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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 12, 2024


Flood Management

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-12335, in the name of Willie Rennie, on flood management. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call Willie Rennie to open the debate. You have up to seven minutes, Mr Rennie.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that the changing climate of Scotland has meant that the frequency of severe storms has increased, with more and more areas facing a high risk of flooding; considers that communities like Cupar and Brechin have already been severely impacted by flooding events, with people reportedly forced to evacuate homes and close businesses due to the damage caused; notes the belief that river catchment plans should be developed to guide landowners on the steps that they should take to maintain burns and rivers; further notes the belief that grants should be available to farmers to help with the management of water on land; understands that there is the option of additional Scottish Government funding through the Bellwin scheme, and notes the calls for grants to be made available directly to flooded businesses and householders in weather events beyond those classified as Amber by the Met Office.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Seven-year-old Amelia burst into tears at the bottom of the stairs in her house as the still-unwrapped Christmas presents were swallowed up by the flood. Carol Ann watched her house flood, knowing that there was nothing that she could do to protect it. She lost family pictures, personal effects and her home. Soon-to-be-married Nina had a buyer for her house and was ready to move to a new chapter in her life. Within minutes, however, the Lady burn in Cupar burst its banks and flooded their homes with muddy, stinking water.

Their distress has now turned to fury—fury at all the talk, but no practical action. We have had talk about flood studies, management plans, strategies, capital programmes, planning enforcement, gully examination, attenuation schemes and sustainable drainage system—SUDS—schemes, and the promise of consideration of the possibility of Government grants. If talk could hold back the water, we would never have a flood in Cupar again.

There has been a lot of sympathy, but the residents no longer want sympathy; they know that it is too often used as cover when those in power have nothing else to offer. Instead, when the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy stands up, I want her to announce that the victims of storm Gerrit will get the same amount of grant money as the victims of storm Babet received. Just because the Met Office judged the storm to be yellow instead of amber, that did not stop the floods. For months, I have been told that that suggestion is being seriously considered, but how long does it take to consider a small grants scheme? I say to the cabinet secretary: please give them the money that they deserve without any further delay.

The second action that I seek today is direct support and clear advice for farmers and landowners along the Eden catchment, to slow down the water’s speed of flow upstream and get it away quickly when it gets close to homes and businesses. Some people would call that a catchment plan while others would call it a river basin management plan, but I do not really care what it is called—we need a plan, and it has to be an action plan. Despite all the good evidence about managing catchments, there is no plan and no money, and there is confusing advice and a costly application process if landowners want to do anything.

Will the member take an intervention?

Willie Rennie

Not just now.

Landowners are told by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that removing silt from the river does not really work, but SEPA then says that there is no ban and permission can be granted. It is confusing. There is now a view among farmers and landowners that they would be wasting their time if they applied for permission.

What we now need is some public body, in partnership with locals, to identify the bottlenecks and the opportunities on the Eden and its tributaries, and to secure the necessary permissions so that the farmers can get the work done on their land. That action should be based on the best advice and evidence. We need a comprehensive approach, because there is little point in one farmer getting work done in isolation; the whole river system, from bottom to top, needs to be considered. If, for example, those further up remove silt but those further down do not, the water will have nowhere to go, and it will flood homes again.

Upstream, we need the same urgent proactive assessment of the potential for fields, burns and land to slow down the flow of the water and reduce the loss of valuable topsoil in some locations. The advice needs to be clear. Do trees make a difference? Are buffer strips wide enough? Does organic matter in the soil help? Do swales and reservoirs help? Should certain sections of land be grass only? Which sections should be given up for flood plains? Where could flood storage ponds be located?

The Tweed Forum’s partnership in the Eddleston Water project demonstrates what can be achieved. However, I repeat that the advice to farmers elsewhere is confusing and conflicting, and there is no grant scheme other than for droughts and river bank restoration.

If ministers are honest, they will admit that nothing is getting done in most of the country, so it is all just talk. Today, I do not have my hand out for large and costly flood prevention schemes. Such schemes have their place, but I know that money is tight, and they take years to implement. Instead, I am asking for smaller, faster and relatively inexpensive measures combined with a long-term plan to better manage the watercourses and prevent floods if at all possible. What is required is a plan with relatively modest funding attached.

In the past few months, I have been to a lot of meetings with residents, businesses, farmers, environmentalists, anglers and landowners, and they have all been packed. Although there are anxieties about how the possible clearing of rivers would be done and the impact on fish stocks and biodiversity, there is much common ground. I know that there is a path to getting the catchment working to prevent flooding as far as possible and to have an ecologically healthy river. However, there is nothing proactive planned by the authorities—apart from Fife Council, which has another flood study that will take years, then even longer to decide on action, and then planning, funding and construction. Seven-year-old Amelia will likely be an adult before anything actually gets done.

We are told repeatedly that we are in an emergency—a climate emergency. However, for a flood victim in Cupar, it does not feel like an emergency. It is not just Cupar—there have been floods in Dunshalt, Muchty, Strathmiglo, Kingskettle, Freuchie and many other communities. It has not just happened once, so people in those communities live in constant fear that the water could come again at any time of the day or night. They know that the climate is changing and that there are more extreme weather events taking place, but they expect those who are in power to act and to do everything possible, not to give up on them.

The good news is that Amelia will soon have a little brother or sister. Let us ensure that he or she does not live in fear of floods in years to come.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate Willie Rennie on bringing this debate to the chamber. I also thank Stephanie Callaghan for going all the way back to my office for my card and Parliament staff for providing one in the meantime.

Flooding is an issue with which countries everywhere are grappling. Climate change means that flooding and other natural weather-related events are becoming more frequent, intense and destructive. One need only look at the events of last year: 2023 was the hottest year on record, which profoundly impacted the global water cycle and contributed to severe storms and flooding. The most important example was eastern Libya, which was devastated by storm Daniel. That storm killed more than 5,300 people and also affected Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Egypt.

Last year, across every continent, flooding killed tens of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands and impacted millions. Closer to home, the most severe and disruptive weather event was storm Babet, in which seven lives were tragically lost. Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded, and Brechin in particular was affected after defences were overtopped by the River South Esk. Infrastructure was damaged, farmers lost crops and livestock, and around 30,000 homes in north-east Scotland lost power during the storm.

Unfortunately, we have to prepare for the increasing frequency of such events in years to come. Analysis from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that climate models may

“significantly underestimate how much extreme rainfall increases under global warming—meaning that extreme rainfall could increase”

more rapidly than current models suggest.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has recognised the increased need for investment in flood defences. In the past year, the Scottish ministers invested £61 million in flood defences, in comparison with the £4 million that was allocated in the first devolution budget. Since 2007, the Scottish Government has made a total of £814 million available to local authorities for flood protection schemes and other actions. Indeed, the Scottish Government has invested on average £48 million a year, in comparison with £12 million a year under the previous Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive. Therefore, it is not just “talk”, as Mr Rennie asserted.

Even allowing for inflation, that is almost a tripling of much-needed investment, which has enabled major flood defence schemes to go ahead in my constituency. The upper Garnock valley flood protection scheme is now virtually finished, with only minor remedial and landscaping works to be completed in the spring. The area has a long history of flooding that goes back to the late 19th century. I well recall when the River Garnock burst its banks in 2008. Emergency services from across North Ayrshire were called to the devastated streets. In 2020, a flash flood wrote off my car in Glengarnock, as I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat in 3 feet of water. The £18 million scheme provides mitigation options that have extended flood protection to 600 at-risk properties in Kilbirnie, Glengarnock and Dalry and a number of major businesses.

The £48 million Millport flood protection scheme on the island of Cumbrae began last spring. Work is progressing well on the construction of an offshore breakwater that will create a calm area of water, with completion due this summer. That part of the works is essential to allow a proposed marina on Cumbrae, which is in the Ayrshire growth deal, to be constructed.

Also in Millport will be the Mill burn flood alleviation scheme. That project will be tendered this year and constructed next year, and it will provide protection for up to 124 properties on the island for a one-in-200-years flood event.

Sadly, however, the reality is that it will not be possible to prevent flooding everywhere during extreme storm events. Where prolonged and intense rainfall overwhelms drainage systems, it is vital that there is an appropriately swift response. Given the increasing frequency of flood events, organisations such as Scottish Water need to up their game. With recent casework, I have found that the organisation has responded regrettably slowly in comparison with previous years, and has merely offered a phone number for constituents to call. That is simply not good enough, and it is contrary to the excellent service that was provided just months ago.

We must also do more to raise awareness of flooding risk and increase insurance uptake. In Scotland, the responsibility for protecting property from flooding rests with the owner. It is estimated that 284,000 properties in Scotland are at risk of flooding. That will rise to 394,000 by 2080 as a result of climate change.

Will the member give way?

I am in my last few seconds, I am afraid.

The member is in his last few seconds. Please conclude, Mr Gibson.

Kenneth Gibson

Despite that, more than a quarter of households have no home insurance, and building and contents insurance premiums rose by a whopping 36 per cent last year—that figure will only increase. Those who are most likely not to be covered are the most vulnerable in society, the elderly and people in low-income households. We must look to see how we can protect them, not just their properties.


Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank Willie Rennie for securing time for a debate on such an important topic.

For those flood-hit communities in my region that are struggling to get back on their feet, it feels as though the magnitude of what happened still has not hit Humza Yousaf’s Government. The Scottish Governments ministerial task force met one month after storm Babet wreaked havoc in the north-east. Communities were left in limbo for weeks, but the First Minister still managed to stage a photo op on River Street in Brechin within 48 hours of the storm.

Four months on, the people of Brechin and communities across the north-east are still hurting. The fallout from the flooding is still being felt; repairs are on-going; and homes continue to be uninhabitable. Businesses are trying to make up for lost time. Vital infrastructure has been badly affected, such as Marykirk Bridge in Aberdeenshire, where repairs are due to get under way next month. Following storm Babet, as many as 82 businesses contacted Angus Council looking for help, upwards of 300 properties in Brechin were affected by floodwater and 57 council-owned properties still require significant work before they can be reinstated.

We have recently learned that Angus Council’s interim claim under the Bellwin scheme is £6.9 million, but that is just for immediate emergency response, not the recovery phase. Meanwhile, for many, the grants that are available for residents and businesses have not touched the sides of what is required. Adverse weather events are costly, both financially and emotionally, and they are happening more and more, with a record number of flood alerts issued by SEPA since 1 September 2023.

Since storm Babet, some areas have been hit again by flooding, including cottages in Castleton, which flooded in October and again in December. For residents there and many others whose properties had already been compromised, the problem is not going to stop; it will keep happening again and again. That is why I have engaged proactively with communities throughout the north-east on building resilience since I was first elected in 2021.

Willie Rennie’s motion rightly focuses not just on what has happened but on how better to manage the risk of flooding in future. Information that I received from Angus Council via a freedom of information request has confirmed that no climate change adaptations have been made to Brechin’s flood defence scheme since 2018, when the updated climate projections for the United Kingdom were published. It is all very well having flood protection schemes in place, but maintaining the defences and ensuring that they take account of updated climate change projections is key to protecting our communities.

I will be very interested to see the final output for the Scottish Government’s national adaptation plan later this year, but it is vital that local and national partners work together now to ensure that Scotland is not on the back foot when it comes to flooding. When lives and livelihoods are at risk, good enough will not cut it; we need gold-standard protection to keep our communities safe.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, start by thanking Willie Rennie for securing the debate. This is a very important issue, which has an impact on constituents in our neighbouring regions. Severe weather events are becoming more frequent with each passing year. We can clearly observe them across the north-east, and there is no doubt that climate change is the cause. It is exposing our communities to ever greater risks.

Dundee and the broader north-east are not known for heavy rainfall, but in recent years the frequency and the severity of storms have increased dramatically. The impact of flooding is devastating for families. Homes are ruined, livelihoods are destroyed and lives are put at risk. The disruption and upheaval that is caused when a property is flooded brings significant costs, too. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, most households and businesses can ill afford the emergency expenditure.

It is right that the Government and local authorities step in to support residents at a time of such great need. However, I have heard from constituents and councillors in my region that the process has been far from smooth. It is imperative that the Scottish Government learns lessons for the future as severe storms become ever more frequent and takes a proper, strategic approach to helping citizens as required.

The devastation that storm Babet brought to Angus was clear to see, with Brechin being particularly badly affected. Scottish National Party-led Angus Council announced £10 million of funding following storm Babet. That money was very welcome but, five months later, we are still waiting for the majority of it to materialise. I would appreciate it if the minister, in closing the debate, could advise what the Scottish Government can do to support Angus Council in delivering that funding to those who need it.

Maggie Chapman

We know that local authorities and the Scottish Government have a role to play, but other public agencies need to be involved in the discussions, too—and we also need to ensure local community accountability. Does Michael Marra agree that all those people and agencies need to get in the room together to ensure that we have a holistic approach to flood resilience?

Michael Marra

I certainly agree with Maggie Chapman on that point. It is vital that the Government uses its convening power as much as its financial power to make sure that these matters are approached strategically. As other members have set out, we have to think about the long-term consequences of the changes. We have to make allowance in budgets to ensure that we have money set aside for such instances and the funding has to be commensurate to the size of the issue.

Will the member take an intervention?

Michael Marra

I am sorry, but I cannot. I want to make progress at the moment.

The funding of £1,500 for households and £3,000 for businesses as a result of storm Babet was welcome, but only properties with indoor damage were eligible. That money is a lifeline for people, but many residents sustained damage to the exterior of their properties and have not received any support.

Road closures have meant that other roads in the area are being used more frequently, which increases the demand for maintenance work through displacement of traffic. However, money is not being made available for repairs on those alternative routes, although the need for them is also a consequence of the floods. It is clear that, as members described, a more holistic view of the true impacts of flooding on a community must be taken.

Across Dundee and Angus, many constituents live in areas that are susceptible to flooding. Only recently, Claverhouse, parts of Mill o Mains and other areas around the Dighty burn were flooded. In Whitfield, Old Toll Loan was flooded by the Fithie. It is clear that those impacts are taking place. It beggars belief that Dundee City Council is continuing to build a huge secondary school on a flood plain that has been identified as such since the 1960s. I fear that that will only cause more trouble in the future.

Residents have faced repeated disruption from flooding, which has forced them to evacuate their homes for a time, and many businesses have been lost. The debate is important. If we can, we should bring a clear view to the issue. We need a more overarching strategic approach that brings agencies together and ensures that funding is available.

I echo Willie Rennie’s calls to ensure that his constituents receive the urgent support that they require.


Tim Eagle (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I join other members in welcoming Willie Rennie securing the debate. The issue is of great importance and comes up more every year due to the storms that we are getting.

The focus of Willie Rennie’s motion and much of the wider coverage of the issue has been on communities such as Brechin, which experienced devastating levels of flooding. That resulted in severe damage to homes, businesses and amenities in the area. It also sadly resulted in loss of life, and I offer my condolences to the families who were affected.

I welcome the action of members from across the parties in calling on the Government to provide additional financial support for the homes and businesses that were affected. I agree with Mr Rennie’s points about the need for more funding for prevention of, and protection from, flooding in the future.

Although the Government eventually took action for the communities that were most impacted by the storms, communities in Argyll and Bute were less fortunate. There, the unnamed storm of 7 October and storm Babet, which hit Scotland one week later, caused extensive damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. It was disappointing that residents and businesses in Argyll and Bute were not eligible to access the storm Babet recovery grants and that, as I understand, Argyll and Bute Council was not invited to attend the storm Babet ministerial task force. Given the impact on communities in the area that I represent, I would be grateful if the minister could provide some clarity on those matters in her closing speech.

I welcome the fact that Argyll and Bute Council was able to access Bellwin funding to assist it with the clearance of impacted roads, but it is worth noting that some local roads still remain out of service several months later. More than 6,000 tonnes of debris blocked one road, the A816, for more than 200m. It trapped two vehicles in the process but, fortunately, nobody was hurt. Although Argyll and Bute Council has managed to open an emergency diversion route under convoy, the main A816 remains closed to this day, to the worry of many people in the community. Not only are roads such as the A816 essential access points to a community, they support the local economy, and many locals have raised concerns about the continued effects on their businesses. Sections of other roads, including the A815 and the A83 Rest and Be Thankful, also witnessed smaller landslips.

My predecessor, Donald Cameron, campaigned extensively on the A83 and the Rest and Be Thankful and I welcome the fact that progress is being made, albeit slowly, to deliver medium and long-term solutions. However, major weather events such as the storms of recent years highlight the need for greater urgency to deliver the much-needed replacement for that critical stretch of road. I take this opportunity to praise the council staff, particularly those in the roads and infrastructure services team, who acted swiftly to put in place contingency measures and provide regular updates to local residents.

The recent storms were among the worst to hit communities, and the increasing frequency of such events reinforces the need to continue to meet our environmental targets and shows that greater investment in weather defences is still needed. Scotland has a unique geography. We are rightly proud of our rural and island communities, but we need to support them fully with infrastructure projects that provide for access, emergency and the economy, and those projects need to be completed now, not later.

Our local authorities are often the first to respond to such adverse weather events, especially in communities across the Highlands and Islands, so it is vital that they are properly supported and funded, and that communities such as those in Argyll and Bute are not left behind. I hope that the debate is a reminder to the cabinet secretary and to the entire Government of the need for fair funding for councils and emergency funding for all those who find themselves in need.


Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Before I start, I will make the comment that I wanted to make when I tried to intervene on Mr Marra. I recently obtained an insurance quote, and one of the companies asked whether I could confirm that my house is no nearer than 260m to any watercourse, which, to give a sense of the distance, is a very good drive and a 7-iron. I suggest that that is the shape of things to come.

I speak today in the debate as the constituency MSP for Falkirk East. That includes Grangemouth, so I reference the vital Grangemouth flood protection scheme, which is the biggest project of its kind to be embarked on. Its progress, process and outcomes will have a far-reaching impact on other flood prevention programmes. I certainly do not underestimate the scale of the challenge that we face. I note the efforts, with thanks, of Jacobs, Falkirk Council and other key stakeholders thus far. The estimated benefit involves 2,760 residential properties, 1,200 non-residential properties, 6,025 people and 23km of roads.

As we have seen, adverse weather events are increasing, and the impact of not doing something is incalculable, given the importance of the location to Scotland’s gross domestic product. As the cabinet secretary notes, and I quote from a letter that I received from her in January this year,

“The GFPS is exceptional in terms of scale and financial cost. It is the largest flood scheme ever proposed in Scotland, with a current upper cost estimate of £650 million.”

It is also worth noting that the wider coastal management strategy and modelling for fluvial events is undoubtedly linked to whatever is designed at Grangemouth. Therefore, certainty and progression are necessary not only for Falkirk East residents but for neighbouring local authorities.

A number of consultation events have been held. In January this year, Falkirk Council agreed to move to the next step in the form of scheme notification. After that, the outline business case will be developed.

However, the funding elephant remains in the room. The current funding status, whereby the Scottish Government will bear 80 per cent of the cost of the programme and the council 20 per cent, seems to be unachievable by either party. The cabinet secretary rightly states that, for the Scottish Government to utilise the entire annual local government general capital grant is simply not feasible. Therefore, I understand the rationale for removing the scheme from the current cycle of funding and allowing the Scottish Government to make progress with a variety of other schemes.

Various funding models and options have been developed by the council, and the cabinet secretary has asked her officials to pursue a task force model and engage a team Scotland approach. That is welcome, but serious conversations need to be had about funding to allow for clarity in the staging. In a previous life, I was a programme manager, and I was always aware that, without a clear line of sight for phases, considerable sums of money can in effect be wasted. It is not unreasonable to assume that the pathway to completion might need to be elongated and reworked, and that it will inevitably turn out to be much more expensive, but clarity needs to be found for the initial stages and on-going dialogue for subsequent stages.

I am entirely sympathetic to the predicament that we all find ourselves in. I note, thankfully, that the Scottish Government has no plans to claw back the council’s £4.5 million underspend for the scheme, although I understand that, as yet, there is no clarity on what conditions might be attached, if any. To that end, I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for agreeing to meet me to discuss the GFPS in the near future.

My final point relates to the other stakeholders who have an interest in the area, including RSPB Scotland, the climate Forth project, Buglife Scotland and NatureScot. It will be vital to have proper co-design and a full engagement process on plans for mitigation and biodiversity compensation, and to ensure that any environmentally negative consequences of the GFPS are considered. The last thing that anyone wants to see are objections from those who should be partners in the scheme, and I hope for their full involvement.


Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank Willie Rennie for bringing this important debate to the chamber. He shares with me a belief in the catchment management approach, which I have been advocating for a number of years now.

We all understand the significant impacts of the flooding events that have had such a devastating effect on the safety and livelihoods of those who live in flood-hit communities across Scotland. Over the years, that has included those in my constituency in areas such as Hawick and Newcastleton, as well as events such as storm Arwen in November 2021, and storm Babet—and, most recently, storm Gerrit—in 2023. Every major flooding event has an utterly devastating effect on local communities, and that is why each and every one of us is in the chamber tonight.

Although flooding itself is not preventable, our preparation has to be much better. We cannot afford to lose any further housing stock or key food-producing land, and we cannot afford to let our salmon stocks become extinct, which can happen as a result of not only flooding but drought. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Tay Ghillies Association in Blairgowrie. They are concerned that climate change is bringing significant droughts in late spring and summer, causing extremely low flows in our rivers and tributaries and having a significant effect on salmon spawning grounds. It seems ridiculous that we cannot get it right; sometimes we have too much rain, and not enough at others.

I agree with what Willie Rennie said about Government initiatives to mitigate the risks of flooding—so far, it appears that it is all just talk. We know that the words from the Scottish Government have been fairly hollow so far, and its pledges have been lost in a vacuous echo chamber. Sadly, communities have suffered as a result of what the Scottish Government has not done. It has been wholly unprepared for the flooding events and, with each storm, there is another stark reminder of the shortcomings of what it is doing.

The SNP might say that flood prevention schemes have taken time to develop and construct. I do not dispute that point, but the party has been in power since 2007. Of the 42 formal flood protection schemes that were proposed from 2016 to 2021, only 15 have been completed, with an overspend of £25.8 million as of January 2024.

However, that overspend pales in comparison to the estimated overspend on the remaining projects that are still under development. Striking examples include an estimated overspend of £87 million in Musselburgh, £59.4 million in Stirling and £308.5 million in Grangemouth. At what point will the Scottish Government admit that its current plan is not working? That is why the motion before us is important: the Government is failing to deliver a coherent plan to mitigate the risks and protect residents and vulnerable species, and it is leaving our flood-prone rural communities in the dark.

In its 2021 manifesto, the SNP pledged to tackle flooding by ensuring

“that trees, woodlands and natural resources play a key role in flood prevention schemes”,

but this year’s budget shows that agri-environment climate scheme funding to farmers has been cut by £17.6 million. That leaves farmers without that key support, and unable to be part of the solution.

In response, in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands outlined in the chamber the Scottish Government’s commitment to considering flood prevention “in the round”. I would like it if the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy were able, if possible, to update members on Mairi Gougeon’s commitment to hold a meeting with key stakeholders, regulators and farmers, which she said was taking place in March. I would welcome an update on that.

I welcome the calls to explore the benefits of a regional catchment management approach to flood mitigation, as stated in the motion. Such an approach utilises both local and expert knowledge to deliver a sustainable plan, tailored to what is needed, with amazing projects such as the Eddleston water project, led by the Tweed Forum, and the Findhorn catchment project shining examples of natural flood management.

I do not believe that the Government is taking the right approach. The expected costs of physical flood defences are close to £1 billion. Natural flood defences can provide a real—and, as Michael Marra said, holistic—alternative; indeed, Roger Crofts, formerly of Scottish Natural Heritage, believes that the concrete-based approach is ineffective and out of date. On that note, we need to ensure that we protect communities, our endangered species and biodiversity, and that the Government delivers meaningful protection for those communities.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow Rachael Hamilton, who has given an excellent speech, and I thank Willie Rennie for his motion. I agree whole-heartedly with the speech delivered by Michelle Thomson and will continue in the same vein.

Last week, I, along with many others, attended a public consultation on the Grangemouth flood protection scheme. Listening to the experts and the local community, I thought that the message was crystal clear: the Grangemouth flood protection scheme is not just an optional project—it is a lifeline. The total cost of the project, at current prices, is £672 million. As Michelle Thomson has said, Falkirk Council is required by legislation to fund 20 per cent of that total. That is just not realistic: Falkirk Council cannot afford the £134 million that the Government and legislation expect it to stump up for the scheme. This is the same Falkirk Council that is so underfunded by the Scottish Government that it has had to tap into more than £20 million of reserves, just to keep the lights on.

Members will know that I am not the greatest fan of the SNP Falkirk Council, but it is in an impossible predicament. The SNP Scottish Government must confront the reality that is staring it in the face, because Grangemouth must be a national priority. It is part of the lifeblood of our nation, generating 4 per cent of our country’s gross domestic product and responsible for 8 per cent of all Scottish manufacturing. Moreover, 30 per cent of all our exports move through the port at Grangemouth. The Grangemouth flood protection scheme would save at least £2 billion in damages—although I suggest that the economic impact assessments of that probably need to be kept live—including, as was mentioned by Michelle Thomson, at least 2,000 residential properties.

One of the most compelling aspects of Willie Rennie’s speech was the human dimension to all of this. We saw that at Brechin, particularly as a result of storm Babet. We cannot leave Grangemouth in that vulnerable position—that is, in the hands and finances of a local authority that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Tess White, too, mentioned Brechin and Babet.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Government does not have a good record of responding to crises such as those that occurred in Brechin last October. I specifically draw attention to a quotation that I obtained from a freedom of information request, showing that the chief executive of Angus Council wrote to the Scottish Government on 31 October to say:

“It is concerning almost two weeks on, that no officer in Scottish Government has contacted myself to ask how we are coping as a Council or discuss how Scottish Government can lean into the recovery phase of Storm Babet.”

That is simply not acceptable. When the urgency of the situation was so clear, why did it take the Scottish Government so long to respond? That question is in the same vein as those that Willie Rennie rightly asked. I would suggest, if I may borrow from Winston Churchill, that these situations require “action this day”. The Government needs to improve its performance in respect of action and delivery.

I will conclude with four questions. First, in light of the financial straitjacket that Falkirk Council is forced to live with, what further financial commitment is the Scottish Government prepared to make to support it in order to move the flood prevention project forward?

Secondly, what economic impact assessments has the cabinet secretary received or commissioned in the event of a catastrophic event at Grangemouth involving the port, the industrial complex and the communities affected?

Thirdly, does the minister agree with the figure—at least £2.4 billion—that Falkirk Council has produced in its assessment of the economic impact of such a catastrophe? It is an important number, because it puts the level of investment required for the scheme into the context of what happens if we do not make that investment.

My last question, which I hope that the cabinet secretary will take the opportunity to respond to, is: what discussions has she had with UK ministers about the Grangemouth flood protection scheme, specifically given the strategic economic importance of the port and the industrial complex?

The slow response that we saw in relation to storm Babet is not good enough. There cannot be some slow unravelling, because the consequences of inaction hurt communities and people. They hurt our economy, too, but, above all, they hurt our people. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary please oversee a step change in the response to this impending crisis?


The Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy (Màiri McAllan)

I thank Willie Rennie for bringing to the chamber this members’ business debate on an issue that is of great importance to me, and which I can tell is also of importance to members across the chamber. I recognise the dreadful impact that flooding can have on households, businesses and communities, as has been very well narrated by Willie Rennie, and I also thank those who have worked tirelessly, particularly over the recent winter storm period, to support their communities in recovery.

I am clear that flooding is Scotland’s most significant climate adaptation challenge. The damage from the 10 named storms that we have seen this winter makes clear the impacts of climate change in Scotland—and that they are increasing. The number of properties across Scotland exposed to flooding is expected to increase by nearly 40 per cent by 2080, meaning that many more communities will be exposed. Reducing that exposure to risk—and planning to do so—is absolutely critical, and it will undeniably require considerable investment over many years.

Members will have heard a great deal of narration from ministers about this budget settlement being the most challenging that we have faced in the devolution era. Despite those circumstances, I was pleased to negotiate significant uplifts for my flooding protection and coastal change budget line, which will increase by 42 per cent to £91 million in 2024-25. That is vital, given that councils are statutorily responsible for designing and building protection schemes in their communities, and that the Scottish Government supports them financially to do so. In that regard, and through that co-operation between local authorities and Government, councils have delivered 15 flood protection schemes for local authorities since 2016, with five due for completion in the next few years. That on-going annual funding supports councils to fulfil their statutory obligations.

However, in extreme circumstances, the Scottish Government can, and will, provide additional support. As has been discussed, one such example was storm Babet, as a result of which the Met Office issued two highly exceptional red warnings for rain. Those warnings were issued for the first time since 2015 and, as members will remember, storms Desmond and Frank. Storm Babet led to hundreds of properties and businesses across four local authority areas suffering inundation. I attended every single Scottish Government resilience room—SGoRR—meeting during the immediate onslaught of the event, and the Deputy First Minister and I set up and ran the Babet task force in the aftermath. The task force agreed a package of additional financial support for residents and businesses—again, the first time that the additional package had been required and negotiated since storms Desmond and Frank.

That is the emergency support that we are able to provide. It sits atop what the Scottish Government already provides, including the Bellwin scheme, the Scottish welfare fund and, where occupiers or businesses are flooded out of their properties, the council tax and non-domestic rates empty property relief.

To give a bit of context to the claims to Bellwin, in 2023-24—

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

I will, after I finish this point.

In 2023-24, the Bellwin scheme has been activated five times, with a total forecast expenditure of £19.6 million.

Willie Rennie

Just so that the cabinet secretary is aware, people in Cupar are watching the debate, and they want to know the answer to my two questions. First, will they get grant support equal to that provided in Angus? Secondly, will there be a catchment plan for the River Eden that is supported by the Scottish Government and its agencies?

Màiri McAllan

I am very happy to work on the issue of the catchment plan. As for the more immediate point about support to households in Willie Rennie’s community, I absolutely have sympathy with what was experienced. Indeed, that was communicated to Willie Rennie at the time. We have since reached out to Fife Council to get an idea of the impacted communities, and I remain open to providing funding.

If Willie Rennie wants to meet me about that, he is very welcome to do so, and I will continue to speak with Fife Council about the impacted communities. [Interruption.] I can hear Willie Rennie speaking from a sedentary position, but, truly, my door is open. He should come and meet me about the impacts.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

I am a little short of time, but I am happy to.

Willie Rennie

I am sorry, but I am shaking my head, because that is what I have been told for two months now. Those people are desperate and out of pocket, and they need more than sympathy. Will the minister end the consideration and just give them the money that they deserve?

Màiri McAllan

I have sympathy, but that is not the extent of what I have. I am happy to continue to work with Fife Council, as I have been. I rely on the council to give me information about impacted communities, just as I rely on meeting local MSPs to know about the impacts. Again, I offer Willie Rennie the opportunity to come and meet me about the impact on his community.

In his intervention and in his speech, Willie Rennie mentioned the issue of whole-catchment management. I believe that that approach lies at the heart of sustainable flood management. As we know, water does not respect property lines or local authority borders, which is why the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009 already sets out the involvement of a number of actors. Our new strategy will, I hope, do something that I think that we all agree is required when there is an incident in our constituency—that is, oblige all those different actors that have responsibility when it comes to flood risk management, be it the local authority, SEPA, roads agencies or the Scottish Government, to work collectively in the interests of responding to the immediate event and helping communities in the aftermath.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

I will, if I have some time in hand.

Yes, indeed.

Rachael Hamilton

Will the cabinet secretary tell members why just 15 out of a total of 42 flood prevention schemes have been delivered by the Scottish Government since 2016? Why was the overspend £25.8 million, given that that was way before inflation and given that the block grant has continued to increase year on year?

Màiri McAllan

I am afraid that Rachael Hamilton simplifies far too much what is a really complex issue. I have set out that, according to statute, local authorities have responsibility for flood risk management. The Scottish Government arrangement is that we fund viable schemes up to 80 per cent. As I have mentioned, our funding per annum has totalled £42 million for a number of years now, and we have added an additional £150 million over the course of this session of Parliament to support local authorities in that respect.

I understand that the situation is challenging for local authorities. We know that the schemes can create a diversity of views in communities, and there are myriad reasons why such projects are complex, but I am absolutely clear that we will continue to work with local authorities to protect our communities.

As I am conscious of time, I will conclude. [Interruption.] I say to members that I am afraid that I must conclude now.

I just want to make this clear, so I will reiterate what I said at the start: I know that climate change is creating and worsening the impacts of flooding in our communities, and that it is the single greatest adaptation challenge that we face in Scotland. That is exactly why the Scottish Government is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in this multifaceted and complex yet vital area. It is why we are complementing that investment with work to bring together all those with responsibility for the matter. I am doing that in Government, and I have done it in my constituency, too. I know how frustrating it is for representatives across the chamber when we are at the heart of an incident.

We all know the human impacts of flooding and the increasing risk, and I want us to work together to respond to it.

That concludes the debate, and I close the meeting.

Meeting closed at 17:40.