Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000
1. Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming.
Please would you introduce yourselves?
(Dr Mance) I am Dr Geoffrey Mance, the Director of
Water Management in the Environment Agency.
(Mr Chapman) I am Jonathan Chapman, National
Flood Defence Policy Adviser.
(Mr Steward) I am Pat Steward. I am the Regional Development
Planner, South West.
2. Dr Mance, did you want to say anything before
(Dr Mance) I have one brief comment. The vast majority
of people have seen the distress and trauma caused by the recent
flooding. Strong, clear policy guidance on planning could prevent
another approximately one million people from finding themselves
in the same risk situation in the future. Therefore, it is important
to us that the planning policy guidance from Government is clear,
distinct and robust.
3. I believe that everybody would join you in
that. We shall ask some questions that will help us to evaluate
those sorts of responses. Is the run-off induced by recent development
or by modern farming a significantly greater contributor to flooding
than it used to be?
(Dr Mance) Over the past 50 or 60 years it is clear
that there has been substantial land use change. Urbanisation
clearly has introduced large areas of concrete and asphalt, which
accelerate the run-off water and make downstream flooding problems
worse. Equally, over the same period, since the war, we have seen
quite large areas of field under-drainage sponsored by government
grants in the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s which has had the same
effect. Some studies that took place in the 1970s suggested that
the peak flow rates downstream had changed by as much as 15 or
20 per cent. We have also seen a switch from spring to winter
cereals, with a consequent change of land use in terms of the
way that fields are ploughed, the roughness of the fields and
their ability to retain standing water so as to allow that to
soak into the ground slowly, rather than running off rapidly.
All those matters have caused an increased risk of flooding downstream
of the areas of those land use changes. It has been very pronounced.
4. You are saying that it is not one more than
another, but it is a combination of all the factors?
(Dr Mance) There are few catchments left in England
where any one of those factors in isolation is causing a change.
It is a combination of all of them and teasing apart the contribution
from any one is quite difficult.
5. How did the amount of rainfall in the past
two months compare with previous rainfall?
(Dr Mance) It has been exceptional. In Yorkshire along
the Pennines, down to York Minster and in the lower Ouse catchment,
which has featured heavily in the media, there has been two months'
rainfall in two weeks. That gives some idea of the severity. That
has come in four bursts of rain so that we have had close to three
inches of rain in 24 hours on four occasions. York and downstream
has experienced not one flood but four floods in two weeks.
6. I represent the area mostly north of Yorkshire,
the worst area to be affected. Do you, as an agency, believe that
there should be a moratorium on house building, particularly in
an area like the Vale of York, about 30 per cent of which is in
the flood plain?
(Dr Mance) Over the past few years we have been careful
not to say that there should be a complete veto on development
in flood risk areas. That is because there are some large parts
of the country that actually lie at or below sea level, for instance,
in East Anglia. To say that there should be no development or
redevelopment in those areas is clearly very difficult. However,
we strongly believe that at development-plan stage and for each
development proposal flood risk needs to be a prominent consideration
at the start. We think that when planning authorities are putting
together development plans that they should consider where the
flood risk areas are, as one of the first issues and that they
should ask whether the designation of land areas for development
make flood risk worse or reduce it. There is a clear choice to
be made. In the past, and indeed under the present guidance, we
do not think that they are required to give the matter sufficient
prominence in their thinking.
7. If you are right about the equal part played
by the better drainage of agricultural land, presumably that should
also be somewhere in the equation?
(Dr Mance) It is an area of debate that we have raised
with the Government. There is an issue about how we examine that
and try to get into whole catchment modelling so that we can take
account of those shifts. There is an MAFF R and D programme which
is carrying out a substantial element of research into establishing
8. I want to ask you to reconsider your previous
answer. What kind of breakdown, or what kind of proportions are
we talking about? The answer seems to indicate that where there
is a difficulty with a particular area, you obviously do not say
that there should be no development, but you say you should try
to evaluate the effect of all that. If you are not able to tell
me what 50 per cent of the water will do when it comes off the
agricultural land, you will not come up with very accurate figures,
(Dr Mance) At the moment with the present land use
and catchments, we are able to predict the flood response from
rainfall quite accurately. The difficulty is taking account of
past and future land use changes and building that into the picture,
and particularly anticipating future change. Agriculture responds
quite dramatically to shifts in subsidy rates of particular crop
types. We believe that when the subsidy rates are changed there
should be a form of strategic environmental impact assessment
that tries to predict the consequent impact on land use, how it
will shift and the likely impact on particular parts of the country.
9. That is intelligent. However, how do you
then feed that information in, because you were saying to Miss
McIntosh that when there is a question of development in a particular
area that information should be available. If you are right, how
do you feed the agricultural element of that in as well?
(Dr Mance) At the moment we take account of the present
usage of the catchment response. Unless you get a shift in subsidy
rates that causes a significant shift in land use, the actual
change in land use is quite slow. I was referring to an impact
over 50 years, a cumulative impact. Separate and parallel with
that we have research programmes running to develop the tools
to enable us to assess that and turn it into quantitative estimates
historically and to enable us to extend them in the future.
10. When would you expect that model to be available?
(Dr Mance) Some time in the next three years.
11. On the urbanisation that you spoke about,
the particular problem that has occurred in areas like Rawcliffe,
Thoroughbridge and Thirsk is similar to the rest of the country.
There is a two-pronged development. From the 1920s onwards new
housing has been built in an area that is clearly a flood plain
and that has been compounded by urbanisation such as moving-park-and-rides
on to what are green belt sites. How do you, as an agency, assess
the flood risk from that level of urbanisation where you have
to assess the extra sewage and drainage requirements of that urbanisation?
(Dr Mance) We take account of the make-up of the land
upstream of a particular town in looking at how that catchment
will respond in terms of the river flooding and the change in
flood frequency within that. Also at the planning stage, increasingly
robustly over the past ten years, we have put in comments on planning
proposals and development plans to try to influence and to ensure
that the flood risk element has a great prominence. We have also,
jointly with Government, sponsored research and produced a design
manual earlier this year. This means things like car parks can
be designed in a way so that they are not impervious, and squirt
the water off, but so that they retain the water and allow it
to soak in and not to generate downstream flooding problems as
they currently do. It is a multi-pronged approach of trying to
raise the issue and get a better response. Currently, we operate
within government guidance on flood risk in relation to planning
which is relatively diffuse and weak. Therefore, we are seeking
to influence, to persuade and to cajole, in the absence of clear
government guidance, which is robust in itself. That gives quite
a lot of discretion, therefore, to planning authorities as to
how much notice they take.
12. Does the Environment Agency have a role
to play when the development has taken place? For example, does
it have a role in seeing that drains are cleared in the way that
they should be and that rivers are dredged in the way that they
should be. Do you have a role in that respect?
(Dr Mance) We have a number of roles. We are very
conscious that it is easy to become "job's worth" in
our view and talk about the "wrong sort of flood". We
are conscious of that and we are determined to avoid that. For
the main arterial routes we have the clear responsibility for
maintaining them and ensuring that they are kept clear, to carry
out bank-side vegetation maintenance and so on, so that they remain
clear during floods. We have a supervisory role of oversight of
other organisations involved in drainage. So we look at the way
in which local authorities perform, for instance. Over the past
12 or 18 months we have been talking to local authorities and
trying to ensure that they or we inspect their flood defences,
and those water courses that are likely to give rise to flooding
in built-up areas. We are not so interested in those running across
farmland, but we are particularly interested in those running
across through or near towns. We have had varying degrees of co-operation.
From next summer, under a MAFF initiative of setting targets,
the relative performance will be openly published. As we have
seen in education and elsewhere, that may attract a debate about
the issue of relative performance in maintaining the system.
13. What advice would you give the Government
on streamlining responsibilities between the bodies involved,
the Environment Agency, the Internal Drainage Board and the local
authorities? We seem to have a particularly arcane system, not
just in planning applications, but also in giving flood warnings.
(Dr Mance) Two years ago the Agriculture Select Committee
looked at the whole issue of flood defences and made a range of
recommendations, one of which was that there should be a review
of the arrangements for flood defences and how they are financed.
We welcomed that and supported it. We also welcomed the suggestion
that there should be a review of the distinction currently made
between the main arterial drainage systems and the minor water
courses. Our current view would be that we would not want to see
all water courses put under one organisation. We think that there
is a case for rationalising responsibilities. We have inherited
a lot of trivial water courses in farming areas that do not warrant
our attention. Equally, over the past 18 months, jointly with
the Local Government Association, and the Association of Drainage
Authorities, we have agreed criteria for identifying the critical
water courses close to urban areas. There is a case for re-examining
whether the responsibilities of those should transfer to a single
body like ourselves where the expertise on drainage can be applied.
14. When talking about draft PPGs, particularly
PPG 25, you said that some legislation was weakI think
that was the word you usedand that some of the guidance
was weak. At what point do you have an input into that? If you
have an input, why is it still weak?
(Dr Mance) My colleagues will know the details better
than I. The existing guidance I believe dates from 1992 and it
is a circular as opposed to a PPG. Its standing is at a lower
level in the system.
15. But its standing is weak, Mr Steward?
(Mr Steward) The current circular effectively promotes
mitigation. The developers and local authorities can find ways
around our concerns. It does not actually require them to examine
closely the precise location.
16. Are you saying that you have told them clearly
what they ought to do and it is set down quite clearly, but because
of the status of the circular nobody takes any notice of it? Perhaps
it is not quite that and I do not want to put words in your mouth.
(Dr Mance) If you watched the "Panorama"
programme on Sunday evening you would have seen the flats being
built in Tonbridge that were actually flooded. That development
is going ahead against our advice.
17. What about PPG 25? Was it drawn up in close
consideration and consultation with yourselves?
(Dr Mance) There was a lot of discussion.
18. Who wrote the minutes of the discussions?
(Dr Mance) We repeatedly explained our views of what
19. What came out of that?
(Dr Mance) We made clear our concerns about the document
that was consulted on and the need for it to be made clear and