Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to
raise the issue of fen flooding in South-West Norfolk, which is of great
concern to many of my constituents, especially those living close to the Ouse
washes. I pay tribute to the community representatives and local residents
who have worked so hard to find a solution to the problem, particularly
borough councillors David Pope and Vivienne Spikings, and Welney parish
council chairman Ken Goodger and his council colleagues.
No community has been
more deeply affected by the flooding than the residents of the village of
Welney. Once again this winter, the inhabitants of this rural community have
found themselves isolated by flooding up to 3 ft deep across the A1101, which
traffic surveys show is used by more than 2,000 vehicles each day in the dry
season. For more than 80 days since last November the road has been
impassable. The flood waters receded at the end of January, but the respite
was short-lived and, once again, the road is under water.
The duration of the
flooding is not unprecedented, but it has been significantly worse in the
past seven years compared with a decade ago. According to the Environment
Agency, between 1990 and 1997, the road was flooded for a total of 100 days;
in the past seven years, it has been impassable for almost 300 days. This
season, it seems probable that the road will be flooded for more than 100
days. There is an escalating trend - an extremely worrying one that reflects
the problem of climate change that we all face. With global warming likely to
increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and winter rainfall,
it seems inevitable that unless the Government step in, residents of Welney
will be cut off for even longer periods, and probably face an increasingly
The result of
flooding is that, for increasingly long periods, local businesses are denied
passing trade. They also lose custom from those living on the other side of
the Welney wash, because residents face diversions of 20 miles in each
direction. That is a massive inconvenience for them and for others trying to
use ever more congested alternative routes through the county. The loss of
trade is keenly felt by local businesses, such as shops, pubs and,
importantly, rural post offices.
What assessment have
the Government made of the economic impact of the annual flood on South-West
Norfolk and, in particular, the Norfolk fens? What assistance is available to
those who are suffering? If no help is forthcoming, it is inevitable that
those businesses will close or relocate, leaving yet another rural community
with no amenities. I should also like to the ask the Minister, given the
increase in housing planned for the area and Norfolk generally, what
guarantee the Government can give that plans will take account of the fact
that a significant detour is inevitable when the A1101 is impassable. Will
that be borne in mind when infrastructure projects such as new schools,
hospitals and other services are planned?
In the past, steps
were taken to increase the flow of water along the Bedford and Hundred Foot
rivers. The construction of Welmore sluice was intended to increase the
outflow by 50 per cent and residents were assured that the built-in water
jets would prevent silt from reducing its operational effectiveness, but I am
told that the sluice gates across the wash, particularly those in the north
such as the Denver sluice, will soon be sealed shut by silt. Welmore sluice
is little better. The problem is now so severe that a former flood defence
manager has told me that there will be problems getting boats into the locks
from the middle level. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true? What
steps are being taken to clear the channels?
The catchment flood
management plan issued by the Environment Agency highlights the fact that the
Great Ouse is
"very sensitive to
and notes that those
"accumulate in or
around in-channel structures such as bridges, culverts and outfalls, reducing
the ability to function properly, and thus increasing the risk of flooding as
the river channel's ability to hold and convey water is reduced".
"The tidal Great Ouse
River, particularly from the Wash to Earith shows significant sediment
accumulation...regular maintenance to clear accumulated sediment is
Yet the Environment
Agency's approach to the river is inconsistent. Fallen trees, urban debris
and an abundance of reeds are, in addition to the sediment, causing severe
blockages in some main river channels. This regularly leads to local flooding
and can significantly heighten the likelihood of a major flood incident. As
the Minister will know, all landowners are required to pay a general drainage
charge to the Environment Agency, and in return, it maintains some stretches
on their behalf. However, in other areas, it insists that the responsibility
fall to the landowners themselves. There seems no rhyme or reason why some
areas receive preferential treatment. However, the Environment Agency is
clear on one point. It states emphatically that dredging is inappropriate
of the river may reoccur during or within a short time of completing any
To my constituents,
such an argument seems absurd. If the level of silt deposits is so great,
that surely strengthens, rather than weakens, the argument in favour of
During the period
before the Environment Agency's assuming responsibility for the river, a
dredging programme was in place. At one stage, some 15 to18 drag lines were
in constant operation. Since the agency took charge, these operations have
ceased. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that since that time, the severity
of flooding in the Welney wash has, as I said earlier, increased enormously.
If silt is preventing one part of the system from working properly, does that
not place excessive strain on other sections?
I emphasise that we
in South-West Norfolk are not looking to blight other communities downstream.
What we are calling on the Government to do is to recognise that the
bottleneck at Welney is just a few miles short of the sea, and we want them
to find ways of moving the floodwater that few miles extra to the coast.
Perhaps the most
difficult aspect of this debate is that although a great deal of money has
been spent protecting areas along the River Ouse in Cambridgeshire and
Bedfordshire from flooding, no money is being spent on protecting much of the
section in Norfolk. Why do the Government find it acceptable to take steps to
alleviate the problem of flooding in Bedfordshire, but abandon the people of
Welney to cope with the consequences? To them, it seems inevitable that the
bottleneck around Welmore, aggravated by the huge silt deposits, could
dramatically increase the severity of any future floods. Local people also
think that it increases the likelihood of a breach in the tidal floodbank,
the consequence of which could be catastrophic.
The question is: how
can the Government appear to put a higher value on the lives of people
further upstream than on those further downstream in my constituency, in
terms of money going into flood alleviation projects? Once again, the people
of Norfolk find themselves at the wrong end of the Government's priority
list. [Interruption.] I note that the Minister is laughing at that comment,
but for the people who live with this problem daily, it is no laughing
matter. Residents and parish and district councillors are gravely concerned
that if the current trend continues, lives will be lost and homes made
uninhabitable. The lack of adequate flood warning has on several occasions
endangered livestock, as well. Given the speed with which the waters rise, if
no action is taken it will be only a matter of time before a tragedy occurs.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the local flood
embankments and the tidal floodbank can cope with the predicted future
increases in floodwater levels? What assessment has been made of the need for
an early warning system?
Agency claims that dredging would have significant environmental
consequences. Surely significant environmental damage will occur if no action
The wetlands have
deteriorated drastically over the past three decades, owing to excessive
flooding because the Environment Agency has failed to maintain the rivers.
That poses a grave threat to plant and animal species in Welney wash. Having
destroyed the existing area through the neglect I have just mentioned, the
Government propose spending £15 million to create new wetland. Is not that
another short-term and short-sighted fix that ignores the greater long-term
problem? The proposal starkly demonstrates the fact that the Government are
simply turning their back on the problem. Will they search for a new site
each time the old one becomes unviable?
The draft management
conservation value cannot be allowed to decline any further."
Clearly doing nothing
is not an option, nor is simply abandoning the current wetland. Instead of
spending the money on new wetland, the Government would, without doubt,
achieve more by spending it on addressing the problems in the current wetland
area. More than a decade ago, it was assessed that the cost of dredging a new
central channel along the most severely affected eight miles of the tidal
river would be approximately £300,000 and that the work would take eight
days. That would have enabled the river to flow more freely and assisted the
natural process of clearing the remaining silt, so I urge the Government to
reconsider that option.
The issue of
paramount concern to my constituents in Welney is the state of the A1101. In
recent years local roads such as the A141 and A10 have been upgraded. Work
has even been carried out on the bridges at either end of the wash road, yet
the A1101 has remained almost untouched. The residents and the parish council
would like the road access across the wash raised so that it is passable. I
hope there is an engineering solution that can overcome the subsoil problems,
but if not, what other solution can the Government offer local residents?
What assessment have the Government made of the cost of such modifications?
The alternative would
be to build an entirely new road with culverts, which would be difficult and
more expensive given the protected nature of much of the area, but of course
if the Government were able to support such a scheme local people would
welcome it. In either case, neither Norfolk county council nor the East of
England regional assembly is in a position to foot the bill, nor should they
have to do so. Our armed forces do a magnificent job swiftly laying floating
roadways across rivers in war zones and areas of conflict and disaster, so
why is that solution entirely beyond the Government's capabilities on home
soil when there are problems such as those in the fens?
My constituents feel
excluded and frustrated by the apparent lack of interest in their
predicament. They feel desperately let down by the Government and are
extremely frightened for the future. The current consultation is a case in
point. It took my office two weeks, three phone calls and two e-mails to
track down a copy of the draft catchment flood management plan, which, unlike
those for other rivers, is not on the Environment Agency website. I was sent
the wrong document, told that the most recent document relating to the Great
Ouse was published in 2005 and then sent a summary with no indication of how
to obtain the full document. That does not seem to be the comprehensive
public consultation that such an important issue warrants. I should be
grateful if the Minister could ensure that the document is, at the very
least, made available online.
There have been
sustained problems of neglect, buck-passing and lack of leadership on the
issue. To date, the Government's policy has been entirely passive. A strong
proactive approach is desperately needed. The Government designated the Ouse
washes a statutory flood storage reservoir and in doing so condemned the
people of Welney to annual flooding. The Government therefore have an
obligation to offer a solution to the local community.
I have chosen to
raise the issue in the House of Commons because the Government are ultimately
responsible. I sincerely hope that the Minister will not simply pass the buck
to the Environment Agency, as has happened so many times before, although not
by this Minister but when things were devolved to other organisations. I
remind him, even though he probably does not need reminding, that the agency
was appointed by the Government and is accountable to him and to the
It would also be
unacceptable if the buck were passed to the local authority as an issue of
local priority, as other issues, such as the road infrastructure, have been in Norfolk.
Government legislation is the single cause of the problem and they are
responsible for providing a solution to local people.
The Minister for
Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): I congratulate the hon.
Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on securing this debate and want
to assure him that, as a Government, we take flooding extremely seriously.
Flooding is a traumatic experience that is costly in material terms and in
disruption to people's lives and also psychologically in terms of stress and
In recent years, we
have made a great deal of progress in improving our management of flood risk
and in understanding and taking into account the possible future impacts of
climate change. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live
in areas at risk of flooding with assets totalling some£250 billion, and the
probability of flooding is likely to increase as a result of climate change
and sea level rises.
The Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall policy responsibility for
flood risk management in England. We work in close partnership with the
Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing
these risks. Measures to manage the risk include the building and maintenance
of defences to reduce the probability of flooding, but go beyond this to
embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding when
it does occur. These include public awareness campaigns, flood warning and
emergency planning, together with seeking to avoid increasing risk through
We are currently
engaged in the most thorough review of flood risk management policy for many
years in the cross-government "Making Space for Water" programme. Among other
things, we are considering responses received to our public consultation on
extending the Environment Agency's role in terms of a strategic overview of
coastal flood and erosion risk. We are funding a number of projects looking
at developing ideas for novel ways to improve the management of flood risk,
including 15 pilot projects to help identify improvements in the area of
integrated urban drainage. We are also aiming to encourage better resilience
and resistance for buildings and emergency infrastructure.
We have increased
funding significantly in recent years and DEFRA will provide £436 million to
the Environment Agency for flood risk management in 2007-08. Notwithstanding
the increased funding since 1997, there will always be the need to prioritise
which proposals should receive funding first, and the operating authorities,
principally the Environment Agency, work with communities to find solutions
to flooding problems, which are then prioritised through an objective system
to make sure that the country gets maximum benefit from our investment. It is
clear that we could spend the agency's budget many times over and it is
important that we have a rigorous system of assessing what the overall
priorities are and what the best benefits will be from the investment that we
make as taxpayers.
To turn to the
specific problem highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, I recognise the
inconvenience that is clearly caused to residents of Welney and others by
closure of the A1101 by floodwater. It might help if I briefly expand on the
context. The Ouse washes, across which the Welney road-the A1101-passes and
where the flooding occurs, is an area specifically set aside for storage of
flood waters. It covers an area of about 2,000 hectares between the banks of
two watercourses and was constructed by the Dutch engineer, Sir Cornelius
Vermuyden, in the 1600s to drain the fens.
The area is a
statutory flood storage reservoir under the Reservoirs Act 1975. It is
designed to reduce the risk of large-scale flooding of the fens and it is
still needed for that purpose. It stores flood water that would otherwise
cause overtopping of river banks and flooding elsewhere. The area receives
water from rivers and tributaries that pass through Buckingham, Milton
Keynes, Newport Pagnell, Bedford, St. Neots and Huntingdon. The washes
transfer flood waters from Earith in the south to Welmore lake in the north,
where the waters are discharged through Welmore sluice into the Great Ouse
tidal river to flow out to sea.
I understand that
flooding of the A1101 depends mainly on the volume of water entering the Ouse
washes at the Earith sluice. Following heavy rainfall, large volumes of water
have to pass from Earith over the washes, including the road, to get to the
outfall into the tidal river at Welmore sluice. The Environment Agency
operates the Earith sluice within parameters that are designed to keep the
sluice operating optimally to avoid flooding elsewhere and that cannot be
overridden except in exceptional circumstances.
I should emphasise
that the flood storage area is working as it was designed to work - that is,
transferring large volumes of water that would otherwise flood homes and land
out to sea. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, the impact of climate change in
the future is likely to increase those peak volumes, as winters become wetter
and storminess increases. There is no practical way to stop the flow of water
across the Ouse washes. It is my understanding that the only practicable way
to reduce the risk of the road flooding would be to elevate the road. That
was one of the solutions that he suggested. I understand that the cost of
doing that would be between £6 million and £7 million, based on 2003
estimates, which would have to be updated. This is clearly a matter for the
local highways authorities in the first instance.
The hon. Gentleman
raised the issue of the sluice operation. The Welmore sluice, which assists
the draining of the washes, was reconstructed for improved operation in 1999
at a cost of some £5 million. With three sets of large gates, it is 50 per
cent. larger than the old sluice. It allows a one-way transfer of water
through gravity discharge from the Ouse washes into the tidal river when the
river is low enough to allow that, while preventing water from flowing in the
opposite direction back into the washes when the river is high.
The problem of the
silting up of the sluice itself is managed by water jets to clear any
build-up, which is then further washed away by the flow of water through the
sluice. There are two drainage pumps at Welmore and provision for additional
temporary pumps. These evacuate lower levels of flood water off the washes in the spring when
gravity discharge is no longer effective. They are not designed to evacuate
large volumes of winter flood water off the washes. Welmore lake sluice is
currently fully operational. It is able effectively to discharge flood water
from the washes down to a level below that of the Welney road-the A1101. That
is, when the inflow of water at Earith ceases, Welmore sluice will
effectively clear the road of flood water.
Agency does not believe that the flooding of Welney road is directly related
to the height of the tidal river caused by the level of silt. The ability of
the Welmore sluice to discharge water is dependent on the low tide level in
the tidal river. In the sense that silt raises the height of the river, it
does reduce the discharge efficiency of the sluice. However, the fact remains
that the water still has to cross the road to get from Earith to Welmore. As
things are now, Welmore is currently able to clear the road once water has
ceased to enter at Earith. So, the solution to the problem works at the
moment and we do not believe that clearing the silt will have a significant
or major impact.
The majority of the
silt deposited in the river comes from the tide as it comes in and out twice
a day. The fact that the outgoing tide is slower than the inward tide causes
silt to be deposited in the channel. The extent to which that happens is
dependent upon natural river flows. Silt is currently raising the level of
the river bed, as a result of low water flows out to sea caused by two very
dry winters and summers. The bed levels are higher than those experienced in
1996-97, which followed another prolonged drought period. However, by
contrast, after the wet winters between 1998 and 2003, river bed levels
reduced by over a metre, which demonstrates the natural silt-clearing effect
of sustained winter flows.
Ian Pearson: I
will come on to the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.
I understand that the
proposal to de-silt to adequate levels would cost in the region of £4 million
to £5 million and would take a number of years to complete. As the Environment
Agency has stated - the hon. Gentleman noted this in his speech - significant
silting of the river could recur in a short time, perhaps even while the
dredging operation was being carried out. The option thus does not seem to be
sustainable. However, as a result of the build-up of silt between Denver and Salters Lode, in an attempt to improve navigation-I stress the word
"navigation"-the Environment Agency plans to plough part of the river in the
next few weeks, which involves disturbing the silt on the river bed to assist
its transport back out to sea. The agency will monitor that work to determine
how effective it is and whether it might have some applicability to improving
the outflow from the Ouse washes.
Agency recognises that silt in the tidal river is a long-term issue that
might be worsened by the impact of climate change. That is why it is
undertaking a study to develop a tidal river strategy, which will consider
options for managing silt in the tidal river over the next 50 years. The
study should report in late 2008.
The hon. Gentleman
talked about the amount spent on increasing flood defences in Norfolk
compared with other counties, such as Bedfordshire. In the past five years,
the Environment Agency has spent in excess of £12 million on improving flood
defences in Norfolk alone. That was significantly more than the amount spent
in Bedfordshire in the same period. The annual spend on the tidal river for
the stretch about which are talking is in the region of £200,000, which is
for asset and structural maintenance work and pumping costs.
Agency has not undertaken a specific assessment of the cost of the Ouse
washes flooding. However, the hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that a
2003 report for Norfolk county council on the viability of improving the
"The actual cost of
disruption is not possible to quantify because of the various and diverse
nature of traffic using the road and the wide spread of alternative route
The hon. Gentleman
asked what assistance the Government could offer to those affected. The
Environment Agency is not considering offering additional assistance to those
affected by the closure of the road, other than by giving advance notice of a
closure and reopening the road as soon as possible. Warnings that the road is
flooding are given as soon as is practicable and whenever water starts to
encroach on the road. The general view is that it would be difficult to
provide earlier notice because the situation is dependent on rainfall, flow
rates, catchment conditions, the discharge capability of the tidal river and
I agree with the hon.
Gentleman about new housing development. It is the view of the Environment
Agency that road flooding would need to be considered as part of the planning
process. Additional development in the area might affect the economic
viability of improvements to the road and the washes, so that would be a
factor to be taken into consideration.
The hon. Gentleman
talked about climate change. Climate change and weather pattern changes are
part of the ongoing tidal river strategy review. Until that review has been
completed, we cannot really provide information about any change to the
frequency and duration of flooding of the Ouse washes and, hence, the A1101.
However, such work is being actively pursued through the tidal study.
I understand that the
hon. Gentleman is meeting the Environment Agency later this week. I am sure
that it will be pleased to discuss the problem in more detail. I thank him
for bringing the matter to the attention to the House. He has rightly raised
this important issue on behalf of his constituents and I wish him all the
best in pursuing it with the Environment Agency.