HC Deb 07 November 2000 vol 356 cc22-8WH 11.30 am
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Iam grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue, which is causing great concern against a background of unprecedented conditions as a result of persistent slow-moving rain. About 30 mm fell in a 12-hour period between the afternoon of Thursday 2 November and the early hours of Friday 3 November, and 50 mm fell on the northern Pennines and the North Yorkshire moors. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) regrets that he cannot be with us. He has suffered similar flooding to that in the Vale of York.

I congratulate the Environment Agency, the police and other emergency services, 38 Royal Engineers based at Ripon, local radio stations and others on all the assistance that they gave in last weekend's emergency, which is on-going. My heart goes out to all those affected: the flooding of one's home and possessions must be one of the greatest disasters that can affect an individual or a family. I accept that the Environment Agency has worked extremely hard and provided 24-hour coverage to improve flood warnings. However, that is no consolation to my constituents in the Vale of York who have been flooded.

There was a flood awareness campaign during September and a number of meetings were held during flood awareness week beginning on 11 September. Regrettably, no meeting was held anywhere in the Vale of York, but plastic cards that float have been issued. My constituents must be reassured that, if their houses are flooded, the cards will be there on their return. However, improving flood warnings is no substitute for better flood defences.

The system seemed to break down in one respect: Rawcliffe was completely overlooked and constituents there feel neglected. The flood defences were breached in the late hours of Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning, 4 November. A request went out for sandbags to be provided, but it fell on deaf ears. For a number of understandable reasons, priority was given to the city of York, but no clear warning was given to Rawcliffe residents.

I am delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present, because I would like him to clarify his comments in Hansard yesterday. Referring to me, he said: Much of her constituency is a flood plain and its flooding has taken a great deal of pressure off urban areas.—[Official Report, 6 November 2000: Vol. 356, c. 31.] I would like an assurance that it is not all right to flood the Vale of York to save the city of York. That is causing a great deal of distress, particularly in Rawcliffe.

As I said, no sandbags were provided and no adequate warning was given. Social services were not involved on either Saturday or Sunday: they intervened only at a very late stage. Rawcliffe parish council could not have done more to help the evacuees. I went to a centre in St. Mark's grove in Rawcliffe, which is where the police were told to direct evacuees. However, I had to intervene in the case of a couple that had nowhere to go because social services were not present. I gather that people from social services did not explain why they had not been present until late yesterday. In future, there should be greater communication between the services involved.

An array of bodies has responsibility for flood defences, including the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards. The Library research note that was prepared for me on 3 November states: Provision of flood defences relies on a partnership between Government and local operating authorities. The involvement of that array of bodies with varying responsibilities makes for a complicated system and a confusing funding mechanism.

The funding arrangement that I would particularly like the Minister to consider is the revenue support grant. In the 1997–98 financial year, the flood and coastal defence element of the revenue support grant totalled £225.4 million. When the Local Government Association recently gave evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, it agreed that, although it is reasonable to maintain the existing standard spending assessment methodology, additional safeguards are needed to reflect within-year changes in local authorities' spending on their flood defence systems in SSAs for subsequent years. The association believes that that would allow for consistency and certainty under the SSA procedure in strategic planning and flood defences.

The flood defence income and expenditure figures for the accounting year that ended on 31 March 2000 show that a loss was incurred in Yorkshire. Total expenditure as a percentage of the total was 22.8 per cent., whereas income was only 21.6 per cent. I am worried because the £51 million that the Government have provided, although welcome, is to be spread over four years, and £51 million is substantially less than a quarter of the total spending on flood defences in any one year, and will probably be insufficient for the unprecedented flooding crisis that we have faced.

The Minister said yesterday that the Vale of York is substantially within a flood plain area. That is apparent from the most recent indicative flood plains map, prepared by the Environment Agency in 1999, a copy of which I received in August this year. The breaching at Rawcliffe of Blue beck, causing the flooding into Rawcliffe grove, Shipton road and other areas, was apparently aggravated by the large number of houses that have been built in recent years. Will the Government consider imposing an immediate moratorium on the building of new homes on flood plains such as the Vale of York until an estimate can be made of the damage incurred?

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the impact of the flooding on the farming community—which is already in the depths of a crisis. As we have seen in the Vale of York, protecting towns often means that rural areas are flooded, including highly productive agricultural land. For example, a total of 1,000 acres across five farms on the Crown estate at Boroughbridge have been flooded. That area is not a flood plain, but prime land on which is grown potatoes, sugar beet and cereals. Many crops will not be harvested, and tenants and landowners in those areas face huge losses. Everyone agrees that it is vital to protect homes from flooding—it is the most personal disaster that can affect a constituent. However, some form of compensation must be paid—not necessarily from the flood defence budget; perhaps from the rural development fund—to those whose incomes and livelihoods have been sacrificed in this way.

The new money that the Government have announced is appreciated. However, will the Minister confirm that it is not merely a levy on the existing county council SSA, that it will be paid directly to the flood defence committee of the Environment Agency, and that part of it will be paid to the highway authorities?

Floods have damaged many roads and bridges in the Vale of York, which was cut in two. Aldwark bridge is being repaired, Cundall bridge was flooded and impassable, and the A68 has been impassable for the best part of a week. Will emergency funds be made available not just to the Environment Agency's flood defence committees but to the highway authorities, so that they can quickly repair flood damage to roads and bridges?

New defences in Boroughbridge have been put severely to the test, although as I speak they seem to be holding. However, most of the flooded properties in Langthorpe, which is slightly lower than the adjacent defences, could probably have been saved if the Aldborough Ings scheme had been put into operation. Can the new money be made available to compensate landowners and tenants on the Ings for the inconvenience caused by temporary flooding?

There are problems in Boroughbridge. The floodline warning has proved inadequate in certain respects. The quality of information has not been sufficiently or frequently upgraded, and that has caused alarm. Flood information was often six hours old. 1 phoned the floodline on Friday evening, but Boroughbridge was not mentioned—Milby was referred to, but that is an appreciable distance away. In the past, information was given on the height of water passing under a bridge, but since the flood warning was changed that has no longer been provided. Regrettably, portable road signs were not available in Boroughbridge, so when the bridge was closed local people had to use hand signals to divert traffic, thereby incurring abuse from passing motorists.

Is the Minister aware that the Boroughbridge pumping station is controlled by a computer that is located in York? Recently, the computer failed and manual intervention was required, which led to various operational defects. Moreover, does the Minister realise that the recently installed barrage, which prevents debris passing under the bridge, could cause a sudden rush of water and lead to flooding further down the river?

As of yesterday, 50 residential properties in the Hambleton district had been evacuated, and their occupants rehoused or cared for in other sites. More than 250 other homes in Hambleton have experienced flooding, but as yet it has not been necessary to evacuate the owner-occupiers. According to Broadacres housing association, many homes that were affected by the flood had no house contents insurance, so it will be impossible to make any claim. That is a particularly worrying problem, which doubtless is not unique to the Vale of York. As the Minister will know, if an act of God—such as flood or fire—is deemed to have occurred, many of the losses are uninsurable. That has a substantial financial impact on people who can ill afford it.

I urge the Minister to discover whether, for example, dredging still takes place on rivers such as the Ouse, which used to be dredged frequently. Are local drains being cleared as often as in the past? I make a special plea for the strengthening of flood defences at Aldborough Ings and Clifton Ings, which would protect Rawcliffe. I hope that the Minister, the local authorities and all the relevant services will pay particular attention to rural areas and city outskirts such as Rawcliffe and Clifton. If possible, nowhere should be flooded, and when unprecedented conditions occur in future, sandbags must be made available to all who are affected, come hell or high water. Will the Minister consider a temporary moratorium on house building on flood plains, until we have the opportunity to assess what damage has been caused to constituencies such as the Vale of York?

On the subject of rehousing the evacuees as soon as is physically possible, can we be assured that there will be no health risk? Will the local authority, the Environment Agency or Yorkshire Water be responsible for particles of sewage being removed from people's homes? The water level is about to peak this afternoon. If the sewerage works at Rawcliffe were to burst its banks, the damage to the houses in Shipton road and to other neighbouring facilities would not bear thinking about. Help must obviously be sought, and we seek guidance from the Minister this morning.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate. It is very timely, given the present circumstances in her constituency and nationally.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, these extreme conditions have been caused by some of the most severe floods that this country has experienced in half a century. Moreover, they are affecting areas right across the country. They have put local authorities, the emergency services, the Environment Agency and voluntary groups under severe pressure. The latest position, reported to me this morning by the Environment Agency, is that 4,725 properties have been flooded in England and Wales. There are 45 severe flood warnings and 231 flood warnings in force. That shows the scale of the flooding and of the demands that it is making on the agency.

Yorkshire has been especially badly affected by the recent floods. The county experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall in October, and that has continued into November with the present rain belts. Nearly all Yorkshire is on flood watch, and flood warnings or severe flood warnings are in force on many rivers. The situation is changing constantly as the rivers respond to the recent rainfall, and I am afraid that more rainfall is expected in the next few days.

As the hon. Lady may know, I visited York last Friday, and I was in Selby last Saturday. The surrounding area was also visited by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. We have seen the effects of the flooding first hand, and the misery that it has caused those people who have been affected.

The one bright side to the situation is that the flooding would have been a lot worse but for the improvements that have been made to flood defences in recent years. The defences constructed in York after the serious floods of 1982 have been seriously tested, but they have managed to operate beyond their design capacity, and they continue to protect about 1,000 houses. As the hon. Lady said, substantial protection has also been given to Boroughbridge in her constituency, where I am glad to say the defences have held. However, as she also pointed out, about 50 properties in Rawcliffe and about 20 in Milby have been flooded. Flood warnings were issued in those locations, but I would like to extend my personal sympathy to all those people who have been affected. I appreciate the impact that this has had on them.

I shall deal with some of the specific points that the hon. Lady raised. The Environment Agency has issued warnings to people who live in flood risk areas, and those cards were important because they explained exactly what the warnings and the symbols meant, and what action should be taken in case of a flood. They also had the flood watch number on them. That service has been very successful, because it has allowed people to ring and obtain the information to which the hon. Lady referred. People want information: they want to know what is going on in their area, what the risks are and what the local river is doing. The agency has done a very good job in that respect.

The hon. Lady asked about the availability of much wider information on road closures and so on, and I am not saying that we cannot consider such issues when the circumstances have calmed down and returned to normal. We may be able to improve on those provisions in future, and there may be areas in which we could do better. The agency will review the situation, when it has returned to normality, and I shall ensure that the hon. Lady and all other hon. Members in affected areas receive a copy of the conclusions.

The hon. Lady mentioned the flood plain in the Vale of York. I do not want her and her constituents to get the impression that it is acceptable for them to be flooded to save the city of York or other people. That is not what the Government or the Environment Agency believe, but flood plains are part of our natural defences in flood management. Flood meadows and plains will flood as they have always done and may have flooded more in the past than now. They are a natural feature of the environment and many farmers use cropping and grazing regimes that work in harmony with annual winter flooding, although there have been huge changes over the years with intensification and a move to arable farming. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has played a role in that over the years by providing grants for draining fields or for switching from winter grazing to arable crops. The Ministry has played its part over the decades, but we must think more about sustainability and its impact.

Miss McIntosh

Does the Minister accept that there is a case for grants to be made available to farmers on this occasion, and will he agree to press for a moratorium on house building on flood plains until we can assess the damage?

Mr. Morley

I shall come to what we can do to help farmers in the current situation and the arrangements for flood defences.

Our prime concern is to protect lives and property. Farmers may suffer loss, but the degree of loss depends on how long floodwater remains and the strength of the flood. The strength of the present floods will have a great impact on farmers wherever land has flooded.

We have given some thought to the funding arrangements and to the standard spending assessment in relation to regional flood defence committees and levies, and we have considered whether that is the most efficient method. The methods of funding flood defences will be reviewed and we shall produce a report. The present methods work well, and local people are involved through their local representatives and local authorities, which decide local priorities. That is a strength of the system, but I am not saying that there have not been problems. One is that local authorities are sometimes reluctant, for a variety of reasons, to pass the increase in the levies—it was above inflation in the previous standard spending assessment—to regional flood defence committees. That can cause problems.

I confirm that the £51 million over four years is new money from the Government's reserves and will not come from county council or local authority allocations. It will be predominantly for capital programmes for flood defence work and some will be used for whole catchment area planning. It is not destined for highway authorities for road or bridge replacement or repair, for which there are separate budgets. That £51 million, on top of increases already announced for the flood and coastal defence budget, means that we shall be able to grant-aid more flood defence schemes, and we shall want to give priority to river systems.

The hon. Lady referred to schemes in her constituency. It is for local and regional flood defence committees to decide their local priorities, work out schemes in conjunction with the Environment Agency and submit them to the Ministry for grant aid according to the criteria that we apply—engineering standards, cost benefit analysis and other criteria with which they are familiar. I am sure that they will consider those matters in their areas and take action accordingly.

The £51 million and the Ministry's budget for flood control are not intended to compensate people who have been affected by floods. The Government do not have the facility to help with insurable risks. No Government have ever done that, and we cannot do so. However, we can help local authorities with the exceptional expenditure that many of them will face as a result of the floods. Bringing out emergency work teams, rehousing people and dealing with storm and flood damage involve exceptional costs. The hon. Lady will be aware that I announced yesterday that the Bellwin formula is to be boosted. The Government will now accept 100 per cent. of exceptional spending over the Bellwin threshold. Moreover, there will be the possibility of advance payments to help local authorities, and their claims will be dealt with as speedily as possible in future. That point was put to me by local authorities on my travels.

Information on road signs is a matter for local authorities. I note her point about the barrage holding back debris. The agency is keen to get that debris out of the water. I saw the Foss barrier when I visited York.

Three members of staff were working around the clock in the rain removing tonnes of debris, including dead cattle, sheep and trees. Debris must be removed from the water; it must not be allowed to go down the rivers to jam under bridges, turning them into dams. The agency is well aware of that and is working very hard. Keeping the drains clear is a matter for local authorities. Dredging is a matter for the Environment Agency and the drainage authorities, which give it careful consideration. However, dredging channels would make only a marginal difference given the scale of these floods.

The Government recognise that in the recent flooding farmers may have lost crops that they intend to include in a claim under the arable area payments scheme in 2001. If they intend to re-sow the crops and if there is exceptional rainfall throughout the winter and into the spring, we shall seek any necessary extension of the latest sowing date after 31 May. If farmers want to put the flooded land into set-aside and need flexibility on the requirement to have green cover, which is one of the rules of set-aside as the hon. Lady will know, they should contact their local regional service centre. Exceptionally, because of the situation, we are prepared to allow flooded land to be set aside up to 100 per cent. of the area claimed. Any farmers in that position should contact their regional service centre. We are using our national discretion to deal with the situation. I think that farmers will find that helpful. The National Farmers Union has asked us to implement those measures, and I shall issue a press release so that farmers are aware of the changes that we will make.

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to local agencies and local authorities, which have informed people about what has been happening. Local radio stations have also played a great role. On sandbagging, if the Environment Agency has spare capacity and time, it is only too happy to help out, but given the extent of these floods, the priority had to be to shore up defences that were under threat of collapsing. It is not the Environment Agency's responsibility to give sandbags to local houses; it is the responsibility of the local authority. I am quite sure that the hon. Lady will take that matter up with her local authority.

I have realised from my travels that the facility to get sandbags is important to local people. It is something tangible that gives them some security. Local authorities need to make sandbags available. However, to be fair, filling them is time consuming, and when flooding occurs local authority staff are obviously doing other things. In some parts of the country the Environment Agency has machines to fill sandbags and is only too pleased to co-operate with local authorities. The same applies to the provision of social services and facilities such as help with rehousing. The environmental health authorities, insurance companies and sewerage companies will help with cleaning up sewage pollution. If floorboards need to be replaced, that is a matter for insurance companies.

The conditions that have come about are exceptional and the response, by and large, has been good. We shall think about what lessons we can learn, what we have done well and what could be improved.