HC Deb 14 June 1993 vol 226 cc635-42 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Redwood)

On Thursday and Friday last, several areas of Wales experienced very heavy thunderstorms which resulted in local but very severe flooding, particularly in the Llandudno area and Cardigan. I am sure the whole House would want to join me in sending our sympathy to all those whose homes have been damaged and lives affected by the disaster.

I am pleased to say that, as a result of strenuous efforts by the various service organisations and authorities, the flood waters have now been largely drained and cleaning up is in progress. The weather forecast is for some more moderate rain but not thunderstorms, which caused last week's events. I hope—as I am sure does the House—that the weather allows the clean-up to continue unimpeded.

I am sure many hon. Members will have seen pictures of the flooding on television. I visited the areas affected at Llandudno and heard first hand accounts from residents and officials. More than 5 in of rain fell in four hours and water was flowing in sheets off the hillsides. The streams and drains just could not cope. Many properties that would not normally expect to be at risk from flooding had water flowing right through them, including the ground floor of the local hospital. Those at the bottom of the hills fared even worse as the water collected. Pumps which normally drain the area were put out of action as they were overwhelmed by huge and unexpected quantities of water. We were very fortunate not to suffer any loss of life in those incidents.

The damage has been very extensive, with 500 to 600 people in the Aberconwy area having to be evacuated from their homes. I understand that the number of properties affected in some way is very much greater, with many families living upstairs or living in apartments in upper floors of blocks. Damage to the hospitals and their equipment is going to be extensive, particularly at the Llandudno general hospital, which was worst affected. There is also considerable damage to roads and services.

In the Cardigan area, the damage does not appear quite as extensive, but is nevertheless quite severe in places. Up to 100 properties seem to be affected and a few people, mainly elderly, have had to be evacuated. I am told that there is extensive damage to highways and other utilities.

Much of the praise for dealing with matters so well must go to the emergency services, particularly the fire brigades, the local authorities, hospital staff and the National Rivers Authority. Welsh Water has also been involved. I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to join me in expressing appreciation for the dedicated work of that organisation, and for the work of the voluntary services.

Relief under the Bellwin scheme will he available to local authorities for emergency work. That will be provided as usual—85 per cent. of eligible expenditure over the threshold for each authority will be paid for. Officials are writing to authorities setting out the details of the scheme, and a copy of that letter will be placed in the Library of the House.

We are also in close touch with Gwynedd health authority to gauge the scale of problems associated with the flooding of the hospital. Once the picture is clear, the Welsh Office will provide whatever assistance is required, above the usual threshold, from the pool of finance that is held for such incidents.

I would like also to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for his diligence in visiting residents affected in Llandudno and for keeping me informed following my visit.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I should like, on behalf of the Opposition, to express sympathy to the victims of the flood and to join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the magnificent efforts of the emergency services, the National Rivers Authority and the voluntary services.

The Secretary of State has outlined the extent of the damage. I am particularly concerned that the hands of the local authorities involved should be freed so that they may respond to the crisis and offer immediate assistance to the scores of families who will be unable for a number of months to return to their homes. Millions of pounds' worth of damage has been done. The cost to local authorities of repairs—especially repairs to houses and roads—will be considerable. I understand at this early stage that about 500 council properties have been damaged and that an initial estimate is that Aberconwy borough council is faced with a repair bill of at least £2 million. Gwynedd county council faces a repair bill estimated to be in excess of £1 million for the repair of flood damage to roads. The north Wales constabulary will have to meet a large bill for overtime, and the work of the Gwynedd and Clwyd fire brigades has added to the cost of the floods. Perhaps the Secretary of State can say what extra resources will be provided for the police and fire services.

It is estimated that about 2,500 people have been displaced as a result of the flooding. Does the Secretary of State intend to offer individual compensation for victims, especially those who are not adequately covered by personal insurance? Will he immediately contact the insurance companies to ensure that claims are dealt with quickly and without any unnecessary or bureaucratic delay?

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the Welsh Office will provide adequate resources to cover the losses incurred by the local authorities? The last time the Bellwin formula was invoked—in December last year, in south Wales—Welsh Office aid was not forthcoming, despite the assurances of the previous Secretary of State, and the burden fell on local government, already under pressure from under-resourcing. Mid Glamorgan county council, for example, had to find £350.000, having received not a penny piece in aid from the Government.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will confirm precisely what the Bellwin formula covers. Does it include structural damage to council housing and to roads? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, if the Bellwin thresholds are not reached, Government money will nevertheless be available to cover the costs in full? It is ironic that the worst-hit council—Aberconwy—is the only one in Wales to be charge-capped. It has already been required to cut its budget by £167,000, and any additional expenditure incurred by it under the Bellwin formula will mean immediate cuts elsewhere in vital public services. To restore confidence, will the Secretary of State announce today the end of charge capping?

The people of Aberconwy have the Minister of State as their local Member of Parliament. As the Secretary of State has said, his right hon. Friend has been vigorous and forthcoming on behalf of those people. Other areas of Wales, especially Dyfed, have been similarly affected. That being the case, can the Secretary of State guarantee that equivalent levels of help will be available to them and to any other areas that might suffer this misfortune in the future?

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for agreeing with the sentiments that I expressed about the work of the voluntary services and the other bodies involved in the clean up and for his expressions of sympathy for those affected by the disaster.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, following legitimate claims under the Bellwin formula, assistance will be prompt. When the claims come in, I shall make it a personal concern to ensure that the money is forthcoming as rapidly as possible. Ninety per cent. of a reasonable claim will be met as quickly as may be, and the balance will be paid once the audited work has been completed. We cannot yet confirm that, because, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the amount involved will be many millions of pounds. Obviously, we await a proper assessment. If many millions of pounds of extra revenue expenditure are incurred, then the formula allows us to meet those claims. All claims under the scheme will be considered promptly, and officials will follow up, if there are uncertainties with the local authority, to ensure the scheme's smooth operation.

The scheme covers all reasonable revenue expenditure incurred in putting matters right in the immediate clean up, and temporary accommodation for people who have been affected.

Of course, the scheme will cover the overtime of the public services that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As for individual compensation, I believe that there is to be a mayoral appeal. I will take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the speed of insurance claims, and I will make a point of ensuring that the insurance companies know that we want the claims settled as promptly as possible. It is correct that most people are insured; in such cases the insurance companies should be forthcoming with the money—that is why people insure against this sort of eventuality.

The capping of Aberconwy council is a separate issue. I shall look at it shortly; I have not yet come to a decision. When I have, I will notify the House in the usual way.

I can assure the House that any other affected area will get similar treatment. If a local authority elsewhere in Wales incurs this sort of expenditure, it too can claim, and if it has legitimate claims they will be met under the Bellwin formula, just as surely as they will be in my right hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his visit to the flooded areas of north Wales was greatly appreciated by everyone there, particularly because it showed, at a very early stage, his commitment to the people of Wales?

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind remarks. I certainly learned a lot from the visit. It made me aware of just how quickly we need to get this operation into effect.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

May I join the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) in their praise for the emergency services, who did a marvellous job, and for others? I understand that members of the health authority were on their hands and knees mopping up in Llandudno general hospital immediately after the flooding.

I also ask the Secretary of State to recognise the great stoicism and courage that local residents have shown in facing up to the emergency.

I understand from contacts with Aberconwy district that many local people are reluctant to apply for social fund loans because they believe that they will be hounded to repay them when they are unable to do so. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House and local residents that he will contact the Department of Social Security to ensure that there is great forbearance in pursuing the repayment of loans, especially by pensioners, many of whom have had to cut insurance from their budgets? Will he also investigate whether the fund or the Welsh Office can provide grants that would enable people to meet essential expenditure which they otherwise cannot afford?

I also join the hon. Member for Caerphilly in urging the Secretary of State to ensure that this disaster is taken into account when he considers what to do about the capping of Aberconwy council.

Mr. Redwood

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that many residents in the affected area were responsible for acts of heroism and hard work in dealing with the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Like him, I wish to praise their efforts.

I am also delighted that many people in the health authority did such an excellent job, so that by the time I visited the hospital, not many hours after the flood, it was for the most part clean, thanks to their great efforts.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may also like to know that the Territorial Army has played a leading part in the clean-up operations. I believe that today a platoon of the Staffordshire regiment will also assist. That can be covered under the arrangements that I have described for the money.

I will look into the question of social fund loans. Like the hon. and learned Gentleman, I would not want attempts to enforce repayment from those who clearly cannot repay, especially if their home lives have been badly disrupted by the disaster.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his visit to north Wales? He will know, as I do, that some of the most poignant images that we have seen are those of people who have, unfortunately, not made insurance arrangements and who appear to have lost everything. In the circumstances, I ask my right hon. Friend closely to examine what can be done to assist those people. The people of north Wales have the sympathy of all my constituents.

I have been in touch with the chief executives of each of my councils today. They have not been so badly affected by the heavy rain of the past few days, but my right hon. Friend will he aware that there has been an embankment slippage on the heart of Wales line, which has brought back images of the Glanrhyd rail disaster.

As a by-product of those events, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that steps are taken under the railway privatisation arrangements to ensure that if, flooding damages the permanent way proper arrangements will be in place to meet the cost of its reinstatement?

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point, which I shall take up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is important that such facilities are properly and regularly inspected and that any remedial works are undertaken. That is also true of tips and other sites where there could be movement in heavy rains, and I shall ensure that they are properly inspected. They are inspected regularly.

I appreciate that, although my hon. Friend's constituents were not as badly affected as the people I described—especially those in Llandudno—they also suffered from the storms and I express my sympathy with them, as does my hon. Friend. As to those who are uninsured, I believe that a mayoral fund may help, and I shall examine the terms of that fund to find out whether the Government ought to do anything more.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Were there any other recent floods prior to the distressing series of floods in the Llandudno area? Also, before those floods, had the Welsh Water authority been asked to invest in improving the infrastructure to guard against flooding?

Mr. Redwood

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been previous cases, which the House debated, for example, when the formula was similarly brought into operation. As a result of that, and of good housekeeping, there is a regular review of flood prevention and anti-flood devices. The Government, the water authorities and the National Rivers Authority have been involved. The work continues, and if more schemes are forthcoming which are suitable for investment, I would be happy to be associated with them.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

As someone whose constituency was severely hit by flooding earlier in the week, I join in the sympathy expressed by the House to all those who suffered in Wales. However, drawing on his experience as the Minister with responsibility for local government, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the help that the Government are rightly giving the people of Wales through the Bellwin rules will be applied equally, not just to other councils in the Principality, but to councils in England, and that the rules apply in England and Wales? If he is unable to give the answer, could he—

Madam Speaker

Order. There are procedures by which the hon. Gentleman can put his question to the appropriate Minister. He knows full well that we are dealing with a Welsh issue and with the Secretary of State for Wales. I will not allow a question to be put to a Minister who has no responsibility. I am sure that the Minister would like to answer the first part of the question.

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful, Madam Speaker, and I understand my hon. Friend's wish to ask such a question. My hon. and right hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment would tell my hon. Friend that no request has been received from any Cornish council. They would consider one if it were made. In the case of Wales, we were in touch with councils which clearly wanted the Bellwin formula to be brought into operation. We have responded rapidly for that reason, and the need was very great.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

I too join in the congratulations to the emergency services during the past two or three days. Their work has been excellent and, when we talk about compulsory competitive tendering, it is important to remember the work that they have done in very difficult circumstances.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that in Dyfed's case, for instance, the Bellwin formula will not be activated and therefore the county council will not get a penny piece of grant aid unless it spends more than £550,000 in the next two months? It would be wrong if, as a result of spending less than is allowed under the Bellwin formula, other services has to be cut to pay for repairs to bridges and roads in the county. The Bellwin formula needs to be reformed so that it refers not just to 85 per cent. grant aid above the threshold but to 85 per cent. of all expenditure incurred.

Mr. Redwood

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps the formula works for districts in his area and not for the county. We shall have to see how much damage was done and how much expenditure is necessary. It is normal for councils to have some contingency provision in their budgets, and this is exactly the type of awful contingency for which such provisions are made. Of course, contingency funds are larger for large counties than for small districts. The Bellwin scheme deals with those large sums relative to the local authority's budget for which the authority could not have been expected to make provision itself. If that is the case in the hon. Gentleman's area at council or district level, Bellwin money will be available in exactly the way that I hope he would want.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Apart from insurance, to which my right hon. Friend has referred, has he had time to consider the anxieties of people in Wales whose houses might suffer long-term damage from waterlogging? In view of my hon. Friend's extensive environmental experience, would he consider issuing advice to householders on how best to protect wood, plaster and electrical wiring in their houses in the long term?

Mr. Redwood

I shall discuss that matter with my officials to see whether there is anything that we can do by way of extra guidance. The health authority has already issued guidance on immediate health issues; and my hon. Friend makes another important point about the long-term stability of the housing stock.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

No doubt on his journey from Llangollen to Llandudno the Minister did not travel by rail. I remind him that not one train is running there today and that some damage has been occasioned to the railway line. Will he raise that matter immediately with the Secretary of State for Transport, so that the line is not further run down? I also pay tribute to the relief workers of Gwynedd county council and Conwy borough council and people in the emergency services.

I have two important questions for the Minister. First, similar flooding has occurred in parts of Llandudno in the past five years. Why? Secondly, what lessons have the Government learnt from the similar incidents of Towyn-Abergele? The real tragedy of that situation was that many people, especially the elderly, were uninsured. To leave matters to a mayoral fund is piffling and is not the answer. The Government must act now. They cannot wait for pensioners to chip into a mayoral fund. That is beyond belief. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that now is the time to take the bull by the horns.

Mr. Redwood

I am assured by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the main north Wales railway line is functioning. Of course my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be interested in the branch lines to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that I went to and from Cardiff today by rail; I use rail wherever possible for my journeys.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about similar flooding in the past, but I do not think that the circumstances were entirely the same. It is difficult to design a drainage system that will cope with more than 5 in of rain in three hours. That results in a staggering amount of water, and it led to the great problems that we have seen. We will look at what happened to see whether anything can be done to prevent a future recurrence of the problem. The sheer weight and scale of the water was massive, making it difficult for any system to cope, even including quite new pumping systems.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

The hearts of my constituents go out to people in other parts of Wales who have suffered flooding: my constituents know about it only too well as it happened to them last winter. Like me. they will also hope that the householders who have been mentioned in the Chamber will be treated better than the householders of Pontypridd, many of whom were uninsured and had to make do with stoicism, about which the Secretary of State spoke earlier, in putting their houses right. If it had not been for the sterling work undertaken by Mid Glamorgan county council, Taff Ely borough council and the National Rivers Authority, those people's homes would still be flooded and in a mess.

Mr. Redwood

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I am glad that he thinks that the arrangements today are more satisfactory than was the case for Pontypridd. It is our intention to do everything that we reasonably can to ensure a smooth clean-up and get people back to their homes as quickly as possible.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Is not it a fact that the Bellwin formula has nothing to do with providing help to people who need the aid but is only a fig leaf to hide the inadequacy of what the Government intend to offer people in need? How much has been paid in Wales under the Bellwin formula over the past five years?

Mr. Redwood

I do not have that figure to hand. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman with it. The Bellwin formula is not a fig leaf. It is important assistance and it takes care of the bulk of the extra costs that local authorities incur as a result of a disaster of that nature. Where we have direct responsibility, as in the case of the hospital, that too will be put right at public expense through central taxpayer's reserves from the health authority. We must do everything in our power to put those things right. The right hon. Gentleman's charge is simply incorrect.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

Does the Secretary of State agree that we must be sceptical about the views of experts who said at the weekend that floods occur once every century? The last time that we had to deal with this problem was not a century ago but six months ago. We asked his predecessor then for a thorough, proper and independent survey of the river banks and coastlines of Wales, to be conducted by the Welsh Office, local authorities and the National Rivers Authority. Does the Minister agree that that is the only long-term measure for the prevention of flooding and that that is the answer to the problems that we have seen over the past few days?

Mr. Redwood

I shall look thoroughly at what happened to see whether something can be done to make a recurrence of that awful event less likely. However, I shall repeat what I said earlier: the amount of rainfall was unprecedented. It was extreme. It was difficult for the drains to handle the water—even had they been considerably larger, it would still have been difficult for them to handle it—because of its sheer force and intensity.