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The Jubilee River story - Cornwall - November 2010 - Lessons?

This page examines the political response one month after the Cornwall flood event...........

Caroline Spelman MP    Stephen Gilbert MP      Sarah Newton MP      Sheryll Murray MP    Richard Benyon MP


And so history repeats itself yet again.........


'Lessons can be learned' from floods in Cornwall

Flooding in Lostwithiel The flooding caused widespread disruption to Cornwall's transport network

More could have been done to warn people in Cornwall about the risk of flooding, a minister has said.

Heavy rain hit parts of the county on 17 November, with people trapped in by rising floodwater which reached 6ft (2m) in places.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said it was hard to predict surface water flooding, but she accepted there were "lessons to be learned".

The minister was responding to a question by local MP Stephen Gilbert.

Warden alerts

About 230 homes and 400 businesses were affected by the flooding, with Mevagissey, Lostwithiel, St Blazey and St Austell among the worst hit areas.

No-one was seriously injured, but residents had to be evacuated, schools were closed and the transport network was badly disrupted.

Ms Spelman said: "In the afternoon of that event, there was only a 20% risk of severe flooding.

"By 2230 it had increased to an 80% risk - when most people were in bed and asleep."

She said one of the lessons learned was that wardens should knock on doors to alert vulnerable residents of any increased risk of flooding.

Related stories


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Flooding (Cornwall)

4.40 pm

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 flooding.

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 and weeks.

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 the problems.

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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Sarah 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.

Stephen Gilbert: 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 appropriate.

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 2013.

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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 of Cornwall.

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.

4.50 pm

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 incidents?

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.

4.54 pm

The Parliamentary 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.

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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 predicted.

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 disruption.

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, those

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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 praise.

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 conditions.

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 remarkable resilience

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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 2015.

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 say.

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 place.

Question put and agreed to.

5.9 pm

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