutes. That is a practical example of the measures that we have put in place, helping the emergency services to do a better job of protecting the public in those circumstances.
On the insurance industry, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have worked hard with the Association of British Insurers on agreeing a new statement of principles to ensure that there continues to be insurance cover. That has been very important, although I recognise that, in some cases, premiums and excesses have gone up. However, it is as a result of our efforts that we have that agreement, and the principal factor that made that possible was the significant increase in flood defence expenditure.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for the work that he has done on this matter, for the welcome statement today and, in particular, for the surface water management funds for Leeds, which was hard hit. In the heart of my constituency is the Farnley balancing reservoir, but it cannot cope. Every time there is a deluge, it overwhelms the local Farnley beck, which then floods all the homes around. In assessing the risk, we need to consider not only the mopping up but the underlying causes. I accept that they go back some years, but we will continue to have problems if we do not do that. Will those funds help to address that systemic problem?
Hilary Benn: They are intended to do that. I am aware of the case that my right hon. Friend has raised, and I understand that there is some dispute between Yorkshire Water and Leeds city council over who should take responsibility. However, the fact that Leeds will be one of the six local authorities to produce the first of the surface water management plans will mean that such issues can be resolved and that there can be clarity over who is responsible for doing what.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Secretary of States statement rightly underscored the crucial role of local authorities in co-ordinating a response to surface water flooding. That was a key finding in the Committees report and in Sir Michaels inquiry. However, given that the weather events that led to the flooding that gave rise to Sir Michaels inquiry were of an unpredictable nature, how quickly will the remaining local authoritiesbesides the six mentioned in the statementbe able to take on those responsibilities? If Sir Michaels report is to be fully implemented, all local authorities should be co-ordinating their responses now, not waiting until some point in the future.
Hilary Benn: I want to acknowledge the excellence of the work done by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in looking at this matter. This is a job for all of us to work on. I have announced the first six authorities today. The plan is to fund another 44 or so to complete that work over the next couple of years. We are going to do that in order, depending on where the risk is greatest. However, I take the right hon. Gentlemans point about the increasing unpredictability of the weather. In agreeing with Sir Michaels recommendations, we are saying clearly today that this is a responsibility for all of us, everywhere. All local authorities need to think about what they would do in such circumstances. During the summer, and subsequently, we saw the benefit of advance planning and of the emergency rescue services. By and large, those arrangements worked pretty well over the summer of 2007, and that was because people had got organised and because the Gold Command system worked.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will be aware, in January 2005, there was severe flooding in Carlisle. The flood defences are now being built, however, thanks to the good efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who I see is just leaving the Chamber. Is the Secretary of State sure that the private utilities are prepared and that they have learned the lessons? They had not done so after Carlisle, and there were also problems in the west country with losing water. Furthermore, once the flood defences are built, will my right hon. Friend put pressure on the insurance companies to bring down the premiums in the areas that have been defended?
My hon. Friend and his constituents know all about the devastating impact of flooding. He has been able to demonstrate how we have responded, and how we are trying to prevent further flooding in Carlisle. I want to give the House some practical examples in relation to the critical infrastructure. The National Grid has bought 1.2 km of temporary flood defences, which it is storing at a number of locations around the country. In the event of flood warnings being given, it will be able to use those defences to protect its assets. Indeed, defences have already been put around Walham and Castle Mead sub-stations. We have also issued new guidance to Ofwat, requiring water companies to consider vulnerability, and about £1 billion of investment is
being proposed by companies in their draft business plans to increase resilience. Plans for protecting all national critical sites will be in place by the end of 2009.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I speak with experience, having been caught in my car in a flash flood on Saturday morning. Happily, my daughter and I escaped unharmed; we were luckier than Mr. Henry Collier, who sadly died in similar circumstances in Martock on Saturday.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the money available to authorities that face regular flooding, such as Somerset, will be given on a needs basis or will it be distributed according to a formula, which will almost certainly disadvantage a county such as Somerset? Secondly, has the right hon. Gentleman been in contact with his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families about these issues? The Countess Gytha school in Queen Camel in my constituency was flooded again on Saturday and it is a regular occurrence for that school. It seems to me that extra money is needed either to make schools like the Countess Gytha safe for the future or to reposition them somewhere where floods cannot reach.
Hilary Benn: May I also express my condolences to Mr. Colliers family? On money for local authorities, under the current years revenue support grant, £87 million was already in the system for dealing with flood risk, although I gather that local authorities spent slightly more than that. The £15 million I have announced today will be allocated in order of priority to authorities where we believe the risk is greatest, particularly in respect of surface water management. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about schools. If he would be kind enough to give me the details of the particular school he mentioned, I will indeed follow it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement on private sewers, which will be most welcome in my constituency. He will know that parts of my constituency have suffered from chronic flooding problemsparticularly the village of Cubbington, which has flooded about half a dozen times in the past few years. We have established a local flood forum to ascertain why it happens and who needs to fix it. It has made some progress, but it has stalled on the issue of who is responsible for remedying surface water problems. In his statement, my right hon. Friend referred to local authorities having responsibility for assessing and managing surface water, but is he clear that local authorities are also responsible for remedying surface water problems?
I am sorry to hear about the problems that my hon. Friends constituents have had to face. In the end, given that there is a two-tier system in some places, we have to make it absolutely clear who has the lead responsibility, which is why we decided that upper-tier authorities should be primarily responsible. Councils need to talk to each other, as they do, and they need to work out how to allocate the responsibility, albeit that the upper-tier authority has the prime responsibility to ensure that allocation. It is about getting together all
the people who have responsibility for all the different bits and piecesincluding some private owners, as people do not always know who owns a culvert that might cause a problem if it is blocked and there is a lot of rainand sorting the problems out. We want to make it clear that local authorities have a lead responsibility for sorting them out; that is what people want.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that on 30 October the small town of Ottery St. Mary and many surrounding villages in my constituency were flooded at 2 in the morning, with 4 in of rain coming down in an hour and 3 ft of hail, which was still sitting there two days later. My own home and those of my neighbours were flooded for the second time in 11 years; we all hope to be back in by Easter. It is the most appalling experience to go through.
May I ask the Secretary of State about flooding in rural areas? Experience has shown that it is often minor watercourses, not necessarily the main river that flows through towns, that behave in ways that no one expected and often cause the damage, turning lanes and roads into rivers. As well as looking into the run-off from buildings, has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to study run-off from land and consider farming practices, for example? The relevant boxes that need to be ticked are often left unticked in rural areas because only small clusters of properties are affected, so has he thought of anything further that can be done to mitigate flooding problems in rural areas?
Hilary Benn: The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I am sorry to hear about what she and her constituents have experienced. I discussed this particular event with the head of the Met Office, as even with the extreme rainfall alert system in place, this event was so specific and localised that, as the hon. Lady will know, it was not picked up by it. We could perhaps use the hon. Ladys particular example as a test case, and if she comes to see me with further details, we can look to see whether the present structure will be able to pick up that sort of problem. I am conscious that when everybody thought about surface water flooding in the summer of 2007, they thought of Hull because so many people were affected. The hon. Lady, however, is absolutely right that it happens on a much more localised basis in many parts of the country. That provides another argument for getting all those with responsibilities, including landowners, together to see what they can do to reduce the risks in those circumstances.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): May I say that my constituents will think it a bit rich to hear Conservative spokesmen complaining about building on the floodplains when it was the Conservative county council that tried to build over Kennet meadows in south-west Reading? I applaud the Secretary of States decision to sort out the archaic system of private drains and sewers, which causes so many problems for residents of the Haddock estate in my constituency. I also welcome the additional funding for the West Berkshire council, which desperately needs help to sort out the management of surface water because that was what caused the vast majority of the flooding in my area in 2007.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. What we have done on the sewer transfer is effectively to create a sort of national insurance scheme.
Individual householders, as Members will be aware from specific cases, can often suddenly realise, Heavens, I did not realise that I was responsible for that. It is a sensible step to have taken. We looked at West Berkshires proposals and decided that we would fund them. Local authorities have the responsibility to deal with surface water flooding, including from minor watercourses.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): If the heavy rain of July last year had fallen slightly further south, the Somerset levels, which are prone to flooding in any case, would have been catastrophically affected. There was severe local flooding last week. Is the Secretary of State aware that a contributory cause of this vulnerability is the failure of the Environment Agency properly to maintain the rivers for which it is responsible in Somerset? Will he have a word with the Environment Agency to make sure that it carries out proper and regular dredging and removes potential obstructions? Will he ensure that the agencys discharge of its environmental responsibilities is not at the expense of its drainage responsibilities?
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this case, which I know engenders a great deal of debate in many parts of the country. The Environment Agency is acutely aware of its responsibilities for dealing with flooding. Sometimes, however, clearing out a channel and making it even wider may speed up the rate at which the water ends up in another place, so the operation is not always as straightforward as it might appear in the first instance. If the right hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to drop me a line with further details, I would be happy to take up his particular case and pursue it with the Environment Agency.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): It has been a long campaign to get private sewers adopted, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State has taken that decision. The real work now is to ensure that things happen on the ground after 2011. Secretaries of State can be assured that Nottinghamshire county council will work with district councils in the county to tackle surface water draining problemsbut they will need resources to sort out problems in villages such as Woodborough, Lowdham and Lambley.
Hilary Benn: I am very glad to hear from my hon. Friend that this work will be done and that the council will pursue it with great vigour. I wish him and all others working on the project every success.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
I appreciate much of the Secretary of States statement, particularly where it relates to householder liabilities for private drainage and the review of planning policy statement 25, which is very welcome. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman tells the planning inspectorate that that document is now up for review. I appreciate the funding that has followed the right hon. Gentlemans interest in Cheltenham and the work on flood alleviation schemes in my constituency. However, at a time when it is difficult enough for people to sell their homes and sustain their businesses, will the Government make an absolute commitment to prevent insurance companies from offering cover but then excluding flood riskeven when people have paid for flood resilience work on their
propertiesor imposing wholly unreasonably premiums, sometimes running to tens of thousands of pounds? In my book, that is not really insurance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned people having flood resilience work done on their homes. It seems to me very sensible to have such work done when a home has been flooded, as part of the restoration. It may cost the insurance company a little more, but fitting flood boards, air brick covers and so forth will reduce the likelihood of a further claim. It is important for us to take action to help ourselves to protect our properties, and I can understand why householders with insurance policies would be more than a little miffed if, having taken such action, they could not obtain cover.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for what he had to say, and particularly for the financial help that we shall be getting in Gloucestershire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) said, we thought that we were going there again last Saturday, because there was quite serious flooding. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend consider innovative solutions which, in many instances, will involve community self-help? The problem in my constituency is what I would call diffused flooding: the areas that are hit are randomly distributed, but they are hit very regularly. Dealing with it will involve money, but it will also involve considering how communities can come together to do a number of things to help themselves. I hope that that is one of the measures that my right hon. Friend will encourage.
Hilary Benn: I am happy to encourage all efforts to deal with the problem that anyone is prepared to make. The fact that my hon. Friend has described community self-help as part of the solution is very much in keeping with what Sir Michael Pitt said in his report. One of his most striking observations was that, although Government, local authorities, the Environment Agency and others should act, ultimately this was also a matter for individual responsibility, because we can all be affected and we do not know when flooding may come. I applaud the approach that my hon. Friend has advocated, and I hope to see more of it around the country.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I am grateful for the Secretary of States kind words about the excellent work that Gloucestershire county council has been doing in informing residents about how they can protect themselves. I shall ensure that it is fed back to the leader of the council.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned surface water management plans. Obviously it is good that local authorities have that responsibility, but, given the number of different bodies involvednot just local authorities but water companies and private ownersone of the problems is getting them all to accept the responsibility. Can the Secretary of State confirm that until the floods and water Bill has become legislation, local authorities can draw up plans, but do not have power to enforce behaviour by those other bodies? Having such power would make the process of drawing up plans much more effective.
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