Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Can I take you to the role of national Government. Should national Government be involved in all aspects of flood prevention and flood reaction or is it better for that to be co-ordinated through the Environment Agency, local fire brigade and so on and so forth?
  (Dr Mance) I think Government clearly needs to be involved in setting the right policy framework, the contextual framework, and ensuring the adequate resources are available. I am not convinced at the moment the present interface between us is as sensible as it could be. I think the funding interface between us is unnecessarily complicated in terms of Government grants. We have been exploring with Government, with MAFF in this instance, a block grant arrangement for the last two years which is currently awaiting Treasury approval which would simplify the capital scheme area, for instance, and that would certainly make life a lot easier. I am not sure it is appropriate for Government to get involved in every aspect all the time. I think when one gets up to a genuinely national scale calamity, and we did not get that far this time contrasted with 1953 flooding for instance, which cost the nation about five per cent of its GDP, on that scale then Government would want to be involved in disaster mode management. I think in terms of the operational delivery often that is best for people who specialise in operational delivery rather than policy. I think this time the system has worked well in that mode. There is now the question of coping with the aftermath.

  21. Finally, can I look at this idea of the National Joint Strategic Flood Group which obviously you were in favour of but failed to persuade national Government of its merits. Why was that and is this now worth revisiting?
  (Mr Utteridge) The National Joint Strategic Emergency Group is, I think, what you are talking about. I mentioned earlier the Easter Flood Action Plan for the 1998 flood and that was an action we had in there to explore. At the time we felt there would be some merit in such a group. Dr Mance has mentioned exercises that have taken place since the 1998 floods. We did build the lessons learnt in to the procedures, as has been explained, of local authorities, fire service, police and ourselves. Government decided, I think, that what we had done was enough and it was not necessary to proceed with something such as that strategic group.

  22. Would you aim to revisit that now?
  (Mr Utteridge) We shall revisit, yes, in the light of what has just happened and again examine it within the lessons learnt report.

Mr Todd

  23. Dr Mance, you mentioned that one of the issues, and certainly it was found in my area, some of the minor water courses, other drainage systems caused almost as many problems as what was happening in rivers. Some communities were inundated both from the river and from the fields around them. That does imply that the recommendations this Committee made two years ago for a more strategic grasp of the various means of achieving drainage across an area was necessary and that leaving separate functions with a variety of different bodies—not all of these drainage systems are controlled by local authorities which you touched on, for example—was really an unsatisfactory approach to this. Would you now reconsider this and urge on Government a much tighter framework for managing the strategy? I think you made the fair point that on the actual delivery of emergency services on the ground, people responded as the Brits tend to rather well but the planning and getting things straight in the first place is not our strong point and there needs to be improvement there.
  (Dr Mance) One of the changes since the Committee reported back in 1998 was the introduction by MAFF Ministers of High Level Targets for flood defence. One of those targets requires reporting of the condition of so-called critical minor water courses. We have worked with the Local Government Association and the Association of Drainage Authorities to come up with a common view of what that means, that is basically those water courses which could give rise to significant flooding of property. Given those have now been identified it would seem sensible, to have a look at rationalising responsibilities. We inherited from our predecessors a very chequered mix of so-called arterial drainage. One refers to arterial drainage, but when I was operating in the Midlands region I know I had some field drains because in the dim and distant past a wealthy landowner had been on a flood defence committee. We certainly put no effort into them at all but on the statutory maps they still show as the main river or main arterial drainage and that seems nonsensical. I think rationalising so, if you like, the expertise and resource goes into the water courses which actually matter would be sensible.

  24. We have started to map them and have them identified.
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  25. We have not actually done anything about what we have found?
  (Dr Mance) That is not quite true. Brian will explain what we have been doing.
  (Mr Empson) Brian Empson, Flood Defence Policy Manager. Within our evidence we did say that the Agency in the Easter Flood Action Plan had completed its inspection of flood defences. We did write to local authorities and held meetings with them to seek their assistance in carrying out inspections but over 25 per cent of local authorities were unwilling to carry out inspection on these ordinary water courses in urban areas. These are the sorts of water courses which are going to be classified as critical.

  26. This was a voluntary exercise that you were involved in so they could say "No, I am sorry, we are not going to do it" and you had to walk away?
  (Mr Empson) I think under the High Level Targets which came out previously, the Government were trying to very clearly show responsibility on who does what. It is very clear that the local authorities do have responsibility for ordinary water courses, so against that background local authorities were aware of their responsibility.

  27. It sounds as if private landowners will often have some substantial responsibilities as well from the allusion you made to this well connected individual who offloaded his responsibility.
  (Dr Mance) In the precis I gave of the start of administrative arrangements, I picked out the fact what in urban areas local authorities tended to have responsibility. In rural areas then, the riparian owners, whoever they were, could well have responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep.

  28. What are you going to do to bring this together to provide a properly planned response?
  (Dr Mance) I do not think we should look to bring every water course, irrespective of where it is or how critical it is, under the remit of one body. However, I do think it would be sensible to look at rationalising it so that the ones which matter, in terms of urban flood risk, are brought under the aegis of one body.

  29. I represent a rural area so your constant reference to the urban context, while I can understand it, it is not necessarily—
  (Dr Mance) If you question urban, villages in my responsibility count as urban. It is anything where housing or commercial property is at risk.

  30. One last point. Do you see a role for insurance companies in this? When the discussion was focused on communication with residents about risk, it is their business, so some co-working might seem quite sensible.
  (Mr Utteridge) We have a very good working relationship with the Association of British Insurers. In fact, in the information we have sent out, there has been reference to ABI. ABI, in some of their material, make reference to flood risk. Our understanding from the Association of British Insurers is that there is a need to spread the risk. That insurance is available for flood risk victims. But that they do see the need for reliable flood defences to be in place if this is to continue. So the willpower is there within the insurance system.

  31. Can you decode that because the way you put it is that they might be considering their risk in these areas if there was not a very substantial investment in flood defence. That is how I heard it.
  (Mr Utteridge) As I understand it, if a property or a series of properties are subjected to regular flooding, then the insurance companies would look to the flood defences being improved if they were going to continue insuring the property.

Mr Jack

  32. Have you had any indication from your dealings with the ABI that they are thinking of declaring some areas uninsurable?
  (Mr Utteridge) I have not, no. The ABI have said to me that there are enough insurance companies out there to spread the risk across the whole policy format. That is the general message that we have been getting from the ABI. We have actually had 30 floods in 30 months, if you look at all the statistics, some of which have been more minor and some have been more major. Where the ABI are starting to look—if this is a sign of climate change and flooding is starting to bite and become more regular—then I have no doubt they will be saying to Government that they would like to see better standards of flood defence, if Government wish them to keep insuring property.

  33. You do not think the map you are going to produce, which puts the imprint of the Environment Agency across the country, particularly when we are identifying potentially flood risk areas in a general sense, is going to upset the insurability of properties in a sort of insurance blight, which you might be spreading across the nation as a result of your analysis?
  (Dr Mance) The insurance industry itself has its own research, which means that they have had the information shown on our maps for about four or five years, and we have seen no evidence of it so far. It is far more important that we clearly make available very readily to everybody where the flood risk areas are, so that they can take some responsibility for looking after themselves, their families, and their property. We have had it available on CD ROM to local authorities, planning authorities, for some 15 months. It goes live on our website next week, so you will be able to go to our website and access it on your post code. But we have something like 1.8 million homes, 135,000 commercial properties in flood risk areas. If we want people to understand flood risk, to take an interest in it, to register it, and to behave responsibly they need to know they are at risk. Even silly things like keeping your insurance policy upstairs in a polythene bag. It sounds daft but if your insurance policy is downstairs and saturated with flood water, it is damned difficult to deal with the insurance company, with the best will in the world. Many people do not even remember who their insurance company is without looking at the policy. So there are some basic simple things that we need to get across. To do that, people need to know that they live in a flood risk area.

Mr Mitchell

  34. I am beginning to feel out of place in this flood feast because Grimsby has not had any. I have got nothing more to say in your favour than that. Indeed, the problem of flooding, the River Freshney which runs right outside my house, did not rise because of works put in by the Environment Agency and maintained by the Environment Agency, so I owe you a debt. Having said that, I am still going to be nasty about funding. You estimated in 1998 that the capital and maintenance needed were under-funded by about £35 to £40 million. You got in that year's Comprehensive Spending Review about £7.6 million a year extra, £23 million over three years, something like that, which clearly was not enough. Can you give us any examples of works that were not done and which needed to be done because of that under-allocation.
  (Dr Mance) A clear example, which has some relevance given the events over the two or three months, is Lewes in Sussex, where we can justify a local capital scheme; but the local Flood Defence Committee has been unprepared to provide the necessary funding. The money available has gone to higher priority coastal work. So for two years we have proposed works in Lewes. We require about three-quarters of a million pounds' funding through the levy system to enable us to proceed with it, with matching grant, and that has not been forthcoming. That means that the people of Lewis flooded this autumn because we were under-funded.
  (Mr Utteridge) If I can add to that. We have also taken on the elaboration of the Agency supervisory duty, following the last session of evidence that we gave to the Committee. We have expanded our flood warning role. We have run two public awareness campaigns that have been mentioned, where MAFF have given us 50 per cent grant on that. So we have actually been doing increased other things with the monies that you referred to, where we have not received any special funding allowance.

  35. What I am asking is whether the situation would have been much different, indeed much better, had you got from 1998 the extra funding you thought then was necessary?
  (Dr Mance) It would have been a bit better.

  36. Just a bit?
  (Dr Mance) If you have been running under-funded on that scale for years, you clearly do not turn it round overnight, as was seen on the rail network. The risk of under-funding in the long term is that it takes you a long time to catch up once you decide you are going to. That is the concern. Therefore, it would take us probably, if we had adequate resources, it could take us five or ten or 15 years to catch up with the backlog.

  37. So this is as a result of a long legacy of inadequate funding?
  (Dr Mance) Yes. You effectively have a form of utility infrastructure which has been in the public sector for the whole of this century. As we have seen in most of the other utility infrastructures, they do not necessarily attract the level of funding needed to maintain them.

  38. You are now agreeing that the study commissioned by MAFF, you are saying that you need an increase of £100 million for capital works. Now that is a lot more than £30 to £40 million. That is a £100 million a year.
  (Dr Mance) May I give a little caution. When one talks about: we need £100 million a year shown by the MAFF study.

  39. More.
  (Dr Mance) It applies to all operating authorities, not just the Agency. So you need to bear in mind internal drainage boards and the 400-odd local authorities who also undertake flood defence.

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