Select Committee on Agriculture Third Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Report:-



1. In August 1998 we published a report on Flood and Coastal Defence, recommending major changes to the institutional and financial arrangements for protecting vulnerable areas of England and Wales from damage caused by flood and coastal erosion.[2] Our conclusions were generally well received and the Government accepted many of our proposals for improvements. In November 2000, prompted by the widespread floods of the autumn, we decided to revisit the sections of our Report with relevance to inland waters by taking oral evidence from the Environment Agency and from Mr Elliot Morley MP, Minister for Fisheries and the Countryside, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The transcript of that session which took place on 28 November is published following this Report, together with written evidence submitted by other interested parties. We are grateful to all who contributed to this short inquiry. In this Report we review the Government response to our previous Report, address the key issues which arose from our evidence session and highlight certain difficulties which must be resolved in the long term.

The Government response to our 1998 Report

2. The Government welcomed our Report on Flood and Coastal Defence as "a valuable contribution to the debate on a highly important subject".[3] In a debate on the Report held in February 1999 the Minister responsible, Mr Elliot Morley MP, described it as "an excellent piece of work, which I enjoyed reading".[4] However, he added that "it raised a great many questions", and it is apparent from the Government response to the Report and from its approach to implementing our recommendations that the Committee and MAFF do not agree on the answers to all those questions. Whilst the Government has made welcome progress on a number of the recommendations, particularly through the setting of targets for flood and coastal defence,[5] and has released additional funds through the 2000 Spending Review and afterwards,[6] we are concerned that MAFF has paid insufficient attention to some of our most important proposals.

3. There are three points which we would draw once again to the Government's attention. First is the need for consultation on the reorganisation of institutional and administrative responsibilities for flood and coastal defence, with a preference for devolving greater decision-making responsibility to the regional level. We envisaged that this would include:

  • the establishment of a clear distinction between inland and coastal issues

  • integrated management of flooding issues for main rivers, non-main rivers and in Internal Drainage Board Areas, and

  • integrated management of flooding and erosion issues on the coast.

The overall aim would be to streamline the current Byzantine arrangements and improve the formulation, implementation and financing of the Government's policy on flood and coastal defence. We were disappointed that the Government responded to this group of recommendations by rejecting fundamental change to the present institutional arrangements in favour of "developing the way in which the Environment Agency exercises its current general supervisory duty and seeking to establish national targets for all operating authorities".[7] More recently, the Government has brought forward proposals to allow for an increase in the number of Regional Flood Defence Committees, thus enabling them to replace local flood defence committees and removing one barrier to a move towards a single tier of such Committees. Nevertheless, we reiterate our belief that there is a need for far more fundamental institutional reform (see also paragraph 11 below).

4. Second, we recommended that MAFF and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions undertake a joint review of the current financing of flood and coastal defence works. This recommendation arose from our concerns about the effect of funding arrangements on the decisions made by local authorities in balancing the maintenance of existing infrastructure and the construction of new works, and from our recognition of the need to simplify the current funding procedures. We were pleased with the Government's undertaking to set in train such a review but progress in this area has been unacceptably slow. A consultation paper was finally issued in April 1999. Over a year later, whilst "initial consideration of the options" was still underway, the Government decided to initiate a "wider and more fundamental review of funding", with a projected completion date of September 2001.[8] We welcome this review but are concerned at the prolonged timescale, especially as it provides an excuse to delay response to all questions on funding or other arrangements whilst the review continues.

5. Third, we still have concerns about developments in the flood plain. We recommended that there should be a clear presumption against development in flood plain land where the flooding risk attached to a particular development, as determined by the Environment Agency, is deemed to outweigh the advantages. We also sought powers for the Environment Agency to require developers to set aside sufficient monies for the provision of required flood defence works where planning permission on land liable to flooding was granted. In response, the Government undertook to consider whether the guidance to local planning authorities should be strengthened.[9] Since then the Government has published draft Planning Policy Guidance 25 (PPG25) on Development and Flood Risk. Our colleagues on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs (ETRA) Committee have recently issued a short report on Development on, or affecting, the Flood Plain, which examined PPG25 and made recommendations aimed at strengthening the final version.[10] It appears that some of these will be accepted but we note that Mr Morley thought that there was no case "to say that in no circumstances will there be any kind of building within a floodplain".[11] We add our support to the ETRA Committee recommendation that only very exceptional development should be allowed in the functional flood plain.[12] The Government should consider whether the Environment Agency should have the power to refer planning applications on which it has reasonable concerns regarding flooding to the Minister.

The recent floods

6. There have been several serious flooding incidents since our Report but the worst and most widespread of these began in September 2000, just days after new flood warning arrangements had been put in place by the Environment Agency. The autumn floods were a severe test of the improvements which had been made following the Independent Review of the Easter Floods (the Bye Report) and our own inquiry. Mr Morley's early verdict on the performance of the Environment Agency was that it "was much improved" on 1998 and that "the response from all the emergency services and from the Environment Agency has generally been extremely good".[13] He has requested a 'lessons learned' report from the Environment Agency, to be delivered by the end of February 2001, which "will include an assessment of the causes and effects of the flooding, the effectiveness of flood forecasting and warning and of emergency response arrangements ... [and] the impact of development in the flood plain".[14] We look forward to

reading this report and any subsequent Government proposals "to improve the responses and improve the structures we have in place to protect people from floods".[15]

7. The Government itself offered direct assistance through improvements to the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities which incur unexpected costs in response to floods and through an additional £51 million over 4 years for flood defence works, whole catchment area assessment studies and flood warning system improvements. The £51 million comes on top of an increase in MAFF funding of £35 million over the next three years announced in the Spending Review 2000. We welcome this funding although we note that it will not be sufficient to clear the backlog of flood defence works. The Environment Agency, which cited a capital scheme in Lewes (flooded in autumn 2000) as an example of those which had fallen victim to lack of funding,[16] argued that with "adequate resources, it could take us five or ten or 15 years to catch up with the backlog".[17] It regarded the conclusion of a study commissioned by MAFF that an increase of £100 million per annum was required for capital works and maintenance investment as "a reasonable assessment" of expenditure needs.[18] On the face of it, the £51 million announced, though welcome, is insufficient. The Government should reassess this provision urgently.

8. However, we are very concerned at the prospect of severe increases in the precepts levied on local authorities by the Environment Agency. Some local authorities face increases of over 60 per cent, representing substantially more than £1 million (for example, North Yorkshire County Council faces a precept increase of £1.4 million). This increase is not accounted for in the Standard Spending Assessment formula until the following year, leaving local authorities to sustain a substantial hit on their cash-flow. We believe that the Government should explore ways of taking account of these additional costs in the year in which they occur.

9. MAFF also offered specific assistance to farmers to help them with the consequences of flooding. The NFU compiled a "dossier of weather chaos" and later estimated that bad weather over the past few months (not just the flooding) "may have cost British farmers half a billion pounds".[19] The Government responded to the situation by relaxing rules on CAP schemes, including extending application dates and showing flexibility on set-aside regulations.[20] Mr Morley also expressed his willingness to consider other measures such as "using agricultural land as winter flood storage areas and water management areas".[21] Again, we welcome the Government's willingness to exercise national discretion to help farmers in this dire situation.

10. The ETRA Committee condemned MAFF for its continuing failure since 1985 to implement the environmental impact assessment directive which would require a farmer to undertake an assessment where he intended to change land-use.[22] We are pleased to note that Mr Morley has promised that a draft proposal "will come out in the near future" on assessments in relation to ploughing up natural and semi-natural grassland.[23] The wider question of the impact of agricultural land-use upon the propensity to flood is an interesting one which would merit exploration in greater detail than we can undertake in this Report but to which we may wish to return.

Long term issues in flood defence

11. The timescale to address the backlog of works needed for flood defence underlines the demand for long-term policy and planning in this area. This in its turn highlights the crucial need for a clear strategy and appropriate institutional and administrative arrangements to deliver that strategy as we argued in our previous Report. We are still not convinced that these are in place. The Environment Agency was strongly of the opinion that "there is an urgent need to streamline" current arrangements and that "further change and progress is needed if we are to ... provide the seamless and integrated service the Minister requires".[24] The Agency had suggested to the Government that there should be a National Joint Strategic Emergency Group to bring together all the bodies involved in flood defence.[25] The Government turned down that proposal at the time but in evidence to us Mr Morley indicated that MAFF was prepared to consider it if the Agency retabled the proposal as a result of the lessons learned report.[26] We are concerned that for as long as Mr Morley continues to insist that "we have not closed our minds towards institutional reform or to try to make things more streamlined" but the Government makes no move to initiate such reform,[27] the hard work which has gone into establishing targets for flood defence matters will depend upon too many different agencies for its implementation. Even at the very top, there is an awkward division of responsibilities between MAFF and DETR and no obvious "Mr (or Ms) Flood", a designated person ultimately responsible for flood and coastal defence. The ongoing review of funding gives the Government an opportunity to develop a clear, long-term strategy and the means for ensuring its delivery. We believe that the Government must take this opportunity and recommend that it do so.

12. We found similar difficulties of lack of strategy and leadership in local delivery of flood defence. The Environment Agency reported that nine local authorities were unwilling to carry out inspections in response to requests for analysis of the flood defences for which they were responsible and that over 110 others had responded that they were unable to do the job "because of a current lack of resources, lack of expertise resulting from withdrawal of their agency agreement with the local water company or a combination of the two reasons".[28] The Environment Agency had no means to compel action or even a basis of knowing how material that lack of co-operation might be. It is clear that accountability and leadership at local level is required and that either greater powers are required by the Environment Agency or stronger direction from DETR.

13. Another long-term issue which has become pressing as a result of recent events is managing expectations of protection against flooding. It seems likely that flooding will become more common than it has been in the past and those living in areas which have previously been safe from floods may now find themselves much more vulnerable. Clearly, it is impossible to build a flood defence system that protects all residential and agricultural land in all imaginable circumstances; and it would be prohibitively expensive and probably environmentally unwise to try to do so. Therefore, it is essential that those living in at-risk areas are kept informed of the level of risk, of the protection which they can expect and of the actions they can take to safeguard themselves and their property. This raises a number of questions, some of which we set out in our previous Report in reference to local authority searches and the role of insurance companies. We welcome the move by the Environment Agency to make its flood risk maps available on the Internet as a step in the right direction but we accept Mr Morley's warning that this could give false reassurances to those on the edge of risk areas.[29] It is also important that the Environment Agency provide clear guidance to the public so they can fully understand the basis of the risk calculations involved in the production of the flood risk map. There is also the related issue of the accuracy of predictions for flooding. It is vital that both major capital works and actions taken by individual householders are based on the best possible science, rather than panic measures; and it may be that more funding or research effort needs to be invested in this area. All these issues should be addressed as part of a long term approach to a sustainable policy on flood defence.


14. When faced with flooding as widespread as was witnessed last autumn, it is difficult at first to stand back and judge the long-term implications of such events. The response of the Environment Agency, the emergency services, the Government and others involved demonstrated that lessons had been learnt since 1998. However, we hope that the report on the official reaction to the floods, together with the review of funding arrangements, will be used by the Government to find answers to some of the questions we have flagged up both in this and in our last Report. We are aware that this short inquiry has merely permitted us to identify areas which need to be explored in much more detail, within and outside Parliament. We are certain that flood and coastal defence will be a subject high on the agenda of the Agriculture Committee in the near future.

2  Sixth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997-98, HC 707-I.  Back

3  Fifth Special Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997-98, HC 1117, Replies by the Government and the Environment Agency to the Sixth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997-98, "Flood and Coastal Defence" (HC 707)Back

4  HC Debates, 24 February 1999, c. 343. Back

5  Ev. p. 16, para 1. Back

6  Ev. p. 17, para 8. Back

7  HC 1117, Session 1997-98, p. xix. Back

8  Ev. p. 18. Back

9  HC 1117, Session 1997-98, pp. xii-iii, xx.  Back

10  Second Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 2000-01, Development on, or affecting, the Flood Plain, HC 64.  Back

11  Q 121. Back

12  HC 64, Session 2000-01, Recommendation c. Back

13  Q 71. Back

14  Ev. p. 17. Back

15  Q 71. Back

16  Q 34. Back

17  Q 36. Back

18  Ev. p. 4, para 6.2. Back

19  NFU Media releases, 8 November 2000, 5 January 2001. Back

20  Q 111. Back

21  Q 112. Back

22  HC 64, Session 2000-01, p. xv. Back

23  HC Debates, 24 November 2000, c. 600. Back

24  Ev. pp. 1, 6. Back

25  Q 21. Back

26  Q 87. Back

27  Q 99. Back

28  Ev. p. 40. Back

29  Q 126. Back

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