Extracts from the Floods Debate in the Commons yesterday
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): If we are able to answer one question, it will give us the key to what I believe are the long-term practical solutions to the problems of Somerset and elsewhere. Why did the Somerset levels flood and the Gwent levels not flood?
Having represented part of the Gwent levels continuously as an elected person since 1972, I know them well, and members of my family live in Somerset. The areas are almost identical. They share 2,000 years of history, and their topographies and geographies are identical. The Gwent levels were drained by the Romans, and the sea wall was built by the 20th Augustan legion 2,000 years ago. During that long period, the levels have been treated very much the same. Drainage has been put into both. They have recently shared exactly the same weather—they are only a short distance apart—and exactly the same tides. There is no dredging on either side. So why on earth was there flooding on one side of the Severn estuary and not on the other? I believe that the answer lies in farming techniques.
As has been said, dredging is not a panacea. In 1928 there was a flood here, on this spot. The terraced houses opposite, in Page street and Millbank, were flooded, and people died. That flood was caused by dredging, which was carried out in the lower reaches of the Thames to increase access for ships. Yes, water did flow out more quickly as a result, but it also flowed in more quickly. It was easy for the tide to come in. In the dredged areas, the tide came in and met the water coming down from the hills. If dredging is seen as the answer in Somerset and is proceeded with, the lower reaches of the Parrett will be exposed to the extraordinary characteristics of the Severn, which holds more sediment in suspension than almost any other river in the country.
Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken. The River Parrett is tidal for 18.3 miles of its length from the Severn estuary. It is precisely because of the tidal surge from the Parrett that we cannot move the water away from the Mendips, the Quantocks and the other hills. That is not comparable to the situation in the Gwent levels, where the topography is different.
Paul Flynn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, on the characteristics of the Severn we know that on both sides of the river we have the second highest rising and falling tides in the world, but the issue is the amount of sediment because of the length of the river. In the Severn estuary and on the beaches, sometimes the rocks are clean and nothing has been deposited, but on another tide 1 foot of mud may be deposited there. Given the 18 tidal miles of the Parrett, it will be easy for the sediment to come in. However, the sediment is not just coming in from the tidal reaches of the river; it is also coming down from the hills. That is key. Dredging would create an open door to allow the sediment to move in from the Severn in greater quantities, as it did with the Thames in 1928.
What is the difference between the two areas? The difference lies in the Quantocks, the Mendips, around the Welsh hills and the Wentwood. There is a difference in farming in the two areas. That is made clear in a report in Soil Use and Management. It contained a warning, six weeks before the floods moved into Somerset, that a disaster was brewing. It said that surface water run-off in the south-west of England, where the Somerset levels are, was reaching a critical point—it said that six weeks beforehand. It added that on 30% of the land that researchers investigated, instead of percolating into the ground the water was pouring off the fields.
One of the main reasons was the increase in the growth of maize. There are other reasons, but when I was first elected the maize grown in this country occupied 1,400 acres. It now occupies 160,000 acres. What are the characteristics of that? It breaks up the soil and allows the water to run off. Maize is being grown in Britain not for food for humans but for animal food and biodiesel. One could ask whether, in trying to solve the climate change problem in that direction, we are creating a bigger problem in the other.
There was another warning—a clear warning—in 2005, when a Government report published a devastating catalogue of the impact of the changes in land use. As well as warning of the loss of fertility from the land and the poisoning of water courses, it said that
“increased run-off and sediment deposition can also increase flood hazard in rivers”.
That point was made in 2005. That Government paper urged:
“Wherever possible, avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas.”
The Government of the time—this is crucial—made it a condition of receiving some £3 billion in subsidies that farmers took action against that. The Government argued that ground cover crops should be sown, as a condition of receiving the subsidies, under maize and the land should be ploughed, then resown with winter cover plants within 10 days of harvesting to prevent water from sheeting off. Why is that not happening in Somerset? The reason is that the current Government have dropped that condition. That is one of the main causes of the extent of the floods. They issued a specific exemption for maize cultivation from soil conservation measures. We are now in the position of looking for instant solutions. Dredging is the cry. It has some effect but it can be deleterious as well.
We have thrown money at the problem, which most people are asking for. That will help, but in the town that I represent, there were regular floods 20 or 30 years ago. Now there are areas where fields are designed to flood and to take the excess water, and they have not been flooded for decades. There are plans. If we go ahead with some of the instant solutions being suggested in Somerset, we will decrease the flood threat to farmlands but we will greatly increase the threat to urban areas. One field flooded is far less damaging than having 100 houses flooded. We have to look realistically at the changes that are taking place. Of course the weather was thoroughly exceptional, but there are whole areas of Somerset that have been flooding for centuries. The “ey” suffix on the names of many of the villages there means “island”, and historically they were islands—little mounds standing up among the flat areas.
I welcome the reasonable way in which the Secretary of State has put his case today. We are now looking for long-term solutions. We are not looking for solutions that merely address the immediate political problems; we need solutions that will last for decades and that will take into account the changes in farming on our hillsides. The land there is no longer retaining the water and allowing it to percolate through slowly; the water is now rushing rapidly down and causing these freak flooding incidents. Thank goodness we have also come back to the realisation of the seriousness of global warming, which the motion also mentions. For so long, we have heard Conservative Members saying that it is not serious. It is, and we must act against it.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab):
... The issue I turn to now is one that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn): the importance of not only putting in place these big £7 million concrete defences but looking at softer, more sustainable ways to improve flood defences. I point to an excellent recent article by George Monbiot in The Guardian. There is huffing and puffing in the Chamber, but he made many excellent points, and I flushed out the issues that he addressed with about 20 parliamentary questions. I will come on to some of the answers in a moment.
In the article, Monbiot referred to Pontbren in Wales, where farmers have engaged in linear contour planting of trees, to provide some shade and shelter for their sheep. What they noticed, after they had provided that shelter, is that flooding in the flood plain was down by 29%. Planting trees on just 5% of the hillside led to a 29% reduction in flooding in the flood plain; even if trees were planted on 100% of the hillside, there would only be a 50% reduction in flooding. We need specific targeted measures for such linear contour planting in the catchment areas of our big rivers, and even our little rivers. It would be a sound investment. A line of trees that has been planted is 67 times more effective in getting rainwater into the ground than grass alone.
The funding is there. The funding for the common agricultural policy needs to be looked at. We need to be a strong voice in Europe, arguing that CAP funding can be used for afforestation in upland areas. We are creaming off 10% in England for this purpose, and we should be allowed to use that money to say to farmers and relevant bodies, “Plant these trees in these catchment areas and stop this water coming down and wrecking lives and households.”
This is not just a Welsh Government issue.
I have had meetings with Alun Davies, the Welsh Minister with responsibility for flooding, and I was really pleased with his response. I would like to have a meeting with the Minister, who has responsibility for flooding, and I hope that he will say yes in his winding-up speech to such a meeting. No assessment has been made by his Department of the impact that afforestation has on flooding. The Department for International Development is sending experts out to Nepal to tell people there how to deal with flooding, but it is not sending its advisers 500 yards down the road to DEFRA to tell the officials there how to do it.
This is a serious issue. It has big effects for seaside towns, because the water that is percolating through the Welsh hills is pure and when it ends up on the coast it is not infected with sheep faeces or whatever, and we get clear readings for our mandatory bathing water standards. It is a win-win situation.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I start by concurring with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He was entirely right when he drew a comparison between his constituency and what was happening in Somerset. As I think the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) acknowledged, to some extent farming practices are responsible for the extent of the flooding we have seen. In addition, however, the Government’s own ideological obsession with deregulation is responsible, and I will tell the House why. As hon. Members may know, maize cultivation is now a significant feature of the British countryside in many areas, and it is used for animal feed and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West pointed out—for biofuel.
The problem with maize cultivation, however, is that it has a significant impact on land’s capacity to hold water. When Labour was in office we recognised that, and back in the mid-2000s, I think, we implemented soil conservation measures to take account of that, linking subsidies to farmers to that sort of conservation necessity. When this Government came to power, with their obsession with deregulation, they specifically exempted maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures. That seems absolutely crazy. That crop causes the most floods and does the most damage, yet it is completely unregulated—it is a crazy example of barmy deregulation.’