HC Deb 09 January 2001 vol 360 cc1053-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Touhig.]

3.40 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Four rivers flow through the constituency of Selby. For the most part, they are an asset to be enjoyed for leisure and recreation—places of quiet pleasure. In parts, they are still very much working rivers, but, during October and November 2000, the threat of flooding that they posed at times seemed to reach biblical proportions. The River Derwent rose to the highest level ever recorded. The River Aire rose to levels higher than those of 1946. The River Wharfe outflanked defences at Tadcaster and, at its peak, the level of the River Ouse was higher than recorded in 1625. As defences were over-topped in Selby and Barlby, 300 properties were flooded. In Tadcaster, 30 were flooded.

Local drainage problems caused flooding in a further 60 properties in Selby town and more than 200 other properties were affected in Bishopthorpe, Fulford, Elvington, Brotherton, Ryther, South Milford, Bolton Percy and many other villages besides. More than half the 88 villages in the constituency were directly affected by flooding or loss of electricity. Virtually all were affected by loss of road and rail links.

The night-time images of Chinook helicopters carrying heavy loads of sandbags taking off from a car park in Selby so that soldiers could toil away until dawn to reinforce the banks at Barlby will live not just in the local, but in the national consciousness for a long while. At one stage, the river was 1 ft above the defences at Barlby, but the sandbags held. If they had been breached, 7,500 properties in Barlby and Selby would have been flooded. I do not doubt that many people would have lost their lives. Many businesses would never have re-emerged intact after the deluge.

Many flood victims in the area endured a miserable Christmas, but we still have much to be grateful for: the local council, the Environment Agency, the police, the Army, the drainage boards, as well as all the volunteers who offered shelter and food and filled sandbags. Things could have been so much worse. Their fortitude, endurance, Yorkshire grit and determination not to be beaten by the elements were summed up by the British Waterways staff I met at Selby lock. Fred Firth and Terry Downes, the lock keepers, and their supervisor, Martin Walter, worked 36-hour shifts in a desperate effort to keep the pumps working. Like many heroes and heroines of the Selby floods, they were very self-effacing, but their actions spoke for themselves.

Lessons have already been learned. Together with the agencies involved, I hosted a full day of hearings in Selby town hall in December and representatives of more than 20 communities attended. The need to improve communications between local communities and the central Silver command was often stressed as a priority. In villages such as Cawood, Kelfield and Kellington, massive voluntary efforts to keep the rivers at bay were co-ordinated by the local parish councils. North Yorkshire county council has agreed to examine how its emergency plans and procedures can take greater account of that grassroots element of our democracy.

In the aftermath of the floods, many of the communities most affected became politicised and formed action groups. Ros Amor, John Amor and Sharon Egan have provided outstanding leadership to the Barlby residents action group, which is a model of its kind. The local community is also grateful to major employers such as Hazelwood's and BOCM for sticking with the area. Many businesses such as RJB Mining worked tirelessly and closely with Yorkshire Electricity to restore the area's power, which was lost for some days.

A crisis of any kind brings with it difficult choices. It changes perceptions of what had seemed ordinary problems so that suddenly they seem overwhelming. It is essential at such times to remain calm and measured, but to act decisively. I shall discuss briefly a number of such problems—the funding of flood defences, the bills that floods leave behind them, the impact of mining in Selby, the problems of subsidence, particularly for agriculture, and insurance issues.

This Thursday morning, the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee meets at York racecourse. The proposal before it is to increase the levy on local authorities by 63 per cent. That would mean a local authority contribution of almost £27 million in the next financial year, compared to about £17 million in the current financial year. For North Yorkshire the increase would be from £2.3 million to £3.7 million. That is £1.4 million out of a total budget for North Yorkshire of more than £400 million. Contrary to some local speculation, we are speaking of a 63 per cent. increase in the levy on the councils, not on the council tax itself.

The prize is significant—an enhanced programme of capital works on improved flood defences would follow the completion of a survey of all the major rivers in the county, which will be finished in April this year. Catchment strategy studies are focusing not only on providing flood barriers in towns and villages downstream, such as in Selby and Barlby, but on improving the retention of water in the drainage systems in the hills.

The new capital programme next year would be £23 million under this budget, instead of the originally planned £15 million. Selby and Barlby could look forward to a £1.5 million enhancement of their defences in the next financial year, in addition to the emergency repair works, costing £250,000, which commenced this week.

The prize is so important that it is essential that it not be threatened by a funding dispute between local and central Government. Last Friday, the west midlands flood defence committee put on hold for one year a budget that would have meant a levy increase of about 10 per cent. Many important flood defence schemes in areas such as Shrewsbury, Cheltenham and Melton Mowbray are now in doubt. I very much hope that the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee does not adopt a similar strategy.

The funding of flood defences must he a partnership between local and national Government. The paper to be presented to the regional flood defence committee on Thursday states that the profile of asset condition—that is, the flood defences—in the Yorkshire region is not acceptable. The assets in the region are in much worse condition than anywhere else in the country.

In Yorkshire, only 15 per cent. of flood defences are in good or very good condition, compared with more than 80 per cent. in Lancashire and the north-west. It will take at least five years to bring our flood defences in the region back up to the national average. Our flood defences have been neglected over recent decades. In some years, council representatives on the flood defence committee decided not to increase the levy in line with the increase in the standard spending assessment floods element granted by central Government.

A Leeds city councillor, Liz Nash, who was on the flood defence committee until last May, was recently reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post as saying: Some local councils want to top skim this money to spend on other priorities. Councils have been strapped for cash for years and the temptation to use this money, which should be passed on for flood prevention, is very great. She continued: It gives me no satisfaction to say that until I left that committee in May I always argued for the full amount to be passed on, particularly bearing in mind the flooding Leeds suffers. That did not happen and it was a gamble which representatives from other councils played and which did not come off. As a result, there is now a bill to pay. Central Government cannot be expected to pick up the whole tab. On that basis, there would be little point in a Yorkshire regional flood defence committee. Local discretion must bring with it some local responsibility. Equally, central Government should meet their commitment to pick up the bill for all the emergency costs associated with the recent flooding, as Professor Roy Ward, chairman of the regional flood defence committee, requested.

I understand that a bid has been submitted to Government by the Environment Agency for additional emergency funding to cover the emergency response and urgent repair works in the wake of the floods. It is essential that the Government respond quickly to that request. That accounts for some of the 63 per cent. increase to be asked of local councils on Thursday in Yorkshire, but at least half the increase is for increased capital expenditure on flood defences. That will be funded at the increased rate of 65 per cent. by central Government.

Moreover, if the local authority levy is increased this year, there is every expectation that it will be matched by an increase in the standard spending assessment for flood defences next year. That is essentially a cash flow problem for local councils. It is essential that, on Thursday, the Yorkshire flood defence committee should accept in full the proposed capital programme. Both local and central Government then have a responsibility to reach a partnership agreement on the funding.

Barlby county primary school is one of four in the county which are part of a private finance initiative bid to build new schools. The final contracts with the developer, Accord, were due to be signed just as the rains started. The school's new site was badly flooded. Showing considerable alacrity, the county council and the developer, Accord, have now submitted a new scheme with Barlby school, set to be rebuilt on its existing site and on an adjacent piece of land. That has changed the financing package somewhat. Later today, I shall meet the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), to seek her approval for the new package. The futures of four schools in Yorkshire, not just the one in Barlby, depend on the agreement.

Since the floods, there have been campaigns in two villages to stop the prospect of mining under the villages because of fears of subsidence increasing the flood risk. I have held discussions regarding Naburn village with RJB Mining and I expect an announcement on its precise plans later this month.

As regards Kelfield, it is clear that during the next three years RJB Mining will mine under the village. The local Conservative party, emboldened by a visit from Edward McMillan-Scott, leader of the Conservative party in the European Parliament, has jumped on that bandwagon and shown its support, through Mr. McMillan-Scott, for revoking planning permission for RJB Mining to mine under Kelfield. Quite how it intends to bring that about has not been made clear. But there are dangers in jumping on bandwagons. If RJB Mining does not mine under Kelfield, there will be no further coal to mine from Wistow mine. If Wistow shuts, the whole Selby complex will close within weeks, such are the huge fixed costs of operating Gascoigne Wood, where all the coal comes to the surface. More than 3,000 jobs and many jobs in the Selby area dependent on mining would be lost within weeks.

Moreover, there is no need for the people of Kelfield to panic. The village can be perfectly adequately defended by improved flood defences. One need only consider the nearby villages of Escrick and Stillingfleet, both of which have been extensively mined under in recent years. Without the pumps and flood banks paid for by the National Coal Board, both those villages would have been flooded last November.

RJB Mining has a legal responsibility to pay for flood defences at Kelfield. The Environment Agency needs to adopt a robust attitude with RJB Mining to ensure that it lives up to its responsibilities. The two bodies need to co-ordinate their plans, and I intend to make sure that they do so. In the old days, the National Rivers Authority and the National Coal Board both regarded themselves as public sector bodies, working for the public good. Now, RJB Mining, as a private company, quite properly has responsibilities to its shareholders and an eye for the bottom line. But if anything, that enhances the Environment Agency's role as an agency solely concerned with the public interest.

To give one brief example, many farms and roads in the area were flooded between Deighton and Naburn, which has been extensively mined, with subsidence of about 1 m. The flooding was caused by water backing up in Wood dyke, in the area which had been lowered. Last year, a £750,000 scheme was drawn up by the Environment Agency for an earth embankment and a pump to be placed adjacent to the dyke where it enters the river alongside the B1222. That would have prevented flooding of properties such as Park farm at Deighton, which suffered more than £20,000-worth of damage, and Moreby lodge, near Naburn. For some reason, the scheme was never implemented. There is a suspicion locally that sometimes the Environment Agency can be a bit of a soft touch in dealing with RJB Mining. It needs to show by its actions in the coming months that that is far from true.

Equally, the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991, as it pertains to flooding, may need to be tested in a Lands Tribunal. There is little doubt that the aforementioned Park farm at Deighton, run by Mr. and Mrs. Whitely, would not have flooded prior to mining. Yet whether flood damage caused as a direct result of subsidence falls under the terms of the 1991 Act remains ambiguous.

That brings me finally to the wider problems of farmers and householders who have suffered as a result of the floods. One national newspaper described the flood waters around Selby at one point as being larger than Lake Windermere. Clearly, in such circumstances, Selby's farming community has suffered great losses. In some cases, people have been dealing with uninsurable losses.

The local secretary of the National Farmers Union wrote to me after the floods with details of some of the problems faced by farmers. Jimmy Lund was one of the first local farmers to suffer, and one of the most seriously affected. He had to evacuate all his stock, produce and family from his 100-acre farm, which was under water for nearly a month. Another farmer, Ces Elcock, at one time had only about 10 per cent. of his 300-odd acres that was not flooded. The worst of the losses that he suffered was of some 40 acres of sugar beet.

I know that local farmers appreciate the changes that have been made to arable area payments for flooded land. The derogation that my hon. Friend the Minister has managed to negotiate with Europe is very helpful, and local farmers and the NFU are looking forward to the results of further applications that have been made to Europe for modifications to the scheme.

I think that some local farmers will, choose to try and plant crops in the spring, rather than opt for set-aside, for which I understand that they would not receive payments until August 2002. However, anything that can be done to assist farmers, some of whose businesses have been devastated, would be most welcome.

Equally, householders in the Barlby residents action group are carefully monitoring problems of reinsurance. Many people are dreading a possible hike in their premiums when their policies fall due for renewal. Next week, I am to meet the Association of British Insurers with the action group.

Above all, we must create a sense of confidence and renewed hope for the future in the area. The problems of reinsurance will be mitigated considerably if the Yorkshire floods defence committee backs the enhanced capital programme at its meeting on Thursday.

In summary, our response to the great floods of Selby in the year 2000 must retain a sense of balance and proportion. We must balance the responsibilities of local government and central Government, and also the need to extract the rich resource of coal from under our area with the need to protect our farms and villages for future generations. Those people will live their lives when both coal and the floods of 2000 will be a distant memory in Selby.

3.57 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on his knowledgeable and very comprehensive speech, in which he described the dreadful tragedy faced by many of his constituents. I also want to pay a personal tribute to his commitment: I visited Selby a number of times when the floods were at their peak, and my hon. Friend was in the Silver control centre there on my every visit.

I know, too, that my hon. Friend spent many hours talking to local emergency services, the Environment Agency, British Waterways and the Army. All those organisations did a great job in the area, and often worked around the clock to try to strengthen the defences around Selby. There is no doubt that, without that work, those defences would have given way in places, and many more houses would have been affected. I also express my sympathy for all my hon. Friend's constituents who have been affected.

As my hon. Friend noted, the situation with the floods was an extreme. In some places, they were the worst for hundreds of years, and in others they were the worst on record. The huge effort that was made meant that the flood defences in the Selby area held back the water beyond their designed capacity. I am glad that that work was successful. As a matter of interest, one of the Army regiments that I met at the control centre in Selby was the Royal Artillery Regiment from Kirton-in-Lindsey in my constituency. I was very pleased to see those soldiers there, and to witness the sterling work that they had done.

I was also very interested in my hon. Friend's comments about holding a full day of hearings for local people. That is a good idea. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is anxious that we do not forget about the people who have been affected in flood-hit areas, although the floods are no longer in the national media. Consequently, he has set up a Cabinet taskforce group, which he has asked me to chair. We have considered a range of issues, including all those that my hon. Friend raised in the debate.

We have been considering examples of good practice in flood-hit areas and the way in which people have learned some of the lessons of the floods. We can thus try to improve the support that people get and ascertain what might need to be done to strengthen defences, construct new defences or improve reaction times or organisation.

I understand my hon. Friend's support for local companies. I spoke to the managing director of Hazelwood Foods, which was badly affected. We have done what we can, especially through the Government office in the area, to provide support to local companies and local industry.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the cost of flood defences. That is an important consideration. The Government have announced that we are making an additional £51 million available for new flood defences on top of what was already a rising spend on providing flood defences nationally.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the exceptional costs that the Environment Agency has incurred and the enormous damage that has been done to existing defences throughout the country, especially in Yorkshire. As he rightly stated, approximately £250,000 has already been spent in the Selby area on essential repairs to the flood defences. He was right to say that we have been discussing those costs with the Environment Agency. We are currently evaluating the bid that has been made in relation to the costs and discussing it in Government.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government have improved and enhanced the Bellwin scheme, which deals with the exceptional costs that local authorities incur in the aftermath of floods: the clean-up costs, the cost of overtime and of equipment that may have to be brought in. Those extra costs may run into many millions of pounds. However, from a central Government perspective, we accept that we have responsibilities. We will not duck our responsibility for supporting local councils and, through them, local people.

As my hon. Friend said, however, regional flood defence committees must play their part in raising the finances for flood defences. I strongly support the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee on the levy that it has requested to improve flood defences in the area. Regional flood defence committees have not always increased the levy in line with the standard spending assessment, which central Government provide. For the past three years, the SSA has been above inflation. My hon. Friend is right to say that levy increases are not the same as a council tax increase. Sometimes the levy increases sound high, but the levy might be a small sum that is being raised locally.

I also confirm that any increase in levy will be accompanied by an increase in the SSA the following year. As my hon. Friend knows, local people should remember that the more money raised through the levy, the more schemes can be financed and the more capital grant will go from central Government to Selby and Yorkshire to uprate flood defences.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about school funding. I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment will consider it sympathetically. I also understand his point about mining, and I strongly agree with his comments about the unfortunate example of yet another bandwagon that the Conservative party seems to have jumped on. This time it is an underground bandwagon. However, I hope that the people of Selby will bear it in mind that, for the sake of a few populist comments, the Conservative party seems to be putting 3,000 jobs at risk in my hon. Friend's constituency. That would also affect all the associated industries.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that defences could be designed to deal effectively with subsidence. Subsidence does not necessarily mean that communities will be put at risk. He was also right to say that companies such as RJB Mining have responsibilities, in terms of the financial commitments that they must make in connection with dealing with subsidence, and the fact that defences may have to be improved.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about the Environment Agency. I am sure that the agency takes this seriously, but, although it is responsible for ensuring that RJB Mining delivers on its legal and financial commitments, I will raise the issue with it in order to satisfy myself that it is being dealt with satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend mentioned farming. As he said, I have already announced flexibility on set-aside, which will give some support to farmers in his area. Other regulations on subsidies are called into question; difficulties are involved in cropping, and in getting machinery on to waterlogged ground. We are talking to the European Commission about that, and seeking flexibility in the application of the regulations to give maximum support to farmers in flood-hit areas. The National Farmers Union has presented my right hon. Friend the Minister with a dossier on flood damage, which is currently being examined.

Selby was one of the areas worst affected by the floods. It was given national prominence at the time, and was visited by a number of Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He went to observe the actions of the military, who are doing a great job. I went there, too, given my responsibility for flood defence, and I understand that members of the royal family went to express their sympathy.

What we must do now is consider the aftermath. We must think about what needs to be done about defences. We must take seriously my hon. Friend's point about the condition of many of those defences, and the fact that money may well have to be spent to bring them to a satisfactory standard.

The Government accept that more expenditure will be required. We will make extra resources available, but this must be a partnership effort, involving the regional flood defence committees. Part of the money will be raised locally for the benefit of local people, as has always been the case, but we will provide aid through capital grants. We will also increase the grant for river flood defence systems by 20 per cent., which will help my hon. Friend's constituents.

I shall continue to take a close interest in all issues involved in the aftermath of the floods, including issues of insurance. If my hon. Friend is worried about insurance companies, or suspects that there are failings in the way in which his constituents are dealt with—now and in the future—when it comes to reinsurance, I shall be only too pleased to hear about it. I know that he will be meeting the Association of British Insurers. I have already had a meeting with its chief executive, but I should be delighted to take up any further issues relating to my hon. Friend's constituents, and if the Government can give any further assistance I would ask those concerned to write in—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes past Four o'clock.