David Davis’ speech in Parliament on Humber flood defences


As published in the Yorkshire Post:
David Davis: Tidal surge was timely warning to be prepared

ON December 5 last year, news around the world was dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela. It almost totally eclipsed one of the most serious tidal flooding events to hit the United Kingdom for more than half a century.

The tidal surge that hit the East Coast of England that night was devastating. The floodwater overtopped more than 40km of flood defences, and the Hull tidal barrier was inches away from being defeated. Although that did not happen, more than 1,100 properties in the area were flooded, which was still a miserable consequence for the families and businesses involved.

The event was devastating, with the highest water levels ever recorded in the Humber, and we were fortunate that no one was seriously hurt or killed. When there was a similar but lesser tidal surge in 1953, more than 300 people in the east of England died.

The danger is real. We have had serious flooding in the region twice in less than a decade – in 2007 and 2013 – with other serious localised flooding in 2011. The Humber represents the second highest flood risk in the country, behind only the Thames estuary.

The national risk register considers tidal flood, which is what we face, to be second in severity only to an influenza pandemic. That is the scale of the threat facing the region.

The economic case for action is clear. Local authorities have worked incredibly well together on the matter, completely ignoring party, regional or geographic differences.

Using the Treasury guidelines for such calculations, they have identified £32bn of potential damage.

The Humber is vital to the UK power industry, and the pressure put on the UK power network by a major flood event of the type that is predicted to occur in the next 50 years would be colossal.

In addition, 28 per cent of the UK’s oil refining capacity is situated in the Humber flood plain, and the loss of such capacity could not be made up by shifting demand to other plants.

Oil and gas terminals in the region process 30 per cent of the country’s gas demands.

That all makes the Humber a national strategic asset, and rising sea levels mean that the next flood risk to that asset is not something that just might happen. In the next 50 years, if we do not enhance our defences, there will be a costly and probably fatal catastrophe.

It is past time for action to be taken to deal with the flood risk. By comparison, London is protected from events on a one-in-1,000-year basis.

To achieve that, the Thames flood barrier was built between 1974 and 1982 at a cost of about £534m, with an additional £100m of investment around it to make it work. In today’s money, that would be equivalent to more than £3bn.

What we are discussing would cost a lot of money. For the Humber, we are talking about £888m, but the people of the East Riding, north Lincolnshire and Hull will rightly ask questions if the Government do not take action to improve the region’s defences.

Once it is understood that the Humber represents a national strategic asset, it becomes clear that any system of flood defences must address all risk across the entire estuary.

We cannot ring-fence the major population centres of Hull, Grimsby or Scunthorpe; we must deal with the problem as a single entity.

Much of that consensus has already been achieved: the agencies, local government, the local enterprise partnership and Members of Parliament have all acted completely without attention to narrow self-interest and with serious concern about the overall interest.

In the next 50 years it is highly likely that we will see a tidal surge event similar in magnitude to the one we experienced last winter, but worse in consequence. There could be a serious threat to life and more than £32bn of economic impact. It is not a doomsday event with an outside chance of happening; it is likely to happen at some point in the next half century.

We were lucky to escape that outcome last year. If we do not act by implementing the Humber flood risk strategy, there is a serious risk of such a catastrophe being repeated.

Governments of all colours – Tory, Labour, coalition or whatever – find it difficult to take more than a five-year view, for obvious reasons; when it comes to flood defences, it is necessary to take at least a 50-year view, if not a multi-century one.

We must start work on a programme that will take at least 10 years to complete. Yes, the numbers are enormous, but the cost of doing nothing would be far greater in the long run.

On December 5, 2013, we were given a timely warning – one might say God-given – of the consequences of inaction. We would do well to pay attention to it.

David Davis is the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden who led a Parliamentary debate on a flood-risk strategy for the Humber. This is an edited version.