Cumbrian Floods: We will do everything possible to help people rebuild their lives - Hilary Benn MP

Hilary Benn23 November 2009

Labour's Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has made a Statement to the House of Commons on the flooding in Cumbria.

With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to report to the House on the serious flooding in Cumbria and other areas of the country in the last few days.

I have to report that PC Bill Barker lost his life in the floods in Workington while protecting the public. I know the House will wish to echo the tribute paid to PC Barker by the Prime Minister on Friday. He was a very brave man.

I also have to report that Michael Streeter - a contractor working for the Environment Agency - died following an accident on Selsey Bill where he was maintaining defences. There has been one other fatality – Mr Chris Wheeler, a canoeist - and  a woman is missing in Wales. Our thoughts are with all their families  and with PC Barker’s colleagues.

The flooding was caused by sustained rainfall from Wednesday evening onwards. Some parts of Cumbria saw unprecedented amounts, totalling over 300 mm – that’s over 12 inches - in 24 hours.
The worst affected areas were in west and central Cumbria, and around 1300 or more properties have flooded,  mainly in Cockermouth, Workington, Ulverston, Burneside, Kendal, Keswick and Eamont Bridge, as well as in a number of small villages. 

As the forecast heavy rain arrived, Silver and Gold commands were quickly set up, and many residents were evacuated, some by helicopter. Some went to stay with family and friends; others have been housed in reception centres set up in Kendal, Cockermouth and Keswick. Many local roads have been affected; the west coast mainline was temporarily suspended; and six bridges have collapsed due to the force of the water. Workington has lost Northside Bridge, and the Calva Bridge has been seriously damaged.   Councils are making arrangements to ensure that residents can get access to essential services.

Over 1000 properties lost electricity, 40 were without mains water, and 12,000 properties were left without landline phones. Efforts are being made by the utility companies to restore supplies.

I saw for myself on Friday and Saturday in Cockermouth just what an effect the torrent of water had on homes, businesses and communities. It is utterly devastating, and the House will wish to express its sympathy to all those affected. 

The  House will also wish to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in responding to this emergency, in particular those who worked so hard  throughout Thursday night and into the weekend , led by Chief Constable Craig Mackey.

This includes the staff of the fire, ambulance, and police services, RNLI, RSPCA, the Marine and Coastguard Agency, mountain rescue, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and, of course, the communities affected – neighbour once again helping neighbour and showing the best of human spirit.  I would also like to thank all the MPs in Cumbria who have been working so hard to look after their constituents.

The Government and local Councils will do everything possible to help people rebuild their lives, although we know that it takes time for homes and buildings to dry out. Council homeless teams are arranging longer term accommodation for those who need it.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government activated the Bellwin scheme for the worst affected areas on Friday morning. This helps local authorities with the cost of emergency assistance and clean up. In recognition of the exceptional nature of these floods, he has also extended the scheme to allow authorities to claim 100% of the costs incurred as was the case in 2007.

The Prime Minister announced on Saturday £1 million in community recovery grant, matching the amount being given by the Regional Development Agency to support the many small businesses which have been severely affected.

The Department for Transport will also provide emergency funding – as it did two years ago - to help with repairs to bridges and roads.

Cleaning up the mess has now started, and Cumbria County Council is leading  the local recovery effort. There will be a ministerial meeting later this afternoon to look at what more needs to be done to help.

The Association of British Insurers has urged people who have been flooded to contact their insurance company as soon as possible. Their first priority is to ensure that every claim is dealt with quickly and they will do everything they can to help customers recover. 

As with all major flooding, there will be lessons to be learned, although I have to say that the response of the emergency services was very impressive.  We will work with the Environment Agency and others to ensure that this happens. 
In the two years since the 2007 floods, the Environment Agency has completed 106 flood defence schemes, protecting over 63,000 additional homes in England and Wales, including  Carlisle.  The new £40m flood defence scheme there, built after the 2005 floods, helped prevent flooding to around 3000 properties last weekend. 
The House will know that in the decade to 2007 we more than doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion defence. We are investing a record £2.15 billion over the current 3 year spending period.    

We have also responded to the Pitt Report by setting up the Flood Forecasting Centre, to provide better early warning of flooding; invested £2m in improved flood rescue capability, including improving coordination of rescue boats; set up a £5m scheme for household flood protection; and encouraged 140,000 additional people to sign up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales.

We have also introduced the Flood and Water Management Bill that is currently before the House.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Efra Committee for their scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I am sure that all sides of the House will help in getting this important Bill onto the statute book.  

Although we cannot attribute this particular event to climate change, we can expect to see more extreme weather in the years ahead. This is a future we must prepare for.       

I will, of course, keep the House informed of any further significant developments.