Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



Mr Brake

  120. I have two issues to raise with the Minister. The first is that you have said that you should not rule out development in flood plains where measures are in place, and you have cited the Thames Barrier. Are you aware that according to the Environment Agency by 2020 or, possibly, 2030 the Barrier, " . . . will not be able to sustain the standard of service", which I take to mean that there might be flooding? Their estimate is that there will be a requirement for £4 billion to be spent over 40 years in the Thames Estuary area to resolve this issue. Can you tell us what moneys will actually be available, and would it not be sensible to stop development going ahead in the flood plain area if guarantees are not forthcoming that those funds will be available over that time-scale to deal with this problem?
  (Mr Raynsford) As you will appreciate, coastal defences are a matter for my colleagues at MAFF, and I know that they are well aware of these issues and are considering them very carefully. I have to say I disagree with your suggestion that there should be a moratorium on any building in flood plains because of that potential risk in a period beyond 2020. It clearly is our responsibility to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place and I cannot obviously speak for my colleagues in MAFF but we will certainly be keen to ensure that appropriate measures are taken. However, to stop all development in the London flood plain because of a theoretical risk beyond 2020 would essentially be to say "We are consigning our whole brownfield strategy to the dustbin", and that would mean far more building on greenfield sites, which I suspect would not have the support of this Committee.

  121. I do not think the Environment Agency was saying that there was a theoretical risk if they have quantified what needs to be spent over a 40-year period to address it, but let us let that pass. The second issue is that we have heard from the Environment Agency today that one million people could be put at risk if there is not a tough PPG 25. With a toughened PPG—and you have indicated that you want that—how many people do you think will be left at risk? Is it acceptable for any to be left at risk, or is there an acceptable threshold which you would be satisfied with in terms of numbers or frequency of flooding, or whatever?
  (Mr Raynsford) We want to ensure that in cases of all new development no development takes place that puts people at risk, and that is where the sequential approach that I have suggested is absolutely fundamental to ensure that we are always looking for the sites that provide the safest option. However, I cannot, I am afraid, repair the damage that has been done by inappropriate development in the past in areas that may be vulnerable. As far as new development is concerned, our aim will be to ensure that all development is properly protected, either because it is in a site which is not deemed to be at risk, or because appropriate defence measures have been taken to safeguard that site. One cannot give an absolute guarantee because there are extreme climatic circumstances that we cannot anticipate now, which could, in the case of a tidal wave, completely overwhelm any defences. What I can say is that on the normal risk base assessment our aim is to ensure that no development takes place that is not protected in an appropriate way.

  122. So your aim is to ensure that in relation to each and every one of those one million people currently identified in possible developments in flood plain areas nobody would be at risk?
  (Mr Raynsford) Our aim would be to ensure that all developments that take place are protected, either by the nature of the site or by the defensive measures that are taken to protect that site, and that those should provide a more than adequate safeguard against risks that can be reasonably foreseen.

Christine Butler

  123. Is your Department and that of MAFF putting their heads together to look at future risks of tidal flood within the Thames Estuary, which might include looking at options for a lower Thames Barrier and other measures?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are, and the Deputy Prime Minister, as I mentioned earlier, has been particularly keen to discuss the wider issues. He emphasised that the recent floods are a wake-up call to ensure that we do look more seriously than we have in the past. He is currently in Holland for reasons you will know to do with the important conference in The Hague, but he is today visiting some sites where specific defences have been put in place to safeguard against the risk of flooding in that country, which is even more vulnerable than much of the UK. So I can assure you he is very much appraised of the problems and he is discussing with a wide range of other bodies, including other government departments and the relevant agencies, what needs to be done in the longer term, not just in the short term.

  124. Which could include a lower Thames Barrier, amongst other things? Is it not important to distinguish in your answers and in our questions the differences between the fluvial flood plain and the tidal one? Supposing a local authority were minded to not allow residential development in an area of fluvial plain, or very close to it and at risk, and yet it is not defended in firm policy yet? Would it win?
  (Mr Raynsford) We cannot, obviously, anticipate what would happen on any individual appeal that might come to our Department in the event of an appeal against a planning decision. It would be wrong of me to give a blanket judgment in advance. As you know, we have a quasi judicial role. What I can say is that we are keen to ensure there are appropriate policies in place to provide safeguards for any new development that is contemplated in areas where there is a risk of flooding.

Mr Blunt

  125. I am slightly confused in the answers you gave to Mr Brake and what you said earlier. You said you want to protect property from a serious risk of flooding, and you then said to Mr Brake you wanted to give, in effect, absolute protection. Is there a working definition inside the Department? Is it against one in a thousand year floods, or is it against one in a hundred year floods? If properties, for example, are due to be built on greenfield that was under water 40 years ago, and defence mechanisms could not be built, what would be the position of your Department?
  (Mr Raynsford) Again, if I can just say, it is always wrong to extrapolate on the basis of past trends because future patterns may well differ, so I will not use that particular example. However, your point is a valid one, that there is a hierarchy of risk, and that is defined and that is what we are proposing to adopt in the sequential approach that I outlined to the Committee. Our objective is to ensure—if I can clarify again what I said in response to Mr Brake—that we are providing safeguards against all reasonably foreseeable risks. I did say that one could not guard against any risk at all, because some so catastrophic that they cannot be seen and have never been experienced before could occur, and that would make any such—

  126. But "foreseeable risk" includes climate change that we appear to be undergoing due to global warming.
  (Mr Raynsford) Foreseeable risks include the risks both of tidal and coastal problems associated with rising sea levels and other implications of global warming. They include the flooding of river valleys which we have experienced very badly over the last two months, associated with particularly high levels of rainfall and the difficulty of the existing systems absorbing that level of water. These are risks that we are defining, there are specific tests—whether it is one in a hundred or one in a thousand—that apply in different circumstances, and our intention is to apply those risks in the sequential approach.

  127. Those tests will be clear in the new PPG 25?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

Mr Stevenson

  128. Minister, subject to Planning Policy Guidance issued by your Department, you have quite rightly put the onus on local authorities, in particular, to implement their planning decisions consistent with that guidance and the wider public interest. Trying to put this in a context, is it possible for you to supply the Committee with how many appeals have been upheld by your Department following refusal by local authorities to allow development to take place on flood plains over the last ten years, let us say?
  (Mr Raynsford) I imagine it would be possible for us to obtain that. I have not got it to hand, but I will ask my officials to look into that and I will write to the Committee if I may with an answer.

  129. Thank you. Second question. In the consultation document to PPG 25, at paragraph 21, Planning Control, it states (and I paraphrase somewhat) that development should be safe and not increase the flood risk elsewhere or threaten the new designated sites. Where necessary conditions should be attached to permissions to secure these objectives. Where these objectives cannot be secured, permission should be refused. Presumably, using the sequential approach, some of those conditions would mean adequate defences being provided?
  (Mr Raynsford) The sequential approach would involve looking at sites that were available that did meet the criteria, and if an alternative site is available which clearly is safe then it would be perverse to permit development on a site that was seen as a high risk or potential risk site when there was an alternative site which was readily available which was safe.

  130. I understand that, but this paragraph does talks about where, in the wider overall interest, permission is granted for development within a flood plain. That is the context of the paragraph. So that is the basis of my question. Presumably, some of the requirements may mean flood defences.
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes, indeed.

  131. Who should pay for those flood defences?
  (Mr Raynsford) Our guidance—and this is, again, set out in the draft PPG 25 and I have already indicated we intend to stick to that—is that the developer should pay for those defences.

  132. Thank you. My last question is to do with something, I must say, I do not quite understand in the guidance, but you will forgive me. The library note on the PPG 25 consultation document has, right at the top bullet point: "Draft guidance advises that the susceptibility of land to flooding is a material consideration." That is the kernel of the thing. However, according to your consultation document "Flood issues have long been recognised as being material planning considerations". What has changed?
  (Mr Raynsford) The change is from circulars which were the vehicle by which concerns were previously expressed by Government, and circulars were issued in 1982—17 in 1982—and circular 30 in 1992. The Planning Policy Guidance which we are now issuing is an upgrade of the seriousness with which the issue is taken, because Planning Policy Guidance notes do have a formal status in the planning system, and by definition have to be considered in all planning matters. It is upgrading the concern and importance of the subject—

  133. Your Department has strengthened its intentions?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have strengthened that, but above all it is the content of the guidance that has been strengthened.

  134. Subject to Mrs Dunwoody's permission, I would like to press you on that for clarification. If I am sitting on a development control sub-committee in a local authority and I see material considerations have always been there (and you are saying it should take material considerations into account), I think I would want more clarity in what you are actually saying. I understand you have beefed it up and made it a PPG rather than a circular, but what criteria change has there been? How is that going to be reflected in the details that local authorities must take into account when considering what is material and what is not material?
  (Mr Raynsford) Both the force of the statement—the initial presumption that there should not be inappropriate development in an area of flood plain unless that can be protected in the way I have outlined in response to questions—and the sequential approach, the search sequence to go through sites to ensure that one is concentrating development on sites that are safe sites and sites that can easily be protected, are new and tougher statements.

  135. Plus, presumably, the developer pays for any defences. So these are new, they were not contained in either previous circulars or PPGs in the past.

  136. Some of the guidance has been rolled forward, clearly, but this is a much stronger statement. There are a number of new elements proposed, that I have outlined this morning, which go far beyond previous guidance.

Dr Ladyman

  137. The G in PPG stands for Guidance, so we have got to assume, for the very good reasons that you stated earlier, that there will occasionally be properties built in flood risk areas. Given what we now know about risk and the needs to explain risk to people, would it not be appropriate to go further than a PPG and require local authorities to issue flood information with the local government search?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are keen to ensure that there is improved information, and that is one of the things we have been talking to the Environment Agency about, including flood plain maps and other advice and information which really does ensure that people locally are aware of the full-scale risk, because it is in no one's interests—and this does apply to existing property that is already developed—to put themselves in a position of risk unknowingly. So information is crucially important. However, I do think it is equally important to have clear guidance that does set the framework for planning decisions to ensure that those decisions do reflect the issues that we are all concerned about.

  138. I understand that you want to make the information available, and all of us who have been on this Committee and have looked at floods, when we go to buy a property, you can be pretty sure we will make inquires about floods, but most of our constituents will not. Unless you make it a statutory requirement for local governments to tell people about flood warnings when they are issuing local government search information, nine times out of ten it will not happen.
  (Mr Raynsford) Again, this is a question where the interpretation could be quite problematic. Let us just take the illustration I have given about the 36 per cent of brownfield sites in London that are on the defined flood plain. If there were to be a blanket requirement of a flood risk warning to be issued in those cases, this could well deter development because people would be reluctant to occupy it, because they might—on the basis of seeing a note saying "This is potentially at risk because it is in a flood plain"—not look further at the issue to analyse whether there were effective defences in place or not.

  139. Would the flood warning in that case not say "This property is in a flood plain but it is protected by the Thames Barrier. There is no risk until 2030 when the Thames Barrier is taken down"? Whereas somewhere else it might say something completely different.
  (Mr Raynsford) I think that would be a very difficult issue to put in a document, which might be the subject of legal action.

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