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Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD):
I am delighted to introduce my first Westminster Hall debate with you in
the Chair, Ms Clark, and I am pleased that this important debate is
happening almost a month to the day since the floods hit Cornwall early
in the morning on 17 November. It is a mark of how significant the
events were in Cornwall that other Members of Parliament are present and
hoping to make a contribution. My hon. Friends the Members for Truro and
Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) are
here. Both of their constituencies, like mine, were affected by the
At the outset, I would like to take a moment to commend the
professionalism and dedication of the Cornish emergency services,
Cornwall council, local town and parish councils, the Environment
Agency, and local churches, chapels, clubs and residents associations
which, in a typical display of Cornish solidarity, pulled together to do
an outstanding job in difficult circumstances. As the extent of the
damage caused by the floods became apparent, all those groups rallied
together to do what they could to help.
When I spoke to people in St Austell, Polmassick, Mevagissey, Pentewan,
St Blazey and Par, having seen for myself the devastation that had been
caused, I heard stories about the responses of neighbours and family who
provided the essentials that people needed.
It is not often that a local MP welcomes both the Prime Minister and the
Prince of Wales to their constituency on the same day. It would be wrong
of me not to put on the record how grateful we in Cornwall were for
their time on that day and for their continued interest since then-and,
indeed, for the continued interest of the Secretary of State for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. On a personal level, I am grateful
for the support that the Minister gave me throughout the following days
The combined information from the Environment Agency and Cornwall
council indicates that hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged.
The repair bill is estimated to be tens of millions of pounds. The
Environment Agency and partner organisations have been working in the
affected areas on clean-up, inspecting and repairing flood defence
systems, and speaking with communities to learn what they thought went
wrong in the places where schemes already existed. There are particular
issues in each part of my constituency, and I believe that it is worth
bringing them to the attention of the House.
In St Austell, there are concerns that over-development of the hillsides
surrounding the town has led to added risks of flooding in basements in
the town centre. In Pentewan, a recent flood defence investment did not
work as it should have. In St Blazey and Par, pumps seem not to have
been turned on in a timely way, and there is the issue of the regular
cleaning of culverts and storm drains, which might have eased some of
In Polmassick, the ancient bridge simply could not cope with the volume
of water trying to get under it to the flood plain just beyond it.
Across the constituency, the warning systems that were supposed to
notify residents of problems ahead universally failed.
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Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Although
there were far fewer homes affected in my constituency, businesses and
homes in Portloe on the Roseland peninsula were badly affected. I very
much agree with my hon. Friend that, in the future, timely warnings of
impending flood risk would help people to prepare what defences they are
able to prepare.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, because she could not be more
accurate. There was the potential to deliver warnings, and we must
ensure that when warnings are issued by statutory agencies, they are
passed on to the public.
Despite the problems, steps are already being taken to facilitate the
clear-up. In Mevagissey, 30 tonnes of flood debris has been cleared
away. In Pentewan, a demountable defence system is being installed as a
temporary defence on the beach channel to balance the tidal and fluvial
flood risk in that community. In St Blazey, like other places, Cornwall
council and the Environment Agency have been holding flood surgeries
where local residents can share their experiences and concerns.
And, of course, the Environment Agency is
conducting a thorough review of the events of the few days of the flood
to identify what other steps it can take.
The Environment Agency told me that approximately 3,250 homes and
businesses in Cornwall were protected by schemes already in place. It is
worth commending that work, which has been done over several years.
Despite all that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth
suggested, we can undoubtedly learn lessons from the experience in
Cornwall. I shall spell out some of my concerns, and I hope that the
Minister will be able to respond to them.
The first issue is about providing early warnings to residents. The Met
Office issued a severe weather warning with an 80% chance of flooding at
about 10.30 pm on the night of 16 November. That was some six hours
before any damage had been done to homes and businesses, but the warning
never made it to the majority of residents, who could have taken action
to protect their property or business.
We all know that weather prediction is not an exact science, but if the
emergency services and emergency responders could be notified much
earlier in the day of a 20% risk of a severe flooding event, surely it
behoves us as a Government to ensure that the public are made aware when
the risk reaches 80%, so that they can take the measures that they deem
The Government also need to do more to support the establishment of
community flood plans, which could include dedicated flood wardens with
access to state-of-the-art household defences. I was pleased to hear
similar thoughts from the Secretary of State during departmental
questions last week.
Taking steps to prepare for a flood will help communities to avoid
damage and to keep the costs of future repairs low. It may also help
those in flood risk areas to obtain insurance after the 2013 end of the
insurance industry's statement of principles. In the vast majority of
cases, the insurance industry responded in a timely way, getting loss
adjusters in, assessing the damage and closing claims quickly,
but we need to ensure that all homes, not just in
Cornwall but across the country, are able to access insurance at
affordable premiums now and when the statement of principles ends in
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The third and final subject I would like to raise is the need to look at
the financial support that is available to local authorities when such
emergency situations happen. As the Minister will know, the Bellwin
scheme provides financial support to local authorities, but, in the case
of Cornwall, it has become clear that the scheme might not be working in
quite the way it was originally intended.
Cornwall council's threshold for help under the scheme is 0.2% of the
authority's net budget requirement, which includes the delegated schools
grant. Therefore, the threshold in cash terms is just shy of £1.5
million-that is, the money that the council must spend before central
Government will step in.
Cornwall council is at a distinct disadvantage as a new unitary
authority. If we were still under the old system, the burden would have
fallen on two district councils with a total threshold in the region of
some £60,000 before the Government stepped in, not the £1.5 million that
Cornwall council has assessed the figure to be. Many would argue that
the new unitary authority would have more resources and could use them
in the best way, but the calculation does not seem to be in line with
the costs that could be incurred, and it is certainly unfair when
compared with the calculations for counties with two-tier systems.
Furthermore, as well as being a unitary authority, Cornwall is a fire
and rescue authority. Again, that is atypical. In Cornwall, the costs
incurred by fire and rescue are part of the unitary authority overall,
and they have the effect of increasing the council's threshold further,
by some £40,000.
In summary, as a new unitary authority, and a fire and rescue authority
to boot, Cornwall council seems to be treated unfairly under the Bellwin
scheme. It also seems unfair to all top-tier organisations to include
the delegated schools grant in the calculation. The Minister is well
aware that local authorities have no control over the allocation of the
schools grant; it simply passports through the council. I would ask the
Minister to consider whether the Bellwin scheme should be reviewed,
particularly in the light of some of the examples thrown up by the case
The flooding in Cornwall last month brought to the fore the community
spirit that I grew up with in Cornwall. There are lessons to be learned.
We need to improve the early warning system, work with the insurance
industry and look again at the threshold at which the Government step in
to help local councils. These issues need to be dealt with so that we in
Cornwall, as well the rest of the country, are as prepared as we can be
for possible events in future.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con):
I praise my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and
Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), for securing this debate. I also thank the
Minister for the prompt communication that his Department had with me
and, I am sure, my hon. Friend, when the flooding and the serious
situation in Lostwithiel in my constituency first became known.
I reiterate the points that my hon. Friend made about the Bellwin
formula. Cornwall's transition to a unitary council happened a couple of
years ago. Sadly, this
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formula is outdated. Will the Minister consider updating and reviewing
it so that it does not act against unitary authorities in future
I praise the work of Cornwall council and the Environment Agency. I
accept that nobody could have predicted the level of flooding that we
saw in Lostwithiel, particularly, which resulted from surface flooding
rather than the normal, historical flooding. It may not happen again for
another 100 years, but we have to get the message out to the community,
and to other communities that could be affected, to ensure not only that
they put in place flood prevention measures when they get the warnings,
but that at least lockable metal gates are put on doors every evening to
prevent the kind of damage that we saw from happening.
Just before Christmas, many businesses in Lostwithiel were flooded when
they should be preparing for a busy time, and a lot of their stock was
damaged. I praise the insurance companies for sending their loss
adjustors, who were working hard on the ground with people. I drove
through Lostwithiel at the weekend and business is going on as usual. I
praise the community for showing resilience and community spirit to
ensure that business carried on as best it could as soon as possible.
I should like to hear from the Minister about the Bellwin formula, and
about any ideas that he has that my hon. Friend and I can put in place
to help the community prevent flooding, which is expensive-I know that
there is no money to do that in these economic times-and to put in place
some flood damage prevention schemes, so that if it happened again, the
properties of the people of Lostwithiel might be saved.
Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard
Benyon): It is a pleasure to serve under
your chairmanship, Ms Clark.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay
(Stephen Gilbert) for securing this debate, and to him and my hon.
Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) and for
Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for their leadership in dealing with
the aftermath of this incident, which is to their credit. It is also to
their credit that they have generously praised many others, whom I will
talk about. The good contact that we had with my hon. Friends and their
understanding of the problems is noted in the Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am delighted that that
communication worked so well.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, the
intense rainfall in the early hours of 17 November had a huge impact on
his constituency and the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members
for South East Cornwall and for Truro and Falmouth. Such events are not
unknown in the south-west. We have seen from previous flooding how
resilient communities in that part of the world are. The recent flooding
only reinforces that view.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State were both moved by the
obvious examples of good neighbourliness-the work that people were doing
to support their friends and neighbours in this crisis.
15 Dec 2010 : Column 336WH
My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the good work done by Cornwall council,
the emergency services and many others. I echo every word of his praise.
The severity of the flooding came as a surprise to many, but that is not
to say that the forecasts were wrong. The flood forecasting centre
issued an extreme rainfall alert at 16.22 hours on 16 November,
highlighting the risk of heavy rainfall overnight that may lead to
surface water flooding. The main purpose of such alerts is to allow
local authorities and emergency responders to prepare to respond in
accordance with their multi-agency plans. I will talk in a minute about
my hon. Friend's important point on widening the recipient base of these
warnings to ensure that we can get to more people when such events are
My hon. Friend made a good point about surface water flooding, which I
noticed in my constituency in 2007; if we can develop flood warden
schemes, similar to the neighbourhood watch scheme, that would be a
useful, successful way of allowing people to do emergency resilience
work to protect their homes and belongings. Not everybody is on e-mail
or able to get a mobile phone signal, particularly in remote parts of
the country. Nevertheless, if we can find ways to get the information to
people so that they can start preparing, on a street-by-street basis or
by locality, we can improve it. We are not yet where we want to be in
terms of getting more people aware of flood risk. I welcome my hon.
Friend's suggestions, some of which I will discuss shortly.
The Met Office issued a flash severe weather warning, as my hon. Friend
said, at 22.32 hours on Tuesday 16 November. Flash warnings are issued
when the Met Office has 80% or greater confidence that severe weather is
expected in the following few hours. The Met Office routinely issues
early warnings in advance of severe weather that is expected to lead to
significant and widespread disruption. In this case, the Met Office, in
consultation with the FFC and the EA, did not issue an early weather
warning, as the rainfall was considered unlikely to result in widespread
In the lead-up to the event, the national and local weather forecasts on
television and radio, and on the Met Office website, highlighted the
risk of heavy rain and gale-force winds in the south-west. Forecasts of
heavy rainfall and extreme rainfall alerts are not rare, as we all know.
The total amount of rainfall in Cornwall was not as great as in other
significant flooding events. However, it is important to note that the
intensity of the rainfall-38 mm in one hour in some locations-was
unusual and a combination of surface water, small
watercourses being overwhelmed and drains not being able to cope
with the intense rainfall, resulted in torrents of water flowing through
the streets and into people's homes and businesses.
Weather forecasting plays a critical role in flood-risk management and
the Met Office is independently recognised as world-leading in this
regard. However, it is important to manage expectations in terms of what
is currently scientifically possible. Those very localised weather
events are challenging to predict with a long lead time, but I am
confident that the Met Office will continue to push the boundaries of
what is possible. It remains as important as ever that local
authorities, emergency responders, utility companies and others have
well practised plans for dealing with flooding events. In Cornwall,
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plans clearly worked very well. The speed of the emergency was matched
by the speed of the emergency responders, for which they deserve great
In the cold light of day, the hon. Gentleman, not
unreasonably, pointed to the need for improved warnings for those
who are at risk of such events. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of
State commented on that when they visited Cornwall in the days following
the flooding. Let me stress that the Government are committed to
improving their warning and information systems for all types of
emergency, including flooding, and are looking at a number of options to
deliver better public warnings.
The current consultation on our flood and coastal erosion risk
management strategy for England says that the Environment Agency and the
Met Office will continue to develop and improve the national flood
warning service provided through their joint flood forecasting service.
They will do so by providing, among other things, warnings and flood
information that are geographically as specific as possible so that all
who receive flood warnings will know what to do and, where possible,
have enough time to take action. These are not simple tasks, and it will
take time to get them absolutely right.
The extreme rainfall alert that was first issued at 16.22 would not have
been issued before the Pitt review following the 2007 floods. We
witnessed the welcome sight in the Met Office of meteorologists sitting
next to hydrologists and being able to predict much more accurately
where flooding is likely to occur, and to warn communities accordingly.
We are building on that capacity and partnership working to ensure that
we get better and better at getting it right. We will not get it right
every time, because of the freak nature of some extreme rainfall
We would all prefer our flood management to focus on preventing extreme
rainfall from causing damage to property in the first place. I do not
want to play down the impact of flooding, but it is right to point out,
as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay did, that more
than 3,000 properties in vulnerable areas throughout Cornwall were
protected as a result of flood defence schemes. I share his concern
about the failure of some flood defences, and it is imperative that,
with the Environment Agency, we look at where those failures occurred,
learn from them, and provide the right protection in those places as a
matter of urgency.
I take the points that my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and
Newquay and for South East Cornwall made about the Bellwin scheme. I may
be going above my pay grade, but I represent a constituency that is part
of a small unitary authority. My hon. Friends represent constituencies
that are part of a relatively large unitary. When my constituency was
flooded in 2007, we triggered Bellwin very quickly. Clearly, the matter
is a cause for concern that I understand. Bellwin is dealt with by my
colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and
the Treasury, but review is important. In the light of changing weather
patterns, we must liaise at ministerial level, as the Department is
doing, to ensure that Bellwin is not too blunt a tool, and that local
circumstances are taken into account. However, that is a matter higher
up the governmental tree.
Many of those who were affected have already done a huge amount to get
their lives and businesses back in order, which is more evidence of the
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of people in that part of the world, and of a thriving big society. The
Environment Agency has been doing its bit to help clear up and provide
full support for the county council. I pay tribute to the surgeries that
were held last month in St Blazey, Mevagissey, Lostwithiel and Pentewan.
The Environment Agency is also working with local people to develop
community flood plans in those areas. Part of the work will consider
what improvements can be made to flood warnings for those communities.
That is not a new concept; it already exists. Fill-in-the-blank toolkits
are readily available, and are being taken up in the constituency of my
hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. I hope that we can
expand the flood forums to communities that have been affected, and to
communities that have not been flooded, because those are the difficult
ones to reach.
Over the next few years, there will be huge technological advances. We
are looking at rolling out opt-out schemes for text and telephone
warnings, and there is the possibility one day, if it is not too
intrusive, of a cell basis so that an emergency can be flashed to a
mobile phone cell area and everyone in the area with a mobile phone
receives it. That will not reach everyone, but it is a possibility, and
such technologies are coming forward. We want to be at the cutting edge,
not just because we want to, but because we must if we are to cope with
the changing climate.
Insurance cover, and its future availability, is always a concern for
those who have suffered damage from flooding. It is fair to say that the
Association of British Insurers was very quick to state at the time that
insurers' first priority was to ensure that every claim was dealt with
as quickly as possible. Advice was provided on its website for people
who were affected. More generally, at a flood summit that I hosted on 16
September, we agreed that the Government, insurers and other
stakeholders would continue to work in partnership
towards 2013 when, as my hon. Friend said, the current agreement between
insurers and the Government will expire.
Looking forward, we know that the risk of flooding
is likely to increase. We also know that the current economic
situation is very challenging and that, although the floods budget was
protected as far as possible in the recent spending review, there will
always be a limit to what national taxpayers can be asked to fund.
Currently, the costs fall almost entirely on general taxpayers, and that
constrains how much can be done, as well as creating the potential for
inequity in the system. Nevertheless, DEFRA expects to spend at least
£2.1 billion on flood and coastal erosion management over the next four
years, and to deliver better protection to 145,000 households by March
In future, the Government would like to encourage
additional local investment in flood and coastal erosion risk management
in return for giving areas at risk a bigger say in the action taken. We
want decisions to be made locally and voluntarily on whether and how to
contribute to schemes. Government support will, of course, continue to
focus on those most at risk and least able to afford to protect
themselves. That is important.
These are difficult matters and we must get them right. That is why we
are consulting on the national flood and coastal erosion risk management
strategy for England, and why it is so important. It will help us
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make the difficult decisions about what Government funding is used for,
and how it should be allocated between the different tasks and risk
management authorities. I urge everyone with an interest to have their
The events in Cornwall four weeks ago posed a huge challenge to
individuals, communities, businesses and organisations. None of us wants
that to happen again, and we must learn the lessons. But it would be
naive to think that we will never face similar challenges in the
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future. Such events are consistent with the predictions for climate
change, and are likely to occur more frequently. The good news is that
the people of Cornwall have shown us again their remarkable resilience
and capacity for recovery. That was shown not least in the leadership of
the Members of Parliament for the constituencies where the flooding took
Question put and agreed to.