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Flooding and Flood Defence

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my honourable friend Elliot Morley. The Statement is as follows:

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    said the Government were improving the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities which incur unexpected costs in response to floods: assistance from Bellwin will now be automatic for authorities dealing with the current floods; the rate of government support will increase from 85 per cent to 100 per cent; valid claims will be settled within 15 working days and claims for advance payments can be made. This announcement addresses important concerns that have been put to the Government. The scheme will also be reviewed more generally when the current flooding is over.

    "The Government are also committed to discuss with the Association of British Insurers how the insurance industry can respond more quickly and effectively to emergencies such as this, and deal also with problems of insurability for homes and businesses at risk of flooding. When the current problems are over, the Government, local authorities and other agencies will, of course, do everything they can in pursuing the recovery plan to help communities to get back to normal as soon as possible.

    "I turn now to funding of flood and coastal defence. The total amount of spending on flood and coastal defence in England from all sources approaches £400 million this year. The Government are by far the largest contributor to this expenditure; in the current financial year, the Government planned to spend some £337 million in England. This is a combination of MAFF funding towards capital projects of some £80 million and £257 million delivered through the revenue support grant administered by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Revenue support grant is used, among other things, to pay levies to the Environment Agency which the agency uses to fund maintenance and operational costs for flood defences, and the balance of capital works not met by MAFF grant.

    "The announcement on the spending review in July this year foresaw that MAFF funding would be increased by £5 million next year, £10 million the year after and £20 million the year after that. In all, MAFF funding was expected to total £267 million in the next three years. We would also expect revenue support grant funding to increase by about 4 per cent a year, in line with the spending review settlement in this area.

    "Recognising the severity of the floods, I am sure the whole House will welcome my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement of a further £51 million over four years--starting this year--for: additional investment in flood defence works; new whole catchment area assessment studies; and making an earlier start to planned improvements in the flood warning system. This is new and additional money for England. Further discussions are in hand about the possibility of extra resources for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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    "The further funding is particularly welcome. It will allow us to progress more river-based flood defence schemes. This an issue that the ministry needs to discuss with the Environment Agency. The Government do, however, expect to make an announcement on decisions as soon as possible.

    "I ask the House to join me in expressing the Government's appreciation to all those who have been involved in responding to the flooding. I also ask the House to acknowledge the already major investment that the Government make in flood and coastal defence and to welcome the further funding that we are making available to ensure that the risks are reduced for current and future generations".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.29 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am sure that the whole House will join her in offering condolences to the families involved, some of whom have been struck twice, so quickly. It is not just a matter of flooding, which is bad enough in itself; unfortunately, on this occasion, sewage and other leakages have occurred, presenting an additional hazard with which people are having to cope. Like the Minister, I should also like to pay my tribute to the many--whether in the voluntary or in the regular services--who struggled to help to relieve the suffering of those families who have been struck for a second time, as well as those for whom it is a first-time experience.

When the Easter floods happened two years ago, especially in Northamptonshire, the Bye Report was published. Although the Minister did not refer to it, I know that that report made some recommendations that I believe have been a help in coping with the current situation. One of the difficulties experienced at that time was the fact that the National Rivers Authority and the Environment Agency did not act together as one. However, as the Minister pointed out, only 4,000 homes have been affected this time. Of course, that is a terrible number, but it might have been larger had there not been a united front in trying to cope with the current situation. Indeed, we are grateful for that.

The noble Baroness and I discussed a topical question a few weeks ago; namely, the whole question of building on low-lying areas. In response, the noble Baroness said that PPG 25 was in the process of consultation, and was due to be published in December of this year. In the light of that and bearing in mind what has happened again, can the Minister say whether the Government will be giving much closer direction to local authorities as regards consideration of future building in low-lying areas? I understand that the Environment Agency has maps on flood plain areas.

Obviously, one of the unfortunate considerations in this respect--indeed, the Minister referred to this when repeating the Statement--is the position of people regarding their future insurance. It is not just a

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question of their current insurance; it is a question of how they will manage, how they can get the money and whether they will be at a disadvantage in the future because they live in such areas. I believe that Hertfordshire and Ashford are particularly affected in that respect. The Government have planned to provide some 1.5 million new homes in the South and the South East. But sadly, as we know to our cost, that area is often subject to flooding. It is an important issue. I wonder whether the Government intend to reconsider that decision.

I support the Government and thank them for the immediate response that they have given through the Bellwin assistance scheme, which will help local authorities straightaway. One of the issues that local authorities often raise with me is the fact that such money is sometimes very slow in reaching them. Therefore, it is difficult for them to cope. I am very glad to note that such claims will be settled within 15 working days. It is most important that that pledge should be delivered.

The Minister mentioned that much of the affected area is farming land. Although our natural, heart-felt concern remains with the families involved, this situation has obviously affected the farming community. Can the Minister say whether any of the money in the existing funds has been allocated to help farming areas that have been subject to flooding? Will the Government be considering what will happen to the sowing of this year's crops, which will obviously be delayed? Indeed, will they be making representations to the European Commission in that respect?

I spoke briefly earlier about the question of new housing. In the past, I understand that the Environment Agency has given recommendations for housing projects to be turned down, but local authorities have over-ruled those objections. Of 190 applications that were made last year, I believe that some 44 per cent were built despite the fact that the agency suggested to the local authorities concerned that they should not be built. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that situation.

York has been mentioned as one of the areas that is direly affected by the floods. I may not be correct in this, but my understanding is that when the York defences were originally built they were meant to cope with 12 feet of flood water, but they have been deluged with 17.8 feet of water. Therefore, for very obvious reasons, when reports are made regarding the current situation, I hope that we shall anticipate higher standards of provision than has been the case in the past. Indeed, after the report is published, I wonder whether the Environment Agency and the Government will consider looking at some of the very good flood schemes that seem to be working; for example, the scheme in Boston, Lincolnshire, which is very low lying, is a case in point. It has not been affected by flooding because it has a very good sluice-gate mechanism on the river before it reaches Boston, with much drainage to support it. Perhaps the Government and the agency will consider favourably those areas with successful flood schemes.

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I thank the Minister once again for repeating the Statement. Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected. I hope that my questions will prove to be of some assistance.

5.35 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, it falls to me to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and to respond to it. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if a wander a little beyond her immediate responsibilities. It is almost impossible to discuss this subject and keep all the issues together in one little box. Like the Minister, we on these Benches wish to express our sympathy with all the people whose homes, farms and businesses have been flooded in recent days--sometimes more than once. They have lost possessions, crops, business materials and the use of their homes, and now face a period of great uncertainty. Equally, everyone must be deeply impressed by the devotion and energy with which the emergency services, the armed services, the local authorities and government agencies have tackled their work of rescuing those who have had to leave their homes, shoring up flood defences and co-ordinating emergency work.

The Statement refers to flood warnings that were given and the Minister expressed some satisfaction in that respect. However, can the noble Baroness say whether such warnings are also accompanied by information as to what to do in the case of flooding? We look forward to reading the report from the Environment Agency, from which it is hoped further lessons for tackling floods will be learned.

We also welcome the improvement made to the compensation scheme to local authorities by the Deputy Prime Minister, especially as regards the faster access to compensation and the 100 per cent government funding. I hope that the bureaucratic means of achieving that aim will be sufficient, because an eight-day turnaround is pretty quick for any letter to Whitehall. Can the Minister tell us a little more about what the Deputy Prime Minister hopes to gain from his meeting with the insurance industry? A rapid response to claims against insurance policies would be very welcome, but will the Deputy Prime Minister also address other problems, such as that of the uninsurable losses that have been sustained; for example, with respect to crops already sown? Further, can the Minister say whether any initiative has been discussed with the Inland Revenue to allow for extended time for payment of VAT where returns have been lost as a result of the floods?

We are all aware that there is a link between the increase in the built environment, especially where building has taken place on the flood plain, and the severity of flooding. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in her questions on the issue. The noble Baroness told us about the increase in funding for flood defences projected for the next 10 years. The figures sound large, but they do not, in themselves, enable us to make a judgment of their efficacy and the efficacy of the Government's flood defence

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programme. We need more information to enable us to do so. Is it the Government's expectation that the report of the Environment Agency will provide guidance for the prudent and rational action that needs to be taken to help achieve the best and most sensible flood defences? I take on board the comment made earlier that it is almost impossible to defend everyone from every flood that might occur at any moment. My comments should be taken in that context. However, will the report contain some factual estimate of the work that is required so that we can compare that with the funds that will be provided?

There are also worries about the diversity of bodies through which flood defence money is channelled. Can the Minister confirm that, at present, two government departments, the Environment Agency, local authorities, the Crown Estates and other organisations all have powers to become involved in flood defence work but that none of them necessarily has the duty to do so, or to see it through to completion? For example, was it not just that sort of bureaucratic lack of clarity that resulted in delays in vital flood defence work in Lewes? Is not a good deal of engineering and environmental expertise required to make sure that flood defence works fulfil the job for which they have been created?

Are the Government considering setting up a single agency to receive and disburse the funds, and to have the necessary information and technical ability and, above all, the authority and duty to ensure that flood defence works are carried out in a sensible order and to a satisfactory standard?

5.40 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses who have spoken for their general support for the measures we have instigated in response to the floods and for their expressions of sympathy for those affected and of thanks to all sections of the community who have assisted in this situation.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that lessons were learned from the Bye report, certainly in terms of the need for good co-operation and in terms of some of the emergency planning exercises which took place this summer. I believe that those exercises were of assistance in several areas when dealing with the enormous difficulties of the past few weeks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, mentioned the institutional arrangements. She is right to say that they are complex. The important matter is whether they are understood by the bodies involved and whether it is possible or beneficial to centralise responsibilities in only one place. The Environment Agency is the principal flood defence operating authority. It has a duty to supervise flood defence matters and is responsible for flood warnings. It also has to work closely with local authorities which are responsible for emergency planning and for responding to a wide range of emergencies, not only flooding. It is important that we retain a local democratic input in that response.

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There must also be a responsibility in this matter on the part of the emergency services. As we have seen over the past few days, they may have to be brought in. As we have also seen over the past few days, it may be necessary to involve the military in these operations. We are looking in particular at funding mechanisms and whether those should be reviewed or streamlined in some way. We keep under review the work of the local flood defence committees and the agencies that are involved. I do not rule out for ever and a day the possibility of change. However, the most important matter is to get all the agencies which are involved working together smoothly and effectively.

As regards flood warnings and information on what to do, I believe that in the main that worked well, although I am sure that it was not 100 per cent successful. I believe that the facility to telephone people automatically when a risk was registered was valued, along with the general leafletting, the helpline number that was issued on local and national weather forecasts and, as I said in the Statement, the assistance given by local radio in alerting people to the danger of flooding.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also mentioned access to floodplain maps. Those maps have been made available to local planning authorities. The Environment Agency is considering ways to make them more easily accessible to individuals as this issue assumes greater importance.

The noble Baroness was right to pinpoint the problems posed by the floods for agriculture. The funding I mentioned is basically funding for flood defence. Through the Bellwin scheme, that funding is provided to local authorities and emergency services. However, we have discussed with the NFU some of the issues that pertain to farmers--for example, arable area payment schemes--and are urgently considering what we can do in that area.

As regards tax and VAT returns, my honourable friend said in another place that he would certainly contact the Inland Revenue as regards providing assistance in that regard to businesses affected by flooding.

I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned taking forward best engineering practice. She mentioned the scheme in Boston. That was effective, but we must recognise that the storm did not affect the Anglia region in the same way as the North East. It is important to learn from experience in this country and elsewhere. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced on Saturday that we intend to ask a senior independent civil engineer to carry out a review of technical approaches to flood alleviation in the light of recent experiences both at home and abroad.

The noble Baroness mentioned York and asked whether the "tolerance" levels of defences were adequate. The flood peaked in York at 200 millimetres above the "tolerance" level and the defences held. However, all of us have to consider the standards of flood defences for the future. That relates to the

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strengthening of guidance to local planning authorities (PPG 25). As I said in response to the noble Baroness's Starred Question on the matter a little while ago, the guidance is being strengthened. It is already government policy to discourage inappropriate development in floodplains. We intend to issue revised guidance next month which will emphasise in particular the need to move towards a risk-based approach which takes account of the likely impact of, among other things, climate change.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, from these Benches I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I was particularly glad to hear her say that when the Environment Agency's report is received the Government will consider the problem of coastal floods. I am delighted to hear that that is being done. She will remember the remarks we exchanged on that matter not long ago in the House. One of the matters that she mentioned would be considered is insurability. That also arises in the coastal context. I hope that a further matter might be considered which the noble Baroness has not mentioned; namely, the way in which the Government set a financial envelope for the study of coastal problems. That limits the extent to which studies can be carried out. I hope that some change in the procedures may occur as a result of the further studies which are to be carried out.

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