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The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on the way in which he has represented his constituents and their needs. No one denies that Lewes experienced severe flooding. As the hon. Gentleman said, I, as the Minister responsible for the matter, went to Lewes at the peak of the floods. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office also went there to talk to local people, including the hon. Gentleman, traders and business people, about the pressures on them and the costs of recovery. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, also went to Lewes very recently, and wrote to me with a number of detailed points about concerns that local residents and traders had raised with him.
The Government have stressed repeatedly that we do not want to leave people on their own following what have been the worst floods in this country since 1947 and the wettest autumn for over 330 years. We recognise that there is a need for clean-up and for support, and we want to play our role in that. We are trying to find ways of helping, especially in partnership with local authorities, which are the main point of contact for communities. I shall try to tackle a few of those points.
I know that other hon. Members present represent flood-hit areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) represents the village of Gowdall, which has had national publicity and is one of the places that I visited, accompanied by my hon. Friend. I have spoken to local residents and I well understand the concern and misery felt by those whose properties have been flooded and the disruption that floods cause to businesses.
On the question of declaring a national emergency, the floods have indeed been widespread, but I sometimes feel that the phrase "national emergency" is the subject of confusion. Declaring a national emergency does little except give the Government additional powers--powers which, I am glad to say, we did not need in relation to the recent floods, because the existing framework, involving local authorities, emergency services and the Environment Agency, worked efficiently, and the response from the various bodies was excellent. Nothing would have been gained from declaring a national emergency: no extra money or resources would have become available and the powers for central Government that a declaration would have provided were not necessary.
As for money, the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the sum of £51 million. I should stress that that is additional to an already increasing budget and it means that we can bring forward more flood defence schemes. We have increased the grant for river-based flood schemes by 20 per cent. and made funding available for whole catchment area studies; the hon. Gentleman's area is benefiting from the latter funding. Regional flood defence committees play an important part, although I do not have any information on extra spending in the Sussex area and I am not familiar with the figures bandied about as to how that money might be spent.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin formula and whether flood defences identified in his area would be funded. If the catchment area study identifies ways to strengthen the protection for Lewes and they meet the criteria laid down--relating to environmental impact,
The hon. Gentleman must remember that the floods that affected Lewes and Uckfield were wholly exceptional in terms of the volume of waters and the time scale in which the waters went down. That has a bearing on the attitude of insurance companies, which are well aware that the situation is atypical.
Flood warnings were issued in Lewes. When I spoke to local people, they confirmed that. Some local people, for various reasons, might not have picked up the warnings, but they were broadcast on the national media--I saw the warnings about Lewes 300 miles away--and local media. Leaflets have been distributed in flood-risk areas in Sussex warning people that they might live in such an area and telling them what action they need to take when Environment Agency warnings are issued. In addition, loudspeaker vans toured Lewes warning people.
People can opt into the automatic voice-messaging warning system, which is provided free of charge by the Environment Agency. Any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who would like to take advantage of that facility can do so simply by contacting the agency. The system is quite sophisticated: not only does it ring up the desired number, but it is possible to programme in numbers to be rung if the person is not there, so that the message can follow that person; and it can ring portable phones.
Mr. Baker: I understand all that and agree with most of it, except for the bit about loudspeakers, but the fact remains that a large number of people--for various reasons--did not know that a warning had been issued. That is what we have to address.
Mr. Morley: In one of the follow-ups from the floods, I asked the Environment Agency to provide me with a detailed report. It is one of the issues that it will be addressing. I have made it clear that although I think that the national flood warnings worked well and the response was good, we can make improvements. We can learn lessons from what happened in the October floods, and we are more than willing to do that.
I know that councils have submitted their bids, but I do not know details of the Lewes council bid. However, I know that bids under £10,000 are automatic. Understandably, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, bids of more than £10,000 have to be audited. I shall follow up the matter to ascertain whether progress is being made. I am anxious that bids be resolved as quickly as possible.
Excesses for buildings insurance are the normal part of the Zurich mutual insurance policies that local authorities tend to have. They can address the excesses within their own insurance cover. The Bellwin formula has been uprated. I think that most local authorities appreciate that it is now 100 per cent., and automatic. It is designed to speed up payments, and it can make interim payments. Following discussions with the Local Government
The claims that are being submitted come under the existing Bellwin scheme; the review is for the future. The Bellwin formula covers temporary road repairs but not road rebuilding, which is part of a capital programme. The Bellwin formula was not set up to deal with that.
I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments about English Heritage. Following previous discussions, I wrote to English Heritage--I promised that I would--and its reply is dated today. Its response is encouraging:
general drying out after flooding, which in the majority of cases will be dealt with
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about those who are uninsured. I met some people in that position in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, in Gowdall. It is a difficult matter for the Government, and there is not a great deal that we can do, as the hon. Gentleman has fairly conceded. We do not have assessors and we cannot handle the matter. We are not geared up for it. Basically, we cannot help people with insurable risks.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about local appeals, but there are potential problems. If one such appeal is granted, basically help will have to be given to all. Decisions will then have to be made on how to split funds. I can envisage many potential complications. I shall reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said about that. I have tried to help out farmers, and he is aware of the progress that has been made. I am aware of the work that has been done by Sussex Enterprise, and I pay tribute to it, and by the Small Business Service, in helping local businesses. Business rate exemption can be obtained, and I think that Lewes council has taken that up. Incidentally, 75 per cent. of that is paid for by central Government. That can help.
It is a good idea to give some support in the form of business promotion, especially at Christmas. It is a matter for other Departments, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will reflect on the suggestion and take advice from the relevant Departments to ascertain what we can do. Whenever I have approached the local media, I have stressed that many businesses in Lewes and Uckfield and other parts of the country are up and running and deserve the support of local people. I am delighted to hear of the successful venture that has been promoted, and I wish all businesses well in the run-up to Christmas. I hope that they get the support that they deserve from other people.