We can learn from flood experience

Morpeth river levels rose, but defences held in the town.
Morpeth river levels rose, but defences held in the town.

This winter saw unprecedented levels of rain fall across the north of England.

The wettest December for a century, for some the wettest in history, saw months worth of rain teem down in a matter of days, or, as on December 5, in just one day. January has seen no let up. The challenge has been quite extraordinary, but so must be our response.

We will need a local response, with local knowledge, taken from local experience, to shape our future.

The response of the emergency services has been unparalleled. I want to put on record my thanks to the police, fire and rescue services, as I know all communities do. We should also pay tribute to the Army, both locally from Albermarle Barracks, and nationally, which has been part of an enormous effort.

The response from staff from Northumberland County Council has been massively to their credit. The Environment Agency staff worked tirelessly to advise and respond to the challenges. Locally, the individual acts of heroism and compassion are too numerous to name.

Schools, roads and railways have all been affected, and agencies are working hard to get our public services up and running again.

It is important not to get lost in a technocratic debate about numbers. I want to stress the importance of understanding and compassion; this episode is really about the struggles and horrors experienced in households, many of whom I met. Our ability to listen to those households and businesses will be central to our ability to go forward.

We will need a local response, with local knowledge, taken from local experience, to shape our future.

This kind of learning is a continuous process, but one where there have been encouraging signs of progress.

Morpeth residents need little reminder of the floods that inundated more than 1,000 homes in 2008, and revisited in 2012. This time, the £26million flood defence scheme has provided a much better standard of protection. Some roads flooded, but the barriers were able to hold back floodwater and limit damage. The project, which can store up to 1.4 million cubic metres of water, is one of the largest of its kind. The success of the scheme, as stated by the Environment Agency, is down to the way it has been developed in collaboration with others.

This Government has a strong record of flood defence spending. Over the last Parliament we spent £1.7billion in capital spending; a real-terms increase on the £1.5billion spent between 2005 and 2010. Our next six-year programme is £2.3billion. It is the first time a Government has laid out a six-year programme so that we commit to a long-term, co-ordinated programme that helps to protect our country better.

In terms of flood repair funding, the Floods Recovery Minister James Wharton has been clear that Northumberland County Council will get a fair settlement. Areas affected by Storms Desmond and Eva will get the same level of support. Northumberland can apply to have 100 per cent of its eligible costs above threshold from the immediate response reimbursed. This is part of a package of support of more than £200million for flood-affected areas. Any deal that Cumbria and Yorkshire get will also apply to Northumberland.

There are other Government schemes to help repair homes, enable businesses to reopen and help farmers repair their land.

There is much we can learn about how we can prepare for such an emergency, and that process is ongoing. There is a multitude of different ways in which we need to plan for the future. There are some larger issues and some highly local responses that matter. It might be about better or different flood defences, localised floodgates, the clearing of trees or blockages, or better upland storage. We need to look at what we are doing with forestry, and peatland restoration. We need a management plan, and a better understanding of reservoirs.

Crucially, we need to understand that some schemes take 25 or 50 years to succeed, but that they should be undertaken nevertheless, and we need to start that 25-year planning now.

The total removal of the risk of flooding is unlikely. We as humans cannot engineer nature out of all its potential eventualities. However, projects such as the Morpeth flood defences demonstrate what we can achieve when we put local knowledge and expertise into practice. That is how we must learn, and how we must move forward.