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Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise this important issue today. The floods during the winter of 2013-14 had an immeasurable impact on my constituency, and resulted in many cases of hardship and, I regret to say, a tragic fatality. Seven-year-old Zane Gbangbola died during the floods in February 2014, in tragic circumstances that have still not been explained. It is important to remember that those tragic events took place not in another country but here in Britain, very close to home.
Today, I want to raise the issue of local flooding and the wider question of responsibility for the maintenance of key parts of the infrastructure. I also want to talk about the frustration of many residents at the fact that none of the various bodies involved—local government, borough councils, the Environment Agency, the water companies—seems to be able to take full responsibility for the damage that has been caused by a lack of maintenance and a lack of care towards key bits of infrastructure.
Anyone in my constituency who lives near the river will have to deal with the bewildering array of bodies, in the public and private sectors, that claim some share of authority in the maintenance of key bits of infrastructure relating to water and the environment. I want to stress how confusing it was for the private residents who were facing appalling circumstances in their own homes during those winter floods.
Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. I have the greatest sympathy for the family of his constituent who died as a consequence of the flood. I agree with him when he says that those bodies do not communicate with each other, and that our residents are utterly confused. I appreciate that Spelthorne suffered a lot of flooding. I live almost in the river in Teddington, and as I walked through the flood water, the level was right up to thigh level on my boots. The problem for Teddington is a lack of communication between the Environment Agency and the Port of London Authority. The Thames barrier could go up to protect the tidal area of London, but on the upper reaches of the Thames, the weirs and locks could be opened—
Kwasi Kwarteng: I
am grateful to my hon. Friend, representing Twickenham, for
articulating the point so well. This is something that cannot be
stressed enough: ordinary people going about their business should
not be subjected to these extreme circumstances. I fully understand
that they could be described as natural events—they are acts of
God—but when it comes to responsibility, if there are aqueducts
involved, or if there are floodgates or sluice gates that need to
open or shut, or if there are drainage systems that are not
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working, that is something manmade, for which there should be some accountability or responsibility. That is what this debate is all about.
More specifically, I want to talk about what happened with the flooding of the River Ash, which is one of the main reasons for calling this debate. It would appear that the flooding of the River Ash was aggravated as a consequence of a sluice gate not being shut, and not doing its job of shutting out water after an initial warning was given. The basic contention among residents who were flooded is that, between Saturday 8 February 2014 and Wednesday 12 February, this half-open sluice gate significantly aggravated the flooding. The protocols established after the severe flooding in 2003 firmly stated that the Environment Agency should give authority for Thames Water to shut the sluice gate in such an extreme situation. That should have happened on 8 February, when I believe the warning was given, or at the very latest on the morning of Sunday 9 February.
However, as I said in an Adjournment debate that I secured in May 2014, on the Monday morning the Environment Agency learnt that the gate—sluice gate No. 8—was still not operating. We are led to believe that later that morning, at around 7.35 am, the Environment Agency raised the prospect of calling in the Army to shut the gate. At 10 in the evening, Surrey police informed residents in Greenlands Road and Leacroft, which are residential areas in Staines, to evacuate their homes. That was an extreme outcome. In this day and age, having police telling those living in a highly residential area to evacuate is an extreme occurrence. People should not have to experience that in our country.
I will carry on explaining what happened, but I want to stress that, in many ways, the details are not relevant; or rather, they are relevant, but they raise wider questions—even, one might contend, philosophical questions—about the nature of the responsibility involved.
To resume my story, by 10 pm on Monday 10 February, the situation was serious. The next day, Thames Water, the water company which owned the aqueduct and whose mission it was to keep the infrastructure in good maintenance, sent in contractors with heavy equipment to the sluice gates, which I understand were not working. Only in the early hours of Wednesday 12 February did Thames Water finally close the gate by 1 metre. Once it was closed, the water levels began to recede quickly and on the morning of Thursday 13 February the floodwater had significantly gone.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): To clarify, I think there is a question of correlation and causation in relation to the statement that my hon. Friend has made. This is a very serious issue, and it is of course true that the floodgate was closed just after midnight on 12 February and that the waters then receded, but I am afraid that we do not have evidence that there is a direct causative relationship between those two things.
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conditional mood, because the Minister might then be able to understand what I am driving at. If it were the case that that was the cause, who would ultimately bear the responsibility? That is the broader question. We can have debates about causation until we are blue in the face. If we want to be philosophical about it, it is difficult to prove any form of causation, but that is not the question here. The point is that people’s homes were affected by an accident that they believe, rightly or wrongly, had something material to do with the maintenance of a key piece of infrastructure.
If it were the case that the sluice gate had not been maintained properly, whose job was it to tell the water company or to enforce a decent degree of maintenance by it? I fully understand that the water company, being a private company, will not put up its hand and say that it was responsible, to the tune of millions of pounds, for all the damage. I understand how corporate life works. What I am interested in finding out—and I still have not had an answer—is who was ultimately responsible for ensuring that that piece of infrastructure was properly maintained. As I have said many times to my constituents, it is not my job as an MP to ascertain the facts: we have other processes for doing that. What I am interested in is the issue of responsibility and accountability that such circumstances raise.
In summary, facts can be disputed. As we have seen in this brief debate, causation can be disputed. But what my constituents and I want to know is that if people have not done their job, in terms of maintaining crucial infrastructure, who takes responsibility? Is it the county council? Does it have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that a sluice gate or any such infrastructure is maintained properly? Is it the water company on whose shoulders responsibility should rest? Is it the Environment Agency? We have seen occasions on which the agency has taken relevant bodies to court. Who should ultimately bear the responsibility? That is my question, and it is important. To my constituents, other hon. Members and me, the question of responsibility remains murky and obscure. We simply do not know who to turn to or where the buck stops. We do not know who is responsible, in the last instance, for ensuring that key bits of infrastructure or equipment are maintained. That is a legitimate question to ask.
It was in that spirit of inquiry that I applied for this debate. The issue is a simple one and we must remember one basic fact: the aqueduct was on private property. The contention is that a piece of infrastructure on that private property was not adequately maintained to do its job. The simple question that follows on from that fact is who is ultimately responsible for that maintenance. I am happy to have expressed my views and those of my constituents in this debate. I thank the Minister for his forbearance and I look forward to his response.
Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Rory Stewart): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne
(Kwasi Kwarteng) for raising this incredibly important subject. He
is right that two separate issues arise—one of causation and one of
the allocation of responsibility. Before we get on to what he
described as “philosophical” issues,
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I wish to place on record our firm understanding of how serious the issue of flooding is and how devastating it can be for communities. I myself have directly experienced flooding in Cumbria. It is extraordinary that in a country that, compared with others, often seems peaceful and lucky in many ways, flooding is one of those extreme acts of God that impose devastation and loss on families such as cannot be imagined. We take the issue immensely seriously.
The tragedy of what happened in 2013-14 in my hon. Friend’s constituency took place in the context of the worst winter for 250 years. During the previously worst floods, in 1953, 307 people died. This time, thank goodness, we were able to forecast the floods more accurately and respond more quickly.
Dr Mathias: The Minister is talking about the history of flooding, which is also of concern to my constituents. The river is like a living being. Over 200 years, man has changed the landscape, most pertinently for Greater London and Spelthorne. There is no overall responsibility for concreted areas and the fact that the river is not allowed to behave as it naturally would. I live in a one-in-20 risk area.
Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend makes a good case and is tempting me towards a different issue. Essentially, rivers have five core functions. They have a function for wildlife—the animals and plants that live in them. Their second function relates to drinking water, while their third is to irrigate farmland and perhaps support large energy-intensive industries. Fourthly, they have a sewerage function, and fifthly they have a leisure function. Those are the river’s positive functions.
However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the river can also function as a destroyer—something that can devastate communities. As my hon. Friend mentioned, in our highly densely populated island rivers are not natural products; particularly as we get closer to London, we see centuries of improvement and control. Nobody in DEFRA or the Environment Agency would suggest for a moment that rivers are purely natural. In fact, the Department and the Environment Agency are about to invest up to £300 million of public money in improvements to the Thames to deal with these issues. At their core is a highly artificial feature—a new canal system to divert the water away.
Before I deal with the general point, let me try to address most directly the question of responsibility raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. There is clearly a major issue. I am very keen to add the Government’s condolences in respect of Zane Gbangbola’s tragic death. That real tragedy is an example of why it is so important to get these things right.
The simple answer is that Thames Water is wholly responsible for the management of the sluice. The broader context is that the Environment Agency is responsible for taking a strategic overview. We have a particular responsibility, through the Environment Agency, for main rivers. The Thames is a main river and part of the Ash is a main river, although the bit around the sluice gates is not. Surrey County Council is responsible for local flood risk management. The district council can carry out flood risk management works, but Thames Water is wholly responsible for that asset.
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I move on to the positive, after which I shall come back to the question of responsibility that my hon. Friend posed later. There is some good news. We have come out of the 2013-14 floods very aware of what happened. There has been a very good section 19 report, which my hon. Friend has certainly read. Surrey County Council was the top beneficiary of the repair and renewal grant. Some 548 properties in Surrey received £2.6 million, which is more than 10% of the total repair and renewal grants for the whole country, reflecting the scale of the suffering in Surrey.
Dr Mathias: By all means. We are talking about extra cuts, the upper reach of the Thames and the change in the river flow. My constituency is most vulnerable. There are inadequate reservoirs in the area and other engineers say that the Environment Agency is not on top of its job.
Rory Stewart: I had the privilege of visiting the area around Teddington with the Environment Agency two weeks ago. The agency has extremely complex and serious models—geomorphological models—on water movement. We believe that we have one of the best understandings of flood movement and flood forecasting of any country in the world. The River Thames scheme is a £300 million scheme—a staggering sum of money. The Government are contributing £220 million directly to the area stretching down the Thames to Teddington. If my hon. Friend wishes to raise scientific or engineering issues, I am happy for her to do so offline—I am not sure that this is the appropriate debate—but we will provide better flood protection to approximately 15,000 homes and businesses in that area.
Kwasi Kwarteng: My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) raises interesting issues but, in this debate, I want to stay closely to the issues I have raised. I suspect we may have to have another debate to discuss Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs morphological studies.
Rory Stewart: I will take my hon. Friend’s invitation and put aside the additional measures that have been put in place. We will have other opportunities to talk about the Flood Re insurance scheme, of which we should be very proud, as he knows. We will have other opportunities to talk about sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—which will make a huge difference, and other opportunities to talk about local flood risk management.
Surrey County Council
has a good flood risk management strategy. It has published a new
draft strategy, which my hon. Friend will have read, as I have,
clarifying exactly the issues that interest him, which is the
question of who is responsible for managing the risk. We have
community flood plans within Spelthorne.
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Three are in place—Fordbridge Park, Wheatsheaf Lane and Sunbury Court Island—two are in progress and three more are coming. There will be a severe weather forum on 5 November, which he can attend. It is intended that communities will come forward with their plans and preparations.
My hon. Friend has an important point: it is the case that, in that flood, it does not seem that we can assign total responsibility to that sluice gate. It is not a main river section. Our modelling suggests that the sluice gate is not what led to the flooding in those houses. However, as he has pointed out, regardless of that case, there is an important hypothetical case. What happens if, in future, that sluice gate is genuinely essential to prevent flooding? I absolutely agree that we need to be much better at assigning responsibilities, as the Pitt review pointed out. That is particularly true because the causes of flooding are always complex and interdependent, and there is an enormous number of different people involved. Almost inevitably, we must have a system in which the county council, the district council, highways agencies and the Environment Agency have roles. Thames Water deals with sewerage. In that case, the asset was not primarily a flood asset but an aqueduct and drinking water asset.
As the flooding Minister, I am very aware that ultimately I have the responsibility for this and it is not enough simply to talk about a lot of agencies. We have to be clear about who does what when. My hon. Friend is right that that is particularly the case with what we call third-party assets such as sluices and aqueducts, which are owned and managed by others.
The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 has been a very important step forward in ensuring that we have a clear assignation of responsibilities, but I believe that such events illustrate that we still have more to do, and this is where I concede that my hon. Friend has raised an important point. We still have more to do as we must make it absolutely clear what will happen in such cases not just in Spelthorne but up and down the country. In this case, the Environment Agency is with us at the moment and I have had detailed discussions about Spelthorne with the agency partly as a result of the debate secured by my hon. Friend, so his constituents have reason to be grateful for his work on this.
It appears that we now have a clear protocol in place that sets a defined water level at which the sluice will be brought into operation. That has now been agreed with Thames Water. However, we will look very closely again at that protocol and will take this example as we go up and down the country to ensure that we are not stuck falling between two stools, which is a situation that we are often too close to.
In conclusion, let me express deep sympathy for those affected by flooding and recognise that recovery is a very long process for the people who were evacuated from their homes, who saw prized possessions destroyed and who went through fear and perturbation. In many cases, I have seen houses in Surrey to which people did not return for almost two years after the flooding occurred. They have lived elsewhere and have been through a truly terrible time.
With climate change, it
is unfortunately very likely that we will see more of this in the
future. The Government are investing unprecedented sums of money and
we are putting £2.3 billion in capital investment into flood
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defences over the next six years. We will improve flood protection by 5% and 1,500 homes and businesses in the Thames area will be protected. I must thank the Environment Agency, Surrey County Council, the district council, our professional partners and Thames Water, which has looked closely at the subject.
We should not hide
behind legal definitions. The challenge of accountability is
absolutely central and we do not want to get into a world in which I
perpetually appear here in Parliament saying that causes are very
difficult and geomorphology is very difficult. It is easy for us to
say, in some peculiar fashion, that these things are not really our
responsibility and that even if they
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are, closing the sluice gate would not have made a difference, and even if we had wanted to close it perhaps we might not have been able to anyway. Generally, excuse is piled on excuse and we have to get much better at saying “This is the person who is responsible,” and holding them accountable. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne for raising an issue that will, I hope, benefit not only his constituents but millions of people in the United Kingdom at a time of climate change.