Prime Minister’s Questions – Floods

Jeremy Corbyn: I would like to thank the firefighters, mountain rescue services, police, armed services, engineers, workers at the Environment Agency, local government workers, and all the volunteers for all the work they did in keeping safe thousands of people from the floods that have affected this country. Two years ago, in January 2014, following devastating floods, the Prime Minister said:

“There are always lessons to be learned and I will make sure they are learned.”

Were they?

The Prime Minister: First, let me join the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the emergency services, the police, and the fire service. I also thank the search and rescue teams who went from around the country to areas that were flooded. May I thank the military for all the work that they did? As he says, what we saw was communities coming together and volunteers carrying out extraordinary work.

Let me deal directly with the issue of lessons learned. Having seen my own constituency very badly flooded in 2007 and having had floods while being Prime Minister, a number of lessons have been learned. This time, the military came in far faster than ever before. The Bellwin scheme was funded at 100%, not 85%, and more money was got to communities more quickly. A lot of lessons have been learned. Are there more to learn? I am sure there are; there always are, which is why I will review everything that has been done. Let us be clear that, as we do that, we will make money available because we have a strong economy to build flood resilience in our country.

Jeremy Corbyn: In 2011, a £190 million flood defence project on the River Aire in Leeds was cancelled by the Government on cost grounds. One thousand homes and businesses in Leeds were flooded in recent weeks, and the Government are still committed only to a scaled-down version of the project, worth a fraction of its total cost. This from a Prime Minister who claimed that “money was no object” when it came to flood relief. When he or his Secretary of State meets the Leeds MPs and Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, in the near future, will he guarantee that the full scheme will go ahead to protect Leeds from future flooding?

The Prime Minister: First of all, let me make one point before answering the right hon. Gentleman’s points in detail. It is worth putting on record before we get on to flood defence investment—and I will cover it in full—that this was the wettest December for over 100 years, and actually in Leeds and in Yorkshire it was the wettest December ever on record. That is why rivers in Yorkshire flooded, including the Aire in Leeds, which was a metre higher than it has ever been in its history.

No flood defence schemes have been cancelled since 2010. The investment in flood defences was £1.5 billion in the last Labour Government, £1.7 billion in the Government I led as a coalition Government, and will be over £2 billion in this Parliament. It has gone up and up and up. It has gone up because we run an economy where we are able to invest in the things that our country needs. And one more point—let us not forget this. We inherited the Darling plan for our economy. That was a plan for a 50% cut in capital spending, and DEFRA was not a protected Department. We protected that flood spending and we increased it—something Labour would not have done.

Jeremy Corbyn: Of course the rainfall was excessive, of course the river levels were high, but the Prime Minister has still not answered the question on the Leeds flood protection scheme—I will give him an opportunity to do so in a moment. In 2014, Cumbria County Council applied for funding for new schemes in Keswick and Kendal—both were turned down and both areas flooded again in the last few weeks. Does the Prime Minister believe that turning down those schemes was also a mistake?

The Prime Minister: We are spending more on flood defence schemes and stacking up a whole series of schemes that we will spend more on. Let me make this point to the right hon. Gentleman: if he is going to spend £10 billion on renationalising our railways, where is he going to find the money for flood defences? The idea that this individual would be faster in responding to floods when it takes him three days to carry out a reshuffle is frankly laughable. Since I walked into the Chamber this morning, his shadow Foreign Minister resigned and his shadow Defence Minister resigned—he could not run anything.

Jeremy Corbyn: It is very strange that when I have asked a question about Leeds flood defence, then on Cumbria flood defence, the Prime Minister still seems unable to answer. Can he now tell us if there is going to be funding for those schemes?

In October, Professor Colin Mellors, the head of the Yorkshire regional flood and coastal committee, warned the Government about funding cuts leading to flood defences in Yorkshire being “formally discontinued” in the future. Would that also be a mistake? Can the Prime Minister now tell us: is he going to reverse the cuts in the defences that have taken place to make sure that those cities and areas are protected in the next round of floods which will no doubt come?

The Prime Minister: As I have told the right hon. Gentleman, we have increased and continued to increase the spending on flood defences. We are spending more in this Parliament, and for the first time it is a six-year spending perspective, which is £2.3 billion extra on flood defences—money that would not be available if we trashed the economy in the way that he proposes. Of course, after every incident of flooding, you go back and look at what you have spent and what you have built, you look at what you are planning to spend and what you are planning to build, and you see what more can be done. The head of the Environment Agency was absolutely clear that he had the money necessary to take the action that was necessary, but we can only do that with a strong economy—an economy that is growing, where more people are in work and more people are paying taxes. We have got the strength to solve this problem of floods, and we will do it in a proper way.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister has not answered on Leeds, he has not answered on Cumbria, and he has not answered on the warning from Professor Mellors.

Like the Prime Minister, last week I met people in York who had been affected by flooding. I met a young couple, Chris and Victoria, whose home had been flooded over Christmas—[Interruption.] It was not very funny for them. This young couple lost many of their possessions, including photos and children’s toys and school work, and they have the foul stench of floodwater in their home, as have many families all over this country. They are asking all of us wholly legitimate questions. Why was the insufficient pump capacity at the Foss barrier—which, again, we were alerted to in 2013 by a Government report—not dealt with or the pumps upgraded? That meant that people in York were flooded and their possessions and homes severely damaged. Those people want answers from all of us, and in particular from the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: I have the greatest sympathy with anyone who has been flooded. We have to do what it takes to get people and communities back on their feet. That is why we have put record sums in more quickly to help communities in Cumbria, in Lancashire and now in Yorkshire. We will continue to do that. Specifically on the question of the Foss pumps, that was about to be tendered for extra investment, and that investment will now go ahead, because the money is there.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are putting in the money and doing so more quickly, and the military got involved more quickly. For that couple who got flooded, we are also doing something that previous Governments have talked about but never achieved, which is to have an insurance scheme—Flood Re—so that every single household can get insured. That has not been done before.

Have lessons been learned? Yes, they have. Are there more lessons to learn? There always are, but frankly we do not need a lecture from Malta from the right hon. Gentleman.

Jeremy Corbyn: The reality is that flood defence scheme after flood defence scheme has been cancelled, postponed or cut, many more homes have been flooded and too many lessons have been ignored. Why cannot the Prime Minister support our calls for a co-ordinated, cross-party approach to flooding that looks at everything, including upland management, making people’s homes more flood resilient, and more properly funded protection schemes?

Does the Prime Minister at least agree that the fire and rescue service, which has done such a great job over the past few weeks in all parts of this country, should now be given a statutory duty to deal with floods, to help us through any crisis that might occur in the future?

The Prime Minister: I think the best I can say is that when the right hon. Gentleman has worked out how to co-ordinate his own party, perhaps he could come and have a word with me.

On the issue of a statutory duty, everybody knows what they have to do when floods take place. That is why there was such a magnificent response from the emergency services, the fire services and the emergency rescue services. They have our backing to do the vital work. We will go on investing in flood defences. We will increase the money we are spending on flood defences, because we have got a strong economy and a strong country that can back the action that is needed.