My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a former board member and regional chairman of the British Insurance Brokers Association and as the current chairman of an insurance organisation.At the outset, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Rotherwick on securing this debate on issues concerning flooding and on his excellent presentation. As a practising insurance broker and underwriter, I see at first hand the misery caused to many of our policyholders by the awful effects of flooding. Flood damage is not something that can be reinstated quickly, as it takes many months for the drying-out process to be completed. It is important that the Government do everything that they can to prevent flooding in the first instance and to support local authorities and victims when flood defences fail.
It is essential that we respond to the problems of future flooding as we face the threat of increasing urbanisation and climate change, which means that the problems will unfortunately get worse. In my opinion, flooding is one of the biggest risks to the United Kingdom. The human suffering, financial loss and interruption to business are devastating, and it is estimated that last summer’s floods cost the country £5 billion, of which £3 billion was absorbed by the insurance industry.
My understanding of the current situation is that no single body is responsible for surface-water flooding, yet this was one of the main causes of the problem in the summer of 2007. I feel that the Government should appoint one single body with the authority to take responsibility for the risk of flooding and to co-ordinate with various stakeholders to ensure that action is taken to protect existing and future properties in the UK. I believe that the Environment Agency should be that body and that it should be empowered appropriately.
Providing the Environment Agency with the authority to exercise an advisory and regulatory role may prove to be the best way forward. As an adviser, the agency should prepare a national high-level, surface-water flood-risk map that local authorities can use as the basis for their own efforts and more detailed analysis. This should include the impact of underground water infrastructure on surface-water flooding.
Regarding the regulatory role, the Environment Agency should ensure that local authorities complete surface-water management plans and provide public feedback on them, including identifying areas for improvement. It is imperative that developers and housebuilders consult the Environment Agency and the insurance industry before building on flood plains. Where developments proceed in areas of high risk, the minimum standards should include in-design features to provide protection against flooding with a focus on minimising the effects. Applying routine national standards is insufficient in high-risk areas.
On planning, the Department for Communities and Local Government’s planning guidance PPS 25 is most welcome. I congratulate Sir Michael Pitt on his excellent interim report, Learning Lessons from the 2007 Floods, and I urge the Government to agree to 72 interim conclusions, many of which can be achieved at little or no cost. I also ask for information about flooding to be made available to members of the public on a wide scale and for the information to include details of flood defences. By doing that, we will provide the opportunity for members of the pubic to be assisted in making informed decisions about flood-prevention measures for their properties, and people will get more involved in the national discussions about flood management. I am, however, pleased that an automated flood-warning system is available free of charge.
In regard to construction, it is very disappointing that, against the advice of the Environment Agency, last year planning permission was granted for 13 major developments in areas of high flooding risk. I should make the point that in order for the insurance industry to continue to cover flood-prone properties, along with buildings in high-risk areas, it is important that the Government act now to provide adequate and continuing funding for flood defences and flood-risk schemes. Without adequate flood protection, the insurance industry will struggle to continue to offer competitive insurance for all. I therefore ask the Minister to inform your Lordships’ House of proposals for the current and future funding of flood defences.
Finally, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the lengths that the insurance industry has gone to in dealing with the large-scale floods of 2007 and the excellent efforts that it has made to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible.