Managing Flood Risk Debate

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): Three months ago, the storm surge hit the east coast and caused considerable damage in a number of coastal communities including Lowestoft, in my constituency. Before Christmas I secured an Adjournment debate in which I highlighted the items of immediate concern. Today it is appropriate to review the situation, and to highlight what went well and the instances in which we can and must do better.
 
In Lowestoft, a small geographical area was hit very hard. The community rallied round and the area is gradually returning to normal, but many people will not be back in their homes for a number of weeks, and for some life will never be the same. The repairs to the sea defences have still not been completed, and it is a race against time to get the beaches open for the important tourism season. We need to learn lessons from the night of 5 December and consider how we can best manage flood risk, making the best possible use of the available resources, which will be limited. We must recognise that events such as those that we have witnessed, either directly or on television, will become more frequent.
 
There are three instances in which I believe that we should be doing things differently. First, we need a new framework for the management of flood risk from rivers. The Government’s management of flood risk must be simplified and streamlined. There is too much duplication of effort and inefficient use of resources, with funding shared between five levels of government. We need better co-ordination and simplification. All work related to flooding should ideally take place in one Department. Locally, a whole-river approach to flood management should be adopted, from source to the sea. Each catchment and each river is different, and each should be managed by local people, who invariably know best.
 
Since the scrapping of the National Rivers Authority in 1994, a more fragmented approach has been adopted, and we now need greater certainty and local flexibility. It is also important not to become fixated on specific ways of managing flood risk: it must be recognised that different solutions will be appropriate in different settings and on different rivers. I make this comment with specific regard to the issue of dredging. In some places it will solve a problem by creating additional capacity for holding water, while in others it may exacerbate a problem. In managing a river, it is important to use all the tools in the box, whether dredging, desilting, repairing of banks, the managing of vegetation downstream, slowing the flow, storing water or improving infiltration upstream.
 
There is a need for better and more regular ongoing maintenance with investment in pumps and drainage infrastructure. More licences should be granted to farmers to undertake regular minor work such as clearing blockages, desilting and vegetation maintenance, and I draw attention to my farming interests as detailed in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
 
Homeowners and businesses should also be armed with the tools and the information needed to defend their properties. There is a need to build resilience into the defence of individual properties. The £5,000 repair and renew grant for affected homes and businesses can play a very important role in achieving this, whether through the fitting of flood boards, covers to air bricks and the insulation of valves to prevent the backflow of sewage.
 
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I held a public meeting last week on flooding issues in my constituency and those who are flooded welcomed this £5,000 repair and renew grant, but some who have not experienced internal flooding were concerned that they may do so in future. Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Government should consider introducing a scheme whereby they provide part-funding for those who want to make their homes resilient or have some kind of tax credit for that purpose?
 
Peter Aldous: My hon. Friend raises a good point. The £5,000 grant is a good way for individuals to make their properties more resilient. In Bevan street east in Lowestoft the property with flood boards was the one that had very minimal flood damage. We should be building on this scheme where the flooding happened this time and also look at other areas that are vulnerable.
 
It is also important that local communities that have been affected in the floods are fully informed and advised as to what they should do. It is important to plan and rehearse flood plans so as to eliminate the need for frantic and ultimately useless activity once a flood has occurred.
 
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about what householders can do to protect their own property. The Pitt report after the 2007 floods recommended that in flood risk areas insurance notices should include information on flood risk and the simple steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects. Does he agree that that would be a very good thing?
 
Peter Aldous: I agree entirely. One thing the Government need to be doing is making sure advice is provided through the local authorities on this £5,000. Support and advice must be given to local communities, in particular in streets where this problem is occurring, to enable them to put in place sound and practical arrangements as soon as possible.
 
Mr Graham Stuart: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important that the £5,000 is made available in the most sensible manner possible, so that those who have been repeatedly flooded over a number of years are eligible, rather than just those who have had a one-off event, however severe, which is unlikely to repeated for a long time to come?
 
Peter Aldous: The £5,000 grant has clearly hit the right note across the country, and it is no doubt right that the Government should review very carefully where it is provided.
 
In my constituency, the preparatory and warning work leading up to the storm surge generally went well. There is scope for improvement in handling the mop-up afterwards, however, and I know the councils are looking at doing that. It is also important to support those who are facing change and uncertainty, even if that is in the long term. Long-term expensive works are required to defend the communities of Corton and Kessingland in my constituency. It is necessary to work with those communities to involve them in finding a permanent solution, even if it is going to be very expensive and some way hence, so that they have confidence that in the long term such solutions will be in place, rather than leaving them feeling marooned and isolated, as they perhaps do at the moment.
 
Secondly, I am concerned that the existing mechanism for accessing new flood defence schemes is deficient, in that it does not give sufficient weight to economic considerations. It is important that when the Government are determining whether to provide financial support for flood defence schemes, proper account is taken of the economic benefits of the proposals. The benefit-to-cost rules that are currently applied do not do that. In the 2008 Pitt review the recognition of the need to protect the economy is too limited, and there are similar concerns about the flood and coastal erosion risk management plan introduced in 2011.
 
In my constituency, the future economic viability and vitality of Lowestoft is highly dependent on investment being made by energy companies in the port area, the very area where much of the flooding occurred on 5 December. In order to attract that investment, which would regenerate the area, bringing new business and new jobs to the town, it is important that robust and comprehensive coastal and flood defence arrangements are in place. Proposals to achieve that will be submitted to the Department shortly, and I shall be lobbying vigorously for the necessary funding.
 
Finally, there is a need for a new approach to coastal erosion and protection, and for a longer-term plan and increased investment in sea defences. Many of the sea defences in Suffolk and Norfolk were put in place by the Eden and Macmillan Governments after the 1953 floods and are now in need of urgent repair, upgrading or replacement. Given the events of 2007 and 2013, it seems these sorts of problems are likely to become more frequent in the coming years. Sea levels on the Suffolk coast have been rising since records began in Victorian times, and since 1953 they have been rising by 2.4 mm per annum. When the impact of climate change is added, it is clear that there is a need for urgent action. In Lowestoft, Halcrow and BAM Nuttall have made the assessment that whereas the previous estimate was that a 1953-type flood would occur every 1,000 years, it could now take place every 20 years.
 
The UK’s approach to coastal defences over the past 20 years should be contrasted with that of the Dutch. After the 1953 floods, they designed their sea defences to withstand a one-in-4,000-year flood, whereas ours were designed to withstand only a one-in-1,000-year flood. The Dutch have pursued a different approach: the provision of their coastal defences is fully integrated with the provision of other infrastructure, be it airports, harbours, roads, houses or factories. In the UK, coastal flood defences have tended to be an add-on and have all too frequently been cut in times of austerity. The Dutch do not rely solely on hard defences, and a system of dams, dunes and dykes has been put in place which enables them to withstand a one-in-10,000-year storm. By contrast, neither the Pitt review nor the flood and coastal erosion management plan properly addresses coastal erosion and flooding. The latter does not fully reflect the differences between inland flooding, which is temporary, and coastal flooding and erosion, which can be terminal for affected properties and assets.
 
The storm surges that occurred along the east coast in 1953 and 2013 were the result of a combination of events: very low atmospheric pressure over the North sea, which caused the sea level to rise dramatically; high astronomic tides; gale force winds; and rainfall. On both recent occasions, we escaped by the skin of our teeth, although I concede that what happened in 1953 was horrific; in 2007, the wind dropped in the nick of time, and in 2013 the wind was blowing in a northerly direction and there was no heavy rainfall. I fear that it will not be third time lucky, and it is important both that new defences are put in place as soon as practically possible and that we adopt a different approach to the managing of flood risk.
 
4.49 pm
 
 

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