Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 120 - 133)



  120. Which of course means that we will be able to get more hill livestock compensatory allowance on the West side and that is good news.
  (Mr Morley) Yes. I think you will be pushed in Cheshire, it is not going to tilt that much.

  Chairman: Montgomeryshire will be here for a while.

Mr Jack

  121. Minister, the RSPB made recommendations about the development of a floodplain. Can you tell us what MAFF's position is on that? Would you be prepared to give an unequivocal recommendation which says no more house building or development on the floodplain?
  (Mr Morley) I do not think, in all honesty, that there is a case for an unequivocal argument to say that in no circumstances will there be any kind of building within a floodplain. I actually do not think that is necessary. MAFF have been involved in consultation with DETR in relation to the new Policy Planning Guidance 25 which is being reviewed in the light of these recent floods and also in the light of my hon. friend, Nick Raynsford, the Planning Minister, who has been before the Environment Select Committee.

  122. Does the technical advice that you have received indicate to you that extra development in floodplains to date has had a detrimental effect on flooding?
  (Mr Morley) There is no argument that there have been some very bad planning decisions made over the last 20/30 years, there is no two ways about that. Houses have been built in very vulnerable places, little attention has been given to run-off or effects on water flows. I think that is absolutely true. I think the approach in the future will be that in some instances planning will have to be refused on flood plains; in some instances. In other instances, you can have development within existing structure plans which will not have an effect, and in other instances, if you are going to have development there will have to be flood mitigation measures. In those circumstances I think it will be the developers who have to pay for that.

  123. We have had an announcement in the last few days about your Government's intention to make house buying easier, the development of the so-called "Seller's Pack", lots of information to help would-be purchasers. Do you think one of the pieces of information they ought to have in this Seller's Pack in general terms available to house buyers is some indication about flood risk? Do you think the obligation for that should be on the Government, the insurance companies or some other group? The Committee discussed this in their report and you rejected the proposal but we have moved on a bit since then.
  (Mr Morley) We have moved on a bit since then. The Buyer's Pack is currently a pilot scheme and there would be have to be legislation brought forward if it was going to be applied nationally. It is designed at the moment to speed up the sale process. They are primarily legal documents in the Buyer's Pack but there is no reason in principle why you could not take that further.

  124. To use your words, to take it further, do you envisage making recommendations, whether it be to insurance companies, house builders, or any other body, about imparting information to potential house purchasers about flood risk? We heard earlier, for example, that the Environment Agency at the end of this week are going to have on their website their map showing risk. Do you think, for example, a householder automatically ought to have a copy of that presented to them by somebody?
  (Mr Morley) I think how far you take that is open to debate. If you are asking me personally, I know the Environment Agency are discussing this issue with the Law Society in relation to how you can develop this pack further and, as part of that, whether there should be environmental issues within the pack and what they should be. It is clearly obvious it would be logical that one of the environmental issues within the Buyer's Pack should be flood risk.

  125. As you rightly counsel us, the pack is but a trial—
  (Mr Morley) It is.

  126.—and the generality of house sales will take place whether or not a pack becomes reality. What recommendation is MAFF going to give, either to the Department of the Environment or to other agencies, about the question of availability of information on flooding?
  (Mr Morley) It is not really one for MAFF in relation to house sales because, of course, it is more of a planning issue which is not one for us. I would certainly want to see the information on flood risk mapping as widely available as possible, which is why we were very keen to see the Agency put it on the internet, we were very keen to see the Agency provide the CD-disk to every local authority in the country, which they have done, and of course it was one of the targets which we set in relation to flood risk mapping from MAFF to the Environment Agency. I think there is a debate on how far you take that and I think it is going to be part of the consultation which will take place on such things as the Buyer's Pack. There is a risk of blight, of course, in relation to this. The counter-argument is that people need to know. The other concern is that once you have a flood risk map, although it is helpful and useful in itself, what we do not want to do is to think that people who are just over that line on the flood risk map are therefore guaranteed never in any circumstances to be at risk from flooding. That is the other danger of being too prescriptive, too definitive, in relation to saying whether a house is at flood risk or not. I think the important thing is to make sure that the information is available, that people are aware of it, that people can access it, and also people understand that you cannot draw too definitive a conclusion from it apart from, if you are in the flood risk area then of course you are at risk. But it does not mean that if you are on the edge, you are not. This is where you get into difficulties about how tightly you draw these things.

  127. We discussed earlier in our evidence discussions which the Environment Agency and the ABI had, and we talked about the question of the uninsurability of some properties. In the context of those who make their living on the land, they are in many cases more vulnerable. You have just been talking about land being used as a water storage area, what discussions have you had with the insurance industry about ensuring they can continue to give cover, for example, in the context of farmhouses, farm buildings, farm machinery, for those people who are in potentially high risk areas, a risk which could be enhanced by virtue of them saying, "Okay, my land is suitable to act like a flood reservoir", indicating they are in a risk area but increasing their own personal vulnerability?
  (Mr Morley) We have had general discussions with the insurance companies but what you are referring to is a very specialist subject. The discussions we have had are on general properties—people's private homes and people's businesses. What I take it you are talking about is if we went a step further in relation to developing some land as flood storage or washlands. In those circumstances in many cases the actual farm buildings where land is washland have been deliberately built above the high water mark because people knew, going back in some cases centuries, the patterns of water in those areas and they tend to be raised. In other circumstances if, speaking hypothetically, you wanted to introduce a scheme which would involve flooding land periodically, perhaps not necessarily every year but at peaks of flooding in the winter, if some properties were at risk as part of the scheme you may have to defend those properties and that could be done.

Mr Todd

  128. I asked the Environment Agency when they gave evidence whether they would welcome a similar right of direction to a local authority to reject a planning application that the Highways Agency have for developments where they believe these conflict with road safety or matters of that kind. Would you support such a step?
  (Mr Morley) My understanding is that the Environment Agency's advice will be given greater emphasis in the new policy guidelines which will be coming forward now in January, so they are going to have an enhanced role.

  129. That may be so. We have certainly seen, as you have said yourself, some extremely poor decisions by local authorities which can continue to be perverse in spite of the apparent advice given to them. Is that something where we just say, in the English way, "They make those judgments, that is tough"?
  (Mr Morley) It does come down in some ways to how far you have power of direction and central control and how far you have an element of local democracy and local autonomy. All local authorities have professional planners and all professional planners know the kind of guidelines they should be working within. They are going to get clearer guidelines in relation to flood plain development under PPG 25 and that also includes the role of the Environment Agency in terms of their recommendations. Just bear in mind, even at the present time, as I understand it, 90 per cent of planning applications which are objected to or commented on by the Environment Agency are either rejected or adapted as a result of those comments.

  130. Further to that, would you then accept something more modest which would be that there should be a standard condition on applications in this sort of category which would oblige them to produce proposals which would be acceptable to the Environment Agency and if they did not then that application would not proceed?
  (Mr Morley) You are talking about areas of responsibility which are outside my own remit really in these but if you want me to venture a personal opinion, which is always dangerous in this game, Chairman, I was very interested in some of the discussions we held in the Cabinet Sub-Committee which has been set up by the Prime Minister in relation to dealing with the aftermath of the floods and making sure that people get the help and support that they need and they are not forgotten about, even when the floods are no longer in the national interest. I understand that there is a Scottish system whereby insurance companies are consulted by developers and, indeed, they need to know whether the insurers will actually provide insurance in relation to the development before it goes ahead. That is a very interesting idea and I only put that out as a thought. That is something which could be considered.

  131. That might deal with the idea of someone putting a housing estate where it is going to be flooded, but it would not deal with the possible consequences of that development on other areas around it.
  (Mr Morley) In terms of run-off you mean?

  132. Yes. In my area I have seen cases where a housing estate has remained dry in the last few weeks, however other people have suffered as a consequence.
  (Mr Morley) Yes. It can sometimes be quite difficult to measure the effect of one development on another, although I do not doubt that it can have that effect. That, again, is a job for the Environment Agency in terms of the advice that they will give the planning authorities, and the planning authorities do have a responsibility to take it into account.


  133. Thank you very much indeed, Minister, we will see you again, I have no doubt, on whatever subject. We will no doubt want to come back and see how things are panning out when you have had your review and begun to see a little bit of dry land, as it were.
  (Mr Morley) That is right. I will, of course, be only too happy that when we have the evaluation from the Agency to make sure that your Committee has a copy that you can consider yourselves.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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