Westminster Hall debate on extreme weather

Neil Parish MP made a speech in a Westminster Hall debate on the flooding in the South West and the damage done to its roads and railways.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I also thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for obtaining this important debate.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who said that the Dawlish line needs to be restored. As well as connecting to Cornwall, the line is a great tourist attraction. It is a lovely railway line to travel along. Given that it is 150 years old, it is amazing that it is still there. The line is a remarkable achievement of Brunel, who was such a great engineer. Restoring it is important.

We also have to consider a complementary line that would potentially make it much faster to get from Plymouth and Cornwall up to London. We already have a second line that comes from Exeter up to Waterloo; it runs through my constituency. We have a loop at Axminster, but we need a loop at Honiton, which would help. We also ought to consider twin-tracking the railway all the way down from London to Exeter because that would give us a line to Exeter. Furthermore, we should consider whether we can go across from Exeter towards Okehampton and down to Plymouth. We could try to go across Dartmoor itself, but that might not be easy.

Those things have to be done, and I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who pointed out that billions of pounds are to be spent on HS2. Every time I have been through the Lobby to vote for HS2, I have held my nose for the simple reason that I did not want to support it. If we do not see real and meaningful investment in the west country, it is our duty to speak up and stand up for our constituents, and I believe we will. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) reinforcing that point in a minute.

We have to consider the current structure, but we also have to consider sea defences. After I said in Parliament the other day that we do not have to retreat from the sea, The Daily Telegraph poked fun at me slightly by saying that I am like King Canute. Of course King Canute actually stood in the sea to try to persuade his courtiers that he could not keep back the sea. On the Somerset levels there are now Dutch pumps. The people of the Netherlands do not retreat from the sea for the simple reason that, if they did, they would probably lose between a third and two thirds of their country, and they do not intend to do that.

We have to treat sea defences as an infrastructure project. People can rightly argue, as the Government have, that we inherited a huge £120 billion financial deficit in the day-to-day running of the country, and we are reducing that deficit, but there has never been a better time for investment in capital projects and infrastructure because we will never see lower interest rates. I lived through a period of interest rates of 12% and 15% when I was farming, and those rates were cruel and painful to say the least. We now have much better interest rates, so let us use them to our advantage. We need to protect our coastline.

The A30 and the A303 need to be dualled so that we do not only have the M5. The A30 down from Exeter is a good road, but the A30 that runs on the edge of Dorset into Wiltshire, Somerset and the south of my constituency needs to be dualled. We do not want to be held up entirely by Stonehenge. We have to sort out Stonehenge, but it should not be the sticking point against dualling the rest of the road.

On his visit to the west country, the Prime Minister said that 100% of the need will be provided under the Bellwin agreement. There are potholes all over Devon and Cornwall. The roads are horrendous, and a fortune has been spent on them. The roads have to be put right. I was driving through Seaton the other day, and I nearly drove into a pothole the size of half a car. The pothole was not quite that bad, but it was huge and would cause amazing damage.

Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that Bellwin should be extended to allow local authorities to repair potholes properly, rather than cold-filling potholes only for them to become deeper a couple of weeks down the road?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is right about the need for good repairs. The county councils naturally argue that a major repair is much more expensive than just filling a pothole, but she is right that it is a pointless exercise if all the tarmac comes out of the pothole five minutes later. An awful lot of money is available to be spent.

I also welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge of £5,000 grants to help businesses through the floods. Will the Minister give us more detail on how people can claim that money? It is always great when the Government offer money, but people would like to be able to claim and use it.

On the Somerset levels, it has been said that raising the railway line across the moors would cost £200 million. There is one solution to ensure that that railway line does not flood, and that is a sluice at the end of the river Parrett to stop the sea from coming in. At the moment, the sea comes in and drives the fresh water back, and that is what keeps the moors flooded. I cannot guarantee that the sluice would mean that the moors never flooded again, but a tidal sluice on the end of the Parrett, north of Bridgwater, could mean that the depth of water on the moors would not be enough to flood the railway line.

Doing the arithmetic, it would cost £200 million to raise the railway line and that will never happen. I reckon that a sluice across the Parrett would cost some £50 million and if hydroelectric power was put there as well, the project would start to show its worth. It would help farmers, properties and nature conservation. When there is water over the whole Somerset levels for six to eight weeks, there is nothing left when the water recedes. There will not be the lovely flora and fauna or reeds and rushes that everybody wants, because it will all have rotted. Then there is the farmland, what has happened to people’s property and the stock that has had to be moved across the moors. We have to look at the situation seriously.

The other great benefit of having a sluice across the River Parrett is that the water could be penned in during the summer and the area could be made like a mini Norfolk broads. That would bring the benefits of a huge tourist attraction. Devon and Cornwall need a railway line, but we have to cross Somerset to get there, and we need to consider that. I know that the right hon. Member for Exeter does not like dredging and all those things, but they must be part of the armoury. We can hold water in certain places and further upstream, but in the end rivers such as the Parrett and Tone silt up, and without dredging we will not get the water away fast enough.

The management of those waterways has to be much more local, and that is where inland drainage boards can do a lot more. We might need more drainage boards. Will the Minister consider that? We might, dare I say it, have to get people living in houses further up the catchment area to pay a small amount, because their water is flowing down and flooding the lowland areas. There are ways of raising money, which will help. Local management would be so much better.

Mr Bradshaw: I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman just said. He seems to agree with the research from Exeter university, which argued that if landowners and farmers in upland areas were paid to manage their land differently, the amount of money saved through reduced flood risk on the Somerset levels and elsewhere in low-lying areas would massively outweigh that expenditure. Is it not better to pay farmers to do that, rather than to graze the uplands intensively, which is sadly sometimes the case?

Neil Parish: The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is part of the solution, and we have to look at how land is managed and how farmers are paid. At the moment, farmers are paid for loss of income. We should say, “If you are going to hold that water and that will reduce flooding, you should be paid to manage that water.” In the end, that would probably be a much cheaper option.

We must also remember—this is where I probably do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman—that we need land for food production; we should not take away too much land from food production for that type of process. It is about getting the balance right, an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman and I do not entirely agree. Land management is part of the solution.

Let us go forward and look at the infrastructure across the west country, including road and rail, and let us look at maintaining our coastline. Let us look at having, in the Somerset moors, the south-west and the country, pads and pipes where we could put in these massive mobile pumps that the Dutch have. We could have Dutch pumps in Sedgemoor and they could be moved around the country. Rather than having millions and millions of pounds invested in one pumping station, let us spend a few million pounds on portable pumps and the necessary infrastructure to connect those pumps wherever they are. We can import the pumps from Holland and have them ourselves. That is key.

We have to learn lessons. A lowland area has to be pumped fast. We should stop the tide from going up the Parrett so that we can fill it with fresh water. Then, when the tide goes down, we can let it out. There are lots of practical solutions. We have suffered and people still are suffering. We can never guarantee that flooding will never happen again, but we can reduce it. I will stop there, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset wants to speak.

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 26 February 2014, c117WH)