Select Committee on Agriculture Eighth Special Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

 The Committee has received the following memorandum from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, constituting the Government's Reply to the Third Report from the Committee of the 2000-01 Session, Flood and Coastal Defence: Follow Up, made to the House on 24 January 2001.

  * * * * *


1. The Government welcomes this Report which follows up the Select Committee's Report of August 1998 and picks up issues arising from the widespread flooding in late 2000. The Committee concludes that lessons have been learned and steps taken to remedy shortcomings since the Committee's earlier Report. The Government notes and welcomes in particular the Committee's acknowledgement of the setting of targets for flood and coastal defence and the release of additional funds through the 2000 Spending Review and afterwards. The Committee nevertheless calls on Government to reconsider the response to the 1998 report in a number of areas to which it considers insufficient attention has been paid, and to address new issues including:

· The institutional and funding arrangements

· Development in the flood plain

· The adequacy of funding for flood and coastal defence

· Means for ensuring delivery of the long­term strategy

· Accountability and leadership at local level

2. The Committee has also raised one or two other issues which, whilst not specifically seeking a Government response, do nevertheless give the Government an opportunity to comment.

Paragraph 3 (Recommendation)

3. Nevertheless we reiterate our belief that there is a need for far more fundamental institutional reform.

Paragraph 4 (Recommendation)

4. We welcome this [funding] 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. The institutional framework which governs decision­making responsibilities is inextricably linked to the current arrangements for funding flood and coastal defence work and reflects the relative responsibilities of the Environment Agency and local authorities in this area. The Funding Review which is due to report in September 2001 may make recommendations with institutional implications. The September deadline was set to allow a proper examination of the options, consideration of the ramifications of any changes and the selection of recommendations. The Financial, Management and Policy Review of the Environment Agency may also make recommendations about how the current funding and institutional arrangements impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Environment Agency.

6. Once the respective Review recommendations have been received they will be considered along with comments made by the Committee to inform a Government consideration of whether institutional arrangements remain fit for purpose.

7. The Government notes the Committee's welcome for the Funding Review and its concerns that the review prevents responses in the interim to questions on funding or other arrangements. The Government agrees that there are undoubtedly some questions to which it is inappropriate to respond substantively until the outcome of the review is known. However, the Government does not accept the suggestion that responses are deferred unreasonably. MAFF and the Environment Agency have collaborated successfully in introducing measures to streamline scheme processing and are continuing to do so during the review with a view to utilising the additional funding provided in the 2000 Spending Review and in last autumn's package to accelerate river flood defence works.

Paragraph 5 (Recommendation)

8. We add our support to the ETRA Committee recommendation that only very exceptional development should be allowed in the functional flood plain. 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.

9. The Government is pleased to report that a further draft of Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG) 25 Development and flood risk was published for fast­track consultation on 6 February 2001. This draft substantially takes on board the recommendations of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Select Committee Report on Development on, or affecting, the flood plain, as was explained in the Government Response to that report published on 28 February 2001.

10. The draft includes a clear statement that building in functional flood plains, where excess water flows or is held at times of flood, should be wholly exceptional and limited to essential infrastructure that has to be there. The Government will publish the final PPG, having taken account of consultation responses, as soon as practicable since it regards this as a matter of urgency.

11. In addition, the Government has indicated that it is considering the possibility of a Flooding Direction to require development proposals to be referred to the Secretary of State where the local planning authority is minded to grant permission but where the Environment Agency sustains its objections to the planning application on grounds of flood risk. The Environment Agency already has the power, in common with any other person or organisation, to make representations requesting that an application be called in for decision by the Secretary of State.

Paragraph 6 (Comment)

12. We look forward to reading this ['lessons learned'] report and any subsequent Government proposals "to improve the responses and improve the structures we have in place to protect people from floods".

13. The Government is pleased to confirm that the Environment Agency's "Lessons Learned" report was published on 20 March. The key finding highlighted in the Report was that the Agency, and those responsible for the emergency response, performed well. Of particular note was the delivery in most, if not all, areas of a seamless and integrated service of flood forecasting, warning and response, which Elliot Morley called for after the Easter 1998 floods; the new flood warning codes introduced by the Environment Agency worked well. As noted in the memorandum of 17 November 2000 submitted to the Committee by MAFF, improvements have been made to the flood warning system and a flood warning improvement strategy has been agreed under which in excess of £100 million will be invested in flood warning improvements over a 10 year period.

14. It was also notable from the "Lessons Learned" Report that in a number of localities the emergency response arrangements benefited from exercises conducted in the summer of 2000 between the Environment Agency, local authorities and the emergency services.

15. As well as highlighting successful aspects of the handling of the autumn 2000 floods, the "Lessons Learned" Report drew attention to areas where there was room for improvement. These include further enhancements to the flood warning arrangements and addressing the confusion in the minds of the public about whom they should turn to for advice in the event of local flooding and the range of problems it can cause.

16. In addition, the legislation providing for, and funding of, local emergency planning is being reviewed by the Home Office following last December's Central Local Partnership (CLP) meeting at Leeds Castle, with a view to ensuring that responses to all emergencies, including flooding, are rapid and effective. The Government will ensure that the Home Office draw on the findings and conclusions in the "Lessons Learned" Report in carrying out their review. Emerging findings should be available to the CLP for their meeting in July with the full report available in September.

Paragraph 7 (Recommendation)

17. On the face of it, the £51 million announced, though welcome, is insufficient. The Government should reassess this provision urgently.

18. Aggregate annual investment in flood and coastal defence is currently of the order of ú400 million in England. Nevertheless, MAFF funding to support capital works is set to increase by 50% from £76 million in 2000/01 to £114 million in 2003­04. In addition, some £268 million is provided to support local authorities' expenditure on flood and coastal defence through the revenue support grant arrangements. This profile reflects a realistic view of what operating authorities can achieve in building up the programme. MAFF research indicates that additional funding may be in the nation's economic interest but the actual level of funding required is unclear at present; further research is underway to identify the long­term investment needs, taking account of climate change and future technical options for flood defence.

Paragraph 8 (Recommendation)

19. We believe that the Government should explore ways of taking account of these additional costs in the year in which they occur.

20. Following the exceptional floods in autumn 2000 the Government assembled a £11.6 million package (£6.6 million new money) to meet most of the Agency's costs in responding to last year's flooding and in undertaking emergency repairs. We have also made special arrangements to fund IDBs' emergency costs. Local authority emergency costs are claimable under the Bellwin arrangements.

21. The Government will explore options for improving the funding mechanisms through the Funding Review. DETR are also proposing to publish a Local Government Finance White Paper later in the year which will investigate the scope for reform.

Paragraph 9 (Comment)

22. The Government responded to the situation by relaxing rules on CAP schemes, including extending application dates and showing flexibility on set­aside regulations. Mr Morley also expressed his willingness to consider other measures such as "using agricultural land as winter flood storage areas and water management areas". We welcome the Government's willingness to exercise national discretion to help farmers in this dire situation.

23. The Government is grateful for the Committee's support for the action taken in order to relax scheme conditions which cannot reasonably be met because of the weather conditions and to allow as much flexibility as possible for farmers, particularly in respect of operations on set­aside land in the period after 15 January.

24. Following the autumn 2000 floods the Government has initiated catchment area studies. It is expected that these will lead to preparation of Catchment Flood Management Plans. Guidance is under preparation and is currently the topic of consultation by the Environment Agency. Pilot studies are about to be initiated in five catchments. The aim is to provide the vehicle for an holistic view of flood risk management in each catchment. This might include land use management to reduce run­off or provide for the storage of floodwater. Catchment Flood Management Plans will provide the information on which those individuals and authorities responsible for such decisions can be encouraged to act in a co­ordinated way.

Paragraph 10 (Comment)

25. 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 semi­natural grassland.

26. As announced in the Rural White Paper, published on 28 November 2000, the Government will consult on proposals to implement the uncultivated land provisions of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.

Paragraph 11 (Comment)

27. 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.

28. As far as the suggestion of a "Mr (or Ms) Flood" is concerned, responsibility for flood and coastal defence policy in England rests fully with MAFF. This was endorsed by the Committee's 1998 Report. Within MAFF, the Parliamentary Secretary Elliot Morley has undertaken the role of "floods supremo". In this role the Prime Minister specifically asked him to chair an inter­departmental Task Force to oversee and co­ordinate action in a "joined up Government" approach in response to the flooding. However, by its nature, flood defence policy management interacts inevitably with numerous policy areas; it would not be realistic to aspire to responsibilities resting within a single department, or within a department to a single line of command. Instead, the objective is effective "joined up" operation to achieve an effective and coherent system within and between departments.

Paragraph 11 (Recommendation)

29. The ongoing review of funding gives the Government an opportunity to develop a clear, long­term strategy and the means for ensuring its delivery. We believe that the Government must take this opportunity and recommend that it do so.

30. The Government retains its current policy aim to reduce the risks to people and the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion. In order to advance the national strategy for delivering this aim, MAFF introduced a series of high level targets, following consultation with relevant organisations, to facilitate a more certain and integrated delivery of national policies and objectives for flood and coastal defence with effect from 1 April 2000. These targets, which are kept under review, apply primarily to all operating authorities. Some targets apply to local authorities in their capacity as local planning authorities and also as bodies responsible for emergency planning; and there are also targets applicable to English Nature.

Paragraph 12 (Recommendation)

31. 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.

32. The Government shares the Committee's concerns that a number of local authorities are, for the reasons given in the Environment Agency's supplementary memorandum of 4 January 2001, unwilling or unable to inspect defences and critical watercourses and report on their condition to the Environment Agency; some of these local authorities have responsibility for lengths of critical watercourses. In most of these cases the LAs are willing to assist but a reported lack of resources or expertise prevents them from doing so. Such inspections are a key feature of the Government's high level targets for flood and coastal defence operating authorities and were agreed with the Local Government Association. The Environment Agency, which has a general flood defence supervisory duty, is continuing to explore with these local authorities as to how inspections might be carried out, as well as assessing the significance of the watercourses in the areas affected.

33. The Government would expect the Policy Statements required by the High Level Target by April this year to provide a clear indication of existing assets affecting or alleviating flood risk and the individual local authority's approach to managing the flood risk. On the basis of this information it will be possible to decide on the need for remedial action, and its form.

Paragraph 13 (Comment)

34. 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 long­term approach to a sustainable policy on flood defence.

35. The Government agrees with Committee's assertion that actions should be based on the best possible science and not panic measures. The UK is a world leader in climate change science and the DETR's two main programmes of work are the Climate Prediction Programme at the Hadley Centre, part of the Met Office, and the UK Climate Impacts Programme, co­ordinated by the Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford. DETR has policy responsibility for climate change issues and works closely with the Hadley Centre and the UKCIP team. MAFF and the Environment Agency co­ordinate their research programmes with DETR to help ensure that the impacts of climate change are fully considered in all aspects of flooding related decisions.

36. Despite the valuable work that is already underway, the Government recognises that there is a need to continue to improve our ability to predict how climate change will affect severe weather events and to assess climate impacts over future decades. More accurate information will help public and private bodies as well as individuals to make improved decisions about flood defence risks and investments. For this reason Government has pledged further funds to enhance and speed research on climate prediction and impacts assessment.

37. In addition, the production and general availability of the flood risk maps being updated by the Environment Agency will be of value to developers, businesses and the public in general in promoting awareness of areas at risk thereby giving them the incentive to take advance defensive measures where possible, be fully prepared in the event of flooding and know who to turn to for assistance after flooding. The inclusion of flood risk information in the proposed "seller's pack" for sales of residential property is also being considered. This would help raise awareness among home buyers and sellers.

38. With regard to the long­term strategy for flood risk management, the preparation of Catchment Flood Management Plans (more details given in the Government's response to paragraph 9) should provide for an holistic view of flood risk management in each catchment so this embraces all other possible approaches with a long­term framework.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

April 2001

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