Flood Recovery Framework — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 9:30 am ar 17 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 9:30, 17 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Flood Recovery Framework.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I look forward to the debate, which is important because flooding remains a highly topical issue for many of our constituents who have suffered the appalling consequences of flooding this winter. I regret to predict that many more may suffer that fate during the years ahead as climate change provides more rainfall events of more persistent duration and at unpredictable times of the year.

However, I am not here to forecast the weather or to dwell on the causes or impacts of climate change. There are plenty of other opportunities to do that, not least through the work of the Environmental Audit Committee —which I have the honour to chair—and our latest, recently launched inquiry on climate and security. The consequences of flooding for national infrastructure are one of the issues being considered.

I will offer a few initial words of context on the flooding challenge we face. The Met Office’s “State of the UK Climate” report in 2022 confirmed how the UK has become wetter over the past few decades, albeit with significant annual variation. The third UK climate change risk assessment in 2021 identified flooding as one of the most important climate change adaptation challenges facing the UK. Six of the 10 wettest years on record in the UK have occurred since 1998, and this past year has seen the most rainfall for any 18-month period in England since Met Office rainfall records started in 1836.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Ceidwadwyr, Broxtowe

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. My constituency saw devastating flooding to homes and businesses during Storms Babet and Henk. Each time such storms occur, the same areas of Broxtowe are severely damaged. Does he agree that we must act now, not just to compensate, but to ensure that we mitigate against that level of damage occurring in the future?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I will go on to talk about multiple flood events involving the same properties, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is an obligation on the Environment Agency, as the lead on this issue, to identify preventive measures that can be taken to stop flooding of properties. Few things are more devastating for a householder than to see their home get flooded, but one can barely imagine what it must be like to live through that multiple times. Most of us in the Chamber do not need to use our imaginations to know what that means—we have seen it at first hand in our constituencies, as my hon. Friend has just identified.

About 5.7 million homes and businesses in England are at risk of flooding, and more than half of the best, most fertile farmland in Britain is on flood plains. That is particularly relevant in the River Severn catchment, which crosses Shropshire. The River Severn Partnership—whose parliamentary caucus is ably chaired by my neighbour, Daniel Kawczynski, who I am pleased to see in his place—has formed to work with local authorities and MPs along the length of the catchment, and with the Environment Agency and others, to seek holistic solutions to adapt to those conditions and reduce flood risk.

Flood risk is a real and present danger. Latest estimates suggest that, by the end of this century, the River Severn will be 0.85 metres higher on average across the year and up to 1.5 metres higher during winter flood levels, although it is expected to be lower in summer, with 25% less water available for abstraction by as soon as 2050. In the past three years, we have already experienced three of the five worst floods ever recorded along the River Severn and, as yet, no climate allowance has been built into the considerable defences installed.

Regrettably, the River Severn catchment accounts for a disproportionate degree of flood events. In February 2022, 44 of the 80 flood warnings put out nationally were for the River Severn. Even when the catchment is not at the centre of storm events, we are often affected in Shropshire. Properties along the River Severn have been flooded twice in the past six months. In October, Storm Babet flooded 109 properties internally and 28 businesses, and in January, Storm Henk flooded 74 properties and 32 businesses. Those figures almost certainly understate the impact, as some people do not report to their local authority or insurer for fear of losing access to insurance in the future.

Putting in place the right preventive measures to reduce the risk of flooding is what the River Severn Partnership is all about, but that is a discussion for another day, unless my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham wants to intervene on that topic, given that I mentioned him.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Ceidwadwyr, Shrewsbury and Atcham

This is the first time in 19 years that someone has encouraged me to intervene on the, so I am very grateful. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend—my constituency neighbour—who has been one of the most active in the caucus of 37 MPs along the River Severn, which I chair, and I very much welcome his debate. Does he agree that it is essential that we work in collaboration with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to continue to lobby the Treasury on the £500 million business case we submitted to finally manage and maintain Britain’s longest river?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am very pleased to have created a first in my hon. Friend’s parliamentary career, and I am sure it will not be the last. I invite him to apply for a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the work of the River Severn Partnership; I would be happy to support it. We did indeed submit proposals to the Treasury—in fact, to the Chancellor himself—on the River Severn Partnership bid for significant funding to look at a whole range of remediation and adaptation options upstream, going as far as the source of the River Severn in Wales.

This morning’s debate is about ensuring that the right support mechanisms are in place for those who have been affected by flooding. A range of measures offer financial and practical help, including schemes for householders, businesses and farmers. Some are of long standing, such as the Bellwin emergency relief scheme, and others were introduced more recently by the Conservative Government in 2017 through the flood recovery framework to provide more targeted support.

However, the support is a complex patchwork, as one glance at the House of Commons Library briefing for this debate shows: there are several elements of support, with different eligibility criteria, applicable to different entities that have suffered flood damage. Home and business support is primarily managed through local authorities under schemes for which the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has lead responsibility. They include the community recovery grant, council tax reductions, the business recovery grant and business rate reductions.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Ceidwadwyr, North Norfolk

In my constituency, flooding has been absolutely appalling for the past 18 months. As my right hon. Friend said, the level of rainfall has been virtually double the average virtually every single month. I have the broads in my constituency, great swathes of which are still under water, and the water table is very high. That leads to multiple problems, including groundwater from the amount of rainfall and erosion. My right hon. Friend spoke about the patchwork nature of the schemes and the lack of co-ordination. What can be done to bring together the stakeholders—the water companies, the county councils, the internal drainage boards and the Environment Agency—so they work in a more co-ordinated fashion? At the moment, the response is often slow and there is a lack of funding, so there should be an overarching body that co-ordinates the response far better.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am very grateful for that important intervention from my hon. Friend, who is a valued member of the Environmental Audit Committee. He is right to point out how complex it is to get to grips with the situation, given that different responsibilities fall in different places. I encourage him to consider the work being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham in the River Severn catchment in creating a partnership involving all the local authorities in the area, the Environment Agency and the non-governmental organisations that have an interest in the issue, such as the Wildlife Trust and the various broad and fen groups, as well as the internal drainage boards, which have a vital role to play. In many cases, such groups find it hard to come together regularly; there may even be a role for an enterprising and experienced MP to provide some leadership in order to cut across some of those institutional boundaries. I commend that partnership model to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Ceidwadwyr, Shrewsbury and Atcham

On that point, I would like to ask my right hon. Friend for his views on one matter. Now that we are out of the European Union, we do not need, for the first time in my life, to comply with the common agricultural policy. That means that we can, for the first time, pay farmers and landowners to hold on to water. My right hon. Friend referred to how our friends and neighbours across the border in Wales will be pivotal in helping us to do that. I would like to put on record the fact that my right hon. Friend Craig Williams, who is the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, has made very positive statements about that in his local newspaper. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a huge opportunity to strengthen our Union between Wales and England?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

My hon. Friend tempts me to conclude my speech before I get to the point about farmers and sustainable farming incentives. There are provisions in the existing support arrangements, post the CAP regime, which will allow for mechanisms to help reduce flood risk.

My hon. Friend referred to the cross-border challenge. He will know that, on the English side of the border, in Shropshire and Herefordshire, there is a developing partnership with the equivalent counties of Powys and Monmouthshire, on the Welsh side, to provide practical schemes to allow them to co-operate across borders, which has been a problem. As we know, the environment is a delegated matter, but the environment, as we also know, does not respect administrative boundaries. The situation is a bit of a nonsense, and the responsible bodies can grapple with it only by working together. That includes the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities, as well as the UK Government and English local authorities. My hon. Friend is quite right to draw that issue out.

I was going on to talk about the support arrangements for farmers and about the internal drainage boards, which my hon. Friend Duncan Baker referred to. Those support arrangements are managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Measures include the welcome introduction of a farming recovery fund, as a swift response to Storm Henk, with its eligibility criteria recently and pragmatically extended.

I should put on record my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a partner in a farming business. I am particularly pleased that the Minister for Water and Rural Growth is here to listen and respond to the debate. I know he cares deeply about water management issues, and has throughout his time in Parliament. I hope to suggest some pointers to him regarding the challenges facing farmers with flooded land.

I have just mentioned my entry in the register, and my farm is on the Herefordshire-Shropshire border. Part of it is within the Severn catchment and, as it is on the watershed, part of it is in the River Wye catchment. We have fields that, even this morning, in the middle of April, are still too wet to work. They have yet to dry out sufficiently, having effectively been waterlogged since last autumn. We did not have a specific flood event in the fields through either Babet or Henk, other than at the margins, but the water table has risen to such a level that we have not been able to get machinery on to some of our fields.

Before I turn to the specific farming measures that I would ask the Minister to look at, I would like to touch on the impact on properties, and particularly homes that have been flooded or are at material risk. Like many others in the House, I spent time earlier this year with homeowners, business owners and farmers in my constituency who had had their lives turned upside down by the impact of flooding. Some have been flooded more than once in the past year alone. I sympathise enormously with those who have had to deal with flooding, however it has affected them, having seen the damage and disruption it causes.

I visited one couple in Highley on the banks of the River Severn a couple of days after Storm Henk, who were still only able to access their home wearing waders, because flood waters had reached as high as the door handle on their back door. The heartbreaking devastation of that impact on their home was matched only by the anger and frustration of being told in the days that followed that they might not have been part of a sufficiently serious flood in their area to be able to access financial support, since fewer than 50 property owners had at that time come forward to report internal flooding of their properties across the local authority of Shropshire. That seems an arbitrary threshold. When visiting their premises, it was difficult to explain why the support mechanism did not apply to them, not least because it is at the discretion of the Secretary of State whether to invoke the mechanism at all.

The threshold is determined by local authority boundaries on a map rather than by the river system or catchment that has flooded, and it can take weeks or—as in the case of Storm Henk in Shropshire—months to establish whether the threshold has been reached, given the reluctance of some householders to report a flooding incident for fear of the impact on their subsequent insurability. Flood Re has significantly reduced but not eliminated that issue.

I appreciate that the eligibility criteria for the flood recovery framework is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister, but I urge him to impress on ministerial colleagues in DLUHC, as they undertake a review of the scheme this year, that they should consider how to improve access to the scheme to make it more fair. It is at present hard to comprehend why access can be denied to someone whose home or business is on the wrong side of the local authority boundary when, just upstream or downstream on the same river, properties affected by the same storm are awarded financial support.

As part of the review, I also urge Ministers to look at the per-property limits for support, as those are likely to leave people subject to multiple floods without further help once their property has reached the upper limit. If a property has changed hands between floods, the new owners might not be eligible for support even if their property has been flooded.

My second point concerns the administrative burden of implementing support under the flood recovery framework, which falls on local authorities. Everyone in this House is aware of the pressures that councils are already under, with limited resources for flood and water management. When a flood occurs, the community bands together incredibly quickly to support each other. I pay tribute to the efforts of local volunteers, flood action groups and local councillors who do so much to help when flood warnings are issued. Support from the local authority to help with prevention and then clean-up remains vital.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

The right hon. Member, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, is making a great speech in a really important debate. On Boxing day 2015, we had the greatest flooding event in a century in Leeds on the River Aire catchment. All council members—I was a member of the council at the time—went to help the clean-up operation. Since then, the West Yorkshire flood risk partnership has created a new partnership between the local authority and local businesses. Local businesses are supporting, for instance, tree planting in the Upper Aire catchment and have been a full partner in the flood alleviation scheme on the River Aire. Such partnerships can help prevent future flooding and also come together when a flooding event happens to ensure domestic and business recovery.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I will call him my hon. Friend because we have worked together on the Environmental Audit Committee for some years—for making that point. He perhaps was not in the room when we talked about a similar partnership that exists in the River Severn catchment. He is absolutely right that when a flood event happens there is a sense of community spirit that comes together and acts—it is unfortunate that it should need to do so—as a mechanism to drive those who want to try to do something about it to form flood action groups, which have been a very successful community-led initiative across the country and are well supported at a national level by the flood action group and the Environment Agency. Those are good examples. My hon Friend the Member for North Norfolk referenced what should happen in Norfolk; he might like to look at the York experience as well.

On the burden on local authorities, Shropshire Council has one and a half full-time equivalent members of staff to deal with flooding issues and they do a great job. But asking them to take on the additional work of helping more than 50 households deal with the impact of flooding, and the significant work needed to act quickly to remedy flood damage or prevent recurrence, places a considerable burden on the team. That inevitably takes immediate priority over their long-term work to create lasting flood prevention schemes in their locality. They cannot do both tasks at once. I therefore urge the Minister to look at including provision within the flood recovery framework to award a revenue funding amount—perhaps as little as £50,000 to £100,000 per managing entity, which at the moment would be the local authority —to enable it to recruit suitable resource to help staff the activation and deployment of funds under the scheme, so that this time-critical support can be provided to those who properly need it.

I turn to flooded farms, for which the Minister does have some responsibility. The farming recovery fund has been a useful means of support to farmers in those counties declared eligible, but, as the Minister knows, that does not apply to Shropshire, despite it being in the same river catchment as Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, which are eligible.

I must tell the Minister that in a meeting with farmers and National Farmers Union representatives in south Shropshire last week, it was made clear to me that many farmers in Shropshire were affected by Storm Henk, and many more have been affected by the volume and duration of rainfall we have had since Storm Babet last October, yet they remain ineligible for the farming recovery fund. That is hard to fathom given that there are waterlogged farms across the county. I appreciate that the scheme applies to all land parcels that are flooded contiguous to a river that had notably high river level gauge readings during the 10 days following Storm Henk in January, provided that they registered under the rural payments service.

Payments of between £500 and £25,000 will have been a much-needed lifeline after the impact of the storm, compounded by the wettest March in over 40 years. Many colleagues raised similar concerns about the initially narrow scope of the support for farmers affected by flooding, and I commend the Minister for acting quickly to remove the limit—land had to be 150 metres from the centre of eligible rivers—so that all land flooded was covered as long as it was contiguous to an eligible river, as the NFU and others had called for.

I hope that today the Minister will be able to address whether further steps can be made and whether he would be prepared, in parallel to DLUHC’s review of its flood support measures, to encourage DEFRA officials to undertake a review of the criteria for support for farming businesses, so that badly affected counties, including Shropshire, will not miss out in future.

I encourage the Minister to speak to officials and ask them to take a holistic approach to the way in which farmers are encouraged through the sustainable farming incentive, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, to undertake work to alleviate flood risk downstream; I am thinking of the various measures to slow the flow in upland areas to create wetlands and the like. Yet when land becomes flooded from major events or waterlogged through persistent rain so that it is less usable to grow food, the support mechanism may not be there to access.

I also hope the Minister might listen to calls from the NFU and others to change the way in which farming support becomes available. For example, there is some confusion during exceptionally wet weather, when many acres of farmland may be flooded without 50 properties suffering the same fate, whether farmers apply through the flood recovery framework if their home or business premises are flooded or the farming recovery fund if the impact is on flood water on farmland. Are they, or should they, be eligible for both schemes? Because the scheme is new, it is not crystal clear where they should go. Providing a means of aligning the different schemes or understanding in what circumstances which scheme applies would be extremely helpful to everybody.

Given the recent wet weather and, as I have explained, that the water table rises, farmland can flood in the absence of significant named storms. I ask the Minister whether his Department would review, alongside the review undertaken by DLUHC, the workings of the flood support schemes that apply to flooded farmland.

There has rightly been a refocus on food security recently, given the threats we face in a volatile world. I know my farm will have lower yields this year as a result of the planting conditions this winter. I suspect the same will apply in many areas of the country. We will therefore see either a reduction in available home produce or an increase in prices—or both. That will be in large part down to the impact of weather conditions, for which I can readily see the Minister is not responsible. Finding mechanisms, however, to ensure that farmers are there to plant next year and are there for future years to produce the food on which we all rely is really important. I urge the Minister to take the opportunity to support farmers in these challenging times, just as we ask our farmers to support our country in times of uncertainty.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 9:55, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I am very grateful to Philip Dunne for securing this debate, and particularly for his words on farming. I too had a meeting with members of the National Farmers Union a fortnight ago. At the outset, I thanked them very much for sparing the time to raise their concerns with me. One of them said that this was no problem at all, because he was fed up with staring at the walls. I take that as slightly tongue in cheek; I am sure that farmers remain very busy even in times when their fields are flooded. It illustrated the point, however, that this has been a very challenging eight months for many farmers. In a place like rural Devon, this is illustrative of just how much flooding affects our communities.

My postbag is never short of people reporting flooding. It is especially true in eastern and mid-Devon, where our residential properties have really suffered of late. Sadly, there is a feeling among councillors that when a flood hits, many people are caught on the back foot. Indeed, it seems a little bit as if authorities are caught on the back foot. Often, local councillors are unclear what support might be forthcoming from central Government.

I support the idea of a flood recovery framework, which I was very keen to hear more about just shy of a year ago. On 9 May last year, several communities along the River Otter, including Newton Poppleford, Ottery St Mary and Tipton St John, were hit by very serious flooding, which saw several homes flooded and the school at Tipton St John forced to close for several days. Despite the huge damage and disruption, the local authority had no idea what support would be coming down the track from central Government. This came at a time when the council was already grappling with a budget deficit and was at risk in provision in other areas.

I visited Newton Poppleford the next day, on 10 May, and spoke to the village’s district councillor about what could be done. He told me that there was a sense from people whose properties had been flooded that they did not know what support would be coming, and so would be left to battle with the clean-up for days and weeks after by themselves. The right hon. Member for Ludlow is absolutely right that in these circumstances communities tend to rally and people come together to support their neighbours, but when they feel like they are doing that alone and in the absence of any support from Government, it is a crying shame.

I wrote at the time to the DEFRA Minister responsible for flooding, Rebecca Pow, saying:

“Speaking to community leaders and councillors, there is a sense that we need a framework to provide post-incident support to those who experience this kind of flash flooding.”

She replied to me a month later and explained that the flood recovery framework was a potential avenue of support. Later in the letter, however, she went on to say that despite 113 properties having been affected by the floods on the River Otter,

“the scale of the flooding does not reach the required level to activate the Flood Recovery Framework and give access to central Government funding.”

We might say that there need to be thresholds with central Government funding; we might even say it is fine that this does not meet that threshold. When Storm Henk, however, hit our shores earlier this year, the same Department set out that local authorities must have 50 or more properties affected to qualify for emergency funding.

Hon. Members can imagine the frustration of people in the River Otter catchment, in places such as Newton Poppleford, on hearing that news, because when the storm hit in May last year it did affect more than 50 properties—indeed, 55 properties were damaged by flooding in the village of Newton Poppleford alone. It may be that the criteria have been revised since the flood recovery framework was launched and since the DEFRA Minister responsible for flooding wrote to me last May, but surely the Minister can imagine how the situation looks to people who live in the Otter valley.

At this point, we perhaps need to zoom out and think about how much bigger an issue this will be in the decades to come. More extreme weather and expanding house building would see the number of properties in high-risk areas of England rise from 325,000 today to more than 600,000 in 2055. That is what the National Infrastructure Commission projects the increase will be if no further action is taken.

The flood recovery framework is a good idea, but its extension is not broad enough at the moment. Local authorities do not know enough about it or have sufficient access to it when flooding strikes. When flooding is anticipated and the Environment Agency is warning communities about flooding, sometimes the only thing on offer to local residents are unfilled sandbags. That was the comment from my constituents in Axminster: all they were being offered, as they watched the water level rise up through their gardens to surround their homes, were unfilled sandbags. Prevention is not where it needs to be. Central Government need to deal with the harms caused by flooding, so that people can have faith and trust in their authorities.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Ceidwadwyr, Shrewsbury and Atcham 10:02, 17 Ebrill 2024

I pay tribute to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, with whom, in May, I will have had the privilege of serving for the last 19 years. This may be one of the last times—I hope it is not the last time—that we will be in a debate together, because my right hon. Friend is standing down at the next election. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to him and all the work that he has done, in a very collegiate way, with me and other Shropshire MPs. Over the last 19 years, there has not been a cigarette paper between us; the only time we have ever disagreed was over the referendum on our membership of the European Union. Apart from that, we have been as one in fighting collectively to secure resources for Shropshire.

The devastation that flooding causes, to which my right hon. Friend referred, is an extraordinarily emotive issue. Towns such as Shrewsbury were built at a time when we were fighting with the Welsh; they were fortifications that were built along the border. Shrewsbury therefore has a beautiful castle, and we have more listed buildings than any other town in England—that is our USP. It is a beautiful, historic town. Of course, the problem is that, for fortification and defence purposes, it was built right in the middle of a river loop. We would not do that now, obviously, because of the consequences of flooding. That is the historical context that we are grappling with.

In February 2019, I brought the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, to a very flooded Shrewsbury. The anger, misery and frustration from the business owners that the Secretary of State met was palpable. We met with a local butcher, a local hairdresser and local residents. Those people are now being flooded annually. When I became MP for Shrewsbury 19 years ago, floods happened perhaps every five or 10 years. That is why I invited the Secretary of State to see at first hand the difficulties that we were facing.

As a result of the visit, we secured £50 million to help us with some small flood defence schemes, as well as an intention to set aside resources and work together to find, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow indicated, a long-term solution to managing the River Severn—Britain’s longest river. I have formed a caucus of 36 Members of Parliament who have the River Severn flowing through their constituencies. If there is one thing that I have learned as a Member of Parliament over the last 19 years, it is that it is difficult to achieve anything when operating in a silo by oneself. My strongest advice to the next generation of politicians who come in at the next election is if they really feel passionately about something, they should form a caucus and go in mob-handed and with large numbers to lobby DEFRA and the Treasury. That is why we have that caucus of 36 or 37 Members of Parliament who represent communities all the way down the River Severn.

Bizarrely but fortunately, our local Shropshire Council has done the same thing, reaching out to all the councils further downstream to form a consortium of councils that represent communities all the way along Britain’s longest river. We are therefore in a unique situation. We have a parliamentary caucus of all the Members of Parliament representing the communities in Parliament and we act collectively and in tandem here in the House of Commons. Our council has also taken control and is leading and managing, in a collaborative spirit, other councils along the River Severn to promote the River Severn Partnership and its work with the Environment Agency.

I want to thank the Minister for coming to Shrewsbury just before Christmas for an extremely welcome visit. He had the opportunity of visiting the Frankwell flood defences right in the heart of Shrewsbury and meeting the Environment Agency and River Severn Partnership representatives who included Mark Barrow and others from Shropshire Council. I was extremely grateful to the Minister for his remarks and his thanks to the hardworking people at the Environment Agency who do so much to alleviate and help my local residents. I hope that he will get a chance to visit Shropshire again before the end of this Parliament.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said, after four years of work we have finally submitted a business case to the Exchequer. We are not just asking DEFRA for a little bit of the money that has already been allocated to the Department, competing with other communities for that money: no, we are doing something different. We feel so strongly and so passionately about the issue that we are going above DEFRA and putting a business case directly to the Treasury. We are not pleading for money. We are not pleading for the £500 million required to tame Britain’s longest river. Rather, we are putting a methodical, carefully scripted and watertight—if hon. Members will pardon the pun—business case, worked in conjunction with the River Severn Partnership and the Environment Agency, which explains why and how Britain’s longest river can be managed and tamed for the benefit of all the communities in the catchment area, for that £500 million.

The Chancellor has asked me to continue to engage with one of his most senior civil servants, Simon Finkelstein, and I have had the opportunity of presenting that business case to him in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. The Chancellor has said to me that we are unique, to his knowledge, in the sense that we have created a cross-party caucus and that our councils are operating as a consortium. Some other Member of Parliament may contradict me here—I would be interested to see what they are doing—but according to the Chancellor, there is no other project of this kind, where all the MPs and councils along a river are working together to put forward a business case to manage it holistically. I think that is extremely important.

It is important to point out that the business case outlines a gross value added uplift for the west midlands and our region of between £100 billion and £150 billion, if we tame the River Severn. You do the maths, Mr Efford—I am sure your maths is better than mine—but that is for an investment of £500 million. Yes, some people say to me, “My goodness me, £500 million sounds like a lot of money. Crikey! Are you realistically going to extract that much from the Treasury?” Well, look at the business case: for an investment of £500 million, we get a GVA uplift of £100 billion to £150 billion.

Where will that GVA uplift come from? I can take the Minister to hotels in my constituency that cannot get insurance because they flood every year—all the goods have to be thrown out and cannot be replaced through insurance. I can take him to huge areas of land in my constituency that are ripe for development, such as the brownfield sites that we simply cannot touch because of flooding. I can take the Minister to many residents who are flooded every single year, or to see the council so that it can explain the sheer cost of the clear-up every single year. I believe that Shropshire Council, just in the last flooding alone, spent £2 million on clear-up. If we add that up along the whole of the River Severn, we start to see how that number grows.

Only a few of us here in the House of Commons have done business studies at university and worked in the international commercial world. I am one of them, and I am very proud to have come from commerce into the House of Commons. I am passionate that more people from business come here. As somebody who has studied business studies and worked in commerce, I feel very strongly that lobbying Government should be done from a commercial, business-case perspective. That is why I very much hope the Minister will look at our business case and work in conjunction with us to secure that funding from the Treasury.

We need a holistic solution to managing the River Severn, which could of course be replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom. If we succeed on the River Severn, and we demonstrate that we can manage and tame a river by paying farmers and landowners further upstream to hold on to that water, they will be incentivised. A key concept of emotional intelligence is interdependence. From an interdependence perspective, we need to give a financial incentive to people further upstream to hold on to water by paying them for that.

Of course, we have all built little flood defences in our constituencies, but think about how counter-intuitive it is to say, “I am going to protect myself and push the problem further downstream and let you deal with it.” That is not interdependence—“I’m alright, Jack. I’m going to protect myself, but you can deal with the problem.” No, that is wrong. We have to think in a more interdependent way for the whole of our communities. Hold on to water further upstream, and pay those farmers and landowners to protect the whole of the area.

If we succeed in Shropshire and on the River Severn, it would not just be a prototype for the rest of the United Kingdom; it could be a massive export opportunity. I went to places in the world when I worked in commerce, as I am sure the Minister has, such as Bangladesh and others. I have seen not only the sheer devastation of flooding in countries such as Bangladesh, but the sheer number of people who have lost their lives as a result of flooding in communities and societies even more vulnerable than our own. I would like to see greater collaboration between the Minister’s Department and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on how our aid budget is used for scientific research and technology development, not only to help ourselves here in the United Kingdom, but for that work to then be either exported or given in international aid to other countries. I would be interested to see if the Minister agrees and if he can give any additional information on that.

Finally, I pay tribute to Mark Barrow from Shropshire Council, who takes the lead on the River Severn Partnership. He has been enormously supportive to me, my team and the River Severn caucus here in the House of Commons. Having represented a border community, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow has done, for the last 19 years, I am extremely cognisant of the importance of the Union, as I have already alluded to. I am one of those politicians who fundamentally believes in the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We should not cut up the individual parts of this island, but do everything conceivable to bring it together. I believe that this is one of those projects where working in conjunction with our friends and neighbours across the border in Wales could send a very powerful signal that we will transcend the artificial borders between us and work collaboratively to find solutions for helping our residents.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 10:16, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. This debate is clearly about risk, who carries that risk, when it is shared, and who pays for it. I will start by congratulating Philip Dunne. He has worked on issues to do with rivers for a considerable time, and that is really appreciated.

Flooding has been on the agenda I have had to deal with in York since I first came to this place. York floods—it is part of our history—but this year we had the greatest floods since 1872. We had more water for a more sustained period of time, and of course that had a devastating impact on part of our city. The mitigation that was put in after the Boxing day floods in 2015 has had a massive impact on our city, preventing flooding along the River Foss and the River Ouse, and I am grateful for that. The conclusion of that work is welcome. There is a bit more work being done on water storage; eyes are turning upstream to address the upper catchment and the water storage issues, which must be looked at.

The Minister has come to my constituency and seen for himself some of the challenges that our city faces. I want to talk about one cell, as the Environment Agency terms it, that floods with great frequency, impacting the businesses there. Yes, those businesses trade well in the summer, when the sun is out and people come down to our riverfront and enjoy that space, but their frustration is that the logic on which the flood recovery framework works—or does not work, in their case—means that it looks not at individual businesses and the cost to them, but at a much broader geographical area.

I met Simon Hoare, the Minister in DLUHC, to look at the framework and why it does not work. In his letter to MPs on 8 January, he set out that the Government were going to trigger the framework, but there is no logic to say how it will be triggered or not triggered, so we need some consistency to ensure fairness. He also listed a number of counties where the framework would apply, and stated that authorities had to have more than 50 flooded properties to be eligible. That means that it does not apply to everyone. For us the story is bittersweet, because we no longer have 50 flooded properties, but none the less, for those properties that do flood—usually businesses—it is incredibly costly. I urge the Minister to look at a per-capita scheme rather than one that focuses on a geographical area and is not applied in a logical fashion.

I have met Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency and City of York Council to look at what is happening in our city. We have a major choice to make. Do we shut water out and have the continual battle of keeping it away, as Daniel Kawczynski suggested, or do we learn to live with water? It is a very difficult choice, given the climate changes we are seeing; Members from across the House have articulated how much more frequent flooding is and the extent to which water levels are rising. I have praised our flood defences, but we know that we do not have long in relative terms until they will be challenged. What do we do at that juncture? We have been looking across the globe, as the hon. Member mentioned, but this is very real for us now. We have to make strategic choices about how we manage water, while remembering that flooding is not our greatest threat—drought is—so we also need to think about what we are doing on storage for the long term. York does not have one river; we have two. Of course, many of our towns and cities were built along rivers, which were traditionally trading routes. We have to deal with that.

I have several requests of the Minister. First, can we have some consistency in the application of the flood recovery framework? Secondly, can it apply to all businesses affected? At the moment, businesses, and some property owners, are carrying all the risk. Thirdly, can the suspension of council tax payments and business rates for the owners of flooded properties for the period that they cannot trade be not optional, but determined from the centre by the Government? That would really help, and it has not happened yet in York. I have been meeting with the council to urge for that. However, that transfers the risk to local authorities, and they have got no money at the moment. They are having to balance their books with other risks, so I ask that that comes down from the centre. I discussed that with the DLUHC Minister, the hon. Member for North Dorset, earlier in the week.

Can we also have another look at insurance? The Flood Re scheme has been a real success. My constituents have certainly praised it, and it has meant that they are eligible for an insurance scheme that they can afford. However, the clock is ticking on Flood Re. It is only a 25-year scheme; it ends in 2039. We need to think about what happens after that, because the risks are increasing and there will still be need and demand. These issues need to be addressed now, or certainly by the incoming Government, to ensure that we have resilience built into our insurance system.

We also need an insurance scheme for businesses. There is no reason why businesses are in the “too difficult” box. We need minds to come together to work that through, and I call on the Minister to have those discussions, because it is not working at the moment. There are businesses in my constituency that are uninsurable. They are not insured and not getting flood recovery framework funding; they are out there on their own, forgotten by this Government. I really hope that the Minister has a response to that.

I am conscious of time, so the last issue I will address is that of sewage in our water. The effluence coming into our water system is making things even worse for businesses. Last year in York, we had 1,414 sewage releases. That is going to increase. Having an open sewer running through the middle of our city is obviously massively unpleasant, but we need to look at our whole drainage system. Running our system off Victorian sewers is not the way forward.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Ceidwadwyr, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Sewage going into rivers is an important issue that has not been touched on. I hope the Minister is aware that Severn Trent recently announced a special programme to clear up the water around Shrewsbury, but this should be a cross-party issue. The Lib Dems have, I am afraid, tried to politicise it by putting on their little leaflets, “Local Tory MP votes to pour sewage into the River Severn.” That is extremely inappropriate, given the talk about anger with Members of Parliament and the denigration we all face. That is an issue that I have faced, and it has been really unpleasant. We have to be very careful about what we say on this issue.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the point I want to make is that we need a strategic plan for managing sewage in our country. Clearly, the Victorians got it right and got on with the job, but we have turned our eyes away from the sewage system for the best part of 200 years. We really have to turn our eyes back. We have to think about hygiene and good sanitation. At times as I walk around wonderful medieval York, it feels that we are trying to bring that experience even more to life with the state of our rivers. I urge the Minister, and indeed the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, to have a plan for sewage.

Sewers are underground, but that does not mean they can be ignored. Increasingly, we are seeing the impact of that. Here in London, the Tideway project is an incredible investment; we need to see that across the country, including in the north, so I urge such investment to be part of the plan. It would take away some of the difficulty if there were fresh water running through our cities, even when they are flooded.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Llafur, Eltham

Order. Two more Back Benchers want to speak. I want to bring in the first of the Front Benchers at 10.38 am in order to give them 10 minutes each and Mr Dunne two minutes to wind up.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 10:27, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Efford. I congratulate Philip Dunne, who has championed these issues for some time, and I pay tribute to him and thank him for his contribution.

We talk about the weather an awful lot in this country, because it is never boring, although we sometimes wish it was, and that is especially so for those who live in England’s wettest county. Yes, we have to keep our breathtaking lakes topped up, but there is a limit, and we fear that we may have reached that limit. I simply want to ask the Minister briefly whether he will he keep a close eye on the flood relief schemes in Kendal and Appleby, and listen to local residents to ensure that those schemes are completed in accordance with the wishes of the residents and businesses there.

We do not blame the Government for the weather, but the flood recovery framework is a welcome attempt to help us cope with the consequences, and I want to focus my few moments on the Government’s failure to use the framework well to defend farmers. Cumbria did not qualify for any of the support coming through the framework, despite the fact that farms across our county are still dealing with the consequences of Storm Henk.

The complaint of farmers across the country is that, despite having the building blocks of a reasonable scheme in the form of the flood recovery framework, in practice the Conservatives have left farmers, families and businesses to fend for themselves, threatening their livelihoods and our food security. The Government response has been sluggish, acquiescent and inadequate. Farmers tell me that they feel that the Government simply do not care.

To be fair to the Government, they activated the flood recovery framework after Storm Babet in 2023 and Storm Henk earlier this year, but to qualify for funding at least 50 properties have to be affected by internal flooding, and many communities in Cumbria—Meathop, for example—are much smaller than 50. There are further concerns about the Government’s cut-off date for grant payments and whether resilience measures can be built in time, given how hard it is to bring things on stream.

I have worked very closely over the past several years with farmers in the Lynster Farmers’ Group, the Grange-Over-Sands Golf Club, businesses and other residents to try to tackle the flooding caused by channel movements in Morecambe bay and the silting- up of river channels, which has led to flooding in the Winster and Lyth catchments. All those problems are exacerbated by increased heavy and persistent rainfall and storm events. The farmers have called for more effective, proactive collaboration, with a plan for management and investment. Although that has had my active support, to date the Government and their agencies have failed to act. Incidentally, it is highly likely that that failure to take action may have contributed at least in part to the subsidence of the track and the shocking derailment of a train on the Furness line near Grange station last month. That event could easily have led to serious loss of life. Storm Babet led to farmers’ crops rotting underwater after a devastatingly wet 2023. That flooding means that no planting is possible this year in many areas. Grazing is limited and spring lambing is much harder.

At the same time, 100% of those farmers will lose 50% of their basic payment this year, and only one in eight will get anything from the sustainable farming incentive. The Government’s policies mean that our farmers simply cannot afford to endure the consequences of these unprecedented flooding levels. Meanwhile, farmers do not receive compensation when the Environment Agency effectively floods their fields to protect downstream houses and villages, despite the harm to crops and livelihoods. That is all happening against the backdrop of huge cuts to the Environment Agency’s budget since 2015, which have reduced its capacity to meet basic flood management requirements. There has been a litany of incompetence and poor choices, and farmers are paying the price.

It is not just farmers. The Government’s failure to tackle these issues means that Britain’s fragile food security is at even greater risk. We already produce only 60% of the food we eat in this country. We have the madness of a Government with an agricultural policy that actively disincentivises the production of food, and our flood recovery framework not being used for its express purpose and failing to protect land that could and should have been producing food to feed us. On top of that, lower crop yields will mean higher prices in our supermarkets and higher prices for animal feed, pushing up costs for consumers who are already under unbearable pressure. In short, the flood recovery framework is just that: a framework. The fact that it exists is to be welcomed, but the Government are dragging their feet, underfunding it and bogging everyone down in bureaucracy.

We say we need a proactive management plan for the Environment Agency to control watercourses and defences, and we should bring forward the funding we need to keep our farmers farming. We say that the environmental land management budget must be increased by £1 billion so that farmers are rewarded properly and provided with the support they need to transition to the new scheme, recognising that farmers should be rewarded for the service they provide in protecting places such as Kendal, Appleby-in-Westmorland, Staveley and Burneside from flooding. Investment in new schemes to support farmers in delivering natural flood defences is absolutely essential. Let us remember that this is, at least to some extent, about producing food to feed us all. Surely that must be considered a public good.

The failure to protect our farmers from flooding and to adequately compensate them is dangerously undermining our ability to feed ourselves. A country that cannot feed itself is destined to fail, and a Government who cannot protect and support their farmers in order to do that must be removed.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Ceidwadwyr, Wells 10:33, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to speak on something other than defence for the first time in five years in either Chamber. Flooding is a great subject on which to reopen my account, given how important it is to my low-lying Somerset constituency.

Somerset is no stranger to water, so I hope the Minister understands that when Somerset MPs grumble about flooding, it is never unreasonable or alarmist. We are very used to water being on the fields and coming into our homes relatively frequently, but sometimes it happens more than is acceptable. When that happens, it is important that the Government listen.

As has been mentioned—I will not go back over this winter—fields have been underwater for months, which means they will not be as productive this summer as they would have been. They are not ready to be used, so farmers will need support. Some homes in villages in my constituency have been flooded four or more times in the past five or six months. Is this the one-in-100-years winter about which all the worst-case scenarios are written? My suspicion is that it is not and that such events are increasingly common.

In the brief time I have available—three minutes or so—I want to make a couple of points about what is playing out in my patch. My suspicions are similar to those expressed by others. The first concerns big housing developments built upstream. I do not want this to become a nimby argument against a development that is needed, but I am far from convinced that, in the just under 10 years in which I have been an MP and during which time these developments have been built, the full consequence of the speed at which water comes down from Shepton Mallet and Wells and down the rivers beneath was properly modelled.

If that was modelled, I am certain that the capital improvements to watercourses downstream were never made, to allow for that increased speed of water as it comes off the greater amount of tarmac upstream and into the valley beneath. The villages that are worst affected—Coxley, Croscombe, North Wootton and others —sit immediately beneath a number of new housing developments in Wells and Shepton Mallet.

My second point is on the Environment Agency budget. The operations team in my constituency tells me that it has about 60% of what is needed as an operational budget for the Wessex area. Clearly, there is an argument to give the EA more money, but everybody argues for more money. I was on the radio this morning saying there should be more money for defence. There cannot be more money everywhere. My suspicion is that the Minister needs to be clearer with the EA on its priorities. Some of that will be politically difficult. There are things the EA does around environmental matters, for example, when in extremis—I argue we are there—its priorities should be the operational management of waterways and flood defence, at the risk of some of those other activities. I wonder whether the Minister could offer some thoughts on that.

There is also an issue around local authority budgets and highway maintenance. ’Tis the season for middle-aged politicians in suits to crowd round a pothole and point at it earnestly. I think the Minister and the roads Minister could do a roaring trade, going round the country pointing earnestly at clogged-up culverts, because that is definitely an issue in my constituency. If he wants to road-test that photo opportunity, I am only too happy to host.

We need support for farmers whose livelihoods have been challenged, and also for homeowners. The grants are there, they just have not been forthcoming. In the west country, there has been a lot of politicking, with the Lib Dem county council blaming Conservative-led central Government, and Conservative central Government blaming the Lib Dem county council. If all that hot air dried out the fields and homes, we would be doing some good. The reality is that we are changing nothing with the arguments. It would be great if the Minister could confirm in his summing-up whether that money is available.

Finally, in three seconds, there is a point about resilience. Government cannot do it all. Flood Re is fantastic, but the more we can invest capital in flood defences, pumping infrastructure, watercourse improvement, and thus ease the pressure on the Environment Agency’s revenue budget, the better.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities) 10:38, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. This has been an enjoyable and informed debate. I begin by paying tribute to Philip Dunne who is hugely respected for his knowledge of environmental issues. The years he has devoted to further and create better policy are admired. I am grateful to him for bringing this debate to the Chamber and lending his expertise on flooding, I hope not for the last time before the end of this Parliament. Of course, I completely agree about the complex patchwork of support.

I would also like to mention Richard Foord. I completely agree with his comment about being caught on the back foot when flooding occurs, and the difficulty in getting urgent support out there. I cannot resist the opportunity to mention sustainable urban drainage systems; I managed to get it into a “Politics North” programme the other day. There are ways to build homes and mitigate flooding, but that requires a different Department to answer questions. If the hon. Member is a keen supporter of flood recovery, he should have a look at sustainable urban drainage.

Daniel Kawczynski was really interested in the River Severn Partnership, which sounds fascinating. I would be keen to know how the business case goes and get a little more information on that. I agree that it cannot operate as a silo. Water does not care about which Member of Parliament it is or which political party they are in, or even which boundary; water will go its own way. I am quite interested in the sound of that.

I am interested in what my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, who is definitely one of the hardest-working Members of Parliament from any party, has to say and her level of knowledge. If at any time I want an invite to York—

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities)

Thank you very much. I would really like to—it would be great to go and see that.

I completely agree with Tim Farron on the importance of food security. It is good to see James Heappey in a debate that is not a defence debate. There was an amusing Twitter account on politicians pointing at potholes that I used to look through and giggle at; it is nearly as good as the Twitter account on angry people in local newspapers, which I highly recommend.

The effects of flooding are profound and lasting. When we talk about property or farming flooding, we must bear that in mind. I highlight that the people least able to afford it are the people who are often the most badly impacted, because they are the ones who do not have insurance. I understand that the framework is under review and the Government expect to complete it, but can the Minister tell us if they are consulting stakeholders? The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management was not aware that the review was happening, nor was the National Farmers Union.

As has been mentioned, the lead local flood authorities, the county or unitary level councils, must have 50 or more properties affected by internal flooding to qualify for emergency funding, but that was not always the case. I have two written parliamentary questions waiting for answers on this: when was the current threshold increased from 25 properties, and what assessment was made at the time to make it 50 properties? It always seems slightly odd when people come up with these rounded numbers and say, “It is 50 properties.” Why is 50 the magic number? Why is it not 48 or 53? Why have we chosen an arbitrary number and said that it must be 50 properties?

As the Minister will understand, flooding is the result of natural features in the landscape, not local authority boundaries. Any threshold will therefore exclude councils where areas of flooded homes are split across council boundaries. The threshold of 50 can mean that if two councils are impacted and there are 49 properties in each council boundary, they do not meet the criteria because they do not have 50 properties in one council boundary. They are arbitrary numbers. I return to my written parliamentary question and ask again: why was the threshold increased? Hopefully something a little more sensible will come out of the review.

As the MP for and a resident of west Hull and Hessle, I know only too well the scale and impact of flooding on thousands of properties. For some councils, the scale of flooding is a challenge; they must deal with grant applications from hundreds of property owners. The Government’s cut-off date for grant payments is mid-2025, and councils are concerned about the capacity of the industry to install property resilience measures in the funding window and, importantly, the availability of qualified surveyors. A CIWEM survey found that only a third of risk management authorities have a full complement of staff to deliver surface water management, and three quarters of RMAs are struggling to recruit new staff. Greater flexibility on the deadline for claims would be helpful to avoid the risk that councils have to step in and fund the costs of householders who could not claim within a specified period.

As has been mentioned in the debate, I will mention the impact of that on affected farmers. The NFU informs me that its members have struggled to get any information on the flood recovery framework schemes and eligible areas before they closed for applications. It said that a significant number of farmers have missed out on the deadline and have been turned away by their respective councils, which are either not aware of the scheme or believe that farmers can access only the farming recovery fund. Another thing that came up in the debate was understanding which scheme applies to whom and who needs to apply for them.

I will also mention bureaucracy. The application process is littered with difficulty. I have left out some parts for the sake of brevity, but to be successful a homeowner must apply to their council to check that they are eligible, if they know that the council has the funds to begin with; decide whether they want to undertake flood recoverability or flood resilience measures; pay for a pre-installation survey, the cost of which can be claimed back, but which must be paid for up front; and obtain three quotes for the proposed work—the grant will cover only the cost of the cheapest quote. Once the quote is approved by the council, the property owner must sign a memorandum of understanding setting out the responsibilities of both the homeowner and the council, get the work done in line with the specific conditions of the scheme—again, paying up front—and get a post-completion survey done and submitted to the council, at which point the council will go through the survey. Only if all the criteria are met will funds up to the value of £5,000 be transferred to the homeowner. The whole process takes about 18 months, with no guarantee for the homeowner that the council will release the funds. That is difficult both for the local authorities to administer and for households to access. Will the Minister therefore look at streamlining and simplifying the process?

I am aware that I am running out of time, but I am always keen to discuss flooding and I hope for more debates on the subject. I want to quickly mention that while we need a more effective and equitable flood recovery framework, what we actually need is fewer properties flooded in the first place. The number of properties to be better protected from flooding by 2027 has been cut by 40% and 500 of the 2,000 new flood defence projects have been abandoned, according to the recent National Audit Office report. That means that 136,000 fewer homes will be protected from the risk of flooding.

I have asked parliamentary questions about where the abandoned flood defence projects are and have yet to receive a clear answer. I have been told that they are not abandoned and that some have just been deferred. I have therefore gone back to the Department asking how many projects, if not abandoned, have been deferred and how long the deferral process will be. To say that the answer has been evasive would be kind. We want to know how many of the flood projects promised by Government are on track to be delivered and where are the ones that are not. Residents have a right to know. The Government seem to be hiding behind language at the moment. That is not fair and it is not transparent.

The Government have committed more than £5 billion for new flood and coastal defences by 2027, but they are failing in their delivery while also failing to maintain the defences we have. Labour has a plan, not only to ensure that budgets committed to flood defences are used to the maximum effect, but to bring together all those involved in flood prevention and resilience to ensure that everyone works together to protect our communities, farmers and businesses now and for the future. Labour will establish a flood resilience taskforce that co-ordinates flooding preparation between central Government, local authorities, local communities and emergency services. It will ensure that vulnerable areas are identified and protected, and provide accountability for the progress of the projects. It will be chaired by a DEFRA Minister and bring together senior civil servants, Ministers from across Government—including a new Minister for resilience, who would sit in the Cabinet Office—regional flood and coastal committees and other frontline agencies, including the Environment Agency and fire and rescue services. It will work with the Environment Agency to ensure that its formula to protect communities considers potential damages to rural communities and farmland when identifying areas to protect.

DEFRA appears to have given up. Its flagship flood defence scheme is slipping further and further behind, and it has lowered its targets for maintaining flood defences. That is symptomatic of a Government who are out of ideas and know that time is up. Labour has a plan and the energy and commitment to make the changes this country needs to meet the challenges of increased flood risk in the face of a changing climate.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:48, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for securing this important debate and all hon. Members who have contributed. It has been good to hear about everybody’s experiences of the flood recovery scheme roll-out and how it is helping their constituents, while also hearing about some of the challenges, which I hope to address in my speech. I also thank my right hon. Friend and other colleagues for sharing their experiences with me when I met them through the River Severn caucus just last month. That follows on from my first ministerial visit to Shrewsbury, to see the case being made by my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski for more funds for the wider River Severn catchment. I assure him that his case is noted and that conversations are happening with the Treasury.

The Government and I sympathise with all Members’ constituents, households and businesses that have experienced flooding. Through visits to Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria—to name but a few of the counties I have visited over the course of the last few months to see at first hand households, businesses and farms that have unfortunately been flooded—I understand the impact those experiences have on people.

Climate change means that the number of people at risk from flooding is, unfortunately, likely to grow. The storms we experienced over the autumn and winter brought that into sharp focus, as more than 5,000 properties were flooded. More importantly, however, nearly a quarter of a million—241,000—properties were protected as a result of the continued investment in flood defences. The Government are acting to drive down flood risk from every angle. Our long-term policy statement published in 2020 sets out our

“ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk.”

We continue to invest public money in this important area. The Government are investing £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027 to better protect communities across England from flooding and coastal erosion. Since 2010 Government investment has meant that more than 600,000 properties have been better protected, which is a significant achievement, but we all recognise that there are homes and businesses that still suffer from flooding.

To pick up on the point kindly made by Rachael Maskell, I am pleased she recognises that since the Boxing day floods in 2015 in her constituency, businesses and homeowners across Yorkshire have benefited from Government support and funding that has specifically gone into York. It was good to visit her constituency, where I saw at first hand some of the improvement measures that have been implemented, particularly in relation to the Foss barrier.

Through the visits I have made, I understand the impact on people of such experiences, whether it has been damage to or loss of property, over the autumn and winter following Storm Babet, Storm Henk, Storm Ciarán and the wet period that we have experienced. That is why, following Storm Babet and Storm Henk, the Government announced a significant package of support for areas in England that experienced exceptional localised flooding. Together, the Departments for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and for Business and Trade activated the flood recovery framework at speed following those storm events. That provides the community recovery grant, where eligible local authorities receive funding equivalent to £500 per flooded household to support local recovery efforts.

The business recovery grant provides up to £2,500 to eligible local authorities for each eligible small and medium-sized enterprise that has suffered severe impacts of flooding that cannot be recovered from insurance. Under the council tax discount and business rate relief the Government have reimbursed local authorities for a minimum period of three months for eligible flooded properties. Alongside that framework, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has implemented the property flood resilience repair grant, which offers grants of up to £5,000 per property to install flood resilience measures.

To pick up on the point kindly raised by my right hon. Friend James Heappey—it is good to see him contributing in a Westminster Hall debate after being so eloquent and efficient in his role for many a year in the Ministry of Defence—I assure him that Somerset County Council’s residents are eligible to receive money through the property flood resilience repair grant due to the threshold of 50 units being met. I think 106 properties were flooded in Somerset. His constituents are able to receive that money.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Ceidwadwyr, Broxtowe

In Nottinghamshire we had Storm Babet and Storm Henk in quick succession. The Minister mentioned that businesses were able to receive grants, but they were not able to receive them twice. Had the storms happened in two separate years they would have done. What are the Government doing to address that?

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for consistently raising that point and others with me in my role as Minister. I assure him that all measures and schemes will be reviewed. Having requested a visit from me to come and see some of his businesses in Stapleford, I look forward to coming very soon to address the flooding issues that he and his constituents have experienced.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow is aware, Shropshire County Council, which includes his Ludlow constituency, is eligible to receive funding following Storms Babet and Henk. The Government have recently opened the farming recovery fund, currently in nine areas, to support farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land as a result of Storm Henk. Farmers will be able to receive grants of up to £25,000 towards reinstatement costs for farmland adversely affected by exceptional flooding. I fully recognise right hon. and hon. Members’ concerns about the announcement that the Department made last week. I assure all Members, and indeed those outside this place, that Ministers are actively reviewing the Department’s announcement last week.

My right hon. Friend also voiced some important questions about the schemes. He rightly raised the concern that holding the eligibility count at the lead local flood authority level, which is unitary or upper-tier councils, poses a problem for some local authorities, and that the threshold of 50 internally flooded properties as an eligibility criterion could be considered unfair to smaller local flood authority areas. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that that will be reviewed.

Let me address the concerns raised by the shadow Minister, Emma Hardy that the threshold was actually increased. Following flooding in 2020, and on the back of representations from local authorities, the flood eligibility criterion was reviewed. Previously, the eligibility criterion set by DLUHC for the flood recovery framework to be activated was 25 internally flooded residential units over a district local authority area. Following feedback, that was reviewed and reduced to a threshold of 50 properties, whether commercial or otherwise—not just residential properties—over a unitary authority area, which is a bigger geographical area. The threshold was therefore reduced, not increased, as the hon. Member wrongly claimed.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities)

I believe that that was the point I made: the threshold had gone from 25 to 50. I am happy to check Hansard and correct any mistake if I made one— I am not sure that I did—but that does not resolve the point that I was making, which was about where the arbitrary number of 50 came from. If there are 49 properties on each side of a border, there will be no actual impact. It has been increased, and there has not been a consultation to explain exactly why.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I reassure all Members that the threshold was changed so that we could get much more support out to business and households. As I have already said, however, I have asked for alternative geographical boundaries to be considered for future activations, and discussed with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities the appropriate threshold for future events. That is under review with stakeholders, including the National Farmers Union. I spoke to the president of the union at several events in previous weeks, so the union is aware. Unfortunately, I think that the shadow Minister slightly misquoted that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow also asked about extra funding to staff local authorities so that they can deliver framework schemes. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, is considering that matter as part of the post-activation review that is currently under way.

I thank all Members for their contributions. I look forward to further conversations with Members regarding this important matter, to ensure that the Government are getting as much support as possible to those impacted by flooding.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 10:58, 17 Ebrill 2024

I am encouraged by the Minister’s closing remarks. Before I address them, I thank all Members who took part in the debate, including those who intervened and have since left. I particularly welcome my good friend, my right hon. Friend James Heappey, making his inaugural speech from the Back Benches following his period as a Defence Minister. It is good to see him here.

Richard Foord, my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski and Tim Farron referred to the lack of fairness that results from the way the thresholds and criteria are implemented. I am pleased that that was picked up by the Opposition spokesman, Emma Hardy, and specifically the Minister, who mentioned the review that is being done. What he said in his concluding remarks about the “alternative geographical boundaries” and looking at the level of the threshold was helpful. I will not repeat the spat across the Chamber about who said what to whom, but the fact that it is being reviewed is very welcome. The staffing allowances being offered to local authorities that undertake the work will also be helpful.

I should mention Rachael Maskell, who gave a compelling account of the problems that have been occurring in York. I particularly welcome her welcoming the defence measures that have made York a safer place to live.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).