Bishop of Leeds leads debate on national response to flooding

On 14th January 2016 the Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, led a short debate in the House of Lords on flood management. His speech and the Government response is below. The full text of the debate, including a speech by the Bishop of St Albans, can be read here.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to review their long term strategy for flood management, particularly in rural areas that do not qualify for large-scale flood defences.

LeedsThe Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to put to the Government the Question before us. If there was a sound track to this debate it would probably include Phil Collins’s “In Too Deep”.

It is important to note the destructiveness of the recent flooding, given that the news agenda moves on very quickly and communities which found themselves at the heart of a sympathetic nation quickly feel themselves to be forgotten. For some of the communities in my diocese, the recent floods come in the wake—almost literally—of other occurrences in recent years. For them the need for longer-term and more joined-up measures is obvious.

I pay tribute to civic leaders, emergency services, public service workers, members of the Armed Forces, the Environment Agency and local volunteers, many of whom sacrificed holidays and family time over Christmas to support victims of this appallingly destructive flooding. Churches in many of the affected communities offered refuge, sanctuary and practical support in providing meals, clothing and the distribution of emergency resources. In places such as Kirkstall in Leeds, Bingley, Ilkley, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Sowerby, people got stuck in. The Sikh charity Khalsa Aid helped in Hebden Bridge, and I know that Muslims worked hard to provide relief and help in Cumbria as well as affected parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. These impressive stories demonstrate that perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan still echoes through this generation in the costly and practical support of one’s neighbour. It is also appropriate here to salute the insurance companies, many of which have been praised for the speed and nature of their response to those flooded. Affected churches have greatly valued the service of the Ecclesiastical Insurance group in particular during recent weeks.

The Government’s response to the latest flooding in Yorkshire and Lancashire has involved repeated use of the word “unprecedented”. Of course, by definition a unique event is unprecedented, but it is of no comfort to people who have lost their homes or businesses that an event is unprecedented, nor does it help when the enormity of the immediate flooding happens to be greater than the last time, which also ruined homes and businesses and in some cases left people uninsurable—hence the Question in this debate.

I shall give some numbers. Around 16,000 properties have been affected in northern England and Scotland. At the end of December, KPMG estimated that the total cost of flood damage would exceed £5 billion. The Association of British Insurers estimates that claims will total £1.3 billion. The average domestic claim will amount to £50,000, up from an average of £31,000 in 2013-14. Around 3,000 families are now living in alternative accommodation while their homes are being repaired. In Calderdale alone, flooding hit 2,500 homes, nine schools and 1,250 businesses, and as many as 40% of those businesses could be uninsured. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be at least £20 million. Damage to homes and businesses also has a knock-on impact on the wider ability of the local economy to recover and function.

There is still the possibility that more flooding could be on the way because the winter is but young. Understandably, the Government are moving into recovery mode. Almost £200 million has been made available for investments in recovery, including money for repairs and upgrades to existing defences, money for local authorities to repair infrastructure, grants to home and business owners for the improvement of personal flood resilience, and grants for farmers whose land has been flooded and crops destroyed. All this is welcome. However, the much-publicised Flood Re scheme, which will help to provide flood insurance to at-risk homes, will be launched only in April. This will guarantee affordable premiums, as many homeowners cannot afford the current premium levels in high-risk areas. But Flood Re is not going to be available to small businesses or buy-to-let properties, meaning that they will almost certainly face an increase in premiums. The fact that Flood Re is not yet in force means that many people will not have been insured for damage caused by the December floods, potentially those who would have been waiting for Flood Re to come into effect before securing insurance. The Times reports that up to £1 billion of damage will have been sustained by uninsured people.

No rational person believes that all risk of flooding can or should be eliminated. But people do not always understand why, when following one disaster a case is made for enhanced protection, yet that protection is quickly scaled back once memories begin to fade. During the recent flooding in Leeds, the Lord Mayor of Leeds went as far as to question whether this would have been tolerated in London, and whether England’s third city deserves the same level of investment as its first. Furthermore, in this context it is clear that swingeing cuts to local authority funding must inevitably diminish the ability of such authorities to respond effectively to local disasters and recovery from them. It is claimed that northern metropolitan councils have faced disproportionate cuts which have then had an impact on the maintenance of bridges, drains and other essential infrastructure. We are also seeing the threatened closure of local front-line services at the same time as emergency response needs are evident.

Two immediate points must be addressed by all parties to the debate about planning for future flood protection: first, the amounts that have already been spent, and which might have to be spent in the future in reactive recovery, should not be counted against the resources needed for long-term protection planning; and secondly, the insurance costs and access to adequate insurance by people and businesses in what are now vulnerable areas must be managed in a way that allows both recovery and a future for those affected. Surely the changes to weather patterns in recent years indicate that similar events can be expected in the future and we need to be building resilience to address them. Prevention might be financially expensive, but it will certainly be cheaper than the cumulative costs of non-prevention over, say, a decade or two.

However, the finances only hide the human costs: businesses closed or lost, homes ruined, families and children forced into temporary homes with all the consequent disruption to schooling and the best circumstances for learning and growing. These costs go beyond pounds and pence. So questions remain about how the Government will address these challenges in the longer term, and no doubt other speakers will touch on other aspects of this matter. But noble Lords might well seek reassurance that the recently instigated national flood resilience review, chaired by Oliver Letwin, will pay serious attention to the strengths and weaknesses of current worst-case-scenario planning in the light of the future impact of climate change, recent substantial cuts to the Environment Agency in the form of a 15% funding cut and the loss of 1,500 staff, along with the need for whole-catchment approaches to flood prevention and water management.

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable where funding decisions are driven by a return-on-investment calculation which means that many schemes will not be considered cost-effective on paper. I hope that this debate will touch on such challenges and urge Government to take long-term views in future planning. I look forward to hearing how the Government intend to review their long-term strategy for flood management, particularly in rural areas that do not qualify for large-scale flood defences.



Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate. Across the United Kingdom, many people have endured their homes and businesses being flooded and devastated. I echo what other noble Lords have said today in expressing my deepest sympathies to all affected. December last year was the wettest on record and the wettest calendar month since records began in 1910. In relation to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said about climate change, the view is that the recent heavy rainfall is consistent with this general picture, but it is not possible—and many scientists will say it is not possible—to say that any individual event is directly caused by climate change.

The impacts were, undoubtedly, particularly severe in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and, more recently, in Scotland. Our thoughts are with all those who suffered and we must now use all our energies to help them to recover from this dreadful experience. We clearly owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those who served during this extremely difficult time, including the fire and rescue service, police, military, Environment Agency, and local authority workers. I also echo what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said about what churches and other faith groups did and what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the many volunteers in his part of the world. It shows that we have a great country where the good Samaritan is at large.

Recognising the threatening weather forecasts, the Government held daily COBRA meetings, allowing all necessary resources to be deployed early and ahead of the flooding. The emergency services, Environment Agency, and military were on the ground and able to provide immediate help. Supporting assets, including high-volume pumps and rescue boats, were made available to local commanders in all areas. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds has referred to this. The Government have committed almost £200 million for recovery in addition to our significant, ongoing investment. This funding includes £50 million to rebuild and improve damaged flood defences and £40 million for transport infrastructure. A community recovery scheme for councils to spend on local priorities will provide grants of up to £5,000 for resilient repairs to properties and funding will provide help through rebates on council tax and business rates. Farmers will be able to claim up to £20,000 to restore damaged agricultural land. The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, spoke of his support and, clearly, we need to ensure that support is engaged in a user-friendly manner.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked about the EU Solidarity Fund and I will write more fully to her on that. However, the UK taxpayer would still pay for the majority of the funds received, because we would pay more into the EU budget and it would reduce our rebate. We feel that we needed to act quickly; the support packages we have already announced are designed to deal with the urgent needs of those affected.

In terms of investment in flood infrastructure, the Government have committed to spend £2.3 billion on a six-year capital programme to 2021. That means that we will be investing £2 billion in flood defences over this Parliament—a real-terms increase on the £1.7 billion invested in the last Parliament and a real-terms increase on the £1.5 billion spent between 2005 and 2010. Our six-year capital programme gives communities a much clearer view of when schemes will be built. It is intended to reduce the flood risk for over 300,000 households and around 420,000 acres of agricultural land, while avoiding more than £1.5 billion worth of direct economic damages to farmland and securing 205 miles of railway and 340 miles of roads. In addition, government investment will be supported by a further £600 million of partnership funding—£250 million has already been secured, with sources for the other £350 million identified.

The right reverend Prelate’s Question is about how we can help rural areas which may not qualify for large-scale interventions. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering referred to partnership funding, an approach which means that some rural locations that previously had little prospect of any government funding could now be eligible for a share. The Stroud rural sustainable drainage project is an example of successful rural schemes going ahead with partnership funding. While capital schemes increase the number of people protected by flooding, we know it is also vital that we keep our existing flood defences in good condition. That is why the Government have also committed to protecting the £171 million per year spend on maintenance in real terms over this Parliament.

Partnership working is a key part of flood risk management. I welcome the work of the 118 internal drainage boards, or IDBs. These locally-funded and operated public bodies, based predominantly in rural areas, manage water levels and reduce flood risk for local communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about dredging and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, also referred to this matter. Dredging will be effective in some areas and inappropriate in others. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s announcement about making it easier for landowners to dredge relates to agricultural ditches in low-lying areas, where maintaining the flow of water is important to lowering flood risk in the local area. This bears out the fact that different scenarios will work in different parts of the country by having, for example, different trees and uses of contours, as has been said. It is all about the flexibility that we now need to have.

In many places, however, the IDBs are now working on behalf of the Environment Agency to the benefit of the local community. There are numerous examples where this approach is working well. In Lincolnshire, for instance, the excellent partnership of the Environment Agency, IDBs, local authorities and others has produced a strategy for flood risk management across the county. After the dreadful flooding in Somerset, moreover, the Somerset Rivers Authority was established to give local people much more control and power over flood risk.

In Cumbria, my honourable friend Rory Stewart has worked tirelessly as Flooding Minister—that is an absolutely non-partisan thing to say. Those in the locality have echoed this. My noble friends Lord Inglewood and Lord Patten also referred to it. My honourable friend will chair a new floods partnership, bringing together local expertise to publish an action plan this summer. The partnership will consider improvements to flood defences, review upstream options for slowing tributaries to key rivers and build stronger links with the local community. My honourable friend Robert Goodwill is also acting as flood envoy to Yorkshire. Such partnerships are to be encouraged across the country, led by groups of local people who know the flood risk in their area and what should be done about it, with government playing a key role in strengthening and facilitating them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and other noble Lords asked how we intend to review flood risk management. Recent events represent an important opportunity to assess our approach and there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from what has happened. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced the national flood resilience review, to which my noble friends Lord Patten and Lord Inglewood referred. This is to be set up to ensure that the country can deal with its increasingly extreme weather events. Work to consider forecasting and modelling, the resilience of key infrastructure and the way that we make decisions about expenditure has already begun. It is expected to conclude this summer.

That review’s work complements the Natural Capital Committee; I think this was the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, was taking us towards. The committee is already developing the catchment-based approach, including slowing the flow upstream. Many of your Lordships referred to this. I listened very carefully to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, made. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering spoke of the Slow the Flow project in Pickering, which is working with the natural environment to reduce flood risk. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke of the range of opportunities for working with and enhancing the natural environment. That is a way forward for us to ensure that we are in a much better position and was echoed by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of St Albans.

We all have an extremely interesting and valuable range of reviews in prospect. I very much hope that we are now into a period of recovery, where we can look to help those affected back into their homes and businesses—although, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said, we are clearly in a position where the winter and its floods could continue. We should all be very grateful for what the emergency services, the military, the fire service and volunteers may have to do. However, our aim in government is to ensure that long-term investment will help to make our country more resilient. Partnership funding has already made many more rural schemes viable and through working in partnership, and with the active engagement of local communities, we can help to manage flood risk. I assure your Lordships that I will take all the comments made today and share them with my ministerial colleagues, and that the Government and Ministers will be using all the energies that we have to ensure that the whole country is as well protected as possible.


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