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House of Commons

Monday 23 November 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Flooding (Cumbria)

2.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, I would like to make a statement about the serious flooding in Cumbria and other areas of the country in the past few days. I have to report that PC Bill Barker lost his life in the floods in Workington while protecting the public. I know that the House will wish to echo the tribute paid by the Prime Minister on Friday to PC Barker. He was a very brave man. I also have to report that Michael Streeter, a contractor working for the Environment Agency, died following an accident on Selsey bill in West Sussex, where he was maintaining defences. There has been one other fatality-Mr. Chris Wheeler, a canoeist-and a woman is missing in Wales. Our thoughts are with all their families and colleagues.

The flooding was caused by sustained rainfall from Wednesday evening onwards. In some parts of Cumbria there were unprecedented amounts of rain, totalling more than 300 mm-that is more than 12 inches-in 24 hours. The worst affected areas were in west and central Cumbria. Around 1,300 or more properties have flooded, mainly in Cockermouth, Workington, Ulverston, Burneside, Kendal, Keswick and Eamont Bridge, but also in a number of small villages.

As the forecast heavy rain arrived, silver and gold commands were quickly set up, and many residents were evacuated, some by helicopter. Some went to stay with family and friends; others have been housed in reception centres set up in Kendal, Cockermouth and Keswick. Many local roads have been affected, the west coast main line was temporarily suspended, and six bridges have collapsed due to the force of the water. Workington has lost Northside bridge, and the Calva bridge has been seriously damaged. Councils are making arrangements to ensure that residents can get access to essential services. More than 1,000 properties lost electricity, 40 were without mains water, and 12,000 were left without landline phones. Efforts are being made by the utility companies to restore supplies, and most of the landlines are now working.

I saw for myself on Friday and Saturday in Cockermouth just what an effect the torrent of water had on homes, businesses and communities. It is utterly devastating, and the House will wish to express its sympathy to all those affected. The House will also wish to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in responding to the emergency, in particular those who worked so hard throughout Thursday night and into the weekend, led by chief constable Craig Mackey. That includes the staff of the fire, ambulance, and police services, the Royal
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National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Mountain Rescue England and Wales, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and, of course, the communities affected-neighbour once again helping neighbour, and showing the best of human spirit. I would also like to thank all the MPs in Cumbria, who have been working so hard to look after their constituents.

The Government and local councils will do everything possible to help people to rebuild their lives, although we know that it takes time for homes and buildings to dry out. Council homeless teams are arranging longer-term accommodation for those who need it. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government activated the Bellwin scheme for the worst-affected areas on Friday morning. That scheme helps local authorities with the cost of emergency assistance and clean-up. In recognition of the exceptional nature of the floods, he has extended the scheme to allow authorities to claim 100 per cent. of the costs incurred, as was the case in 2007.

The Prime Minister announced, during his visit on Saturday, £1 million in community recovery grant, to match the amount being given by the regional development agency to support the many small businesses that have been severely affected. The Department for Transport will also provide emergency funding-as it did two years ago-to help with repairs to bridges and roads.

Cleaning up the mess has now started, and Cumbria county council is leading the local recovery effort. There will be a ministerial meeting later this afternoon to look at what more needs to be done to help. However, I must advise the House that further heavy rain is forecast overnight, and there may be some further flooding. The Association of British Insurers has urged people who have been flooded to contact their insurance company as quickly as possible. Its first priority is to ensure that every claim is dealt with promptly, and it will do everything that it can to help customers to recover.

As with all major flooding, there will be lessons to be learned, although I have to say that the response of the emergency services was very impressive. We will work with the Environment Agency and others to ensure that the lessons are learned. In the two years since the 2007 floods, the Environment Agency has completed 106 flood defence schemes, protecting more than 63,000 additional homes in England and Wales, including in Carlisle. As I saw for myself on Friday, the new £40 million flood defence scheme there, built after the 2005 floods, helped to prevent flooding to around 3,000 properties last weekend.

The House will know that, in the decade to 2007, we more than doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion defence. We are investing a record £2.15 billion over the current three-year spending period. We have also responded to the Pitt report by setting up the Flood Forecasting Centre, to provide better early warning of flooding; invested £2 million in improved flood rescue capability, including improving co-ordination of rescue boats; set up a £5 million scheme for household flood protection; and encouraged 140,000 additional people to sign up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales.

We have also introduced the Flood and Water Management Bill that is currently before the House. I would like to thank the Environment, Food and Rural
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Affairs Committee for its scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will help in getting that important Bill on to the statute book.

Although we cannot attribute this particular event to climate change, we can expect to see more extreme weather in the years ahead. That is a future that we must prepare for. I will, of course, keep the House informed of any further significant developments.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement a short while ago. On behalf of the official Opposition, I extend our sympathy to the individuals, families and businesses affected by the floods. I, too, saw the scale of the damage when I visited Keswick and Cockermouth on Saturday. The effect on people's homes and local businesses is dreadful. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) has been touring the affected areas today, and the Leader of the Opposition will be visiting this week.

We pay tribute to the dedicated professionalism of the emergency services, and in particular to PC Bill Barker, who tragically lost his life during the rescue operation. We also remember the Environment Agency contractor and the canoeist who have died in the past few days. Our thoughts are with all their families at this difficult time. I applaud the tremendous efforts of so many volunteers who have been working to support the community throughout the past few days.

As I made clear at the weekend, we on the Opposition Benches have pledged our full support for all the measures needed to help the communities affected. Although most insurance policies will cover the costs of alternative accommodation, it is the length of time away from their homes that will weigh most heavily on local people. We recognise that there are issues of safety, but even if families cannot move back home immediately, does the Secretary of State agree that they should be allowed the chance to inspect the damage at the earliest opportunity, as I understand some have been today?

Regrettably, hundreds of families will be out of their homes for Christmas because it can take many months for flood-damaged houses to be fit for habitation. Although I appreciate that housing stock needs time to dry out, does the Secretary of State agree that we need a concerted effort to get people back into their homes and businesses as soon as practically possible? We must do all we can to avoid a repeat of the situation after the floods of 2005 and 2007, when some people were displaced from their properties for months on end or even years.

Clearly, the situation with broken or potentially unsafe bridges is causing real problems for the local community. Can the Secretary of State indicate what role there might be in the short term for Army engineers to erect temporary crossings?

We appreciate that the affected areas saw record rainfall on Thursday, and that the water rose to such levels that flood defences were overwhelmed. However, when some of these communities have been flooded twice in four years, does the Secretary of State agree that there should be a formal review of flood defences in the area, not just to understand fully what happened, but to assess future needs? Does he also agree that,
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across the country, we will need to consider augmenting hard flood defences with alleviation measures such as natural upland drainage systems?

We have welcomed the introduction of the Flood and Water Management Bill and we will back the necessary measures to implement the Pitt review recommendations for flood prevention so that they become law at the earliest opportunity. Has the Cabinet Committee specifically recommended by Pitt to improve the country's ability to deal with flooding met?

Our climate is changing and bringing with it more extreme weather. Inevitably, there will be floods that cannot be prevented, but when one in six homes are at risk of flooding, is it not essential that effective measures be put in place to prevent future incidents where that is possible? We on the Conservative Benches are committed to working constructively to that end, but does the Secretary of State agree that, as the clean-up takes place, as we move from emergency to recovery and as media attention moves on, we must continue to remember the individuals and families who have been affected by these events and maintain every effort to ensure that they can return to normal life as soon as possible?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of appreciation to all those who have worked so hard, and for his visit on Saturday. I can inform the House that the Minister with responsibility for flood recovery, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, was in Workington and Cockermouth yesterday; and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), is in Cumbria today, as is Lord McKenzie of Luton. I know from personal experience that people on the ground appreciate such visits, because they help to show that people in very difficult circumstances are not forgotten. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about the need to be there to support people in the long term, not just in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

I understand completely the wish of residents to be able to get back into their homes. I spoke to two or three who made that very point to me on Saturday morning. The police and the engineers have to be sure, however, that structures are safe for people to go back into. The torrent of water that went down Main street in Cockermouth, in particular, was extremely powerful, and they need to check that buildings are safe. However, I am sure that the police will seek to enable access as quickly as possible, subject to that requirement.

On bridges, we will, indeed, look at what can be done. I am happy to confirm that the Cabinet Committee that Sir Michael Pitt recommended has met, and, as I have already told the House, we will have a ministerial meeting later today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to previous flooding. He will be aware that a flood defence scheme was put in place in Cockermouth in the late 1990s, and it was topped up a bit in the wake of the 2005 floods. However, it was completely, as he said, overwhelmed.

In the case of Keswick, where a scheme has been under consideration, I am advised that it, too, would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the water that we saw. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look in particular at what can be learned in relation to flood defences in Cumbria.

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Upland flood storage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is part of the approach that the Environment Agency takes in trying to find a way to manage water. One can either defend places using higher walls as the water comes through, or try to reduce the rate of flow by storing it elsewhere, which flood plains have done naturally for many years.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his expression of support for the Flood and Water Management Bill, which will complete the process, which we have already started, of implementing Pitt's many recommendations. That has not stopped us getting on with a great deal in the past two years, as I have already indicated to the House, but it will clarify the law, where required, both on the responsibilities of local authorities, and on reservoir safety, which was an important recommendation of Sir Michael's report.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): In thanking the Secretary of State for his statement, may I add my thanks to all those who have worked heroically since the early hours of Thursday morning to protect residents, homes and businesses throughout Cumbria? My brother-in-law is a member of Cumbria constabulary, and I have many friends in the force. They, like the whole community, are devastated by the loss of PC Barker, and I join the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in conveying my sympathy to PC Barker's family. I assure them of our prayers of support and immense gratitude for his service to our community and for his heroism. I also join the Secretary of State in his expressions of sympathy to the families of Michael Streeter and Chris Wheeler.

Throughout my constituency, the police, the fire service, the ambulance service, the coastguard and South Lakeland district council deserve our thanks and praise, as do the volunteers in mountain rescue and in bay search and rescue. Our whole local community, and our local media, deserve praise, too. As of yesterday afternoon, the flood relief fund stood at £140,000 from voluntary donations alone, and that makes me extremely proud to be a Cumbrian.

Since Thursday morning, I have visited residents and businesses in my constituency in Kendal, Burneside, Staveley, Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside. In each place, I have found people who have been devastated by the floods, but they are determined to work together and refuse to be cowed by the devastation. Indeed, the catastrophe has brought our community even closer together. On Thursday, as the River Kent was bursting its banks on Aynam road in Kendal, I joined dozens of volunteers in a desperate and, I should say, successful bid to move to safety thousands of Christmas presents bound for orphanages in eastern Europe before the flood waters encroached on the warehouse.

I walked with a family of local volunteers back to their home on Aynam road. Our mood of optimism and common endeavour fell as we discovered that the children's downstairs bedrooms had been flooded. It was heartbreaking to witness. There, in one vignette, I saw the camaraderie and common endeavour on the one hand, and the deep and devastating loss and upset on the other.

Only 10 days ago, I took United Utilities and Environment Agency representatives to Burneside, where I pointed out to them the risk of flooding. United Utilities said that the cause of flooding was the inadequate
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capacity of the Kendal drainage system, but that an upgrade was a low priority. I am afraid that we have now paid for that complacency; homes in Kendal and Burneside flooded on Thursday. In most cases, they flooded because of a drainage system that was seriously undercapacity. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need an upgrade as a priority?

I thank the Secretary of State and Environment Agency officials for keeping me well informed throughout the past few days, but may I ask him why residents on the Environment Agency's flood watch call list were not given targeted warnings at all, or, in the case of Burneside, were texted six hours after their homes had been flooded? Given that the national Flood Forecasting Centre has the know-how to predict with pinpoint accuracy the likely communities and streets that will flood, why has it not been allowed to convey targeted warnings in advance to residents and businesses?

Will the Secretary of State ensure that insurance companies do not respond to the disaster by hiking up insurance premiums in the affected areas, or by massively increasing the insurance excesses? Does he agree that local authorities should be given the right to turn down any planning application for building in flood-risk areas? Will he acknowledge that the delay in the arrival of the Flood and Water Management Bill has meant that confusion remains over who is responsible for so many aspects of flood prevention?

I spent yesterday in Ambleside and Bowness with my family and saw businesses carrying on as usual, refusing to give in to the elements. The spirit out there is indefatigable and the message that those enterprises want me to get across is that the Lake district is very much open for business. The floods have been devastating, but we are made of stern stuff in Cumbria, and we are determined to carry on.

Finally, will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the British people to support Cumbria by continuing to visit and enjoy the festive spirit in Britain's most spectacular county?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of sympathy and eloquent appreciation of the efforts that the community is making; obviously, he has been at the heart of those in the past few days. I want to echo the point that he made about the local media. At times such as these, local radio in particular, but also local television, are tried and trusted sources of information about what is happening and where people can go to get assistance.

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