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8.27 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I come from, and represent, a very wet place. Flooding is something that we in the levels of Somerset have to deal with regularly, and certainly on an annual basis. Indeed, many of the village names in the area-Isle Abbots, Isle Brewers and Muchelney, which means "big island"-reflect the history of the place and the fact that those were island communities surrounded by wetland. We know what flooding is about. I am increasingly worried about the fact that these once-in-25-years, once-in-50-years and once-in-100-years events are now happening regularly. That leads me to suppose that the assessments based on historical data need to be revisited.

I welcome the Bill not least because, as the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said, the definition of flood risk-and therefore that which informs strategy-will, I hope, allow us to provide a comprehensive response to flooding difficulties. I suggest that those difficulties fall into three principal areas-prevention, mitigation and resilience, and response-and I want to deal rapidly with all three.

Many people will consider prevention to be a matter of flood defences, which can go so far but are not the answer to all our flooding problems, whether in terms of engineering or costs. They might play a part in the response in some areas, but we cannot approach the problem simply by building higher and higher walls and bigger and bigger flood defences.

The maintenance of ditches-or rhynes, as we call them in Somerset-to allow surface water to flow away and to increase the capacity of watercourses is also important, but again those who consider the maintenance of waterways and drainage to be the answer are deluding themselves. The requirement goes far beyond the capacity even if the maintenance is perfect, which it certainly is not. I have my criticisms of highways authorities not paying attention to, for instance, road drains and the effect of constant surface dressing, which often reduces ditch and drainage system capacity, but nevertheless I think we need to look at the matter anew.

We certainly need to consider the control of flow. We desperately need the co-ordination of agencies such as the Environment Agency and local authorities, but we also need to incorporate the highways authorities, developers and the Highways Agency, which is responsible for major trunk roads, such as the A303, which is a major flood concern in my constituency. In some places, its construction allows too much water to pass underneath,
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and in other cases, it holds it up and produces some of the problems, as was the case in the villages around Wincanton and Anchor Hill at Holton.

Bridges have the same capacity issues, and we have talked already about the vulnerability of bridges. That should not come as a surprise. I remember that, when I was a lad, the bridge at Pensford, which is probably in the Minister's constituency, washed away. It was a major issue at the time. Bridges are a vulnerability; but often they are pinch-points for water too, because the arches under them do not provide sufficient capacity. We need therefore to look at the management of water flow and bridge capacity. I would also like a much greater emphasis placed on the whole river catchment area approach, which we started experimenting with on the River Parret, in Somerset, way back in the early 1990s when I was a county councillor. That is the only way of managing water flow effectively through a whole river catchment area.

Planning in connection with mitigation and resilience has been mentioned already. I made the point that we do not plan properly, but I was not just talking about building houses in the wrong places. We have a wonderful supermarket on the flood plain in Frome that was put there by a Government inspector against the advice of local people and authorities. It has impervious surfaces, of course, and a flood alleviation scheme attached to it. We hope that it will be successful, but nevertheless it is a risk.

I simply do not understand, however, why we do not build houses more resilient to flooding. It does not take a genius to realise that if the garage or wet rooms, such as the utility room or kitchen, are put downstairs and rooms that might be damaged by water are put upstairs, the house will be more resilient to flooding. Foundations, too could be lifted by just 2 or 3 feet. I know of a house in Queen Camel that is subjected to regular flooding, but which does not flood, despite the fact that the neighbouring houses do, because its foundations are 3 feet higher than those of the surrounding houses. It is a very simple recipe.

We need to consider community defences more and to encourage communities to take their own action where they can. The community of Stoney Stratton, in my constituency, knows what the problem is, where the water flow is and how to deal with it; what it does not have is the advice to help it to do it and the necessary resources which, as a community, it is prepared to provide via the parish council. I hope that we can encourage more local activity of that kind to provide that resilience.

We also need much more local and voluntary effort, which will require advice and co-ordination. There are some wonderful initiatives in my constituency-for instance, in West Camel, which is regularly flooded, but where people are now fitting water gates at the doors of their properties. They are fitting pumps that are responsive to flooding and provide that initial help at the point at which goods are salvageable. They are also using waterproof paint for surfaces up to the flood level in houses. That is the sort of initiative that ought to be taken in flood-vulnerable areas. There is good practice out there and good advice at the household and community levels. When people take such measures, that ought to be reflected in the insurance premium, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said.

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I want to deal now with the response. The emergency services must have the training to enable them to cope as best they can. We should remember that in rural areas it is often retained fire officers we are expecting to do such work. Warnings are important. More localised forecasting would be extremely helpful, as would having audible warning systems, not just the phone line, which has been successful and which I welcome. For a flood event in the middle of the night, it would be great if people knew that there would be a siren or even that a police car or a fire engine driving through the village with its siren going meant that they had to be on the alert for difficulties. Local readiness, encouraging volunteering, identifying vulnerable people in a parish council area and developing cascade systems are also important, as is developing community resources, even if that just means having a single dinghy available, so that people know where it is, who has to be collected and what the response has to be. Those are all things that need to be encouraged in the strategies.

Lastly, I want to deal with those resources that one might term community resources, including local authority buildings such as schools. I have already mentioned the Countess Gytha school in Queen Camel, which has repeatedly flooded and which I visited again yesterday morning. We need to have a new school. The school must be re-sited. We have the site; what we do not have in the local authority is the cash to make that happen. If we are taking flooding seriously, local authorities must have the resources to take sensible actions and find better sites for key buildings such as schools, hospitals and elderly people's homes, rather than simply continually decanting children out and refurbishing buildings.

However, that needs co-ordination between the Secretary of State's Department and other Departments, so that those resources are made available. I will be seeking a meeting with the Minister for Schools and Learners in the near future about that school, but I wish I knew that I had the support of DEFRA in saying that this issue-ensuring that community facilities that are regularly at risk of flooding will be supported by the Government's funding mechanisms to be moved to more appropriate places-is an urgent matter.

The Bill is a start in the right direction. I can see it has enormous potential in developing the strategies, but there is a huge array of issues that it needs to encompass if it is to do so successfully.

8.38 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Before I begin, let me thank the Secretary of State for all the work that he has done in Cumbria over recent weeks. It really has been appreciated. We welcome the solidarity that he has shown, the efforts that he has undertaken on our behalf and the decisive action that he has demonstrated from day one. It is absolutely right to bring the Bill forward now. It could not have waited any longer, and in that regard its length is self-explanatory.

May I also associate myself with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)? Anecdotally at least, the experience of the Fire Brigades Union in Cumbria right now certainly echoes the comments that he made about fire and rescue efforts in previous disasters.

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As a west Cumbrian Member of Parliament, I cannot say for certain that any Bill or Act could have prevented the recent flooding in west Cumbria. It is almost impossible for any Act of Parliament to cater for a one-in-1,000-year event. Let us bear in mind that Parliament is not yet 1,000-years-old. However, living in and among the areas affected by the floods, I would say that my guess from the ground is that the Bill could have helped.

We are all settled, I hope, on the principles of the Stern report. It will take hundreds of millions of pounds to put right the damage in west Cumbria. However, the cost of the cure, not to mention the economic consequences of the flood damage and the effect upon people's lives and communities, will surely dwarf the cost of prevention.

In the four and a half years that I have been in this place, I have routinely worked alongside communities in my constituency that have suffered from flooding. If the Bill had been enacted sooner, it would certainly have made a huge difference to those more ordinary events in places such as Parton, Beckermet, Braystones, Egremont, Holmrook, Cleator or Keswick. The organisational and accountability changes envisaged in the Bill would have made a difference-in some circumstances, a life-changing difference-to the lives of the people in those communities. As I have said recently in this House, I have seen the effects of flooding on those communities for myself.

As the people of Parton taught me four years ago, it takes only a little water to cause a flood and so make a huge impact upon the life of a family. A foot of water can ruin a home, and everything in it. Floods take away so much that can never be replaced. This issue is one of the most difficult to face us as a nation. Flooding is likely to happen more, not less, and we need to be able to meet the challenges that it poses in practical and policy terms. Improvements to the present system can be effected through legislation, but, inescapably, increased public spending on flood defences and water management will have to be at the heart of our effort. This might not be a universally popular clarion call right now-although it is in some quarters, at least-but it is a fact that must be faced up to.

I hope to be able to serve on the Bill Committee that will scrutinise this legislation following today's Second Reading. In the hope of being able to serve on that Committee, I will be asking as many flood action groups as possible in the affected areas to help me to undertake some pre-Committee scrutiny of the Bill, with a view to making their detailed views known. One of the strengths of the Bill is that it places valuable information germane to flooding and coastal erosion in the public domain, thereby massively increasing accountability and, therefore, action. The bitter experience of many of my constituents is that there is all too often no accountability with regard to flooding issues. There is consequently no ownership, no action and no improvement. I cannot stress strongly enough the anger and disenchantment that this causes.

In one local village, which can act as a microcosm for the many communities-particularly semi-rural coastal communities-facing flooding throughout Cumbria and the rest of the country, there are long-standing flooding problems caused by a variety of factors. The first is geography. The village in question is by the sea at the bottom of a large steep hill in the western Lake district, and the hill contains natural watercourses, streams and culverts. The second is infrastructure. The village is a
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little over a mile from a water treatment plant which discharges into the sea. In addition, it is an historic mining village surrounded by deep mineworkings. It also contains some railway bridges.

The third factor is development. Fine period Georgian housing sits alongside traditional terraced housing and some modern housing. Sometimes, the enforcement of planning decisions is incredibly difficult due to the problems in determining the ownership of land, culverts, drains and waterways, and there is a profound lack of accountability. The village is served by three tiers of local government, which presents its own unique difficulties. Furthermore, rainfall is increasing and the sea levels are rising.

That village could be one of many throughout Cumbria, the north or Scotland, but its problems are there now and they are very real. As the county that contains the Lake district and is next to the Irish sea, Cumbria requires unique help. I was speaking to one of the village residents on Friday night, and she told me that she and her husband take it in turns to keep watch whenever it rains through the night, such is their fear of flooding.

I remind all hon. Members that flooding is not uncommon in this country, and that we are living in the world's fourth largest economy at the start of the 21st century. Speed is of the essence. Those people are incensed by the lack of accountability, but they are not beaten by it. The village now has its own flood defence plan. If necessary, they will alert each other at 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and strategically place their sandbags, create their own waterways and fit their own flood defences to protect their property and their village. It is a remarkable village, with great people, and I commend their civic-mindedness, which is genuinely inspirational. But I want the Bill to change their lives quickly and for the better. Can the Secretary of State assure me that this will be the case?

As I mentioned, that community is a microcosm of the whole of Cumbria. We in the west of the county live by the sea and are surrounded by the fells. My constituency is home to England's deepest lake and tallest mountain. I would also suggest that it is the most beautiful in the country, and I urge hon. Members to visit it. But in a county such as ours-with a population of fewer than 500,000-how can local authority revenues ever support the infrastructure developments and improvements that need to be made? Even if set at punitive levels, the tax take would never be sufficient to undertake the necessary works. It is therefore clear that, in areas such as Cumbria, organisations such as Cumbria county council and Copeland borough council need to be the recipients of dedicated additional public money, over and above what we can raise ourselves, particularly if they are designated as a lead local flood authority, as envisaged in the Bill. Can the Secretary of State provide some indication of the Government's thinking on that?

On the subject of accountability, many people, myself included, are inclined to believe that the flooding problems we face, which are compounded by environmental change and increasing rainfall, have been exacerbated since the privatisation of the water boards in this country. I make no ideological point at all, as there are benefits to both private and public ownership models and each one
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works to different ends in different ways. However, since privatisation, our water drainage and management networks appear to have sharply deteriorated. Do we know what the situation is? Is there any benchmark against which to measure this? Can the Secretary of State tell us in the House today, or in Committee or on Third Reading precisely what the situation is?

It may well be that significant revenue could be raised here to help with this problem. If-and it is a big if-there has been a proven and demonstrable decline in the network since privatisation, a windfall tax, ring-fenced for flood prevention measures, may well be called for. Will the Secretary of State explain precisely and in more detail what this Bill will mean for water companies in the country?

As I went around the flooded areas in the wake of the recent floods in west Cumbria, there was real concern about the role of water companies, their infrastructure investments and the nature of their accountability. I hope that we can hear some answers from the Secretary of State, so that my constituents and I will know whether it is right to push for fundamental change with regard to the responsibilities of water companies. In the same way, will the Government give further detail not simply on the Bill's ability to legislate to improve our ability to cope with the risk of flooding, but also on the heightened risks of other dangers caused by flooding?

I shall now bring my remarks to a close because other Members want to speak. In short, prevention is better than cure, and we need to act exceptionally quickly.

8.46 pm

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who is absolutely right to highlight the importance of accountability, the dislocation that exists between accountability and responsibility, and the frustration that many people feel that there are insufficient structures that cover those particular issues. I contribute tonight because my constituency lies entirely on a flood plain, the vast majority of which is below sea level. Most of it has been reclaimed from the sea over the years, primarily by the Dutch, but it began as long ago as Roman times.

I think the Government were absolutely correct to respond to the 2007 floods, to instigate the Pitt report and initially to accept all its findings, but I am sure that the Government would accept that the Bill is not as comprehensive as was originally envisaged. Whoever form the next Government after the next general election-I obviously hope that it will be the Conservatives-will have to return to this issue to develop and build on some of the themes missing from the Bill.

Maps were provided by the Environment Agency to all Members of Parliament. Mine shows that if the flood defences failed, my whole constituency would be under water as a result of the combination of failing coastal flood defences and those dealing with precipitation and fluvial flooding. There have been problems in east Lincolnshire, most notably back in 1953, when significant floods along the whole of the eastern English coast took place. Homes and businesses were destroyed, people lost their lives and significant tracts of agricultural land were salinated.

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The fact that there has not been a serious flood in Lincolnshire since 1953 is, I think, a reflection of the investment that has gone into coastal defences and the excellent workings of the internal drainage boards in the county. Clearly, with climate change, the risk of flooding will be exacerbated, so we need to ensure that we are ready for any particular climate change that may impact not just in Lincolnshire but elsewhere in the country.

It is important to give the House a feel for the scale of the drainage schemes in Lincolnshire. There are 11 internal drainage boards, which manage water levels over 1.3 million square miles, and 171 operating pumping stations, maintaining 3,450 miles of managed drainage channels protecting more than 500,000 properties. Although I do not criticise hon. Members for their earlier comments about the necessity to be wary of development and building in flood plains, if a complete area is a flood plain, a much more sophisticated approach than a blanket ban is required. In my part of Lincolnshire, we cannot just allow economic and residential development to atrophy, as there would be no job creation and no wealth creation over the next 20 or 30 years. That said, we must ensure that the detail is worked through thoroughly and properly in respect of the Environment Agency and the new structures put in place by the Bill. For example, there are 26,000 caravans between Mablethorpe and Skegness.

Moreover, different types of coastline and the different types of flooding that may affect them give rise to different needs. My constituency contains open coast that stretches from Gibraltar Point up to the Humber. That area is very different from the area of the Wash, which surrounds the coastal area of Lincolnshire but also that of Norfolk. The Environment Agency is doing very good work, particularly on offshore dredging, beach nourishment and dune maintenance. Its funding levels need to be maintained to ensure that that work continues.

I agree with everything that was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) in his excellent speech. However, I feel that we should take a more nuanced view of the information provided by the Environment Agency. It is important for the agency not to frighten people, especially when-in my view-insufficient research has been undertaken and disproportionate weight has been given to the likelihood of flooding. I have seen maps produced by the agency according to which the whole of my constituency and everyone in it would be flooded in certain circumstances. I sincerely hope that that will not happen, but the current level of uncertainty cannot continue in Lincolnshire.

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