Holly Lynch – 2019 Speech on the Flood Risk to Reservoirs

Below is the text of the speech made by Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, in the House of Commons on 17 July 2019.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to grant the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk; and for connected purposes.

Calderdale—which comprises my Halifax constituency and that of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker)—was devastated by flooding on Boxing day 2015. Storm Eva followed Storm Desmond, and wreaked havoc on parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. My constituency, particularly Sowerby Bridge and Copley, was badly impacted by the floods, with the storm bringing extreme weather events, compounding a prolonged period of heavy rainfall. However, it was the total devastation further down the valley in Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge, with further damage in Elland, Todmorden and Brighouse, that brought Secretaries of State and the national press to Calderdale to see the unprecedented damage for themselves.

The River Calder was described as having become “weaponised” over Boxing day, picking up everything in its path and using it to smash its way through the valley, taking out bridges, roads, homes and businesses. In total, 2,781 residential properties and 1,635 businesses were affected in Calderdale alone. I hope this gives some sense of why flood protection is still a massive priority in our area. Residents are genuinely fearful every time the forecasts suggest that heavy rainfall is on its way. Since the flooding in 2015, many different initiatives have begun to help ensure that that level of destruction cannot be inflicted again. My Bill proposes to add the role of reservoirs to that package of initiatives. We need all these measures to work if we are truly to get a grip of flood risk in Calderdale.

The hard infrastructure work is currently ongoing across the borough, including a major remodelling at the centre of Mytholmroyd, with a new bridge and widened channel. Similar works are scheduled to start shortly in Hebden Bridge, providing that the funding gap can be closed. Natural flood management has also been a significant part of our response, with local organisation Slow the Flow deploying its team of energetic volunteers to such great effect. Since 2016, they have been working with the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Calderdale Council, using the natural environment to build leaky dams across streams, and to stuff deep gullies and channels. This work seeks to spread the water as it makes its way down the valley, to prevent it from coursing rapidly through channels to the valley below—delaying its journey to hold as much water up in the crags as possible. Managing the upper catchment in this way is essential if we are to do all that we can to mitigate flood risk for those in the valleys below.

Also in the upper catchment above Calder valley are six Yorkshire Water reservoirs, and conversations about their role in mitigating flood risk have been under way for some time. The Bill seeks to formalise that process and demonstrate parliamentary support for its aims. In the winter of 2017-18, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency started a trial to manage the Hebden Water reservoirs down to 90% of their usual top storage ​level, with the aim of assessing the potential of utilising the reservoirs as a more long-term flood risk management option. Maintaining the reservoirs at 90%, instead of the usual 100%, created the extra 10% capacity to hold more water in the upper catchment during periods of unusually heavy rainfall.

While the reservoirs were placed under nothing like the pressure of the 2015 Boxing day weather during the trial period, the report was able to conclude that:

“The lower reservoir levels did provide a significant impact on peak flows in Hebden Water for the largest events observed during this period”.

The report proposed that next steps might include trialling 85% capacity, as the levels in the reservoir had been restored faster than expected during periods of rainfall. The report was clear that the scheme had a positive impact on flood mitigation and that this managed and collaborative approach would be complementary to ongoing flood protection work in the area. This approach is not just happening in Calderdale. Similar conversations and trials are under way across the country, including at Thirlmere reservoir in Cumbria, reservoirs in the Upper Don valley and Watergrove reservoir in Rochdale—I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) in the Chamber.

So why do we need legislation to make this happen? There are still challenges that need to be ironed out before water companies have the confidence to commit to these types of scheme more routinely. Currently, the legislation that underpins water companies and the regulation of them has a focus on mitigating drought risk, rather than flood risk. We know that extreme weather will increase in frequency in the years to come, and reservoirs will be key in ensuring resilience within our water infrastructure if we are to manage both drought and flood risk. Right now, we need to give reservoir management of this kind a statutory thumbs-up, explicitly giving the Environment Agency the powers to instruct a water company to manage down the levels on pre-designated reservoirs, where the evidence suggests that doing so would reduce flood risk and protect communities.

To be clear, it would not be a case of drawing those reservoir levels down at speed at the point when we are faced with extreme weather, as that would place dangerous pressures on the watercourses and, if anything, contribute to flood risk. Instead, the Bill would set out a framework for having agreements in place long in advance of that for the EA and water companies to have identified which reservoirs, what capacity level is appropriate and when that reduction would be in place, with the evidence base to support those decisions.

Water companies are currently regulated by Ofwat, and inevitably there is a strong focus on preventing over-abstraction of water sources, particularly in the context of fears that climate change will bring about prolonged periods of hot, dry weather. However, the Environment Agency warned in May that entire communities might need to be moved away from rivers if we are to prepare for a predicted, terrifying average global temperature rise of 4°C. Again, regulation must find the appropriate balance between the two threats of drought and flooding.

The water industry in England and Wales is diverse, and pressures in one area are not the same as those in another, so regulation needs to allow for water companies ​and the EA to respond to the local risks and react accordingly. The Bill would set out the transfer of powers to the EA and the framework in which such arrangements between the EA and water companies, in consultation with local authorities and communities, would work.

For the Bill to be as effective as we would all hope, further considerations might be needed. For all the reasons set out, resilient water infrastructure will ensure that reservoirs can assist in alleviating both drought and flood risk, and increased capacity would only be a good thing. To allow us to respond in real time to changes in our climate that mean we can face both drought risk and flood risk within months of each other, we need a more automated means of doing that. Reservoirs involved in the recent trial required an operator to alter the water levels manually using largely Victorian infrastructure. While the Bill focuses on the powers and framework required, it goes without saying that investment in automation and resilience in water infrastructure would be hugely beneficial.

In an ideal world, the ability to transfer water between reservoirs, and even across the country, would enable the release of excess water to mitigate flood risk, which could be sent elsewhere without wasting a single drop. Yorkshire Water is currently exploring the possibility of directing the water released from its trial reservoirs into its nearby treatment works, which is exactly the approach we would like to see.

With that in mind, I hope it is clear to Members why my Bill is needed and why those of us from flood-affected areas feel so passionately about getting this right. I want to take this opportunity to thank both Adrian Gill at the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water’s Granville Davies, who strive to reduce flood risk every day in the Calder valley and who have been incredibly helpful in engaging in constructive dialogue.

I am not naive about the nature of ten-minute rule Bills, but I hope that the Environment Minister and her team have heard the details of my Bill and will reflect on its merits. I also want to stress that, just because the Bill will not become law tomorrow, it does not mean we are not looking to water companies to undertake this work on our behalf in the meantime. They have my full support and that of many MPs and our communities in doing just that. I commend the Bill to the House.