Statement to Parliament: Government action taken to respond to floods and extreme weather

Mr Speaker

I wish to make a statement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on the action taken in light of the recent floods and extreme weather

My Right Hon Friend, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is unable to update the House today, but we wish him a speedy recovery to his usual robust health.

One of the defining characters of Britain is her weather.

However, in recent months, it has been particularly savage.

Parts of the country have been subjected to flooding from the sea, rivers, surface water and groundwater.

In December, we saw the highest surge on the East Coast for 60 years.

This January has been the wettest since George III was on the throne.

We will continue to face severe weather well into next week.

I want to put on the record my utmost sympathy for those affected.

Flooding has devastating effects on communities.

I know that it has been especially difficult for those families that have been flooded for many weeks, and those that have been flooded on more than one occasion in recent months.

I think we have all been struck by the stark images of the stranded residents of the Somerset Levels, and their brave resolve to continue their daily lives, be it by boat or tractor.

I would also like to pay tribute to the hard work of councils, the Environment Agency’s on-the-ground staff, and our emergency services, who have supported communities 24 hours a day, literally through hell and high water.

Yet, Britain’s flood defences have protected more than 1.2 million properties since 5th December, and the Thames Barrier has protected 2 hundred billion pounds’ worth of property.

Nonetheless, it is evident that those defences are taking a pounding.

There is damage to transport infrastructure and sea defences, including the railway line at Dawlish, as well as to power networks.

Over 5,000 properties have been flooded, including at least 40 in Somerset.

There are currently 2 severe flood warnings in the west country, 61 flood warnings and 223 flood alerts in place.

COBR has met regularly since 29 January and has responded to every local request for assistance.

The Prime Minister will chair a further meeting of COBR later today.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, I can now report to the House the government’s plans for further funding for flood and coastal erosion risk management.

In the short term, I can announce that the government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance: £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year.

This will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained.

Emergency work on repairs started during December’s coastal surge.

However, the full picture of the damage caused to flood defences has not yet emerged and the weather continues to be savage.

The government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

In addition, I am publishing before the House today details of how my department is enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme.

This helps local authorities in England meet the exceptional and unexpected costs associated with protecting lives and properties.

The changes I am announcing today include:

  • paying Bellwin Grant at 100% above threshold instead of the normal, default 85%
  • allowing upper tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim on a comparable basis to standalone fire authorities
  • reducing Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities
  • extending the eligible spending period until the end of March 2014

No council has yet made a formal claim under the Bellwin Scheme, so no council has lost out.

Indeed, far more councils will now be eligible to claim.

The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their role as first responders.

However, it is clear that the Bellwin scheme needs further reform, an opportunity which was missed under the last administration.

We will be undertaking a full review of the Bellwin scheme in due course, while ensuring that councils continue to have the right incentives to stop flooding happening in the first place.

I can also tell the House that immediately after this statement, ministers will be holding a tele-conference with council leaders from across the West Country to discuss further flood recovery measures.

Of course, flood prevention is as important as flood recovery.

The additional funding that we have outlined today will allow the government’s programme of capital investment to continue, fulfilling our commitment to improving defences throughout England.

We have already put in place investment plans to improve the protection to at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade.

But, in addition, we are today announcing 42 new flood defence schemes for 2014 to 2015.

Together with other projects beginning construction in 2014-15, this will protect more than 42,000 households.

This includes schemes in:

  • Salford which will improve protection for more than 2,000 homes and businesses
  • Clacton where more than 3,000 homes are currently at risk
  • Willerby in the East Riding of Yorkshire where more than 8,000 properties will be better protected

There are also smaller, but no less important, schemes in Lincoln, Stockton and Todmorden.

We will work to defend both town and country.

For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith who implied there is a choice between the two.

Looking further forward, we have made an unprecedented long-term 6-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences:

  • £370 million in 2015 to 2016
  • and then the same in real terms each year
  • rising to over £400 million by the end of this decade

By the Autumn Statement, we will publish a 6-year programme of work running right up to 2021, including a new long term investment strategy on flood defence.

This will provide an assessment of the future need for flood and coastal defence taking account of the latest risk maps and economic analysis.

We should certainly look at how councils plan and mitigate flood risk.

Yet I would note that the level of development on flood-risk areas is now at its lowest rate since modern records began.

99% of planning applications for new homes in flood-risk areas are in line with expert advice.

But, after the dark skies clear, there will be lessons to learn:

  • from the way we help local authorities
  • to the role of quangos and the need for local accountability
  • to the influence of man-made policies on dredging and tree planting on our landscape and rivers
  • to the resilience of our nation as a whole in the 21st century

Mr Speaker,

The measures that the Coalition Government has announced today provides an clear commitment to reduce the risks of flooding and coastal erosion.

The additional funding means that, over this Parliament, this government will be investing more than £3.1 billion, compared to £2.7 billion in the previous 5 years under the last government.

This is more than ever before, and we will spend it well and spend it wisely.

We cannot control the weather. But we can and will provide the security that hard-working people deserve to allow them to get on with their daily lives.

I commend this statement to the House.

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