Mary Creagh

Working hard for Wakefield

Speech in a debate on future flood prevention

I will speak on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has published a report on flooding. We found a lack of long-term strategic planning for flood risk and that the Government had not been doing enough to ensure the resilience of nationally significant infrastructure. Crucially, there has been a stop-start approach to flood defence funding and a lack of support for local councils. Our report called on the Government to take a proactive approach to funding and to make companies that operate key digital, energy and transport infrastructure report on their preparedness levels for flooding and their resilience targets. We called for more support for councils to prepare plans to deal with the risk of flooding, and for the Government to publish a 25-year plan for flooding alongside the long-awaited and much delayed 25-year plan for the environment, for which, yes, we are indeed still waiting.

Before I discuss the detail of our report, I wish to say a few words about climate change. Flooding is the greatest risk our country faces from climate change. As hon. Members have said, the risks are already significant and will increase as a result of climate change. Even if global temperature rises are kept below 2°, the UK ​faces a rising threat from surface water as a result of the intense rain patterns, from coastal erosion and tidal surges, and from fluvial flooding. It is important to stress that cities such as Hull face all three of those threats—some areas are much more vulnerable than others.

Sea-level rise forecasts vary from 50 cm to 100 cm by the end of the century. That will make tidal surges bigger. We saw how exposed is our North sea coast on the east of England in January’s storm surge, when the coastal town of Jaywick in Essex, which suffered so grievously in the 1950s, had to be evacuated by the Army. It is good to see a faster response time from the Government in such fast-moving, life-and-death situations, but we need to be able to scale that up if the North sea surge happens simultaneously along the whole eastern coast.

Various predictions, including the forecasts in the Government’s national flood resilience review, say that monthly winter rainfall could be 20% to 30% higher over the next 10 years, so as well as planning for the next 80 years, for our children’s lifetimes, we need to be thinking about the next 10 years. There are risks to all nations and all sectors of the economy. In its latest risk assessment, the Committee on Climate Change said:

“Current levels of adaptation are projected to be insufficient to avoid flood and coastal erosion risks”.

We are not yet doing what we need to do to match the scale of the risk. There has been some progress, but we need to move much further and faster as the scale and nature of the risk becomes more apparent and as the science develops. My concern is that Government policy is not changing fast enough to meet the changes in the scientific forecasts.

The Committee on Climate Change warns that increased flood risk affects property values and business revenues, and, in extreme cases, threatens the viability of some communities. A much worse scenario is set out in the climate change risk assessment: if global temperatures rise by 4° above pre-industrial levels, the number of UK households predicted to be at significant risk of flooding will double from 860,000 today to 1.9 million in 2050. Those are very stark and very concerning figures.

I know from my own constituency the misery that flooding can bring. In the 2007 floods, 1,000 homes in Wakefield were flooded. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said, successive Government have cut funding over the years, ​and 2007 was one such year—it was Labour that cut the funding that year. Our flood defence programme was cut, and I lobbied very hard to get that money reinstated. We got £15 million for flood defences to protect our cities. Thanks to those defences, which were completed in 2012, Wakefield managed to escape the worst of the 2015 storms. That was really, really important.

Nationally, the Government have taken a rollercoaster approach to funding. During the previous Parliament, flood funding was initially cut by 27%. The money was then reinstated after the 2013-14 floods. Mark Worsfield’s review of flood defences, which was published by my Committee, showed that those Government cuts had resulted in a decline in the condition of critical flood defences. It showed that the proportion of key flood defence assets that met the Environment Agency’s required condition fell from 99% in 2011-12 to 94% in 2013-14. Therefore, in three years we had a pretty large decline in the condition of mission critical flood defence assets, which posed an unacceptable risk for communities—I am talking about those communities that think that they have their flood defences in place and that they can sleep easy in their beds at night when it is raining. The more flood defences that the Government build, the more they need to increase the maintenance budgets. We cannot keep spending more on capital and then cut the revenue budget.

The failure of the Foss Barrier in York shows what happens when critical flood assets fail. It was built on the cheap in the 1980s. It was not built to the correct height and it had just two mechanisms. Once one of those mechanisms failed, the water overtopped its banks and reached the electrical switch rooms. Local flood engineers were left with no choice but to raise the barrier with very little notice, which led to hundreds of homes being flooded. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) will have a great deal to say on that.

The Government are talking about spending more on flood defences. One mechanism they are using is the so-called partnership funding. My Committee looked into the sources of that funding and found that 85% of it was coming from public sector bodies. Therefore, the Government are cutting funds centrally, and then putting pressure on hard-pressed local councils, which have seen their budgets fall by 30% over the past seven years, to boost their flood defence assets. When they say, “Do you fancy stomping up for some flood defence assets for your town or city.” those councils are left with no choice but to say yes. Just 15% of the money is coming from the private sector. Of course, it is not a level playing field, because any private sector company that gives the Government money for partnership funding gets tax relief on that so-called donation.

At the start of each spending review, the Government announce how much they will spend. In 2015, they allocated £2.5 billion for flood defences, but after storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the Government announced, in Budget 2016, that the funding was not adequate and that they were going to invest an extra £700 million. Once again, we have this stop-start approach—cut when it is dry and spend when it is raining. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who was then a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that the extra money would be spent according to a “political calculation”.

The coalition Government in 2010—I know that the hon. Lady was not a Minister then—cut the flood defence budget by 27%. Of course, the way in which the Minister is raising the money—the extra £700 million that was announced in the Budget in March 2016—came from a stealth tax: an increase in insurance premium tax. That raises £200 million a year and goes on every insurance policy in the country, so car drivers and people who own pets are paying for flood defences. We can argue about whether that is the most transparent way of raising money for flood infrastructure.

I will talk about the Committee’s report and the criticisms that we have made, particularly about infrastructure resilience. Storm Angus caused landslips and ballast washaways on railway lines in Devon, Cornwall, the north-east and Scotland before Christmas, bringing travel disruption—as storms always do—as we saw last week with Storm Doris. Last winter’s floods, particularly those in Leeds, which the Committee visited, showed that key energy, digital and transport infrastructures are not well protected. Let us not forget the bridge being washed away in Tadcaster. The replacement bridge has only just reopened, over a year after those floods. Roads and railways going down have a huge impact on the economics of an area.

The Government’s national flood resilience review, which was published last summer, found that 500 sites with nationally significant infrastructure are vulnerable to flooding. During the winter floods of 2015-16, nine electricity sub-stations, and 110 water pumping stations or sewage works in Yorkshire were affected by flooding. Keeping the water supply going and the sewage under control is vital. My Committee recommended that the Government mandate energy and water companies to meet a one-in-200-year flood resilience target for risk. I am afraid that the Government’s response was hugely disappointing, simply saying, “We don’t think that’s the best way of doing it”, but not saying what the best way is. I am interested to hear that. Our strategy cannot just be tumbleweed—listening for the wind and hoping that it is not coming our way.

Minimum standards for energy, transport infrastructure and digital telecommunications companies are vital. Let us not forget that the railway lines were flooded out of Leeds. The police Airwave response radios went down, so West Yorkshire police were unable to work out where to send their blue light emergency response vehicles in the middle of a civil emergency. That is simply not good enough. If that had happened not on Boxing day, but on a normal working day a couple of days later, tens of thousands of people would have been stranded in Leeds city centre with nowhere to spend the night. There would have been a much bigger civil emergency response.

The Government’s long awaited national flood resilience review was published in September. It was good to hear about some of the things that are happening, such as the mobile flood defences. However, the Committee thinks that flood defences are essentially a sticking plaster solution: they are good as far as they go, but fail one third of the times they are used, so they work only twice in every three times. The review said nothing ​about the risk from heavy rainfall overwhelming sewers. No one likes to talk about sewage, although some people might think that a lot of it goes on in this place, Madam Deputy Speaker, but clearly not in this debate and under your excellent chairmanship.

The Government need a comprehensive long-term strategy properly to deal with some of the granular issues around flood risk, none more important than the way in which local authorities have to deal with flood planning and prevention. Some 30% of local authorities in September 2016 simply did not have a complete plan for flood risk, and a quarter of lead local flood authorities did not have a strategy. How are the public and Members of this place meant to scrutinise whether the plans and responses are adequate if they simply do not exist?

The Environment Agency provides advice to local councils about where new housing developments should be built in order to minimise flood risk, and the Committee heard that such advice is usually followed. However, almost 10,000 homes were built in high flood-risk areas in 2013-14. The extent to which the Environment Agency’s advice on where or whether to build homes is systematically monitored, reported or followed up through the planning system is simply not known. There is nothing wrong with building new homes in flood-risk areas, as long as those areas are adequately protected—Southwark and this place are at risk of flooding, and people are obviously still building new homes in London because there is a thing called the Thames barrier—but the situation is not being systematically monitored. We would therefore like to see much more help going from DEFRA and the DCLG to enable councils to adopt local flood plans and then actually follow them up.

In the wake of the winter storms in 2015-16, the then Prime Minister appointed two Ministers as flood envoys to co-ordinate the response to flooding in two areas: the hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in Cumbria and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) in Yorkshire. A question was raised about whether those posts transferred under the new Government and the new Prime Minister. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July. She responded in September, saying she was thinking about it. Finally, on 7 January, we got a reply saying, “Actually, they are still in post.” It should not take six months for the Secretary of State to reply to a Committee Chair of this House to let us know whether, in the event of a flood, those two Ministers are still co-ordinating the response. What would have happened if flooding had taken place in Jaywick? That is simply not acceptable.

Finally, on insurance, last winter’s devastating floods cost over £1.3 billion in insured losses and about £5 billion across the whole economy. As I said, my Committee visited Leeds, and we had particular access to insurance. We had people coming across from Calderdale, where 70% to 80% of businesses were affected by the flooding—they have been affected almost annually by fluvial flooding and surface flooding. The floods cost small and medium-sized enterprises an estimated £47 million, with indirect costs totalling £170 million.

The floods in Leeds were the worst since 1866. Leeds University, which has done some research into this issue, told my Committee that 60% of local businesses have been unable to obtain a quotation for insurance since last winter’s floods. We heard of one business ​whose excess had risen from £1,000 to £250,000 after the floods. We heard of another business whose buildings insurance premium rose 60%, to £10,000, and whose excess increased 40%, to £10,000, but it would get the insurance only if it stumped up £400,000 to build new flood defences. The Committee on Climate Change says that the economic viability of some areas is being threatened, and the way insurance companies are failing to rise to meet this risk and failing to stand with communities is putting whole parts of our country at risk of becoming economically unviable.

Businesses are encouraged to shop around, and there are some excellent community Flood Save schemes, where people try to get together to use market power to purchase insurance collectively, and one of those schemes is now up and running in Calderdale, but it should not have to come to that. We want to see insurance companies standing alongside communities. The insurance companies lobbied long and hard to mitigate their risk from climate change, and the Government set up the Flood Re scheme —another insurance tax on contents premiums and buildings premiums, with every homeowner in the country stumping up for the access risk so that the insurers do not have to pay it and can transfer it to the Government. Insurers need to cut businesses some slack and rise to meet some of these challenges.

It is important that we do not end up with every taxpayer subsidising the private sector. The Government need to look again at the use of different, innovative mechanisms that do not place yet another burden on the already hard-pressed householder or car driver who has seen their insurance premiums go up as a result of mitigating and pooling some of this risk.

Failing to fund flood defences adequately is playing Russian roulette with people’s homes and with people’s businesses. I have talked about my Committee’s concerns about rollercoaster funding instead of steady-state funding; vague targets; vulnerable transport, energy and digital infrastructure, where again the Government simply lack the political will to work with companies across Government to get them to have flood-resilient assets; and local councils left to just get on with it by themselves. The storms may have receded for the moment, but the clean-up in some areas of Yorkshire, and in other areas ​across the country, is still going on. The lessons that we draw from this debate and these two Committee reports will shape our winters and our summers for decades to come.

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