Hilary's speech in the debate on the recent flooding

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab):


May I begin by joining my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in sending good wishes to the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) for a speedy recovery? We really do look forward to seeing him back in his place.


We have had an extremely important, well-informed and wide-ranging debate. I would like to express my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in connection with the recent stormy weather. I also echo the thanks that have been expressed to all those who worked so hard during this extremely difficult time: the local communities, the farmers who supported one another, the council staff who delivered sandbags and provided rest centres where people go when they have to leave their homes, the police, the fire service—the fire service in particular has been praised by my hon. Friends the Members for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—the armed forces, the utility companies and the transport companies, all of them, which rescued people and tried to restore power and keep people moving where that was possible, and of course the staff of the Environment Agency.


I know from my own experience just how committed and dedicated the agency’s staff are and how difficult it must have been for them, at the very moment when they were working all hours, to hear their efforts insultingly and unfairly criticised by some. I do hope they will have taken some comfort from the praise that we have heard from many parts of the House today for their efforts, including praise for individual Environment Agency staff by name, including from the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine). I do not know whether the great big bags were given a name, but the Itchen diversion would probably suffice. It was an example of imagination and innovation in the face of huge quantities of water.


Steve Brine:
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


Hilary Benn:
Very briefly, as time is short.


Steve Brine:
It was a restriction of the River Itchen which took the heat out of the river and flooded some farmland to save Winchester.


Hilary Benn:
It shows what can happen when people take advice from the experts, as happened in that case.


We heard powerful testimony from many hon. Members about the effect that flooding has on the lives of the people whom we all represent, and on the communities and the families involved. That has been experienced not just in the past two months, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) in recounting what happened in the terrible summer of 2007. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) spoke about people’s homes. I remember visiting his constituency in 2007. There are few things worse than seeing one’s home invaded by dirty brown water full of sewage, seeing one’s possessions ruined, and in many cases having to flee one’s home with no idea when one will be able to return.


We live in an era in which, as human beings, we have come to think sometimes that whatever happens, whatever nature throws at us, somebody ought to be able to deal with it, and if it cannot be dealt with, someone must be to blame for what has happened. The truth is that this is nature’s raw power that we are confronting and in the face of it we human beings are small in comparison. It has enormous force. It can wreck a train line. It can, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) said, reshape the land itself. Of course that does not mean there is nothing we can do; on the contrary, there is a great deal we can do, and that action should be informed by the lessons that we learn.


I hope that in replying the Minister will tell the House what the process for learning lessons is going to be on this occasion. I commend the approach taken by Sir Michael Pitt in carrying out his review in 2007. It was a widely praised report. I thought it was exemplary. It was clear, practical and full of recommendations, including the proposal, for example, that the Met Office and the Environment Agency should come together to issue a single flood warning. In 2009 we established the Flood Forecasting Centre and everybody recognises that it has led to an improvement in the information that has been made available.


The other lesson is that whatever the recommendations and however good they are, they need to be followed through. I saw the Secretary of State nodding when the point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) in her opening speech. I hope the Government will produce some further implementation reports on the Pitt report and that that of 2012 will not be the last, because we know that there are some recommendations that have not yet been completed.


We also heard in the debate many examples mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members where the arrangements have worked on the ground—where there has been effective co-operation, the right leadership and all the agencies co-operating. However, we also know from the experience of the past two months that there have been some places—Muchelney is one, Wraysbury is another, and there are others—where residents felt that help was very slow to arrive.


I think that there is a very fair question to be asked about that. What was the plan locally? If help did not arrive to ensure that elderly people got the assistance they needed, to help folk move furniture and valuables upstairs to stop them being wrecked by the water, and to evacuate people in a timely way, why did it not arrive, especially in places where there had been flooding previously? The Government have a responsibility nationally, but local government and the local community also have a responsibility. We need plans that are not only good on paper, but can be implemented when the time comes.


Given the number of families who have been forced out of their homes, I am grateful for the swift response—Downing street took about 20 minutes to respond—to my call for families not to have to worry about paying council tax on a home they cannot live in. I would be grateful if the Minister could be absolutely clear that what the Prime Minister said when he was in Wales—that local authorities will be fully funded for the cost of offering a council tax rebate—will happen. The Secretary of State said that the Government have talked about there being enough funding for at least three months, but we know from evidence from the insurance industry, in particular, and the experience in 2007 that people can be out of their homes for a lot longer, perhaps for six or nine months, and sadly in some cases for more than a year.


Will the Minister also indicate whether the Government are proposing to look again at the rules? To answer the Secretary of State, of course councils should be able to charge more council tax when properties are left empty deliberately, but there was previously an automatic exemption in cases of flooding, for example if someone could not live in their home because it needed repair to make it habitable. That was taken away in the 2012 changes and instead made subject to the discretion of councils. To provide reassurance in the years ahead, I think that it should be automatic in cases of flooding.


On transport, we all want to see the railway line at Dawlish repaired as soon as possible, because it is an economic lifeline—a point reinforced in my conversation with the leader of Plymouth city council, Tudor Evans. As that and other storm damage reminds us, the complex ecosystem of modern life and infrastructure can be very vulnerable, which is why we need to take it into account not just in repairing but in building for the future.


We must also learn to adapt. We need crossovers on motorways so that when they are flooded cars can turn around and go back the other way. As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), we need to plant trees near rivers and look at farming practice and land use helping the water soak away and slowing its rush. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) explained, we need to look at where dredging can and cannot help. We must ensure that when there are huge downpours in towns and cities, the water does not meet a wall of paving slabs, concrete and tarmac, because that is why Sheffield and Hull flooded in 2007. We also need to recognise that although sandbags can help in some cases, it is dedicated flood protection that makes the difference.


I hope that the Minister will agree to the cross-party talks referred to in the motion, because whoever is in government will have to continue to deal with this problem. There is no doubt that the world’s climate is changing and that humankind’s actions are causing it. The climate impact projections, based on the best science we have, suggest that in the years ahead we will see hotter and drier summers and wetter winters with more flooding.


Let us just reflect on the past decade. In 2003 a heat wave led to 2,000 excess deaths in this country, even though temperatures were just 2° higher than normal. In 2006 we had a severe drought. Around 8 million people in the south-east of Britain depend on rivers for their water supply. In 2007 we saw widespread flooding across the country, and Great Yarmouth came within 10 cm of being overcome. In 2009 the High street in Cockermouth turned into a raging torrent. This January was the wettest winter month for almost 250 years. The result—we have heard it powerfully expressed today—is that yet more communities in our country are coming face to face with the consequences of a changing climate, in this case as the waters invade their homes.


We know what happens when these events occur—the drama unfolds, the cameras arrive, the stories are told, the statements are made, and for a while the nation’s attention is focused on what we can see before our very eyes. But we also know that when the waters recede and the weeks and months pass, the long, slow, hard process of recovery continues away from the public gaze. We should come together for the families and communities so that we adapt to what we cannot change and protect what we can, and so that others people do not suffer what so many have experienced over the past two months.

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