Parliament 15th January 2016

Flood concerns inundate Liz Truss on her return from the Oxford Conference, Catherine Paice reports

The suited, booted and tweeded, to their surprise, found themselves warming to a relaxed and disarming Shadow DEFRA Secretary of State, Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) in Oxford. With her frank replies, refusal to take umbrage at vegan slights or farmer challenges, apparent understanding and convincing show of interest in the industry, she outshone her Cabinet counterpart.

Liz Truss (Con, South-West Norfolk) was more in control of her brief than last year, but still looked as if she’d rather be thrown to the lions in the House than brave another day in Oxford’s Examination Schools. There was little reaction as she promised DEFRA would invest 12% more capital this Parliament to upgrade its animal/plant disease and flood response, while making efficiency savings of 15%. Slight bemusement at the pledge to allow farmers to clear out 1.5km lengths of their watercourses gave way to greater interest in her promise to protect over a million acres of prime farmland threatened by flooding by 2021.

Back in Parliament, she was faced for the second consecutive day by a deluge of furious debate on floods and funding, involving almost 30 bankbench contributions and relentless heckling and interruptions. Ms McCarthy threw down the first gauntlet – were it not for the “panicked reaction” to the Somerset floods, total funding would have fallen 10% during the previous Parliament, she said. “The damage has been huge, with an estimate by KPMG of £5.8 billion across the UK, while for the North of England, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests it could breach £1.5bn,” said Greg Mulholland (Lib Dem, Leeds North-West).

Graham Stuart (Con, Beverley and Holderness) wondered if an alternative solution was called for. “The pressure for flood defence goes away when there’s not been flooding for a while and there’s competition with schools and hospitals for funding,” he said. “Is it not time for a radical change so that instead of fighting the Treasury for funding we put it on water bills or some other form of levy, as Dieter Helm suggested in the paper [Flood defence: time for a radical rethink] he produced this week?”

Andrew Gwynne (Lab, Denton & Reddish), echoed by many others, pointed to the value of flood plains and warned they were being taken out of the Green Belt for development. Neil Parish (Con, Tiverton and Honiton and chairman of the EFRA committee) pointed to the need for a fundamental review on floods, as they are occurring more often.

Summing up, after Ms Truss had promised a major review this summer, floods minister Rory Stewart (Con, Penrith & The Border) called for decisive action and a cross-party, cross-interest, expert-backed plan for the future.

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