HL Deb 06 November 2000 vol 618 cc1270-81
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: "With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the serious flooding that has occurred in England.

"I start by expressing the Government's heartfelt sympathy to all affected. Some houses have been flooded several times in the past few weeks. The whole House can appreciate the desperation of those householders affected.

"We do not need to be reminded of the extraordinarily heavy rains that have fallen in recent weeks—and are still falling as I speak. This is an extreme situation. The land is saturated; water is running straight off into already swollen rivers.

"Floods on this scale are rare. For example, river levels in York are the highest they have been for 400 years. The 1947 flood was the last event of a comparable scale. It was caused by a combination of heavy rain and melting snow and resulted in significant economic damage, but direct comparisons are difficult since there has been much development in the flood plain since then and our defences are much better.

"Happily, and most importantly, we have no reports of people losing their lives in the floods. Of the some 1.8 million properties at risk of flooding, fewer than 4,000 have flooded. Much of the extensive flooding we have seen has been of agricultural land.

"I believe that most flood defences for urban areas have operated to their design standard or better; this includes York, which is being severely tested. This demonstrates the justification for the significant government expenditure over the years. As the House will be aware, there is further rain to come and the prospect of more flooding cannot be ruled out. I will return to the question of funding for flood defences in a moment.

"I have to emphasise that we cannot stop all flooding, just reduce its risk. The recent floods have overwhelmed some defences. It would not have been practicable to have stopped them—it would have required massive walls which, even if they could have been constructed, and afforded, would be unlikely to be acceptable visually or environmentally. Shrewsbury turned down a flood defence scheme a few years ago on those very grounds.

"Having set out what has happened, I want to say what is being done in response. First, I pay tribute to the way in which the Environment Agency, emergency services, local authorities, voluntary services and the Armed Forces have responded to the flooding. They have been working around the clock to ensure that warnings are issued and acted upon, to evacuate people and to shore up defences. I would also like to thank the local media and local radio for their contribution in ensuring that information has been widely and quickly made available. We have seen on television over the weekend the massive efforts being made to combat the floods in York. Similar efforts are going on up and down the country.

"The Government's impression is that these partnerships have worked well, and that flood warning arrangements have also been effective. As the House already knows, when the immediate work has been completed I shall be asking the Environment Agency, in conjunction with its partners, to produce a full report on the flooding, its effects, how the flood warning and emergency response worked, and what lessons we can learn. I shall ask for this speedily, but emphasise to the House that I do not want preparation of this report to get in the way of the immediate work that needs to be done. I ask for understanding on this point.

"My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister made an important government announcement about flooding at the weekend. He 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.

"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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. We are focused on river flooding at the moment, but it is appropriate also to consider coastal defences in the long term. The noble Lord was right to point out that, in looking to the long term, we need to base our approach on good science and on best understanding of the possibilities for the future. I believe that we all recognise the need for urgent work to address the likely—although no one can say whether they are inevitable or certain—effects over the next years and decades. We are still not certain whether we are seeing abnormal weather patterns which are part of a cyclical exercise or direct effects of climate change. We need to understand that better in order to act appropriately.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that while protection of human lives is the first priority, the Government should review the inadequacy of drainage on our trunk roads and motorways? Is the noble Baroness aware that for over 24 hours a 20-mile stretch of the A1 south of Scotch Corner was closed over the weekend? That caused traffic chaos which must have been hugely expensive to industry, to the transport industry, which has problems of its own, and to many private individuals in cars. There was total chaos because of flooding. It should be a priority to ensure that the drainage arrangements on motorways and trunk roads are adequate to deal with such floods.

Secondly, I turn to coastal defences. Fifteen or so years ago, I was responsible for coastal and flood defences. Will the noble Baroness give an undertaking that no new money allocated for flood defences will be diverted from tidal defences. Unless things have changed greatly over the past few years, parts of eastern England in particular are still at serious risk from tidal surges.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord's latter point demonstrates how important it is to have local democratic input into establishing priorities, which inevitably will have to be set. Difficult decisions will have to be made in particular with regard to coastal areas. It is important that we debate priority setting. It is easier to have such a debate when there are extra resources available; and that is what we shall have.

I take the noble Lord's point about the importance of drainage on trunk roads. We are all conscious of the difficulties which are compounded with regard to transport. I undertake to ensure that the Highways Agency will be one of the organisations involved in the exercise that will take place when we have caught breath in terms of learning some lessons.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, first, will the Minister indicate whether the ABI has fallen down on its duties towards insured people? When did the noble Baroness or her fellow Ministers discuss the matter with the ABI? What has been its response? Secondly, what happens to tenants or sub-tenants who are not insured? They would not be covered by the ABI. Have the Government any plans in respect of those people?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there are those who are desperately badly affected in a range of ways in these circumstances. Flooding has been an insurable risk in the past. Concern has been expressed that people who have suffered in the current rounds of flooding will not have access to insurance in the future. That is one of the issues which will soon be the subject of discussions between Treasury Ministers and the insurance industry. We are also discussing with the ABI how the insurance industry can respond quickly and effectively to emergencies such as this. We have said that we will operate within 15 days as regards the Bellwin rules. It is important that those who have insurance cover have quick access to the funding which will come through that.

However, my noble friend is right to point out that there are wider issues about the overall affordability and availability of insurance. Those will be addressed.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, will the Minister address the key issue of not allowing planning permission to be given for land subject to flooding. Will not local authorities find themselves in the middle of a clash? On the one hand, they will be given this stronger guidance. On the other hand, the Government have committed themselves to major building of houses in particular in the South East. If local authorities have the courage to refuse permission, can they expect support if there is an appeal?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's point although she would not expect me to prejudge individual appeal decisions on individual planning applications. She fairly points out that there are issues which need resolution. The Environment Agency may give general advice that planning should be refused because development is within the flood plain. In strengthening guidance, we are asking that it be moved to a risk-based approach which takes account of likely impacts. After the experience of the past few weeks, I am sure that local authorities will not underestimate the potential for flooding. But responsibilities for planning applications remain with local authorities. They are the responsible democratic bodies. They have to balance the factors.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, my diocese is in Yorkshire although I am glad to say that Wakefield is not flooded as York so sadly is. Nevertheless, families in my diocese have relatives who are suffering flooding in their homes. One family was enormously distressed, having read in newspapers that the value of its property would probably now be decreased by something like 25 per cent. I realise that the Minister may not be able to respond immediately. However, can she assure us of the Government's sensitivity to the difficult financial position of people who may have bought houses in areas where there has been some worry about the wisdom of planning permission?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate, I sympathise with people who find themselves in difficult circumstances as regards financial responsibility. We have to consider carefully the implications.

One of the lessons learned after the Northampton floods is the importance of getting agencies such as the Department of Social Security involved on the ground, with Benefits Agency staff present from the beginning so that essential Social Fund applications can be met quickly and advice offered to those in distress.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us find reassuring the practical measures outlined in the Statement in the truly dreadful circumstances which people are suffering? The noble Baroness referred to work being undertaken to assess whether the flooding is an unusual climatic condition or part of a longer trend. But many will feel reassured only when they hear the Government put climate change, global warming and the strategic environmental considerations which arise in that context at the centre of all their strategic policy formulation. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that the present circumstances—alas!—may be an indication of even worse things to come in the decades ahead.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that we should not assume that recent events are simply a reflection of cyclical weather patterns. We have to build into our defence plans allowances for issues such as sea level rises as a result of climate change. He is also right to say that we need a strategic overall view, not just a short-term response. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made the same points in a recent speech on strategic environmental issues.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I declare an interest as a civil engineer. Reference has been made to a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, a few months ago. Does my noble friend the Minister recall that one of our colleagues who is notable in the environmental world expressed the views of many environmental quangos—and possibly those of the Government—pouring what might be called cold water on the idea of hard flood defences and suggesting instead that the right policy was to allow nature to take its course? We have seen nature taking its course and it does not seem quite such a good idea. The Minister may not be able to give an assurance, but will she at least turn her mind towards a policy of extensive hard flood defences throughout the country?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is not possible to give an overall blanket response to that contribution. We have to look at the areas concerned. There is a difference between coastal and river defences. The appropriate solutions will not be the same for all coastal regions or for all flood plains. We have to look strategically at the defence of a whole area, rather than concentrating on small localised schemes. We have guiding principles about what is appropriate, but there is no alternative to careful scrutiny of individual areas, their needs and the appropriate responses to them.