Bishop Nick's House of Lords speech on the recent floods

Bishop Nick led today's (14 January) debate in the House of Lords on the government's long term strategy for flood management:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds to ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to review their long term strategy for flood management, particularly in rural areas that do not qualify for large-scale flood defences (topical Question for Short Debate).

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to put to the Government the question before us. If there was a sound track to this debate, it would probably include Phil Collins' "In too deep". It is important to note the destructiveness of recent flooding given that the news agenda moves on very quickly and communities that found themselves at the heart of a sympathetic nation quickly feel themselves to be forgotten. For some of the communities in my own diocese the recent floods come in the wake (almost literally) of other occurrences in recent years, and for them the need for longer-term and more joined-up measures is obvious.

But, I want to pay tribute to civic leaders, emergency services, public service workers, members of the armed forces, the Environment Agency and local volunteers who sacrificed holidays and family time over Christmas to support victims of this appallingly destructive flooding. Churches in many of the affected communities offered refuge, sanctuary and practical support in providing meals, clothing and the distribution of emergency resources. In places such as Kirkstall in Leeds, Bingley, Ilkley, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Sowerby, people got stuck in. The Sikh charity Khalsa Aid helped in Hebden Bridge and Muslims worked hard to provide relief and help in Cumbria as well as affected parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. These very impressive stories demonstrate that perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan still echoes through this generation in the costly and practical support of one's neighbour.

It is also appropriate here to salute the insurance companies, many of which have been praised for the speed and nature of their response to those flooded. Affected churches have greatly valued the service of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group in particular during recent weeks.

The Government's response to the latest flooding in Yorkshire and Lancashire has involved repeated use of the word "unprecedented". Well, of course. By definition, a unique event is unprecedented. But, it is of no comfort to people who have lost their home or business that this event is unprecedented, nor does it help when the enormity of the immediate flooding happens to be greater than the last time which also ruined home and business and left people - in some cases - uninsurable.

Hence, the question in this debate.

Some numbers. Around 16,000 properties have been affected in northern England and Scotland. At the end of December KPMG estimated that the total cost of flood damage would exceed £5bn. The Association of British Insurers estimates that claims will total £1.3bn. The average domestic claim will amount to £50,000 - up from the average £31,000 in 2013-14. Around 3,000 families are now living in alternative accommodation while their home is being repaired. In Calderdale alone flooding hit 2,500 homes, nine schools and 1,250 businesses - and as many as 40% of these businesses could be uninsured. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be at least £20 million. Damage to homes and businesses also has a knock-on impact on the wider ability of the local economy to recover.

Furthermore, there is still the possibility that more flooding could be on the way - the winter is but young. Understandably, Government is moving into recovery mode. Almost £200 million has been made available for investments in recovery (including money for repairs and upgrades to existing defences, money for Local Authorities to repair infrastructure, grants to home and business owners for the improvement of personal flood resilience, and grants for farmers whose land has been flooded and crop destroyed). All of this is welcome. However, the much-publicised FloodRe scheme, which will help to provide flood insurance to at-risk homes, will only be launched in April. This will guarantee affordable premiums, as many home-owners cannot afford the current premium levels in high-risk areas. But, FloodRe is not going to be available to small businesses or buy-to-let properties, meaning that they will almost certainly face an increase in premiums. The fact that FloodRe is not yet in force means that there are many people who will not have been insured for damage caused by the December floods (potentially people who would have been waiting for FloodRe to come into effect before securing insurance). The Times reports that up to £1bn of damage will have been sustained by uninsured people.

No rational person believes that all risk of flooding can - or should - be eliminated. But, people do not always understand why, when, following one disaster, a case is made for enhanced protection, yet that protection is quickly scaled back once memories begin to fade. During the recent flooding in Leeds the Lord Mayor of Leeds went as far as to question whether this would have been tolerated in London, and whether England's third city deserves the same level of investment as its first.

Furthermore, in this context it is clear that swingeing cuts to local authority funding must inevitably diminish the ability of such authorities to respond effectively both to local disasters as well as recovery from them. It is claimed that northern metropolitan councils have faced disproportionate cuts which have then had an impact on the maintenance of bridges, drains and other essential infrastructure. We are also seeing the threatened closure of local frontline services at the same time as emergency response needs are evident.

There are two immediate points that must be addressed by all parties to the debate about planning for future flood protection: (a) the amounts that have already been spent - and might have to be spent in the future - in reactive recovery should not be counted against the resources needed for long-term protection planning; and (b) the insurance costs (and access to adequate insurance) to people and businesses in now-vulnerable areas must be managed in a way that allows both recovery and a future for those affected. Surely, the changes to weather patterns in recent years indicate that similar can be expected in the future and we need to be building resilience to address it. Prevention might be financially expensive, but it will certainly be cheaper than the cumulative costs of non-prevention over, say, a decade or two.

However, the finances only hide the human costs: businesses closed or lost, homes ruined, families and children forced into temporary homes with all the consequent disruption to schooling and the best circumstances for learning and growing. These costs go beyond pounds and pence.

So, questions remain about how Government will address these challenges for the longer-term. Other speakers will touch on other aspects of this matter. But, noble Lords might well seek reassurance that the recently-instigated National Flood Resilience Review, chaired by Oliver Letwin, will pay serious attention to the strengths and weaknesses of current “worst-case scenario” planning in the light of the future impact of climate change, recent substantial cuts to the Environment Agency (15% funding and 1,500 staff) and longer-term need for whole-catchment approaches to flood prevention and water management.

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable where funding decisions are driven by a return-on-investment (ROI) calculation (requiring that £8 of damage be avoided for every £1 spent on defences) that means many schemes will not be considered cost-effective on paper. I hope that this debate will touch on such long-term challenges and urge Government to take long-term views in future planning.

So, I look forward to hearing how the Government intends to review its long term strategy for flood management, particularly in rural areas that do not qualify for large-scale flood defences.

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