Oral Question: Labour Flood Preparation Failures

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Kerry McCarthy: I want to make some progress now so that Back Benchers who want to speak about what happened in their constituencies will be able to do so.

Last week, the Environment Secretary agreed with me about the extreme weather patterns and the link with climate change. The Government have conceded that the risks might have been underestimated, yet it has now emerged that they are not even using the most up-to-date information. I hope that the Environment Secretary will be able to tell us why the Environment
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Agency’s flood risk guidance, published in 2013, is based on forecasts from 2006—despite new research in 2011 indicating that river flows could be much greater due to climate change. Flood defence plans are modelled on the medium climate scenarios rather than the high climate change pathway.

Perhaps the Government want to ignore the high emission scenarios because that would mean spending £300 million more, but the costs associated with ignoring the evidence are potentially so much greater. The national security risk assessment cites flood risk to the UK as a tier 1 priority risk, alongside terrorism and cyberattacks. By focusing on the more optimistic projections, the Government are wilfully neglecting their responsibilities on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

As the rest of the work acknowledged this weekend, simply ignoring climate change will not make it go away, yet for two years the UK was hampered by having a climate change denier as Environment Secretary. It is even rumoured that he sought to replace the words “climate change” with the word “weather” in every single DEFRA document, and that he had to have it explained to him that they were not quite the same thing. What is certainly true is that under his stewardship spending on climate change adaptation halved, even after DEFRA’s climate change staffing had dropped from 38 to six people.

Thankfully, the current Environment Secretary is less hostile on this issue, although perhaps not very interested until now, and she will have our full support if her adaptation policies are guided by the scientific evidence and by expert advice. As such, we look forward to hearing more details on the national flood resilience review. I welcome the confirmation that the Cumbrian floods partnership will be looking at upstream options, and I hope these will be included in the resilience review.

A focus on the role of the natural environment in reducing flood risk is, unfortunately, long overdue. I see in his place the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). His constituency was badly affected, and he did a huge amount of work on the ground in Cumbria over the past few weeks, so I am sure he has very much taken that point on board.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Talking of national resilience, does the hon. Lady think it was a failure of the last Labour Government not to have done exactly the same in 2005? In Carlisle, for example, we have a sub-station in a floodplain area that was flooded in 2005. Fortunately, due to the hard work of the emergency services, it was not flooded in 2015, but should it not have been looked at after 2005 with a view to possibly moving it?

Kerry McCarthy: We commissioned the Pitt review. The hon. Gentleman mentions the work of the emergency services, and I would like to take the opportunity to say that when I was in Cumbria I met the Fire Brigades Union and Mountain Rescue, which have done fantastic work. There are calls for the fire brigade’s response to flood risk to be put on a statutory footing, rather than just an add-on to its other duties. Mountain rescue teams do wonderful work based on the voluntary contributions and the work of volunteers. I hope that that will be looked at as part of the review.

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