Fabian speaks in Flood Risk Management Debate

Speech prepared by Fabian for delivery in the Westminster Hall Debate on Flood Defences - Wednesday 9th April 2011

On December 17th 2008, I asked the then Environment Secretary, my Rt Hon Friend the member for Leeds Central, a question about his proposed trial areas for surface water management in Leeds after he had made a statement to the House on the subject.

My question was about an area of my constituency in the Roundhay Ward called the Wellhouses - a series of residential streets through the middle of which runs Gledhow Beck. I had been approached by local residents who were concerned that they had responsibility for maintaining the banks of the beck which frequently overflows during periods of heavy rain and is exacerbated by the excessive outflows of water from the balancing lake in Roundhay Park. As always, my Rt Hon friend was courteous and helpful in his reply and promised to let me know whether Gledhow Beck would come under his plans to transfer surface water management to local authorities like Leeds - one of his trial area - in 2011.

The whole issue of surface water management may appear to many to be rather "dry" and uninteresting ... until you get your home flooded by exceptional rainfall or overflowing balancing lakes. That's why I took up the issue which affected residents of the Wellhouses, because I was shown first-hand the appalling damage which could be done in an instant to the homes of those I am privileged to represent. Most people never give a moment's thought the merest possibility of their homes being flooded, until it happens.

It's true that many parts of the hilly city of Leeds will never be in danger of flooding. Where I am fortunate to live in Pudsey, to the west of the city, between Leeds and Bradford, we are more than 650 feel above sea level and so can be complacent. However, much of Leeds is built around the River Aire and is therefore susceptible to flooding. On 15th June 2007, the city centre of Leeds came very close indeed to being overwhelmed by water after days of appalling weather when a whole month's rainfall fell during just one 24 hour period. Many city centre roads were under water and the city almost came to a juddering squelchy halt.

On 27th June 2007, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported that more than 6cm of rain had fallen during the previous nine hours: "... causing millions of pounds worth of damage to flooded homes, schools and businesses. "Dozens of trains were cancelled and roads were gridlocked as the city tried to cope with the torrential downpour, the heaviest on a single day for 50 years." Suzanne McTaggart's report of 28th June added: "The latest stormy weather comes after heavy rain hit Leeds just over a week ago, when rivers threatened to burst their banks and roads became waterways. "Many areas saw six weeks worth of rain in just 24 hours yesterday, [Tuesday], making this the wettest June ever - and possibly the wettest month since Met Office records began in 1882."

On its very good website, the Environment Agency says of its proposed Leeds (River Aire) Flood Alleviation Scheme: "Leeds has suffered from localised flooding in recent years which caused significant disruption to local residents, businesses and commuters. However, these floods were relatively small and there is always the risk of a much larger flood."

The Environment Agency's latest briefing on the Leeds Scheme tells us that it is now working closely with Leeds City Council to come up with an affordable scheme. It estimates that the current comprehensive scheme would cost around £190 million by building raised defences on the river Aire, thus directly protecting 255 residential and 495 commercial properties and indirectly helping to avoid flooding in 3,800 residential and commercial properties. It suggests that if the city of Leeds were to be inundated by flood water, the cost of the damage would total around at least £480 million. DEFRA has asked the Environment Agency to continue working with Leeds City Council to either secure alternative sources o funding or to find ways to reduce the costs of the project, but initial indications from DEFRA show that in 2011-12 there will not be sufficient funding available to proceed to detailed design.

I intend no disrespect to my good friends who represent the great Yorkshire cities of Hull, Bradford or Sheffield - or to the wonderful people of those cities - when I say that Leeds is without doubt the engine of the whole regional economy of Yorkshire. Whilst, like every other city in the UK (with the possible exception of London), Leeds has been badly hit by the economic downturn, it still draws in tens of thousands of commuters every day to work in the many businesses, legal practices and financial institutions which operate from Leeds City Centre. Leeds is still the largest financial centre in England outside London. So imagine what would happen if the "relatively small" floods which occurred in 2007 were to become, as the Environment Agency fears, a much larger flood, swamping the centre of Leeds, its wealth-generating businesses and its newly built apartments and homes.

But the expenditure of a relatively small amount of money now could help to prevent a catastrophe in the future. With climate change making rainfall in these islands ever more unpredictable, sooner or later the River Aire will burst its banks and drown our city. Not only will thousands of homes be affected but millions, if not billions of pounds worth of business activity will be halted and thousands of hard-working citizens will have their jobs, or their lives ruined. And all for the want of flood defences which could have been built, but were cut by the government because the deficit simply had to be repaid in four years, not five or six, or even seven ...

In the summer of 2009 I was approached by the residents of Valley Terrace, an area of housing just off the Leeds outer Ring Road in Roundhay. They were upset that a woodland area between their homes and the noisy, busy, dual carriageway Ring Road was to be destroyed and built upon by developers. Some may accuse these constituents of being no more than NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), not wanting any further development now that they had their homes in a lovely area. However, I supported them not least because their crucial point was the ability of the trees in this small area of woodland to soak up rainwater thus preventing flooding in the homes further down from the woods. My point is that increasingly planning authorities are allowing woodland to be built over and more homes to be built with no regard to the excessive surface water drainage problems which might occur as a result. Planning permission was refused on this occasion. Which brings me back to the Wellhouses. In June 2008, a not very entertaining, but very important report was published entitled "The West Garforth DEFRA Integrated Urban Drainage Pilot Study"

Amongst its many conclusions was this:

"The report shows that, as soon as serious resources are made available for investigating flooding problems and inspecting the condition of culverted watercourses, then opportunities for relatively modest actions become apparent that can have a significant beneficial impact."

I am very grateful to the Environment Agency, the Leader of Leeds City Council, Keith Wakefield, the Leeds Chamber of Commerce and my friend and constituent, Chris Say, for all their help in getting me the information, facts and figures on which I have based my contribution this afternoon.

This is such an important issue for every resident of Leeds and has an impact on a much wider population, that I hope the government is listening and will make our flood defences a priority at a time when money is in short supply. The futures of so many - and the economy of a whole region are depending upon it.