HL Deb 18 October 2000 vol 617 cc1029-30

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements they have made to assist with flood relief in the South of England.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, in accordance with established practice the Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services joined together in responding to the recent severe flooding in southern England. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me both in paying tribute to their excellent work and in expressing our sympathy to all those personally affected by the recent events.

As regards the financial arrangements, local authorities have statutory powers to deal with emergencies of this kind and are expected to budget accordingly. Where exceptional expenditure is incurred, they may, however, apply for additional financial assistance under the so-called "Bellwin rules".

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful for that response. I, too, express sympathy to all the families who have been affected. I know that everyone in the Chamber shares that view. I also thank the emergency services which the Minister mentioned as they have had a long, hard struggle. We accept that six inches of rainfall in so short a period is exceptional, but flooding also occurred earlier this year. Will the Government review their guidelines on future building in floodplain areas as that is a matter of great concern?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point out the exceptional nature of the rainfall. Between 10th and 16th October this year about twice the average rainfall for October occurred in Kent and Sussex. That gives noble Lords an idea of the extent of the problem. The noble Baroness rightly drew attention to the need for appropriate planning guidance in terms of building in areas that are at risk of flooding. We are in the process of updating that general advice which has been put out to consultation. We hope to issue new guidance by the end of the year.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the local authorities which have the immediate responsibility for relief in such situations on the work that they did. However, there is a strategic issue which relates to flood prevention in regard to existing development. Is the Minister satisfied with the existing lines of authority and responsibility in this area? Will she consider that matter in relation to those areas which have been affected? Some remedial action could perhaps be taken to alleviate such problems in the future. However, in order to achieve that it may be necessary to cut across the established boundaries which exist between local authorities, water authorities, water companies and others in order to make sense of the whole issue.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we shall ask the Environment Agency to undertake a "lessons learned" exercise when this episode is over to see whether there are lessons that we need to learn from it. Obviously, we need to consider prevention, or at least risk reduction because we cannot guarantee absolute 100 per cent protection from flooding. Work has recently been undertaken with that aim in mind, including the construction of the Leigh barrier on the River Medway which featured significantly in the protection of Tonbridge during the recent flooding. The Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services in the area responded well and coherently as a result of practising their emergency plans during the summer. However, the institutional arrangements are complex. We must consider whether we can improve them.

A seminar took place recently for those involved in flood defence. If we can simplify some of the complexity in this area, we shall do so. On the other hand, such provision crosses boundaries: the emergency services are involved; local authorities have responsibilities for emergencies beyond flooding, and the Environment Agency takes the lead. It is not simple to bring all those services under one heading, but we must ensure that co-ordination takes place.