Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. What would be your share of that?
  (Dr Mance) We would feel it would be probably £60, £70 million per year necessary for ourselves but that is a very crude estimate. We are working, at the moment, on the issues arising from these flood events. We expect to have identified the consequential extra river work required by Christmas. That will enable us then to give a reasonably sensible answer in terms of the quantum of funding needed to be able to address the obvious backlog in river work.

  41. The £40 million was money for you?
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  42. The hundred million, you think, 60 to 70?
  (Dr Mance) Looking at the present distribution, we expect about two-thirds to three-quarters of that to be coming to us.

  43. About double what you thought was necessary three years ago. Are you just seizing the opportunity of flooding to jump up your finances?
  (Dr Mance) No, we would not be responsible if we did not flag the concern and repeat the concern we expressed two years ago. We do not believe the system is being adequately resourced. Ultimately, the test of that is in severe flooding when we get breaches of defences. We have miraculously had very few breaches over the last two months. We have got by, by the skin of our teeth. Two weeks ago in South Yorkshire I was standing on a 20-foot high embankment. As you walked up it water seeped into every step, not because it was flowing down the bank but because it was coming through it. When you stood on top, on one side the water level was one foot below your feet. The other side you were looking down on the rooftops of houses. Had that bank gone—and we thought it was going to, so we had the area evacuated—those houses would not be standing. The flood there was wider than you could see. We estimated that there was something like—it is one of these wonderful figures that one conjures up—of the order of 300 million tonnes of water being held back at that point. The devastation which would have occurred if we had had a breach would have been a bit like the dam busters' raid. Now we have been very fortunate this time but the Deputy Prime Minister said it was a wake-up call. He was talking in the context of climate change but we do not believe we should assume that because we have got by this time, that it is satisfactory or sound for the future. We are under-invested and, therefore, at risk.
  (Mr Utteridge) If I can add to what Dr Mance has said. There is a table in our written evidence. One of the good things that did come out of the 1998 inquiry of the Committee was the need to inspect assets and record their condition. You will see in the north east that 74 per cent, if I remember the figure rightly, are in fair condition. Now fair condition means very heavy maintenance work. I cannot put a figure on the quantum but that does mean that substantial repair work needs to be done on 74 per cent of the system. That was before this flood.

Mr Jack

  44. Following that up, because in that table which I have noted two of the so-called fair condition assets failed, but to put the money you have just outlined into some perspective, have you any idea what the effect on table 5.33 would actually be if overnight you could spend it all? How much of the poor would be sorted out? How much of the fair would move into the good? What would the effects be? What would we be buying with that money?
  (Mr Utteridge) I have to say that we have not done that exercise.

  45. You made a statement to Mr Mitchell a moment ago about how much you needed. I have no idea what we get for it. That is why I looked at this and there seemed to be something related, the condition of flood defences to expenditure, because if you think that the poor ought to be sorted out, there must be a figure for sorting the poor out, etcetera, etcetera.
  (Dr Mance) This will sound an awfully boring answer, I am afraid. We have been going through quite a large exercise over the last three years of finding out where the defences are, checking visually the condition of them, targeting engineering surveys, and building a database on condition of asset, what the asset is, what its estimated residual life is; so that we can target the detailed assessment on those in poor condition with a low residual life. We will get hard estimates of the type you are asking. Every so often we get a substantial flood like the one we have just experienced, when virtually all normal work stops and we divert into flood management. So it has taken slightly longer than we expected. We do expect next spring or summer, to be in a position to have some hard estimates.

  46. So where did the number come from? This amount of money.
  (Mr Utteridge) The number came from some R&D commissioned by MAFF on the state of the nation's assets, the £100 million. That is where it came from.

Mr Mitchell

  47. Your guidance for priorities for funding activities puts maintenance of rivers and channels, renewal of existing defences and extension of services to new areas, right down at the bottom of the list of priorities for funding. Does that mean that the need for new flood defence schemes is not really so great?
  (Mr Utteridge) If one is in a position of having rationalisation your first requirement—not least because in statute if someone applies for a land drainage consent, ie to do channel works—if we do not positively determine it, it is deemed to be given. So our first priority is prevention. We are seeking to prevent a flood risk, adverse channel works. Then trying to make sure that we satisfy the Minister's top priority which is flood warning. To be able to warn we need to know where the flood risks are, so flood mapping comes next. If you go down the sequencing logical patterning, the last place you put your money is in creating new defences. You maintain your existing ones first. You need to know what state your car is in. You need to keep it properly serviced and maintained before you decide to buy a second car if you want the first one to be reliable. That is the philosophy in the priority guidance advice to the Flood Defence Committees. They do not have to follow it.

Dr Turner

  48. May I take it, Dr Mance, from your earlier remarks that there is a soft boundary between how you fund flood defence, thinking of non-salt water and coastal defences. There is not a hard line between them. Do you then have a common way of measuring the priorities as the funding goes?
  (Dr Mance) For capital works, where we are building flood defences, then there is a single MAFF priority scoring system. Until last week, that gave an extra score to coastal work as opposed to river work. Last week it was equalised so that the priority is now on urgency and scale of benefit to be achieved by investment. It is probably rational that the money should go where the greatest good is to be achieved, irrespective of whether it is on the coast or on rivers.

  49. Where has the point got to at the moment? I have a personal interest with a coastal project. It is in West Norfolk. I understand there is a change in the—
  (Dr Mance) The priority threshold score, at or above, where one gets MAFF grant, is 22, at the moment, going down to 20 from 1 April.

  50. I wondered if you believed that is a fair formula, having to administer it. Do you think it properly takes into account the different kinds of assets and weighs against the risk?
  (Dr Mance) I do not think we have found huge criticism of it as a formula. If one takes out the anomaly of automatically giving greater priority to coast rather than river it makes sense. I think there is a case that it should take greater account of things like social issues. The number of people affected, for instance, and some way of building those into the weighting beyond purely the economic gain from investment. That is not the case at present.

  51. If I could link in the finance to the formula, I do not know whether you can do so. You say you need more money if in the current changing climatic conditions we are going to have protection at the level the public would expect. In terms of your points system, how far away is it from a level where you think the funding would be appropriate? You said it has come down from 22 to 20, which sounds as if it might be good news for my scheme. But whereabouts would you be saying the points level would be, for the sort of levels of extra finance you were talking about a few minutes ago?
  (Dr Mance) One would like to see it get down to single figures.

  52. Single figures?
  (Dr Mance) Yes. If we can justify investment in defences, at the moment we are not doing it because the resources are rationed. If there is justification there, arguably the investment should be being made because it is cost justifiable to do so. That needs to be clearly registered. The other point I would like to make to you is that these estimates make no allowance for climate change. Climate change is not costed into those. At the moment we find it very difficult to estimate the likely impact of climate change. The predictions coming out are that we will experience greater storminess and greater frequency of extreme conditions but that at present is unquantified. It, therefore, is very difficult to build into any assessment at present on a cost benefit basis how one would take account of that. So, at the moment, these are conservative estimates of the likely resources required in flood defence, until we actually get a better grip on how we estimate the likely impact of climate change.

Mr Marsden

  53. May I first place upon the record my thanks to the Environment Agency staff in Shrewsbury who were working round the clock and did a fantastic job when we were hit particularly hard with some of the worst floods for 50 years. In terms of the funding issue, the figures that you have quoted in your submission and you have quoted today: are you confident that they are acceptable to the local community? I will give you an example. 1994, the Environment Agency forerunner, the National Rivers Authority, came forward with a plan to protect the town. It was duly thrown out by the local people because what the local people did not want to see were large permanent walls. I am hopeful that in the latest round of discussions that this problem will now be overcome by working closely with the community. My point is that if you need £100 million on a piece of paper, can you be sure that will then deliver and stop the floods, and also satisfy the local people who may want more environmentally sensitive projects, large lakes or dredging, or whatever it is, which may cost more? So are those figures robust in terms of consultation?
  (Dr Mance) There is an awful lot of implications in what you are asking. I think they are robust at the sort of level they are intended at. They are an indication of the scale of extra resource required rather than intended to be a precise figure to the last decimal point. In terms of whether they deliver on the ground, there is an issue as to whether the local community wants to be defended. In Shrewsbury, the proposal for the scheme started when I was running the patch. The community there decided after a lot of debates and discussion with us that it did not want a defence put through.

  54. It did not want that particular flood defence scheme.
  (Dr Mance) It wished to retain the visible sight of the river for the community, which we could understand. We may be able to help with another scheme, provided we can keep the cost within the scale of the benefits—and that is debatable—to achieve it. Generally we are trying to come up with approaches, which mean that you work with the whole catchment around the town, not just through the town. That is not always possible. It does depend on the scale of risk. So currently we are just moving a scheme at Melton Mowbray, which results from the 1998 floods, which does not involve work through the town but is, in fact, an increased flood storage area upstream in an SSI. We are working with the agreement of English Nature, creating a so-called green dam, using willow trees with a control structure. This means that we will have more control with the wetting of the meadows during winter to increase the conservation value. Just in odd winters, like at present, it might get considerably wetter than the wild life would like, but hopefully for not too long. We will provide a defence there which actually enhances conservation as well. That is possible in some places, but for central London that might be a bit more difficult. You have to find solutions that match the circumstances.

  55. May I follow on from that in terms of targets. In this Committee's report in November 1999, MAFF announced new high-level targets for flood and coastal defence to take effect from 1 April 2000. Are you satisfied that those targets, as a whole, cover all aspects of flood and coastal defence? The RSPB have suggested that there should be an additional target "to encourage a more strategic approach to inland flood defence planning". I wonder what your comments would be on that.
  (Dr Mance) We welcome the high-level targets. I am not sure they should cover or indeed could cover every single aspect of flood defence. I think, quite rightly, they focus on the major issues. We have generally, by the terms in our supervisory duties, as we have articulated in writing attached to the targets, got the task of collecting information and reporting it publicly. So for the first time we expect this information to be in the public domain, informing the communities at large about the relative performance of their local authorities, local flood committee, internal drainage boards. That will stimulate a lot of interest in cover in the local media, just as we have seen on education, and raise the profile issue in debates. So that is healthy and to be welcomed. I have lost the second point.

  56. The RSPB.
  (Dr Mance) The issue there. We are just entering into a formal memorandum of understanding with the RSPB. We already have one with World Wildlife Fund (UK) and with the Wildlife Trust. Together we can explore these areas. We have a joint EU funded project with the RSPB on just those issues. In the extra money provided by Government in response to these floods, part of the funding is to enable us to progress whole catchment strategies which are dealing with that sort of issue. So it is actually dealt with.

  57. Very quickly again, one of the targets is for assessing the condition of water courses and the state of flood defence assets. I know Mr Empson alluded to it before about the co-operation with local authorities, or rather lack of it, and you pointed it out in your own submission. How serious is the failure to co-operate in inspecting defences by the 82 local authorities? What have been the effects of that failure?
  (Mr Empson) We cannot give you evidence of the actual defence system. We are still awaiting conditions of defences coming in to September. But we will be carrying out an assessment during this year. We are, in fact, restricted by the amount of resources we can give to this. We did invest in various places to carry out the inspections themselves but we were only able to carry out about 20 per cent of those defences. So within the high-level targets we are talking to those particular local authorities to assess the flood risk of those defences.

  58. Do you need ministerial intervention on this one?
  (Dr Mance) I think the high-level targets we have drawn to the attention of all the local authorities, and the Local Government Association have been involved in discussions about the creation of high-level targets. The fact that from next summer the information on whether they are taking any interest at all in flood risk areas or not will be in the public domain. That is starting to register with some of them.

Mr Hurst

  59. The RSPB tell us that you object to about a thousand planning applications each year on the basis of flood risk. The local authority gives a grant to about a fifth of those. How would you assess your influence with local authority planning?
  (Dr Mance) One needs to step back and look at the way this system operates. We have had a circular on planning dealing with flood risk now for ten or 20 years but it is a circular rather than a policy guidance. The Government is committed to producing a PPG, a policy planning guidance note, which gives it much more status within the system. We believe in the process that this will mean flood risk will feature much more prominently in development plans and, therefore, give us much more ability to influence the whole system in relation to individual planning applications. We are in discussion with DETR in this case. We are hopeful that their final version of PPG 25 will make clear that the onus is on first the planning authority to show its considered flood risk and what its development plan does to flood risk. Then on the developer to prove that construction in a flood risk area is necessary and unavoidable. If it is, then that they are designing and building in a way which is inherently safe and sensible in a flood risk area. All the guidance for that is available. It is just a question of making it happen. It is a question of willpower.

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