3.57 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for sending her best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom I spoke to a short time before the debate. He is making progress but, as Members will readily understand, is going through an extremely painful process. She has been extremely kind in sending him messages.

There were many things in the hon. Lady’s speech that were lacking in accuracy or were exaggerated, but let just one thing speak for everything: her criticism of our promise to open the railway line at Dawlish in six weeks. Let us be clear that the enormous gap in that line is being mended in the face of the most difficult storms. Containers filled with rocks were obtained to protect it, and without that, houses would have been lost, yet the storms continued. Despite that work, the gap increased by 70% over the weekend. The people repairing the line are working around the clock to deliver a railway. Frankly, being sneered at by the hon. Lady is not very helpful.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Is not part of the problem with the Labour party’s argument that its Members talk in generalisations? In reality, a huge amount of good work has been going on across the country, not least in Godmanchester in my constituency, where tomorrow a £10 million new scheme will be opened to keep over 1,000 of my constituents safe from flooding.

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable case. Indeed, we will be announcing a number of schemes that will help with that process. In fairness to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, she did pay tribute to the people who have done this work.

I welcome this debate. I think that despite the hon. Lady’s best endeavours, there is a lot of common ground between the Government and the Opposition on this motion. Unless the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who will put the case for the Labour party towards the end of the debate, is particularly aggressive and provocative, it is certainly not the Government’s intention to oppose the motion. [Interruption.] As he says, perish the thought.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 326

As the hon. Lady said, Britain has faced some of the worst flooding in decades. The wettest winter in two and half centuries has caused significant damage to homes, businesses, transport and farmland. Areas across the country—

Chris Ruane rose—

Mr Pickles: Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me for a few moments? I would like to set out the case, and then of course he will get first dibs.

Chris Ruane: I am glad that the Secretary of State calls me the hon. Gentleman rather than the hon. Lady, as he referred to me last week.

Mr Pickles: I have upgraded my glasses since then. However, I have always regarded the hon. Gentleman as a particularly attractive Member of this House.

Areas across the country have suffered from flooding, power loss, damage to local infrastructure, and coastal erosion. In some of the worst affected areas, communities will continue to suffer the after-effects for months to come, long after the cameras and the Westminster politicians have disappeared. I commend the tireless work of local councils, firefighters, Environment Agency staff on the ground, local volunteers and our armed forces for the work they have done, and still do, around the clock.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: No, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has first dibs, and then I will give way again.

Chris Ruane: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. What role does he think that climate change has played in the recent floods?

Mr Pickles: I will come to that point towards the end of my speech. If the hon. Gentleman is not happy with my remarks, I will give way to him again.

Mr Jeremy Browne: The Secretary of State talked about the long-term task of clearing up after the floods. Is he able to provide some reassurance to my constituents that the A361, which is the principal road from Taunton into the middle of Somerset, will be passable once the floodwater has receded? Many of my constituents are nervous that even when the water has dissipated, the state of the road will mean that they are not allowed to travel along it.

Mr Pickles: We have put in some additional money ready for those precise circumstances. One of our concerns was about the riverbanks. Having looked carefully at the situation, and having had people in from the Netherlands to look at it, it seems as though they are in a very good condition. As for the condition of the road, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, when it has been submerged for some time, the problem is not just potholes but the surface rising. We will be looking at that, because it is clearly of national importance to see it back in operation as quickly as possible.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): Will the Government complete a proper assessment of the economic impact of the flooding as well as, of course, the awful

26 Feb 2014 : Column 327

impact on people? Only through such an assessment can proper evaluation be made of schemes such as the western relief channel for Oxford, which is the only practical means of reducing the flooding there, which the Secretary of State came to see for himself.

Mr Pickles: The right hon. Gentleman is right. I went to look at the possibilities there and was well and truly lobbied. I have reason to be very grateful to firefighters who came up with a way of keeping the roads open with a very inventive use of high-volume hoses.

Sir Gerald Howarth: The Secretary of State has mentioned the work of the agencies. May I put it on the record that, since Aldershot was badly hit by flooding in 2006, Rushmoor borough council, Thames Water and the Environment Agency have combined not only to clear some of the vegetation from Cove brook, but to undertake other work that has resulted in our being very lightly hit this time? It is very important that we have a balanced debate about flooding, so I say to my right hon. Friend that in Aldershot we are very grateful for the work that has been done. We know that more must be done, but let us put on the record what has been done.

Mr Pickles: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes some reasonable points and shows what can be done. In fairness, the weather was much worse for a more prolonged period than it was in 2007, and the number of dwellings affected is 7,000 or thereabouts, which is just a tiny proportion of the 55,000 or 56,000. That is a reflection of some very good protection work.

Henry Smith: Will my right hon. Friend also welcome the £11.7 million that has been spent on the upper River Mole flood alleviation scheme since 2010, which has protected hundreds of homes that otherwise may have been flooded during recent events?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con) rose—

Mr Pickles: It would seem mean not to let my hon. Friend in.

Nadine Dorries: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Will he use his good offices to persuade the Environment Agency that our constituents who live close to the rivers and watch them day in, day out know them very well, and that when they make representations to the Environment Agency asking for the rivers to be dredged, they have good reason to do so? My constituents in Shefford watched the water mark rise and rise. They escaped flooding, but only just and despite having made repeated representations to the Environment Agency. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could use his offices to make sure that the Environment Agency pays attention to constituents.

Mr Pickles: I will raise that issue with the Environment Agency, which I found very responsive to individual schemes. If my hon. Friend would be kind enough to give me more precise details, I will try to get an answer for her.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab) Will the Secretary of State give way?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 328

Mr Pickles: I think not. I need to make some progress. I will give way later to the hon. Gentleman, who no doubt wants to say something about firefighters.

In response to the situation, this Government have taken and continue to take decisive action. The risk of river and coastal flooding is now diminishing, although groundwater remains—and will remain for some time—a problem.

Although the signs of spring may be appearing on the trees outside, for some the misery remains. The Government are in daily contact with gold commanders in all areas, continuing to offer Government support. As the weather patterns return to a more typical form for this time of year, coastal and river waters are likely to return to their normal flow. Gold commanders maintain a state of readiness to respond to future flooding should the risk increase again in the coming weeks.

Locally, the transition to recovery is under way and most areas have convened recovery meetings. For those that have not, a shadow organisation will be ready to respond at any given time. The ministerial recovery group is co-ordinating Government support to local areas and infrastructure owners and operators, to enable a return to normality as quickly as possible. That is complemented by a new Cabinet Committee on flooding, to learn the lessons for the future.

Although the floodwaters remain, I reiterate that every resource is available to local communities affected. We will keep providing whatever immediate practical support and assistance is needed, whether it be extra pumps and sandbags, military support on the ground or emergency funds for local councils.

Recognising the particular nature of the situation in Somerset, we have been working closely with all local agencies to develop a sustainable solution to the water management of that area. The Government have announced that the dredging of the Somerset levels will be ready to start by the end of March, provided that water levels drop. Dredging will take place on an 8 km section where the Tone and Parrett rivers meet. It is not a miracle cure, but it recognises that mistakes were made and policies needed to be changed. Sometimes the state should say sorry, and that is exactly what we have done.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The contracts are now out, and we start the work on the 28th. As he says, the important point is that we cannot pump north of Burrowbridge because of the capacity level of the river—it is 40% below capacity. We will only be able to pump in the Somerton and Frome and the Taunton Deane seats when that work takes place. Will he make sure that the Environment Agency and others stick to that timetable?

Mr Pickles: My hon. Friend is right. We have an enormous pumping capacity, but we need to be cautious in how it is used on the Parrett and the Tone and, of course, in the King’s Sedgemoor drain. Some of the larger pumps that we have brought across from Holland can take out an enormous amount of water, but we clearly have to ensure that their pattern of use does not lead to a degree of scouring that would threaten the banks’ stability. We are going about that in a very reasoned way: it may take weeks longer than is ideal, but it is important that it is done in a safe way.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 329

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: I will, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I then make some progress.

Rosie Cooper: Does the Secretary of State know whether any regulations are being used to stop dredging at this time? When farmers in my areas asked for dredging to take place, they were told that regulations say that it is the breeding season and that birds cannot be disturbed, so dredging has not occurred. Is there any way in which such regulations can be overruled?

Mr Pickles: Again, if the hon. Lady would be kind enough to give me precise details of that matter, I will certainly engage with it. I do not want to give the impression that dredging is the solution to everything. It might well be inappropriate; in particular, it might make the situation of a very fast flowing river worse. We need to be able to put together bespoke solutions for particular areas. Part of my area of Essex has been saved from flooding by the sensible use of water meadows, which is an idea that I very much support. We cannot replace one doctrinaire view with another ideological one.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: I want to make a little progress if that is convenient. I will give way, but I first want to make a little progress, because other hon. Members want to speak.

On financial support, we will continue to do whatever it takes nationwide to support local communities across the country that have been affected by flooding and to aid their transition to recovery. The Bellwin scheme is helping councils to meet exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties. I have extended the scheme: raising the payments to 100%, rather than the normal 85%; making it easier for fire authorities to claim; lowering the threshold for counties and unitary authorities; and extending the scheme to the end of May. I want to make it clear that that is not written in concrete; if we need to extend the scheme again, I will consider doing so. We have already received 96 notifications from local authorities that they intend to make a claim under the scheme.

In addition to the Bellwin scheme, we have established a severe weather recovery scheme. It was started following the flooding just before Christmas. This fund will support communities and repair local highway infrastructure. Today, I can announce that we will extend the qualifying period for local authorities to claim under that scheme to the end of May, and that we will increase the amount of money to £40 million.

Flooding has an immense emotional impact on householders: like burglary, the effects and trauma linger for months. To do our bit, we have made £4 million available to councils to fund council tax rebates for people whose homes have been flooded. The rebate will be for at least three months, and it should cover everything for the period during which people cannot live in their property.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 330

Mr Pickles: I did say that I would not give way, but I can never resist my hon. Friend’s charm.

Dr Coffey: My right hon. Friend’s announcement is really welcome news, as homes in Great Yarmouth and Suffolk Coastal in East Anglia were flooded at the beginning of December. Will he say more about accelerating the repairs in places where they are being done right now?

Mr Pickles: As my hon. Friend almost certainly knows, applications for the first phase of severe weather payments came in a couple of weeks ago. It is our intention to get the money out of the door as quickly as possible.

Debbie Abrahams: Given everything that the Secretary of State has said about the emotion and trauma that is caused to householders who are flooded, do the Government regret removing the priority to

“prepare for and manage risk from flood”?

That quotation is from the ninth report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the departmental annual report.

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady only has to look around to see how effective the new schemes have been. We have continued producing schemes. A number of Members have stood up and recognised what has happened. To be frank, I am pretty partisan and I am doing my best to be restrained. I point out politely that the last Labour Chancellor announced that if the Labour party won the last election, capital schemes would be cut by half. I do not believe for one moment that flood defences would have been exempt from that. After all, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, who has many fine qualities, has not been able to give a commitment that she would match the spending plans of the coalition Government.

Chris Williamson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: Oh no, I don’t think so—not for a while.

Councils have the discretion to extend the relief. Since April, they have had the ability to waive the council tax exemption on empty homes to get them back into use, and to use the money to support front-line services or keep council tax down. The Leader of the Opposition supports that policy. However, I believe that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central has his doubts about it. It would be helpful if, in his summation, he made those doubts clear or demonstrated that he is at one with his leader.

The Government have been clear that we can give councils local flexibility. Councils can continue to use their discretionary powers to offer council tax relief to people whose homes are empty through no fault of their own. If councils are raising extra funds by waiving the exemption, they have a moral obligation to fund council tax relief for flooded homes for as long as it takes for families to get back into them. It would be most unfortunate if councils were portrayed as making money from misery.

To support home owners and businesses, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is providing a repair and renewal grant of up to £5,000 per household.

Chris Williamson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 331

Mr Pickles: In a moment.

The repair and renewal grant will top up any money that is received from insurers to ensure that flood resilience is built into homes and businesses as they are repaired. We are providing support for local businesses to give them the breathing space that they need to recover from the flooding. All affected businesses will get 100% business rate relief for three months.

Sir Richard Ottaway: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: I will in a moment.

Businesses will have extra time to pay other business taxes that they owe to the taxman while they get back on their feet. We have announced a separate business support scheme that is worth up to £10 million for small and medium-sized firms in flood risk areas. We are helping farmers who have been affected by the flooding and severe weather to get their businesses back on track as soon as possible. A new £10 million farming recovery fund has been set up to help local farmers that have been directly affected and to meet the short-term costs as the flood waters recede.

We are building infrastructure resilience into our railways and roads, including through a £31 million scheme to deliver 10 rail projects that will improve resilience against flooding.

Sir Richard Ottaway: The Secretary of State will know from his visit to my constituency that a number of businesses that were not flooded were affected by the floods. Will he confirm that the compensation package that he has just announced will apply to those businesses, even though they were not flooded?

Mr Pickles: Certainly part of the amount that I have just announced with regard to businesses will be, although the rate rebate will not be available. This is perhaps a good opportunity for me to apologise to my right hon. Friend because I am afraid my office did not inform him of my visit to his constituency, which was made at short notice. I deeply regret that because he is a most diligent constituency MP, and I know he had been at the site the previous day. That was a good example of how adaptable firefighters have been: the use of the underpass as a balancing pool was a work of absolute genius, and it undoubtedly saved that important pumping station.

Chris Williamson rose—

Mr Pickles: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Chris Williamson: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I indicated that I might mention firefighters, but I think I will save that for a little later. He spoke earlier about a moral obligation on local authorities, but are the Government not under a moral obligation to reinstate the significant cuts that they made to the flood defence scheme when they came to power, particularly in view of the Prime Minister’s statement at the press conference he called on 11 February, when he said that the Government

“will build a more resilient country for the future”?

What does that mean if not reinstating those cuts?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 332

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman must forgive me because I have had this conversation with him before. We were rather short of money when we arrived because of the poor way—[Interruption.] Let us be fair. The hon. Gentleman might have missed the point as he was probably getting ready for the intervention, but as I said in response to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who has sadly left her customary place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government made it absolutely clear that they would have reduced the capital programme by half. The Opposition are not even in a position to match the funding that we are offering now. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speaks to the shadow Chancellor and urges him to reverse the position of refusing to offer help to flood victims.

Since the east coast surge in early December, more than 1.3 million properties have been protected by flood defences. The substantial flooding in the Somerset levels and elsewhere will take time to subside, and while immediate action is needed, we also need to look to the future. Fifty-five schemes starting this year will protect more than 43,000 households, and we are providing £130 million of assistance for the repair of sea and flood defences, including £10 million specifically set aside for Somerset. In total, the Government are spending £2.4 billion over four years, versus £2.2 billion over the last four years of the previous Government.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences, including £370 million by the end of this Parliament and the same in real terms each year, rising to £400 million by the end of the decade. These are capital spending plans that the Opposition have declined to match and the Labour party has refused to commit to. Our plans will improve protection for at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): We have all seen what happened in the flood-risk areas, and my sympathy goes to everyone involved. However, will the Secretary of State look at the situation in the north-east and give a cast-iron guarantee that moneys already allocated for coastal erosion and other flood schemes will not be reduced or withdrawn to ensure that finances are made available for other schemes?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman will remember, as I do, that tidal surge before Christmas, which was one of the scariest things I have ever seen. We were remarkably lucky that the flood defences held for the most part. It would be an act of folly to say that one part can flood and another cannot. Who can say? We are just a few days away before the first spring tides start to occur. The weather looks relatively benign, but were spring tides ever to coincide with a tidal surge we would have some real problems. Sadly, the Somerset levels are again at risk of flooding this weekend.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): The Secretary of State mentions tidal surges, which are exactly what affected the River Stour and the Iford park homes. I am grateful for the promised Government funding to support businesses and dwellings, but will he confirm that that will include mobile home parks that have been affected by flooding?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 333

Mr Pickles: I am afraid I did not quite catch the last couple of words. What assurance was my hon. Friend seeking?

Mr Ellwood: The River Stour overflowed when it hit the incoming tide, flooding mobile home parks. My right hon. Friend referred to “dwellings” in relation to funding. Will mobile home parks be included?

Mr Pickles: Of course. Absolutely. A mobile home is entitled to the same protection as a dwelling that has foundations.

On the Pitt review, in which the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) took such an interest, the vast majority of its recommendations have been implemented, with the majority of measures now in force. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is committed to implementing the remaining five Pitt recommendations by the end of this year. We are making the necessary legislative changes in the Water Bill.

Rightly, attention should now turn to how councils plan for development and how they build. Decisions on whether to grant planning permission are, of course, a matter for local planning authorities.

Andrew Percy: On the issue of building on floodplains, may I bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the proposals going through North Lincolnshire council to build up to 10,000 homes on a floodplain between Burringham and Gunness in my constituency and Scunthorpe, a project created by the previous Labour council? I am deeply concerned about it, as is the leader of North Lincolnshire council. It is still going through the local development framework process, but may I just put it on his radar and urge him to support those of us who are concerned, after what we have just seen, about development on floodplains?

Mr Pickles: I will come on to the question of floodplains in a few moments, but the matter is on my radar. My colleague the Planning Minister will of course look at it with a completely open mind when the time comes.

Rightly, attention is now turning to how councils plan to develop and where they plan to build. Councils should take advice, where appropriate, from the Environment Agency and weigh up the different material considerations, from biodiversity to the need for more homes. Having said that, 99% of proposed new residential units that the EA objected to on floodplain grounds were decided in line with EA advice, where the decisions are known. I would say this, however: there is no monopoly on knowledge. Local elected councillors should decide and be held to account for their decisions.

Nevertheless, the estimated number of dwellings built in areas of high flood risk in England is now at its lowest rate since modern records began. That figure will change from year to year. It may rise and it may fall, but it will never be zero. A zero figure would mean a complete ban on any form of development in many existing towns and cities that happen to be flood-risk areas. Approximately 10% of England is high flood risk, such as large parts of Hull, Portsmouth and central London—indeed, this Chamber is in a high flood risk area. National planning policy clearly states that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided. Councils should direct development

26 Feb 2014 : Column 334

away from areas at highest risk. Where development is unavoidable, it must be demonstrated that it is safe and will not increase flood risk elsewhere.

Councils have a robust power to reject unacceptable planning applications. Councils’ local plans should also shape where development should and should not take place. They should address the needs of associated infrastructure to accompany new building. National planning policy is clear that any new building that is needed in flood-risk areas should be appropriately flood-resistant and resilient. Mitigation measures such as land raising, landscaping, raised thresholds and rearranging the internal use of buildings can also make a development appropriate in such areas.

For example, London has long been at risk of tidal flooding, as evident from the North sea floods of 1953, which inflicted immense damage to the east end of London. However, since 1983 the Thames barrier has mitigated that risk. We did not have to ban all development in London; we overcame the challenge through science. We do not face a binary choice of economic growth versus flooding, town versus country or bailing out flood victims versus saving children in other parts of the world from being killed by contaminated drinking water. These are false comparisons and false choices. I want to be clear: we can and must do both. All that is required is political will, determination and innovation.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about development being directed away from flood-risk areas unless it is absolutely necessary. However, the question is: why is it absolutely necessary to build in certain areas that are at great risk of flooding, including in my constituency, which he has been kind enough to observe?

Mr Pickles: I vividly remember the visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency in 2007. There is rarely a time when I pass Tewkesbury that I do not think of that. He makes a very reasonable point. Historic Tewkesbury remained relatively dry, while the new bit has experienced a degree of flooding. Things have to be managed. Ten per cent of the country is a large area; London is a large area. We need to ensure that a degree of caution is exercised, but ultimately we have to ensure that our citizens are safe.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab) rose

Diana Johnson rose—

Mr Pickles: If the hon. Ladies will bear with me, I want to talk about the challenge of climate change and then I will give way.

The same approach should apply to climate change. There are certainly man-made causes to the recent flooding and the main cause needs man-made management. Policies on dredging, development and even tree planting directly affect our landscape, but the weather is a factor in itself. The debate on climate is highly charged and polarised between sceptics and zealots, but the conclusions should not be. We know that Britain’s weather and climate is fickle. If Britain was to have a national symbol, it would undoubtedly be the umbrella. Any expectation that the Met Office could have predicted

26 Feb 2014 : Column 335

the amount and severity of that rain is simply unreasonable. It does not have a crystal ball, despite improvements in predictions.

The Met Office still does not definitively know whether climate change contributed to the recent weather patterns. This might be a short-term trend or a long-term one, but I would simply say this: the risk is there to our nation of a changing intensity in Britain’s weather. Given that risk, we should prepare. It would be irrational not to insure ourselves against that risk, and if there is a long-term trend, we should adapt to such change, as my noble Friend Lord Lawson has advocated.

“Just as science and technology has given us the evidence to measure the danger of climate change, so it can help us find safety from it.”

That seems a very reasonable statement and I commend it to the House. It is the view of a former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and I think he spoke very wisely.

Lilian Greenwood: If the Government really understand the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather, why does their draft national policy statement on roads and rail contain no reference to ensuring that our existing transport infrastructure is resilient?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady is pointing to various documents and looking for omissions, but the facts speak for themselves, and the schemes that we are operating speak for themselves. We have been able to protect 1.3 million households, and although these have been perhaps the worst storms that we have faced for two and a half centuries, the number of properties affected has been relatively small.

Hon. Members: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: As the floodwaters recede and the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to be learnt about the role and policies of quangos, the influence of man-made interventions on our landscape and rivers, and the resilience of our nation as a whole in the 21st century.

Hon. Members: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Pickles: However, the first and the primary role of Governments is the defence of the realm. This Government will take whatever action is necessary to defend our nation from the forces of nature—

Hon. Members: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Members must allow the Secretary of State to conclude his speech.

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, this Government will take whatever action is necessary to defend our nation from the forces of nature, and will prepare for the threats that it faces in years to come.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. As the House will be aware, a great many Members wish to speak, and there is a limited amount of time. I must therefore impose a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 336

4.36 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): If we are able to answer one question, it will give us the key to what I believe are the long-term practical solutions to the problems of Somerset and elsewhere. Why did the Somerset levels flood and the Gwent levels not flood?

Having represented part of the Gwent levels continuously as an elected person since 1972, I know them well, and members of my family live in Somerset. The areas are almost identical. They share 2,000 years of history, and their topographies and geographies are identical. The Gwent levels were drained by the Romans, and the sea wall was built by the 20th Augustan legion 2,000 years ago. During that long period, the levels have been treated very much the same. Drainage has been put into both. They have recently shared exactly the same weather—they are only a short distance apart—and exactly the same tides. There is no dredging on either side. So why on earth was there flooding on one side of the Severn estuary and not on the other? I believe that the answer lies in farming techniques.

As has been said, dredging is not a panacea. In 1928 there was a flood here, on this spot. The terraced houses opposite, in Page street and Millbank, were flooded, and people died. That flood was caused by dredging, which was carried out in the lower reaches of the Thames to increase access for ships. Yes, water did flow out more quickly as a result, but it also flowed in more quickly. It was easy for the tide to come in. In the dredged areas, the tide came in and met the water coming down from the hills. If dredging is seen as the answer in Somerset and is proceeded with, the lower reaches of the Parrett will be exposed to the extraordinary characteristics of the Severn, which holds more sediment in suspension than almost any other river in the country.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken. The River Parrett is tidal for 18.3 miles of its length from the Severn estuary. It is precisely because of the tidal surge from the Parrett that we cannot move the water away from the Mendips, the Quantocks and the other hills. That is not comparable to the situation in the Gwent levels, where the topography is different.

Paul Flynn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, on the characteristics of the Severn we know that on both sides of the river we have the second highest rising and falling tides in the world, but the issue is the amount of sediment because of the length of the river. In the Severn estuary and on the beaches, sometimes the rocks are clean and nothing has been deposited, but on another tide 1 foot of mud may be deposited there. Given the 18 tidal miles of the Parrett, it will be easy for the sediment to come in. However, the sediment is not just coming in from the tidal reaches of the river; it is also coming down from the hills. That is key. Dredging would create an open door to allow the sediment to move in from the Severn in greater quantities, as it did with the Thames in 1928.

What is the difference between the two areas? The difference lies in the Quantocks, the Mendips, around the Welsh hills and the Wentwood. There is a difference in farming in the two areas. That is made clear in a report in Soil Use and Management. It contained a warning, six weeks before the floods moved into Somerset,

26 Feb 2014 : Column 337

that a disaster was brewing. It said that surface water run-off in the south-west of England, where the Somerset levels are, was reaching a critical point—it said that six weeks beforehand. It added that on 30% of the land that researchers investigated, instead of percolating into the ground the water was pouring off the fields.

One of the main reasons was the increase in the growth of maize. There are other reasons, but when I was first elected the maize grown in this country occupied 1,400 acres. It now occupies 160,000 acres. What are the characteristics of that? It breaks up the soil and allows the water to run off. Maize is being grown in Britain not for food for humans but for animal food and biodiesel. One could ask whether, in trying to solve the climate change problem in that direction, we are creating a bigger problem in the other.

There was another warning—a clear warning—in 2005, when a Government report published a devastating catalogue of the impact of the changes in land use. As well as warning of the loss of fertility from the land and the poisoning of water courses, it said that

“increased run-off and sediment deposition can also increase flood hazard in rivers”.

That point was made in 2005. That Government paper urged:

“Wherever possible, avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas.”

The Government of the time—this is crucial—made it a condition of receiving some £3 billion in subsidies that farmers took action against that. The Government argued that ground cover crops should be sown, as a condition of receiving the subsidies, under maize and the land should be ploughed, then resown with winter cover plants within 10 days of harvesting to prevent water from sheeting off. Why is that not happening in Somerset? The reason is that the current Government have dropped that condition. That is one of the main causes of the extent of the floods. They issued a specific exemption for maize cultivation from soil conservation measures. We are now in the position of looking for instant solutions. Dredging is the cry. It has some effect but it can be deleterious as well.

We have thrown money at the problem, which most people are asking for. That will help, but in the town that I represent, there were regular floods 20 or 30 years ago. Now there are areas where fields are designed to flood and to take the excess water, and they have not been flooded for decades. There are plans. If we go ahead with some of the instant solutions being suggested in Somerset, we will decrease the flood threat to farmlands but we will greatly increase the threat to urban areas. One field flooded is far less damaging than having 100 houses flooded. We have to look realistically at the changes that are taking place. Of course the weather was thoroughly exceptional, but there are whole areas of Somerset that have been flooding for centuries. The “ey” suffix on the names of many of the villages there means “island”, and historically they were islands—little mounds standing up among the flat areas.

I welcome the reasonable way in which the Secretary of State has put his case today. We are now looking for long-term solutions. We are not looking for solutions that merely address the immediate political problems;

26 Feb 2014 : Column 338

we need solutions that will last for decades and that will take into account the changes in farming on our hillsides. The land there is no longer retaining the water and allowing it to percolate through slowly; the water is now rushing rapidly down and causing these freak flooding incidents. Thank goodness we have also come back to the realisation of the seriousness of global warming, which the motion also mentions. For so long, we have heard Conservative Members saying that it is not serious. It is, and we must act against it.

4.46 pm

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I am pleased to be able to make a brief speech in this important debate. My constituency did not flood immediately but the waters got there in the end, and the continuing rain made for a difficult couple of weeks. I was grateful to the Prime Minister for coming in person to see the effects and meet a number of people who told him what we needed to do—and to avoid doing—in our area. I will outline one or two of those things in a moment.

I was pleased with the Government’s response to the flooding, so far as my constituency was concerned. I was also pleased that the Army was called in to help certain vulnerable people, and I commend the good work done by the fire and rescue services, the police, the Environment Agency and a number of the local councillors, who responded very quickly to the flooding.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I spank my hon. Friend—[Laughter.] I mean, I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am going red now. The Pitt review suggested that when the armed forces were used in these circumstances, they should be paid for at full cost. Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to look into reducing the cost of the armed forces at times of national emergency? At the moment, they often seem too expensive to be used.

Mr Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have to say that there is very little chance of his going red, as far as I know. He makes a good point, and he knows far more than I do about the financing of the Army.

The Government response in my area was certainly very good, and a number of the schemes that have been built there in the past few years have also been very successful. Nevertheless, three of the four roads that serve the town of Tewkesbury were closed, and the situation was becoming serious. Sadly, a number of houses were also flooded. I say “houses”, but I should rephrase that. They are people’s homes. Some homes in Sandhurst and Longford, which are villages just down the River Severn, were flooded for the third time in not very many years, and it was heartbreaking to visit them. The challenge, which I want to discuss with the Government, is how we can avoid such flooding in the future.

It has been acknowledged that the Government cannot control the weather, and we seem to have experienced rather different weather cycles over the past few years. Nobody will have forgotten the terrible floods of 2007, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles) came to visit Tewkesbury and saw some of the problems that we were facing. Even people on the other side of the world heard about those

26 Feb 2014 : Column 339

floods. I have spoken to people in Australia who remember seeing the famous picture of the flooded land surrounding Tewkesbury abbey. The abbey itself did not flood, and neither did an even older church just down the way at Deerhurst—it was built in about the 8th century—even though the village does flood.

The important point, which I am going to have to take up with the Secretary of State, although I raised it in an intervention and he did mention the building, is how vital it is not to continue to build in flood-risk areas. I hear what he says about 10% of the country being at flood risk. I have only a simple education, but I suggest that we do not build in the 10% and concentrate building in the 90%. Surely there is enough room to build the houses that we need.

I want to take up the issue of house building, because of a number of sites in my area that have been given planning permission. One of them is absolutely covered in water—it is at Longford, in an area that floods badly. Permission was granted, on appeal, by the previous Government, but I do not know why that happened. That was six years ago, but the houses have not yet been built. Planning permission has been given for a lot of houses in both Bishop’s Cleeve and Brockworth, but those, too, have not yet been built. I say to my right hon. Friend, and to the Government, that I do not accept that there is this need for housing which is being expressed; this need is being overestimated by the Government. I have raised the issue before and we need to look at the point carefully.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I recognise many of the issues that my hon. Friend from down the River Severn is raising. I do believe that houses need to be built, but does he agree that councillors should play a key role by making sure that they keep a record of flooded sites where some form of planning permission might have been given and, where necessary, use the planning system to protect them better, so that they are protecting the floodplain in the future?

Mr Robertson: I agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for that intervention. However, the councils in my area are saying that the Government are putting so much pressure on them to build a given number of houses that they have no choice but to build them in green-belt and flood-risk areas. I am sorry to have to say it to the Secretary of State but that is what my local councils are telling me. They are saying that they cannot accommodate the number of houses that they will be required to build without impinging on the green belt and without putting them in flood-risk areas. That is open for debate, but that is what my local councils are clearly saying to me. I really need him to examine the situation carefully and as a matter of urgency, because it is causing a very big problem. That issue was raised with the Prime Minister when he came to my constituency a week or so ago.

I wish to raise one or two other points about building in flood-risk areas. First, this issue comes down to what we define as a “flood-risk area”. I understand that the Environment Agency will assess an area as being at flood risk only if it is at risk from river flooding and not if it is at risk of surface water flooding. I would be happy to be corrected on that, but that is the situation as I understand it. Someone whose home is flooded

26 Feb 2014 : Column 340

does not really care what kind of water it is or where it has come from, because the situation is bad and they do not want it to happen. Perhaps the Government need to give different advice to the Environment Agency on how it classifies flood-risk areas.

Dan Rogerson: I just want to confirm that the flooding maps published by the Environment Agency before Christmas include surface flooding. Such an updating of the maps was one of the recommended changes, so that information is there. In addition, local authorities have key responsibilities in respect of groundwater and surface water flooding.

Mr Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that and I will certainly take it up with the Environment Agency locally, but the map I saw just a couple of weeks ago was not coloured blue where there is surface water flooding. We need to take that up, but I will certainly take his words back to the local Environment Agency.

I am also concerned about what the Environment Agency has told me about the cost-benefit ratio of flood prevention schemes. I raised this in a written question and I was told, “As long as it is greater than a level ratio, that is okay. They can go ahead and carry out those schemes.” But that is not what the Environment Agency is saying to me when I raise these points with it. So, again, I have to take these points back to the Environment Agency to see what we can do to have even more schemes put into place.

I hear what has been said about dredging and desilting. They are not the entire answer to the problem, but in some areas, especially where there are pinch points, we must carry out that work. Although dredging and desilting are carried out in certain parts of the country, they used to be carried out an awful lot more. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has now weighed in on this and agreed that they should take place in certain areas, and that is what we are pressing the Environment Agency to do.

I welcome a number of the initiatives that have recently been taken to help compensate people who have been flooded and to provide for the repairs and replacements that they need. Will there be any help for people to provide their own flood defences so that they do not get flooded in the first place? People who are better off may be able to afford to do that, but those who are less well off cannot. It would be better if we could help people to prevent the flooding in the first place, as well as trying to help those who have been flooded.

On the issue of insurance, I am pleased that a lot of progress has been made on the Flood Re scheme, but what about the excess payments? An insurance company might provide the insurance, but if it puts an excess of £30,000 or £40,000, which I have come across, on a property it is effectively not covered, because an owner would have to pay so much to put it right that they would not be getting any insurance money back. I do not know whether the excesses will be covered in the Flood Re scheme.

Mr Pickles indicated assent.

Mr Robertson: My right hon. Friend is nodding. I look forward to receiving more details on that. That is good news if that is to be the case.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 341

Finally, I ask the Secretary of State to revisit the issue of housing numbers and to prevent houses being built in the wrong places, where they are likely to flood or cause other houses to flood.

4.57 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): It is my personal belief that global warming and climate change are occurring, that they had an effect on the recent flooding and that they will have a bigger effect on flooding in the future. That belief was the reason why I decided, eight years ago, to back npower’s proposals to put 30 wind turbines offshore off the coast of Rhyl. I switched on the turbines. The Prime Minister then came up to Llandudno for a Tory party conference and described those turbines as giant bird blenders. He then went back to London and stuck a mini bird blender on the top of his chimney.

According to statistics given to me on 17 December, which do not include figures from the recent flooding, 408 households in my constituency flooded in the two-year period from 2011 to 2013. That is the second highest number in the UK. The Prime Minister did not visit my constituency to speak to the flood victims. My constituency was again flooded on 23 December, and again, he did not visit. That is an insult to the people of the Vale of Clwyd.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend, I represent a constituency that is at great risk of flooding. I know the human suffering when people lose personal possessions—photos of weddings and of deceased relatives—homes and businesses. Will he say a little bit about how people in his constituency are coping with those pressures?

Chris Ruane: I will come on to that in a moment when I describe the visits that I have made to my constituents in the Vale of Clwyd, in St Asaph, Rhyl and Prestatyn.

Progress has been made on flood defences in my constituency. Some £7 million has been spent on a harbour wall in Rhyl, £3 million on raising the banks of the River Clwyd and £4 million will be spent on extending the harbour wall. Having reviewed the two floods, my local authority has a list three pages long of the work that needs to be done in the Vale of Clwyd, and it can only be done if we get help from central Government. I spoke first hand to residents in St Asaph and in Rhyl when I visited them in December 2013.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend will have heard the Prime Minister say that money was no object, but when it came to Wales, he was not quite so sure, nor so sure about where the money would come from.

Chris Ruane: I agree. The Prime Minister came to a constituency in west Wales to announce the UK––or rather English-only––increase in funding. Again, it was an insult to the people of Wales to treat them in such cavalier fashion.

I have visited the people of St Asaph and Rhyl whose homes were flooded, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) that flooding

26 Feb 2014 : Column 342

has a massive impact on individuals. It is not just the flooding, or the six months after when their houses are drying out and being rebuilt, but the fact that it leads to stresses and strains. There was one direct death in St Asaph in the floods of 2012, but I believe that many more indirect deaths resulted from the stress caused to elderly people. I visited the people of the Rhyl East ward whose homes were up to 3 feet deep in murky brown water. They have been through hell and high water.

I congratulate the volunteers and residents of those towns and of Prestatyn, which was nearly flooded. I congratulate the charities that raised funds, materials and gifts in kind for the victims. I congratulate the statutory authorities on their response, and I congratulate the voluntary organisations. The floods have left a legacy in my constituency. Some of the homes in St Asaph are now uninsurable and valueless. A £340,000 home, representing a lifetime’s commitment, is now valueless because it is uninsurable and the work that needs to be done to prevent future flooding cannot be undertaken given the lack of funding. People are living in fear. They watch the news every night to see the latest weather forecast and they do not sleep easy if it is going to be a bad night.

The big issue is funding. I mentioned it in a question the other week to the Secretary of State, when he called me a lady. According to the Environment Agency, for every pound invested in flood defence, there is an £8 return. Which of us would not bet on a horse if we were getting £8 back for a pound down? The Government are not doing that. They are not putting the investment in place. I have tabled questions on this. The answer to parliamentary question 132249 revealed that in Labour’s last budget, the amount spent on flood defences overall was £664 million. The following year, it was cut to £573 million, then £560 million, then £574 million and then £612 million by 2015. Whichever way we look at it, those are cuts compared with the Labour years.

I believe that those figures have been manipulated. They do not include inflation, but they do include not just central Government funding, which was what was in place in 2010-11, but private funding and funding from other agencies. We are not comparing apples with apples. In the Vale of Clwyd, we are pleased with the flood defence work, but it is does not matter if we build £7 million of defences here, £4 million there and £3 million over there, it only takes a gap as tiny as a little boy’s finger in the dyke to spoil the whole investment and environment and to wreck thousands of homes. If the proper flood defences are not put in place, these are wasted investments.

The Pitt report made 94 recommendations, but many of them have not been taken up. I shall give examples. I have tabled 12 parliamentary questions on this. I tabled another 30 today, and there will be another 50 tomorrow, covering each of the recommendations. The answer to question 186940 stated:

“I have made no assessment of local authority leaders’ or chief executives’ effectiveness”.—[Official Report, 13 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 800W.]

Why not? The answer to question 186945 stated:

“There have been no discussions with the Association of British Insurers or other relevant organisations on this matter.” —[Official Report, 12 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 661W.]

Why not?

Mr Pickles: What matter?

26 Feb 2014 : Column 343

Chris Ruane: On the matter of improving flood defences. Pitt recommends not building on flood plains, and in 2008-09 we had a 25% reduction in the number of houses built on flood plains. The figures are unavailable for 2012 and 2013. Why?

After dealing with funding, the issue I turn to now is one that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn): the importance of not only putting in place these big £7 million concrete defences but looking at softer, more sustainable ways to improve flood defences. I point to an excellent recent article by George Monbiot in The Guardian. There is huffing and puffing in the Chamber, but he made many excellent points, and I flushed out the issues that he addressed with about 20 parliamentary questions. I will come on to some of the answers in a moment.

In the article, Monbiot referred to Pontbren in Wales, where farmers have engaged in linear contour planting of trees, to provide some shade and shelter for their sheep. What they noticed, after they had provided that shelter, is that flooding in the flood plain was down by 29%. Planting trees on just 5% of the hillside led to a 29% reduction in flooding in the flood plain; even if trees were planted on 100% of the hillside, there would only be a 50% reduction in flooding. We need specific targeted measures for such linear contour planting in the catchment areas of our big rivers, and even our little rivers. It would be a sound investment. A line of trees that has been planted is 67 times more effective in getting rainwater into the ground than grass alone.

The funding is there. The funding for the common agricultural policy needs to be looked at. We need to be a strong voice in Europe, arguing that CAP funding can be used for afforestation in upland areas. We are creaming off 10% in England for this purpose, and we should be allowed to use that money to say to farmers and relevant bodies, “Plant these trees in these catchment areas and stop this water coming down and wrecking lives and households.”

This is not just a Welsh Government issue—

Dan Rogerson rose—

Chris Ruane: No, I will not give way. I have had meetings with Alun Davies, the Welsh Minister with responsibility for flooding, and I was really pleased with his response. I would like to have a meeting with the Minister, who has responsibility for flooding, and I hope that he will say yes in his winding-up speech to such a meeting. No assessment has been made by his Department of the impact that afforestation has on flooding. The Department for International Development is sending experts out to Nepal to tell people there how to deal with flooding, but it is not sending its advisers 500 yards down the road to DEFRA to tell the officials there how to do it.

This is a serious issue. It has big effects for seaside towns, because the water that is percolating through the Welsh hills is pure and when it ends up on the coast it is not infected with sheep faeces or whatever, and we get clear readings for our mandatory bathing water standards. It is a win-win situation.

5.7 pm

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the issues that we on the Isle of Wight have experienced during the past few

26 Feb 2014 : Column 344

weeks. We have two main problems as a result of the terrible weather—flooding and land movement. Of course, the island has experienced flooding in the past, but the meeting that I called about three weeks ago, with representatives of the Isle of Wight council, the Environment Agency, Island Roads and Southern Water, was to discuss a totally different type and scale of flooding from that experienced in the past.

Flooding has occurred in rural areas of the island, in some cases fairly regularly, but, as in other parts of the country, it has been far more severe this year. There is no instant solution, but the rivers, such as the eastern Yar, have been neglected. There has been a lack of desilting—desilting, not dredging—and bushes and trees have been allowed to grow on the riverbanks. These mistakes must be corrected on an annual basis.

In urban areas, however, there have been quite new experiences. The unprecedented rainfall has led to more than 120 homes and businesses being flooded across many parts of the island, including along some main roads, such as in East Cowes and Binstead during the early hours of Christmas eve, and in places such as Cowes, Carisbrooke, Newport and Ryde.

In some cases, problems were exacerbated by narrow pipework, which was unable to cope with the extra volumes of water, and floodwater rushed through a densely populated area, reaching the height of windowsills inside people’s homes. In other cases, flooding was due to the extreme volume of water combining with a high tide, including in central Newport, in the street in which I live, Sea street.

Many local flood group meetings have taken place across the island. Would you join me, Madam Deputy Speaker, in paying tribute to the many islanders, as well our neighbours in the west country and the south of England, who have pulled together to help and support one another through these very difficult times?

Bob Stewart: I very much thank my hon. Friend for giving way. There has been a problem in my constituency in places such as Courtfield Rise and Sparrows Den, not with water on the surface, but with water underneath in the water table coming up and seeping through the ground. We cannot think of a way to stop that.

Mr Turner: It is difficult to stop—in fact, it is impossible. Occasionally, the Army was on the Isle of Wight, ready to act to tackle the problems that people were experiencing.

A more deep-seated issue from our point of view is the irreversible damage to land stability, which has caused significant problems across the island. To name just a few: the west Wight beauty spot, Headon Warren; the cliff fall and collapse of part of the road in Shanklin; and, in particular, the landslide along the Undercliff. I spoke on the telephone to a constituent, Barry Thwaites at his Undercliff home. He was concerned about subsidence. When I got there, part of his garden had fallen away, the next-door bungalow had partly collapsed and his neighbours were moving out.

To the west of Mr Thwaites’s home, the A3055 was closed, as it was under repair following a previous collapse. To the east, about a quarter of a mile away, all that remained of the road was a strip about 3 or 4 feet wide over a length of about 60 yards. The other

26 Feb 2014 : Column 345

side of the road had fallen to a depth of about 20 feet. Unsurprisingly, the neighbours were concerned, and there are fears that more properties may well follow.

Residents have now been advised to leave their homes for their own safety, and all but two of them have now moved. They face a worrying and uncertain future, not knowing when or even if they will be able to move back into their homes. For many of them, their home is everything they have worked for for their whole life.

Measures have quite rightly been announced to help householders and businesses protect homes and buildings against future damage from flood water. However, the insurance companies must make it an absolute priority to help householders and small businesses.

I should also like to mention the Totland sea wall. A specialist report from Mott Macdonald has identified the fact that the damage was caused by exceptionally heavy rainfall during the winter of 2012. Residents fear that with no effective protection from the sea their homes at the top of the cliff will be at risk. Those same residents will feel it unfair that damage caused by heavy rainfall in 2013 is dealt with by the Government, but not damage due to heavy rainfall in 2012. Will the Minister tell me and other islanders what will be done to address the long-term and deep-seated issues that arise as an indirect consequence of the unprecedented rainfall?

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Before I call the next speaker, I must explain to the House that my arithmetic is not wrong, but when Members take interventions, the time limit for speeches increases. Speeches have been considerably in excess of eight minutes, so I have to reduce the time limit to seven minutes.

5.14 pm

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): It is right to begin with the human cost of flooding. My constituency is no stranger to flooding, and the devastation to home owners and businesses is incredible, which is why we need a clear policy, supported and understood by Members on both sides of the House, whichever party is in government, that gives the public confidence that the Government will provide the investment in flood protection that is necessary to minimise the risks.

In his speech the Secretary of State seemed to make the case that because a substantial number of Government Back Benchers got up to thank him for putting investment into flood protection measures, all was fine. [Interruption.] He says he did not mean that, but he certainly advanced the argument that many people were grateful for flood protection measures. So, too, am I. We had a hiatus with one particular scheme in York after the new Government came in, but it is now going ahead, thanks to funding from the Environment Agency and our local City of York council. But the budget for flood alleviation measures has fallen from the time this Government came to power in 2010 from something like £650 million a year to something like £550 million a year. There would be more Members getting to their feet to thank the Secretary of State, as I have done and as other Members have done, if that additional £100 million a year had been spent.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 346

Back on 9 January at DEFRA questions the Secretary of State claimed falsely that the coalition Government were spending more on flood protection than the Labour Government had spent. I challenged him, quoting figures that his Department had given to me in answer to a parliamentary question in July last year, pointing out that spending was in fact down by £113 million from what it was at the time of the general election. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gratuitously accused me of being a slow learner, because I had the cheek to challenge his slippery figures, and he repeated his bogus claim that

“this Government are providing more”—

for flood protection—

“than any previous Government in the current spending review.—[Official Report, 9 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 440.]

I was appalled at this statement. I tabled a further parliamentary question which was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). He gave me a different set of figures, but they confirmed a fall of about £100 million since the general election. I asked the House of Commons Library’s statisticians to comment on the figures that I had received, and they concluded:

“Departmental spending on flood defences in 2011-15 will be lower than it was in 2007-11 in both nominal and real terms”.

I therefore went to the UK Statistics Authority to ask whether it agreed with the House of Commons statisticians’ analysis or with DEFRA’s. I quote from the reply that I received last week from the chairman of the authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot. He said:

“The Statistics Authority’s own analysis of the available figures concurs with the conclusions of the note prepared for you by officials in the House of Commons, attached to your letter and subsequently reproduced in a published analytical article. We agree with their finding that, as at January 2014, Government funding for flood defences was expected to be lower in both nominal and real terms during the current spending period than during the last spending period.”

In order to justify his bogus and misleading claims, the Secretary of State did four things which no professional statistician would do: he selected particular time periods which favoured his case; he included estimates for future projected expenditure, when we do not know whether that will actually be spent or not; he added projected and unconfirmed estimates of private investments in flood protection, and showed them as Government expenditure; and he gave cash figures without showing that these were reduced when one took account of inflation.

The Secretary of State’s figures were unprofessional, massaged and spun. This is what Sir Andrew Dilnot had to say about them in his letter to me:

“Defra does not publish figures on flood defence spending as official statistics. There is therefore no obligation for Defra to comply with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics in relation to these figures. However, given the salience of these figures and the public interest in them, it is my view that it would better serve the public good if Defra were to consider publishing official statistics on expenditure by the relevant organisations on aspects of flooding and coastal erosion management”.

There is a solution to the problem of slippery figures changing from one parliamentary answer to another. It is clear that DEFRA cannot be trusted to provide truthful figures in-house. In future, figures on flood protection spending should be provided as official statistics,

26 Feb 2014 : Column 347

produced in a quality-assured way and issued by the independent and trustworthy UK Statistics Authority. It is clear that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs misled the public, this House and the Prime Minister, who has been repeating his figures—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to accuse a Government Minister of misleading the House.

Hugh Bayley: Well, he gave figures that are being contested by the independent UK Statistics Authority. I wish him a speedy recover—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can find a different way of phrasing the point he wishes to make.

Hugh Bayley: I just have found a different way of phrasing it.

I wish the Secretary of State a speedy recovery, but when he returns he should make a statement to the House to apologise for inadvertently misleading us and to confirm that figures issued on flood protection will in future be provided as official statistics from the UK Statistics Authority. [Interruption.] If he wants to apologise to me for his gratuitous insult, I will accept an apology at that time.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not need advice from Members on the time limit—I can count.

5.21 pm

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Sadly, in Somerset we are used to flooding. After last year’s floods, which we thought were a one-in-100-year event, it is dismaying—that is an understatement—to see even worse flooding this year. We can cope with three feet of water for three weeks, but not 10 feet of water for 10 weeks. To put it in context, if we flooded the City of London, the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington, that would still be smaller than the area currently flooded in my county. Although we have now managed to open Monks Leaze Clyse, the River Sowy is flowing and some of the biggest pumps we have ever seen in Somerset are working, it will nevertheless be weeks before we remove the floodwater.

I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks on behalf of my constituents to the people working for the Environment Agency, the internal drainage boards, the police and fire services, the Royal Marines and the local councils, who have been doing sterling work. I would also like to thank all the volunteers and the huge number of people who have donated to the Somerset Community Foundation to help those facing hardship as a result of the flooding. I thank the volunteers from the Flooding on the Levels Action Group for their sterling work in my constituency and the farmers from across the country who, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) said, have been sending forage to our farmers. It is very much appreciated.

I would also like to thank DEFRA Ministers, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister for coming to Somerset, seeing the situation for themselves

26 Feb 2014 : Column 348

and then acting on the basis of what they saw. As a result, we have had not only a very much enhanced crisis reaction, but the £10 million fund for farmers, the fund for small businesses affected, the tax and business rate relief and so on. That is very good news.

We are less pleased with the number of myths that have been propounded about Somerset, often by armchair experts who suddenly know all about the hydrology of the levels. Some of those myths have been pernicious. Some have been made in contrary directions. For example, some people have said that everything will be all right if we dredge, but it will not, as the Secretary of State said earlier. Dredging will not suddenly empty the levels or prevent flooding in future. Equally, those who say that dredging makes no different are talking nonsense, in my view. The fact that our rivers—the Parrett and the Tone, in particular—are at 60% of capacity means that we cannot turn on the pumps in large parts of my constituency because there is nowhere for the water to go. It means that the flooding starts earlier, stays longer and covers a greater area.

Equally, some people said, “If you dredge the river, it will turn into an uncontrollable torrent.” Those people had clearly never seen the River Parrett. It is probably the slowest river in the whole of western Europe. It drops 1 foot every mile; it is not going to turn into an uncontrollable torrent. We have also heard that the silting problems on the Parrett come from upstream, when in fact most of the silt is deposited by the very large tidal flow on the 18 miles or so of the river that is tidal. Although there is a contribution from upstream, that is where the main problem lies.

Why are we in this position? It is not because of purposeful negligence on the part of the Environment Agency, but for 20 years now it has been pursuing a policy with which I profoundly disagree. It has been doing that for two reasons. The first reason, which is perfectly valid in Treasury terms, is the cost-benefit return on investment that favours the protection of big cities and towns. I understand that, but, as a Somerset man, I do not see why we should be left out. The other reason is the heresy that sees the rivers as the area of environmental focus rather than the very precious ecology of the levels between the rivers. The rivers are the way of getting the water away from areas that are of vital importance.

We have been sent away to produce a 10-year action plan, and we are very near to completing it. I do not want to pre-empt it, but I will be very surprised if it does not include the dredging for which we have already issued the licences. Just as important is the maintenance of that dredging year on year. In that regard, we will need some significant changes to the revenue stream for local authorities and the internal drainage boards to enable them to do the job. We also need to deal with whole-river catchment. We need upstream measures, for which I hope we will use pillar 2 money within the common agricultural policy in order to retain more water in upstream areas. We need reforestation, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane); changes in cropping, because that will contribute as well; and sustainable urban drainage systems in our towns so as to prevent run-off. We must consider a barrage or a sluice on the River Parrett to prevent the tidal surge that deposits so much water and silt upstream.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 349

We need to revisit our emergency responses so that they are quicker and more adept at dealing with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have been learning as we go, and communications are much better now than when this emergency started. However, I wonder whether we would have had the same attention in Somerset had the flooding of the Thames valley happened first. I was very pleased that we were able to make the rapid progress we did.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Heath: Yes, because it will give me an extra minute.

Damian Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need to look at co-ordination between bodies such as UK Power Networks and the Environment Agency to make sure that when power goes down it is restored to pumping systems, in particular, as a priority so that we can keep the water moving?

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to revisit the whole issue of resilience in a big way.

The transport links to the south-west, which are tenuous at any time, have now been shown to be inadequate—not only the railway system but the roads system. The A303 is completely incapable of doing the job that we ask of it as a strategic route to the south-west. Where else in the country would the main road to the county town—the A361, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne)—be flooded and closed for months? For months we have not had access from central Somerset to the county town. The village of Muchelney—the name gives a clue, because “mucheln ey” means “big island”—has been cut off for a very long time. The bridge between Long Load and Long Sutton has been closed for a long time. These situations are hugely disruptive to people’s normal lives. Unless we can address some of those issues, we are not doing the job that is expected of us by our constituents.

Lastly, we need resilience at household level and at community level. Points were made earlier about equipping people individually to put in measures to prevent ingress of water into their houses and to make villages better able to deal with the problem. Of course, the planning issues that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) mentioned are fundamental as well. It is quite extraordinary that in some of the flooded villages in Somerset one sees bungalows nestling under the level of the river next to them. One wonders why people would build bungalows below the water table, and yet they have done so and we need to address how to deal with that in a much more satisfactory way.

The fact is that the Somerset levels are a man-made environment. The area is not a floodplain, as some people call it; it is reclaimed inland sea. Every bit of water we remove from Somerset has to be pumped over the banks of the river to a river that is higher than the surrounding land in order to get it away. That means we need special measures to deal with our special circumstances. A one-size-fits-all policy from the Environment Agency is never going to work for us.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 350

I am proud of the stoicism and practicality of my constituents in immensely damaging and difficult circumstances. I am glad that the Secretary of State indicated that he will not oppose the motion, because I would have voted for it.

5.30 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath).

The floods and scenes we have seen have been devastating and awful, as is the cost to individuals, families, homes and businesses. My first experience of really bad floods in my constituency was due to a burst pipe last October, which led to 14 homes on Ville road in the centre of Scunthorpe being very badly flooded. I visited those homes to see the devastation and they illustrated how bad floods are: they turn people’s homes upside down.

I pay tribute to the response of the Humberside fire authority, which came out in the middle of the night, got the situation fast under control and made a real difference, because there could have been much more damage. Anglian Water has responded well and is working hard with the people affected to try to ensure proper and appropriate support through these difficult times. Although there are still, even now, compensation issues, I believe they are being worked through properly. I am pleased that North Lincolnshire council and Anglian Water are working together, along with Severn Trent Water, to ensure that that is less likely to be a problem in future.

I have done a lot of work on the industrial river that runs through the heart of my constituency. Bottesford Beck might not sound like a river, but it is a big one and in recent years its levels have risen significantly and become a threat to farmland—it was not flooded previously, but has been consistently flooded over the past two years—and to households. As a result of an initiative by the Friends of Bottesford Beck to draw people together, Tata, the Environment Agency, North Lincolnshire council, Holme Hall golf club and local farmers are working together to bring pressure to bear. I am pleased that last month the Environment Agency agreed that there should be a pilot project to de-silt Bottesford Beck. That needs to happen in order to prevent some of the problems faced by the local community, particularly at the farm of Philip Marshall, which has been damaged. The situation has had a negative effect on his livelihood.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State, who is back in his place, say that he was determined to make sure that farmers affected by flooding will be helped and supported. I hope that help will be available to farmers wherever they may be in this country, including Philip Marshall, who has been affected by the flooding of Bottesford Beck.

It had been hoped that the pilot would go ahead shortly, but unfortunately it looks as if it might be delayed because processes need to be properly followed and there is a balance to be struck between environmental tensions. Given that the fish breeding season begins in the middle of March, the de-silting pilot might not be able to take place until the middle of June. That is causing frustration and exasperation locally, but I hope that will be worked through.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 351

The recent flooding event that had the biggest impact on the community I represent was the tidal surge from the Humber and the Trent at the beginning of December. It affected communities from Barrow Haven in the north, which is represented by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), to East Butterwick in my constituency of Scunthorpe. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) is in his place. Communities in his constituency were the worst affected, and he showed good leadership in relation to those difficulties at that time. Such communities do not work only within constituencies, and the impact on businesses such as Reeds country hotel or Cemex is felt by not only my constituents but those of other hon. Members.

I was delighted by the response of the local community to those difficulties. Individuals responded extremely well, as did businesses, such as the Wortley House hotel, which provided accommodation for the people affected, and local supermarkets, which provided food. There was a real community response to the challenge of the moment. The day after the floods, I visited the Pods—the sports and leisure complex in the heart of Scunthorpe—where the families affected, particularly those from the Burringham area, were seeking the support provided by North Lincolnshire council.

It is interesting that at times of difficulty or distress, the people affected do not look to Serco, A4e or Capita, but are pleased to see the Environment Agency, the local council, the firemen and, of course, the Army, which has recently been involved on certain occasions. That is a reminder of the value of public services and the role they play.

I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say that money will be no object to the communities affected. I hope that the Minister will confirm in his response to the debate that that commitment applies to communities such as north Lincolnshire, as well as others up and down the country.

BBC “Question Time” was recently held in Scunthorpe. Interestingly, local people expressed the concern that when such things happen in our unfashionable area, they are not always noticed by the Westminster village, but when they happen closer to this place, they are front-page news. It is important that this House demonstrates that it is concerned to support the farmers affected.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nic Dakin: I am very happy to give way to my honourable neighbour.

Martin Vickers: The hon. Gentleman is making a valuable speech, but will he acknowledge that on the Saturday following the 5 December surge, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited both my constituency and the north bank?

Nic Dakin: I absolutely recognise that fact, which was a good response by the Government at the time. I was just replaying people’s concerns, which remind us of the importance of our making a real effort in this place to demonstrate that we care about such things wherever they happen. In particular, many more dwellings or homes were affected in the north Lincolnshire area

26 Feb 2014 : Column 352

before Christmas than were later affected in some areas that have had much more public attention. It is important for all of us—as Team North Lincolnshire always does across the park—to bang the drum for the people and communities we represent.

5.38 pm

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). There is a Team North Lincolnshire, which Team Hampshire on these Benches will do our best to follow.

I have to say that the situation on the ground in my constituency is improving, but the crisis is far from over. Everything we face there and everywhere I have been in the past few weeks has been described as and compared with the events of 2000, when we were last badly hit by flooding. People have been watching the water and river levels to see how these floods compare with those of that year.

I have not been on piste or on beach during the past few weeks; I have been in my constituency to help out where I could. The village of Kings Worthy has been hit particularly badly, with many road closures that have caused huge inconvenience to local people. In the village of Headbourne Worthy, huge groundwater issues have caused sewage problems and a huge loss of business for local pubs and the Good Life garden centre. In the village of Sutton Scotney, which I visited last weekend, several people have had to leave their homes, and will be looking for the help outlined earlier by the Secretary of State. The village of Hursley has suffered huge issues with rising groundwater and sewage levels; when I visited it, raw sewage was coming down the street. I have learned about the ruthlessness of water over the past few weeks. Water will find the quickest, most ruthless route to the bottom. It does not discriminate between the things that it goes through or across in getting to the bottom. I have seen the devastating impact of that in the village of Littleton over the past few weeks. I have also seen it in the centre of the great city of Winchester, which the River Itchen flows through.

Over the past few weeks in my constituency, I have seen an incredible example of what the Prime Minister would call the big society. Communities have come together and responded fantastically. I will name-check a few people because they deserve it. In the village of Twyford, a gentleman called David Sullivan gets up very early and does a water level reading, which he e-mails to me. He has done that every day for the past fortnight. David Sullivan, Angela Forder-Stent of the parish council and the rest of the team in Twyford have been phenomenal. Parish clerk Sue Hedges and Councillor Stephen Godfrey in Sutton Scotney have worked tirelessly. Harry Whorwood and Giles Vigor-Robertson in Headbourne Worthy have basically given up work over the past few weeks to protect their communities.

I am name-checking those people and talking about their community spirit because it shows how communities can respond to the devastation that flooding can bring, which many Members have described. The stoicism and pragmatism that I have seen have been remarkable. From the constituents I have met over recent days, I would say that the older they are, the greater their stoicism and pragmatism, because they have seen it all before.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 353

The motion mentions the Pitt report, which I have of course read. It is true that some of the recommendations of the Pitt report have not been implemented. That is regrettable and we need to see to that. It stated in particular that multi-agency working must be better next time. In my constituency, the multi-agency approach has worked. The Environment Agency, Hampshire county council, Winchester city council, the parishes, Hampshire fire and rescue service and, of course, the Army have been involved. I was in Kings Worthy one morning during half term last week trying to move 1,000 sandbags, when 10 chaps from the Royal Signals at Bulford turned up to help. I can tell the House that, with my shoulders, they were very welcome.

The multi-agency working has been brilliant and responsive at all times. The Environment Agency has received a lot of criticism over the past few weeks. Some of it has been deserved in other parts of the country, but that is for other Members to touch on. In my area, the Environment Agency has more than risen to the challenge. Mike O’Neill deserves a mention. He even went door-to-door with me in parts of central Winchester to talk to and reassure residents. He deserves great credit for that. At one point, water was flowing down the appropriately named Water lane in Winchester, which the River Itchen runs past, at 12,000 litres per second—very fast—towards the ancient city mill. That was terrifying for residents. However, the multi-agency working and the good thinking of the Environment Agency prevented flooding in hundreds of homes. It deserves our thanks. The agencies have played a bad hand very well.

Upstream from Winchester, the Royal Engineers lowered several hundred 1-tonne bags of gravel into the River Itchen from the bridge of the M3 motorway to restrict its flow. That has not been done before. It slowed the Itchen and held it back. It flooded some farmland in the village of Easton in the Itchen valley, but farmers were happy to allow that to help save Winchester. It worked. That was a roll of the dice by the Environment Agency. When Chris Smith came to Winchester yesterday, he went to the River Itchen and saw the work that had been done. I know that he was impressed and I thank him and his team for their support in doing that work.

In closing, I am concerned about the bids that the Environment Agency has asked Hampshire county council, as the risk management authority in my area, to put together for the six-year plan for 2015-16 to 2020-21. It is good that a long-term plan is being put in place, but the process is incredibly rushed. The council is under incredible pressure to put it together. Just today, two parish councillors in my area have told me about meetings that they will have in the next few weeks to consider the response to the flooding crisis.

We need time to get this right. Of course we do not need to drag it out through the whole year until next winter comes around quickly and we are back in this situation again. However, my constituents want to know that proposals that miss the deadline because of proper consideration of what we need following the floods will not miss the boat, and that we will not be told that they have missed out as a result. I hope that the Minister—who is nodding—hears that point.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 354

In conclusion, there is always more the Government can do, and of course if there were an endless pot of money we could do everything we want. However, the relief package that has been put in place and administered so efficiently by Councillor Humby and his colleagues at Winchester city council is welcome, and it will be made use of by me and my constituents.

5.45 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I start by concurring with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He was entirely right when he drew a comparison between his constituency and what was happening in Somerset. As I think the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) acknowledged, to some extent farming practices are responsible for the extent of the flooding we have seen. In addition, however, the Government’s own ideological obsession with deregulation is responsible, and I will tell the House why. As hon. Members may know, maize cultivation is now a significant feature of the British countryside in many areas, and it is used for animal feed and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West pointed out—for biofuel.

The problem with maize cultivation, however, is that it has a significant impact on land’s capacity to hold water. When Labour was in office we recognised that, and back in the mid-2000s, I think, we implemented soil conservation measures to take account of that, linking subsidies to farmers to that sort of conservation necessity. When this Government came to power, with their obsession with deregulation, they specifically exempted maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures. That seems absolutely crazy. That crop causes the most floods and does the most damage, yet it is completely unregulated—it is a crazy example of barmy deregulation. As well as investment in flood defences and dredging in certain circumstances, it is vital that the Government make clear the importance of that issue, and take the necessary steps to ensure that sustainable land use is a feature of ensuring—as the Prime Minister said—that the Government secure a sustainable country for the future.

Let me say a little about my constituency, which thankfully was spared the floods on this occasion. According to recent data, 3,372 homes in my constituency are at risk of flooding, and 1,370 are at significant risk. It was really just luck that the rain fell where it did, because had it fallen on the River Derwent catchment area, my constituents would be counting the cost of flooding to their homes. I remember back in the 1960s when around Christmas the homes at risk in my constituency sustained the sort of flooding that we are seeing in other parts of the country today.

We know that funding for the “Our City Our River” flood defence scheme in Derby was substantially cut by this Government when they came to office. That has caused considerable anxiety for my constituents, and made it difficult for many of them to obtain flood insurance. The Prime Minister said that money was no object and that the Government would invest in securing a sustainable country for the future, so I hope that the funds necessary for flood defences in my constituency will be made available. It is no good simply saying, “Well, they can be completed by relying on the private sector and using the funds that it will put

26 Feb 2014 : Column 355

in place”. We need to get the private sector to the table, and meanwhile the rain might fall and the floods may arrive.

We know that there are a number of climate change deniers on the Government Benches and in the Cabinet itself—indeed, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a climate change denier—but it seems obvious to me, from the events of the past few months, that climate change is happening. We are seeing more extreme weather events, and, as I have already pointed out, Derby has been lucky.

It is important to acknowledge the heroic and innovative work undertaken by our fire and rescue services. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has referred to some of that excellent work and other hon. Members have mentioned it in their contributions too. Firefighters have been tireless in their efforts to rescue people and to protect certain areas from being inundated. Without their efforts, residents in areas afflicted by these awful floods would have experienced even more devastation. The Pitt review, which was published some time ago, called clearly for a statutory duty to be imposed on fire authorities to tackle flooding and to be the lead bodies in these circumstances. Recommendation 39 of the Pitt review states:

“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”

I hope the Minister will indicate whether the Government are considering implementing that recommendation.

In addition to adapting to the growing problem of severe weather events and increased flooding, I hope we will see investment in renewable energy. We need to find ways of generating energy in a more sustainable way. We also need to reduce demand for energy, as that would have the twin benefit of tackling fuel poverty. Investing in an energy efficiency regime to tackle fuel poverty would make an important contribution to reducing demand for energy. Finally, in addition to reducing development on floodplains, the Government ought to consider making developers responsible for any damage caused to flooded properties for, say, 20 years after homes have been built.

5.52 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): Romsey is located on the banks of the River Test, a world-renowned chalk stream. Too many times in the past few months the river has been an unwelcome visitor in too many people’s homes. Our problem is not just the river, which is ground fed, but the springs that have popped up in many places; the ingress of groundwater into the foul drainage systems, causing the drains to fail and rivers of sewage to flow through the streets of villages like Chilbolton and Longparish; and surface water flooding, which we experienced in Romsey from Christmas eve until well into the new year. For householders along the Causeway in Romsey, there have been weeks of misery: homes being permanently pumped out, an access road undermined by the sheer weight of water, and the fear that access to the crucial pumping station for the town would not be maintained.

The situation has not all been negative, however. There have been phenomenal examples of community

26 Feb 2014 : Column 356

spirit and pulling together in a crisis. I have praised them before, but I will do so again: Romsey’s amazing retained firefighters gave up much of their Christmas and were among the first to be out there again when the February floods hit. They were indefatigably cheerful, even when their road closures signs were ignored and damaged. The Army and the Navy arrived in Romsey the week before last and designed the most amazing device—colloquially known as the “cat flap”—to divert water from Fishlake stream back into the main body of the River Test, and to lay 40,000 sandbags at strategic points around the town. They worked seamlessly with the borough and county councils, the Environment Agency and the emergency services, and were greeted with relief wherever they went.

However much I wax lyrical on how things were pulled together to aid Romsey and the surrounding villages in their hour of need, there are crucial lessons that we must learn. Little was known about the bank of the Fishlake stream until it was at crisis point, so work to identify at-risk areas has to happen and it has to happen now. There are some great local examples across Hampshire of communities with flood action plans and flood wardens where greater damage was averted. We now have to replicate that work everywhere.

People have spoken at length of the dangers of building on floodplains, and I agree. However, in many instances the houses are already there, so although we must avoid adding to that housing stock, we simply cannot abandon the houses already there. Protection is needed, and although I do not pretend to be an engineer or a drainage expert, when the water has subsided, we must work out what can best be done to avoid this happening again. Sadly, in many parts of my constituency the water is still rising, particularly the groundwater, unlike around the River Itchen where the water levels are falling.

When it comes to planning, we have to look at the existing infrastructure and the impact on surface water drainage from having additional roof tiles in previously open green spaces that acted as natural sponges to rainfall. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is no longer in his place, but we cannot look just at floodplains. We have to look at the catchment areas, which can also make a contribution. Where there has been development at Abbotswood on the edge of Romsey—a significant distance and uphill from the natural floodplain—there is a clear problem with surface water drainage flooding existing properties that are further down the hill. Over Christmas and new year there were huge problems in Winchester road in Romsey, with a combined drainage system simply overwhelmed by the amount of water, causing foul drainage flooding of homes. That might be regarded as totally separate to the subsequent flooding caused by the River Test, but the misery for residents is no less.

I spent last Saturday morning looking at the defences that the military and the Environment Agency have put in place to prevent further flooding in Romsey from the fragile bank of the Fishlake stream. I would like to put on record my thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Fossey and his team, who worked phenomenally hard to protect the town from further flooding. As one would expect, conversation inevitably turned to the future and what needs to be done to safeguard Romsey in the long term.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 357

I am the first to say that now is not the time for a knee-jerk reaction when deciding what would be best. The local authorities and the Environment Agency need to assemble experts and decide, not at a time of crisis but when the waters have abated somewhat, and they need reasonable time scales in which to do it.

There are certainly some thoughts already on whether land needs to be found that can be safely flooded without damage to housing. Attention needs to be turned to development and where new houses can best be placed away from floodplains in a way that will not impact on already creaking infrastructure. If necessary, we need to revisit housing numbers and perhaps take a view that some areas simply cannot accommodate more building. The water courses and drainage systems further up the Test valley from Romsey also need to be considered. I do not know whether extra capacity or deepening and widening the stream through King’s Somborne or the Wallop brook would help. Presumably that would run the risk of sending water further downstream to Romsey even faster and exacerbating the problems there.

Longparish, Chilbolton and King’s Somborne have all had 24/7 tankering operations to clear surface water from the drainage system, but it is a drop in the ocean. There are still people in Longparish and Chilbolton who cannot flush their loos, have a shower or wash their clothes, and this is Hampshire in the 21st century. I appreciate that the solution will be expensive and require careful planning, but if we are to experience longer, wetter winters in future and if this year is just a taste of what is to come, we have no choice.

5.57 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): As many hon. Members have made clear in powerful speeches this afternoon, the floods have had a devastating impact on their communities. I am sure the whole House’s thoughts are with those who face personal loss and those who are now confronted with an uncertain wait and do not know when normality can return. Our thoughts are also with the workers who are straining to clear floodwater and repair our bridges, roads and railways. They have done an outstanding job under great pressure, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

I would like to start by saying a few words about the enormous damage that has been done over the past two months to the rail network. Great Western services have been severed south of Exeter since Brunel’s sea wall at Dawlish was washed away. Flooding has disrupted services in Wales. Crewe station was evacuated after suffering damage, and landslips have led to cancellations and delays in the south of England. At Bridgwater, in the Somerset levels, the line from Taunton to Bristol is still under several feet of water. Almost 300 Network Rail sites have been flooded.

Even when the water has cleared, further damage can follow, as embankments collapse. Many such earthworks date from the Victorian era and not enough research has been done on their stability. There have been 50 landslips in Kent alone over recent weeks. My constituents in Nottingham have also experienced delays, following a landslip between Chesterfield and Sheffield, and in the south-west, embankments have given way outside Exeter, compounding the damage caused at Dawlish.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 358

Ministers cannot always prevent disruption, but they can put more pressure on train operators to provide timely and accurate information to passengers and open up first-class seating to alleviate overcrowding. The railways are a vital economic artery for the south-west. While the immediate challenge is to reconnect those rail services, we must also question whether the south-west’s rail infrastructure can withstand future pressures. The Transport Secretary has given Network Rail the task of producing a report on the future of the Dawlish link, considering “all the options”, and we will hold him to his pledge. The report is due by July. Can the Minister assure us that it will be made publicly available?

Sadly, such reassurances need to be put on the record because of the lack of transparency on the Government’s part, particularly in regard to the funding provided. Following the extreme weather in late 2012 and early 2013, the Government announced that they would fund the greater part of a Network Rail package of improvements in the Exeter area: they would provide £26 million, and Network Rail £5 million. However, that funding disappeared in the autumn statement. The Peninsula Rail Task Force group of local authorities wrote to the Transport Secretary on 27 January, stating that the funding’s

“omission from the Autumn Statement has…become a cause for real and sustained concern.”

On 12 February, the £31 million was re-announced as new funding, although yesterday the Secretary of State seemed to suggest to the Transport Committee that it had been the same money all along.

At best, Ministers have failed to communicate their intentions to local authorities, causing anxiety to those who have to plan locally for improvements in the south-west’s flood resilience; but if this is indeed new funding, as we were told just two weeks ago, they must explain what will be cut, or how more money will be made from passengers, to make up the balance.

It is already clear that Network Rail has been left with an extensive bill. The south-west’s local authorities estimate that last winter’s weather caused about £140 million worth of damage; this year’s storms have cost Network Rail about £170 million, and that figure may yet rise. As Network Rail must find 20% efficiency savings over the next five years, it will not be easy for it to absorb a further loss of nearly £200 million—and that does not include the cost of the additional resilience studies that the Government have ordered or further resilience measures in Dawlish.

The Minister dodged my question in Westminster Hall this morning, but I am going to give him another chance. First, can he assure the House that projects will not be cancelled or pushed back beyond 2019 as a result of the additional expenditure? Secondly, if Network Rail concludes that a new line is needed, or that substantial improvement works should be carried out on the Dawlish sea wall, will those works be funded by central Government, or will they be paid for out of Network Rail’s already pressured budget?

Of course, local authorities whose budgets have already been severely cut have had to commit emergency funding, much of which is not reclaimable under the Bellwin scheme. We have been told by the Prime Minister that “money is no object” when it comes to meeting the cost of the floods, but two weeks after he made that statement, we are little closer to knowing what he meant. For all

26 Feb 2014 : Column 359

the claims that investment in flood defences has increased during the current Parliament, that is correct only if inflation and local authority funding are ignored, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). We need a different approach, based on long-term planning and proper regard for the scientific evidence. That is why Labour has set out proposals for a national infrastructure commission, with strategic flood defences at the heart of its remit.

We are living with the reality of climate change, and the flooding over the past two months has brought the scale of that challenge into sharp focus; but, as part of the Prime Minister’s accommodation with the radical right of his party, he has allowed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to become a voice for scepticism within the Government. Preparing for and managing flood risk has been dropped as one of DEFRA’s priorities, and, as I mentioned earlier, the Government’s draft national policy statement on roads and railways contains no reference to ensuring that our transport network is resilient. Budgets have been slashed, staff cuts planned, and scientific advice ignored. Progress reports on the Pitt Review’s recommendations have been scrapped, and exaggerated claims have been made in Parliament about spending on flood defences.

All that amounts to a poor record for a Prime Minister who once said that he wanted to lead the greenest Government ever. The Prime Minister may have changed his colours, but Britain still needs action to protect its transport networks and communities that are at risk of flooding. With clearer leadership and carefully planned, long-term investment, we can be in a much stronger position when Britain next faces floods on this scale.

6.4 pm

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), my constituency has been very heavily affected by the flooding on the River Severn. Although that has not been going on for as long as the flooding in the Somerset levels, it has been spectacular and done much damage. To give an example of the scale of the flooding, this afternoon, the gauge at Worcester stands at 1.4 metres. Just a couple of weeks ago, it was 5.5 metres. The Environment Agency estimated that 518 cubic metres of water per second was trying, and often unfortunately failing, to pass under Worcester’s central bridge.

I welcome the debate and much of the motion, particularly the fact that it thanks the emergency and statutory services for the fantastic work that they did. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned the Pitt review’s recommendation on co-ordination between statutory and emergency services. What I have seen in Worcester in the past couple of weeks in terms of co-ordination has been a model that others could learn from.

Two weeks ago on Monday, I was fortunate to attend a silver command meeting at Worcestershire county council and to witness at first hand all those organisations working together. I apologise if I miss out any of the people in the room at the time, but West Mercia police played a fantastic co-ordinating role. They arranged special patrols to areas that were cut off by the floods and oversaw that effort superbly. The Hereford and

26 Feb 2014 : Column 360

Worcester fire and rescue service also did a magnificent job. Incidentally, in contrast to some comments made by Opposition Members about fire services not being well placed to provide services, the Hereford and Worcester fire and rescue service told me that it was better equipped and trained for water rescue during these floods than in 2007, when floods hit Worcester severely.

We have also seen fantastic work by the West Midlands ambulance service and the Environment Agency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, I acknowledge that in some areas the agency has been somewhat controversial. In Worcestershire, however, there has been universal acclaim for the agency’s round-the-clock work. Dafydd Evans has been very helpful in keeping me informed. Dave Throup has been upheld as some kind of superhero. He now has a Twitter following of about 1,800—the Dave Throup fan club. That is a celebration not just of his superhuman efforts, but of all those who have worked very hard during the floods. I salute them all.

Worcestershire county council put huge effort into keeping the city open for business and pushing to get the bridge reopened as soon as humanly possible. People were doing that in the silver command meeting that I attended. However, sadly, it had to be closed again as the river rose to record highs. Whereas in previous floods, when our bridge was closed, we had to call in aid from the military, who drove their vehicles through the floods to keep the city tied together, the council was able in this instance to run a successful bus service. The buses drove through the floods on New road, which cut off the main city bridge, and kept the two sides of the city tied together. That won great acclaim from city centre businesses. It helped loads of people to get to work, children to get to school and made a big difference. The staff worked almost around the clock and in appalling weather conditions as the rain came down. I pay tribute to them.

Keeping the city open for business was a key priority throughout, and I acclaim the work of the business improvement district in Worcester, which ran a successful open for business campaign. Indeed, I am willing to commend the Labour mayor in the city for her work in supporting that campaign. That was positive, although, as I will come to, Labour in Worcester has slightly shot itself in the foot in its efforts since to support the campaign.

I want to mention the military support that we had in Worcester, which arrived while I was in the city. I was pleased, particularly as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, to be able to welcome the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment when it came to the city. The regiment showed fantastic professionalism and excellent co-ordination with the civil authorities. I was particularly pleased yesterday to receive a very impressive letter from the regiment’s commanding officer saying how impressed they had been by the overall efforts they had seen. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the local media, who did a fantastic job in keeping people informed in Worcester.

I welcome the fact that the Government are trying to help those people whose homes have been flooded. There are about 40 such homes in my constituency, and for those people, the floods are tragic and terrible. The number is much smaller than it was in 2007, however, and we should welcome the fact that the flood defences

26 Feb 2014 : Column 361

have made a significant difference, especially the £1 million defences on Hylton road, which have protected a large number of homes and businesses in Worcester.

Unfortunately, there have been reports of sewage in the flood water in residential areas of my constituency. When we think about resilience, we should also look at the sewerage systems, particularly in cities such as Worcester, to ensure that they have sufficient capacity and that we do not find sewage in river flood water in the future. We need to work with Severn Trent Water on that challenge.

We need to look at resilience in relation to transport. I have mentioned the fact that the Worcester bridge has been closed on several occasions. Our university will soon propose exciting plans for new pedestrian access across the River Severn using disused railway viaducts. They would be a lot cheaper than some of the alternative road plans, and I recommend that the Government look into funding them as part of the resilience programme.

I welcome the fact that the Government have given business rate rebates to many of the businesses affected by the floods. There is also an extra £10 million for businesses that were not flooded but that were otherwise affected. I am concerned that a lot of businesses will have been affected in that way, and I hope that that amount can be increased in the future.

Having praised all the statutory services and my local councils, I am very concerned that the Labour-led city council in Worcester voted last night to put up parking charges very substantially. This will hit the high street at a time when it really should be focusing on recovery. It is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and it will undermine so much of the good work that the council has done in recent weeks to show that the city is open for business. I hope that it will recognise the great cross-party work that has been done recently to keep things moving, and that it will rethink that decision.

6.11 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I am pleased that we have this opportunity to discuss flooding today, because 37,7000 homes in my constituency are at risk. I saw the pain, misery and damage caused by flooding when we were hit in Hull in June 2007. At that time, 8,600 households were affected, and 6,300 people had to move into temporary accommodation, including 1,400 who were accommodated in caravans for months afterwards as their homes were dried out, cleaned up and repaired, often after lengthy dealings with insurers.

I feel very sorry for all those people who are going through the trauma of flooding now. Until people go through it, they do not understand the awfulness of it, and the problems do not end when the floodwaters have receded. The anxiety, distress and depression will carry on for those families for months and years. I have met children who told me that they became anxious when they saw the heavy rain, because they thought that they might have to leave their homes again, or that they would not be able to get to school. I pay tribute to the National Flood Forum for the support that it offers to families after the floodwaters have receded.

We all recognise the importance of investment in flood defences. After the 2007 floods, I remember the Liberal Democrats, who were in control of the council

26 Feb 2014 : Column 362

in Hull, complaining that the Labour Government’s increased flood defence spending was not enough. However, it has now been confirmed that flood defence investment has fallen under this Lib Dem-Tory coalition. With estimates for the clear-up and repair costs from the recent flooding running at £1 billion, those cuts look like a classic example of a false economy.

In December 2013, an estimated 260 homes and businesses in Hull were flooded again following the east coast tidal surge. I want to ask the Government some questions about their response to the recent floods, and their provision of discretionary assistance to homes and businesses hit by that flooding. Initially, there seemed to be lots of Cobra meetings but very little action, whereas in June 2007, Hull heard about the extra flood aid in just two weeks and we had an early visit from the Prime Minister as well. After the December east coast tidal surge, it took two months, and the playing fields of Eton to be flooded, before Hull heard about the extra £5,000 help for homes and businesses.

Why does the current support for householders go only to home owners and not to tenants? As I understand it, the money has to be spent on flood resilience measures. Will the Minister explain how that will be checked? Will councils also be able to get money for the properties they own? Can every householder pool money to pay for more substantial flood resilience measures, where a local community wants to do that?

There seemed, again, to be confusion about whether Hull businesses would be covered by the business support scheme and about whether there is a cap on the business support that will be given. The guidance suggests that grants should be about £2,500 and that more than £5,000 should not be given out. Several large manufacturing firms in Hull were flooded, with expensive equipment destroyed. I understand that the council will be allocating the funds, so will it have discretion to offer more help, especially to those types of company that may easily be able to relocate internationally? In addition, why have the Government not applied for European Union assistance for flood-hit communities?

I have been raising and discussing the issue of flood insurance for many years. Last June, the Government finally announced the Flood Re scheme that is to replace the previous Government’s statement of principles. As we know, Flood Re excludes, retrospectively, homes completed since January 2009.

Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend know why it took three years for this Government to settle the Flood Re scheme?

Diana Johnson: I do not know why, but perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us. Obviously, the statement of principles ran out last summer and it has had to have a temporary extension until the new Flood Re scheme comes into place in 2015, even though this needed to be sorted out as quickly as possible.

Let me return to the issue of the exclusions. Leaseholders are excluded from the scheme, as are council tenants and small businesses, including people who run a bed and breakfast from their home. Landlords are not covered, even where there is a jointly owned freehold with each flat owner as a leaseholder. It is not clear whether tenants wanting contents insurance will be covered. There is no answer from the Government on the position

26 Feb 2014 : Column 363

of home owners or builders who acted in good faith, following all relevant planning guidelines and Environment Agency advice, but find themselves with homes that will now not attract home insurance cover under the Flood Re scheme because they have been built since 2009. Under Flood Re, a home built on 31 December 2008 will be covered whereas a house next door that was built on 1 January 2009 will not be. The scheme seems very arbitrary, and it is also not clear whether Flood Re covers the surface water flooding which we had a problem with in Hull in 2007.

Worse still, one part of the Government does not seem to know what the other part of the Government is doing. The Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government are promoting their Help to Buy scheme heavily in Kingswood in my constituency, an area hit by flooding in 2007; large Help to Buy posters are plastered everywhere. The problem is that the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are also signalling that those thousands of new homes being built and sold under their Help to Buy scheme should not have been built in the first place and will not be covered by Flood Re. The Government are getting themselves into real difficulty on this, and the people buying homes under the Help to Buy scheme at the moment will be shocked to know the position the Government are putting them in.

Clearly, there are some flood-risk areas where building should not happen—areas where there is coastal erosion and outlying areas that will not be helped by flood defence infrastructure.

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Lady has been consistent in raising the issue of the Help to Buy scheme. The scheme operates across the country, and the choice of where to buy a property and on what terms to do so is up to the person who buys it. Of course, the developer will also have gone through a process of developing it. The Government are not encouraging and actively pushing people into buying those particular homes; people are choosing to buy them and use that scheme. So perhaps she needs to give a little clarification on what she is accusing the Government of.

Diana Johnson: I do not know whether it is parliamentary to say this, but I am gobsmacked by that response. I thought the whole aim and purpose of the Government’s scheme was to encourage people to buy a home. It just so happens that 90% of my city is below sea level and on a floodplain, so someone who buys a property in Hull will probably be faced with it not being in the Flood Re scheme, yet the Government are still encouraging people to buy homes there. I am grateful for that at least—they have not abandoned Hull completely—but there is a problem with their Flood Re scheme.

The National Association of Home Builders estimates that 5 million homes around the country will not be covered by the Flood Re scheme, and the insurance firm Hiscox has in the past few weeks called for the deal to be made universal. As I have said, Hull, 90% of which is a flood risk, is currently protected, but it could be better protected still with more adequate investment and by ensuring access to affordable insurance cover. With that in place, Hull and other flood-risk areas have a viable economic future with a functioning property market and a strong business sector.

26 Feb 2014 : Column 364

With climate change leading to rising water levels and more frequent volatile weather, the scientific advice is that flooding will occur more regularly in a larger proportion of the country. This small country cannot write off the major towns, cities and areas of farmland that are now at risk of more regular flooding. Yes, there are limits on what we can afford to do, but we need to think too about the limits on what we can afford not to do.

The free market and little England approach does not equip us to face these issues. Climate change deniers such as those in the UK Independence party also do not help. They want to wreck Hull’s hopes for wind turbine jobs and send them abroad. Some of its members even appear to hold the view that same-sex marriage is responsible for the flooding.

Let us turn a major problem into an opportunity for economic growth. We could invest in flood defence infrastructure and support renewable energy with a balanced energy policy so that we meet our future energy needs in a way that also combats climate change.