Stronger Flood Defences Speech

Neil made an impassioned plea for better flood defences in the House of Commons. In a speech about the Environment Select Committee's recent report on future flood prevention, Neil called for far stronger action by Government to protect homes and communities from flood waters. You can read Neil's full speech below, or read the debate in context at this link. 

Neil: It is a great pleasure to open today’s estimates debate on the future of flood prevention. Flooding is one of those issues that is rarely considered until it actually happens. When the weather is dry, we talk about drought, and as soon as it starts to rain, we have to deal with floods. In the round, we have to deal with both. Because of that, it can be tempting for the Government sometimes to disregard flood defences and resilience measures when the weather is much drier and budgets are under pressure. I believe, and the Select Committee believes, that this would be a grave error.

Effective flood defences, both hard and soft, are a vital part of this country’s infrastructure. With the UK’s experience over the years of more severe storms as climate change continues, flooding is likely only to get worse. We have recently seen the high tide that came down the eastern side of the country. Fortunately, this did not cause massive flooding, but it might well do in the future. I was flooded back in the ’80s and particularly 1981, when we lost a lot of sheep after huge tidal floods in the west of the country. When the barriers are overcome, we must have the right infrastructure in place.

In November 2016, the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its “Future flood prevention” report. We found that flood prevention work in the UK is fragmented, can be inefficient and sometimes ineffective, and has let people down. The winter of 2015-16 broke rainfall records, and storms Desmond, Eva and Frank disrupted communities across northern parts of the UK, particularly Cumbria and York. Storm Desmond alone cost the UK more than £5 billion, but the impact is not just economic. It is very much about individual businesses, individual residents and all those hugely affected by flooding—and sometimes about the amount of time it can take to get people back into their homes or to get their businesses up and running again. Many communities live in fear that a disaster is just one downpour away.​

There is no doubt that we are now encountering long periods of dry weather, followed by a huge amount of rain—200 or 300 mm in just 20 or 30 hours. Believe it or not, I do not blame the Minister or the Government for that amount of rainfall coming down so quickly, but we do need to be aware that it can happen and we need to be ready to try to mitigate some of the worst of the disaster that happens when we get these very high levels of rainfall occurring over a very short period.

I personally understand the concerns of many parts of the country that experience being under water for perhaps many months. We need to reflect only on what has happened in the past. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) will talk later about what happened in Somerset, when a huge amount of water fell and remained for up to three months, devastating not only property, but the land. A huge amount of debris was created, and the vegetation and much of the wildlife was lost. This was a disaster not only from a residential and farming point of view, but from a conservation point of view.

While frontline staff and rescue service workers worked tirelessly to support those affected, our system for managing flood risk can and does fail on occasions. That is why I want to talk about the importance of the recommendations that our Select Committee made in our “Future flood prevention” report. I shall touch briefly on the Government’s response and on what action DEFRA has taken to date. I shall conclude by outlining what the Committee believes the Government must do to improve the situation further.

What, then, were our recommendations? We recommended to the Government how to reduce the flood risk to 5 million people and we looked into the “one in 100 years” flood and how to deal with risk. One problem is that, if we are not careful, people living in an area with a “one in 100 years” risk which is flooded are inclined to think that they will be safe from floods for another 99 years. Of course, that is not the case. An area with a high flood risk will continue to have that risk until better defences are created or resilience measures are introduced, and it will probably always be a pretty high-risk area.

Rebecca Pow MP: My hon. Friend is bringing back a great many memories of those terrible floods. Does he agree that communication is very important? One of the points made in the Select Committee report was that perhaps we should stop using the “one in 100 years” terminology. We should adopt a way of warning people about how serious floods that does not involve years, because the current terminology is misleading.

Neil: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The evidence that the Committee took, and what we heard from people who came to talk to us, suggested that it is very helpful when communities are able to get together and warn each other about exactly what is happening. The Environment Agency and others can give the warnings, and the agency, the fire brigade and local authority staff are there to help, but the flooded communities themselves have built up a resilience that will help them in the future.

Andrew Stephenson: Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to flood wardens? Earby, in my constituency, was badly affected by flooding, and is now waiting for three different schemes to be ​introduced by the Environment Agency this year. Flood warnings, local flood plans, floodgates, and all the work that those volunteers do is extremely important to the response when flood waters start to rise.

Neil: My hon. Friend is right. Local authorities, the Environment Agency and the drainage boards can do a great deal, but when local people come together, they know exactly what is happening on the ground, and flood wardens can react very quickly.

In Axminster, a shopping trolley went into a culvert and became full of wood. The whole place flooded, including three or four bungalows. If someone local had been there to hoick—I am not sure whether that is a word in the English language—the trolley out of the culvert, the flood would have been stopped. Such actions also ensure that resources go further. We are learning all the time.

One of the Committee’s most important recommendations was for a more holistic approach. It sounds obvious, but we need to work with nature rather than against it. If we slow the flow of the water by using natural remedies such as planting more trees, restoring wetlands and improving soil management, we are likely to see more and better flood prevention. We must allow water to flood builds naturally sometimes if they are on a natural flood plain rather than in an urban area. That would be a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of preventing floods.

Kerry McCarthy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as we think about how we ought to spend our farming subsidies in the wake of Brexit, we should look to them to address the issue that he has mentioned? They could perhaps enable farmers to allow their fields to be flooded sometimes as a form of natural flood defence.

Neil: I think the hon. Lady must have X-ray sight, because the next paragraph of my notes refers to how we deal with farming and farmers. Now that we need not follow the common agricultural policy exactly, we have an opportunity to introduce a cost-effective measure to allow farmers to store water when they are able to do so. If they have to store it for a short period and it is on grassland, it will probably have very little effect on their crops and profitability, but if it has to be stored on arable land for a long period, they will require more compensation. We need to consider that in some detail, and I believe that we shall have an opportunity to do so.

Andrew Murrison: I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Is he familiar with the practice undertaken by some local authorities of diverting floodwater from roads on to farmers’ fields without permission, thus washing away topsoil of the sort that I think he is about to touch on, and also potentially introducing pollutants into sensitive sites?

Neil: My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we are going to allow water to go out on to land in order to save a town or a village from flooding, the landowner first needs to know about it and, secondly, needs to be able to manage it properly, and it has to be ​done by agreement. Sometimes, naturally, these things are done in exceptional circumstances, but, once done, there needs to be a plan if that needs to be done again in the future. Agricultural land can be very useful for storing water, but we must remember that it is also used for growing crops and keeping stock, and therefore we have to be sure that the farmer can farm that land, as well as manage it for water. That is why we need to deal with this by agreement.

Nigel Evans: As my hon. Friend knows, we had severe flooding in the Ribble valley and throughout Lancashire in 2015. He mentions agricultural land: on Friday, along with the Woodland Trust and the Ribble Rivers Trust, I planted some trees along one of the river banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look again at the amount of trees being planted, and the usefulness of planting trees in stopping soil erosion and, indeed, holding a lot of the water that otherwise would go to the ground?

Neil: My hon. Friend makes a good point, because it is not just about planting the trees; it is also about where we plant them. If we plant them along the edges of the fields or the banks of the streams and rivers, we can hold back the water and hold back the soil. Very often, the soil and debris being washed from the field is also contributing to the flood. So this is not just about the number of trees; it is about making sure we are smart in where we plant them. The way we plant them is important, too. We visited the north of England, and when the old Forestry Commission was planting trees it turned the soil up and put it up into a furrow and planted the trees on the top of it. The only trouble is that there are then two gullies either side of it, which then allow the water to run down very quickly if the trees are planted on a slope. Therefore, over the years there are many things we can do, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point that this is about planting trees, holding that soil back and holding the water back long enough for the major flood to go through, and that was what much of the work was done on.

Rebecca Pow: My hon. Friend is talking about soil, and I cannot let the moment pass without intervening to stress that soil is a very important part of our ecosystem. Does my hon. Friend agree that we lose it in floodwater at our peril, because it is the lifeblood that we use to grow our crops?

Neil: My hon. Friend will also be very aware that many fields only have so much topsoil on them, and it is the topsoil that is fertile and that we grow our crop in. Therefore, if farmers lose much of their topsoil down through into the streams and rivers, they have lost a lot of the very fertile soil in their fields. Therefore, I think most farmers, when presented with a plan that can save their topsoil and the way they manage their fields, can see a big advantage in this, but we have to work together with the farming community, rather than, as perhaps has sometimes been the case, just imposing our will upon them. If we can persuade them that there are many good reasons for managing soils in a slightly different way, we can perhaps get a lot further with that. We can sometimes use carrots, and not necessarily sticks. I am sure our Minister has many carrots to offer today, and we will be interested to hear about that when she sums up the debate.​

We also need to take a closer look at development in built-up areas affected by flood risk. Naturally, we have laws that we hope will restrict most building on floodplains —sometimes it is breached, but on the whole it is not. When an area is flooded, very little of the water has actually landed on the flooded area. It usually comes from higher up. Rather than stopping building in flood-risk areas, we need to think when building developments of several hundred or 1,000 houses about capturing the run-off water from everywhere on those estates, including the roads. It could be captured in ponds or in reservoirs or tanks underneath some of the homes. Building in resilience measures to ensure that the water from a development could be held would make the situation better rather than worse. We can build developments, but we do not always give enough consideration to what is going to happen further downstream.

Nigel Evans: A lot of house building is going on in Whalley in my constituency, and one of the conditions was that tanks should be put in before the houses were built. Sadly, the houses seem to be being built and occupied before the tanks have been put in. Does my hon. Friend agree that developers need to take planning conditions seriously and abide by the rules and regulations set down by the local authorities, because of the misery that flooding can cause if they do not get these things right?

Neil: My hon. Friend makes another good point. Planning conditions can be flouted, and they are sometimes not properly enforced. Also, it is sometimes claimed that resilience measures cannot be put in place because of the economic situation, but we must ensure that houses are not built unless those measures are taken. I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister present will pass on that point to her colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, because this is a planning matter. If we are going to plan for the developments that we need, we must plan them properly. I do not think that any of us are against development, but we must have the right kind of development and hold the water back. Indeed, if we could make a feature of those measures, we might also create some leisure facilities as well. That would be a planning gain.

The recommendations in our report also include the need for a new governance model to deal with flooding. As part of our inquiry, the EFRA Committee visited the Netherlands to learn how that low-lying country manages flooding. We learned that 25% of the land there is below sea level, and that half of its 17 million population live in flood-prone areas, so they know a lot about flooding. The threat of flooding led to local government and water management being administered hand in hand from as early as the 13th century. As the threat of flooding in the UK grows, we need to borrow some ideas from the Dutch and to mirror their focus on dealing with floods locally and nationally. The fens in this country were drained by Dutch engineers, as was the part of Somerset where I still have my farm. They know exactly how to deal with water, because if they did not deal with it, they would not have a country. It is as simple as that.

Robert Marris: Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that many of the things in this very useful report from the EFRA ​Committee were being discussed in this House a dozen years ago and have still not been implemented? An example is the recommendation about “building back better” that appears in paragraph 60 of the report. I discussed that matter with the Association of British Insurers in, from memory, 2006, but we have made almost no progress on it. Since then, the Labour Government and the coalition Government have cut spending on flood defences.

Neil: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We have tried to ensure that the report is not party political. Under the last Labour Government, the spending on flooding went down in dry times and up in wet times. The same thing happened under the coalition. We can argue about the figures, but they very much follow that same pattern. The report recommends learning from what has happened and putting in the proper resilience measures.

As I said, the report discussed the Dutch system. The idea would be to set up a regional flood and coastal board and then involve local authorities and local drainage boards, where they exist, and then landowners and businesses in order to have a broad catchment basis. As such, the Government should completely overhaul flood risk management, to include a new English rivers and coastal authority that is accountable for the delivery of flood protection. The Netherlands has a flood commissioner who is answerable to the Dutch Parliament and at a local level, which provides real focus. We may not need a full management system like that of the Dutch, but we can learn many things from it, such as how to alter the system through the Environment Agency and others to make it more answerable to Parliament, local authorities, drainage boards and landowners. I am convinced that, until we get a system that works from the top down and from the bottom up, we will not make the best use of our resources, because they will always be pressed. The commissioner would be able to hold those carrying out flood prevention work to account for their performance, because we have to get the best value for money.

Kate Hoey: The report states that firefighters provide a vital “first-line service” to flooded areas. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should go further towards making that a statutory duty? That has been asked for throughout the past 12 years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said. Why can we not do this? Scotland has done it, Northern Ireland has done it, and I think Wales is about to do it. Surely it must happen.

Neil: The hon. Lady makes a good point. I think the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is behind her, will be making some good points about the fire service. The Committee took evidence from the fire services, and their work on flooding and the time they put in are not always recognised. The Environment Agency has large pumps that can move huge volumes of water over short distances, but the fire services can pump out people’s properties and deal with things on the ground. That is not recognised enough within the system, and there is work to be done on that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply to that point. By overhauling the way we manage the whole system, we can go a long way to minimising the devastating toll of flooding on local areas and local people.​

Unfortunately, the Government’s response, which was published last month, was a little disappointing. It was not up to standard and addressed our key recommendations in only a cursory manner. We then asked for more information from Ministers in time for this debate, and my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to the Committee on 16 February. We welcome her commitment to record and report, from 2018-19 onwards, on how many schemes include natural flood management. That will be important, because we must ensure that more such management is carried out. We welcome that step, but we also welcome the commitment to refresh the national flood and coastal erosion management strategy for England, which we hope will reflect many of our inquiry’s findings.

The report recommended some actions and, to be fair to the Government, DEFRA has made progress on some of those issues, including on catchment scale approaches and embedding natural flood management more firmly in flood management plans. Local partnerships have also made progress on co-ordinating action in some river basins. I think the Government agree with the Select Committee that not all flood areas fit neatly into local authority boundaries and that we need to introduce catchment areas to hold the water. We will need to speed up the water in some areas to get it out to sea, and in other areas we will need to slow the water down by introducing leaky dams to hold the water. Some areas will need to be dredged or de-silted—whatever language we want to use—to get the water flowing more quickly.

Tom Tugendhat: My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. Does he recognise the work of the Environment Agency along the Medway river and its excellent work, as he rightly says, on bringing together stakeholders from across the area so that we have a theme of continuous progress, rather than the bittiness where one area is fixed only to flood an area further downstream?

Neil: I welcome the Environment Agency’s work on the Medway, where the water can move quite quickly. If we are not careful, the water will move too quickly and flood areas further downstream. Such work is essential.

Throughout the inquiry we saw that one size does not fit all. Some areas need the water to be slowed down, and other areas need it to be speeded up. We have to deal with it catchment area by catchment area. Of course it is fascinating that, before too long, we will probably move into more of a drought situation and will be talking about how to use our rivers to move water around so that we have enough water. For my first two years in this House, between 2010 and 2012, the Select Committee talked about nothing but drought. It was only when it started raining in 2012 and did not stop for two years that we talked about floods.

On funding for flood risk management, the Government have committed to a six-year programme with a capital budget of £2.5 billion. Although welcoming that increased funding, our report noted that it is unlikely to deliver sufficient protection in future decades. We stated that, by the end of 2017, the Government must publish their 25-year ambition for flood risk reduction and the cost of securing that reduction against different climate change ​scenarios. Disappointingly, the Government rejected that recommendation. The public need to know how their communities will be affected in coming years, and plans need to be put in place to ensure that they will be protected against flood risk. Flood risk comes not only from freshwater that falls in the form of rain but from coastal flooding, too.

We initially recommended that catchment scale measures be adopted on a much wider scale, and DEFRA is doing more to promote such approaches by, for example, trialling natural flood management measures—such as installing leaky dams, planting trees and improving soil management—alongside other measures. We welcome that, as well as the additional £15 million of funding in the autumn statement.

However, we need more detail on how much of the £2.5 billion capital programme for flood risk management will use natural flood management. The Minister’s commitment to include that indicator in reporting from 2018-19 is therefore welcome, but we would welcome more information on how she plans to ensure that every catchment area uses natural flood management to the maximum extent appropriate to its river basin. We saw that the Netherlands has re-meandered some rivers and is storing more water in the rivers, as well as on farmland.

I look forward to Members’ contributions to the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s summing-up