Below is the text of the speech made by Luke Pollard, the Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, in the House of Commons on 24 February 2020.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and welcome him to his role. I have a lot of time for my fellow west country MP. I regard him as decent and competent, and I look forward to working with him. To be fair, this is a much better statement than the one the Government made only a few weeks ago about Storm Ciara, but not enough is being done. Simply explaining what has happened does not stop it happening again.
On behalf of the Opposition, I want to send my condolences to the families who have seen loved ones die as a result of Storms Ciara and Dennis. I would also like to thank the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local councils, volunteers and those who have worked tirelessly to protect homes and businesses, rescue people and animals from rising waters and fallen trees and reinforce flood defences.
It is because I have so much time for the Secretary of State that I am disappointed by the slow and pedestrian approach we have seen from Ministers since the flooding hit. Where was the Prime Minister? Where was he? Why was a Cobra meeting not convened? Why was there no national leadership from this Government? Why have the Welsh Government and communities in Wales not received the same extra support as those in England?
During the general election, the Prime Minister reluctantly visited flood-hit communities to win votes—he was out with his mop, pushing water around shops. But now that he has his majority, he is nowhere to be seen; he is missing in action. He was taking a break in a mansion in Kent instead of giving our nation the leadership that those communities under water genuinely deserve.
We know that the climate crisis means that we will see more extreme weather more often, and the consequences will be felt most by the communities that are most vulnerable. Since Parliament has declared a climate emergency, it is clear that the Government need to do things differently, but they are not yet, and I say to the Environment Secretary that that needs to change. I want the Government to wake up to the reality that more extreme weather will happen more often. It is not a one-off incident—these are not freak accidents. This is the world in which we live, and we need to have a proper plan for flooding that will address the causes and help the communities that are under water.
That plan needs to match the scale of the crisis, with proper funding, reversing austerity cuts and ensuring that funding is available to those areas that suffer the most—a new plan not bound by match funding rules that discriminate against poorer areas compared with more affluent ones. It must look at catchment management; upstream solutions, to ensure that we hold more water upstream; tree planting and hitting tree planting targets; a new role for our farmers and water companies; and banning burning on peatlands. It must resource our emergency services fairly, and importantly, the councils that carry the highest flood risk should be adequately recognised in the local government spending review. In short, we need a plan that recognises the climate crisis, and we must act before it is too late.
We need to move away from building homes on floodplains. Banning building on floodplains makes sense, but it depends on our definition of a floodplain. Most of London is in a floodplain, so let us be clear about the immediate need to ban building on vulnerable floodplains, where rising waters are a genuine risk. Will the Government continue to allow house building on vulnerable floodplains, against the advice of experts? What extra steps will the Government take to listen to the communities that have been devastated by two successive storms? Will the Government allow homes built after 2009—especially those on floodplains—to be covered under the Flood Re reinsurance scheme, since they are not at the moment? We cannot build flood defences with austerity or Government press releases, so by what date will the Government have reversed the austerity cuts to flood defence schemes that Conservative Members so enthusiastically voted for in the past?
I wish the Environment Secretary a very long and prosperous stay in his new job, but I offer him this one piece of advice. Every time homes flood, every time the Prime Minister is missing in action and every time Government press releases outweigh Government action, I will ask him to act. Today, therefore, I ask the Environment Secretary for a new plan for flooding, a new approach to reverse austerity cuts to flood defence schemes, and a proper investigation into these floods, which carries the confidence of communities currently under water, so that lessons can be learned and homes protected from the inevitable flooding that will happen again.