Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Second Report


The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. In the last three years flooding has once again become a matter of great concern. In Easter 1998 there were serious floods in the midlands. In June 2000 over 1000 properties were flooded in the north east of England. This was followed by the wettest autumn since records began, and flooding affected large parts of the country.[9] In October a severe flood affected 600 homes and 200 businesses in Lewes. We were informed by the local district council that "perhaps the most graphic illustration of the severity of the flood was that RNLI lifeboats operated in the High Street to rescue residents trapped in the upper floors of buildings".[10] At about the same time York suffered its worse flood for 400 years.[11] In all, throughout the country, 6,500 properties were flooded.[12]

2. While the floods were primarily caused by high rainfall, the areas affected and the extent of flooding were influenced by other factors. Three main issues can be identified:

    - increased runoff caused by development and other land use changes on, and above, the flood plain;

    - development in the flood plain which reduces its capacity for storing water; and

    - development in the flood plain which is at risk from normal floods, or which, although protected by flood defences, is under threat from exceptional floods.

3. Following the 1998 floods, the Agriculture Committee undertook an inquiry into Flood and coastal defence.[13] In its report it made a number of recommendations about development, in particular that a

    "clear presumption should be made against future developments in flood plain land where the flooding risk attached to a particular development as determined by the Environment Agency, is deemed to outweigh the benefits. In such cases, the Agency should intervene at all stages of the planning process in such a way as to deter inappropriate development, including where necessary, referring the matter to the Secretary of State for his or her determination."

In our inquiry into the Environment Agency earlier this year we endorsed the Agriculture Committee's conclusions.[14]

4. In response to that Committee the Government agreed to consider whether the present guidance to local planning authorities on development on the flood plain should be strengthened, and subsequently decided to issue stronger guidance. The DETR had initially intended to produce a new circular, but following discussions with the Environment Agency decided for the first time to publish draft planning guidance.[15] In April 2000 draft Planning Policy Guidance Note 25 (PPG 25) on Flood risk and development was issued for consultation.

5. Following the recent flooding and increasing concern about the consequence of development affecting the flood plain, the Committee decided in October that it should undertake a brief inquiry into the subject, not least to ensure parliamentary scrutiny of the draft planning policy guidance. We were sent written evidence by a number of interested parties, including some of the local authorities most affected by the floods. We took oral evidence from the Environment Agency and the Minister for Planning and Housing. We were greatly assisted in this inquiry by our adviser, Richard Bate.

6. The evidence we received revealed, in the words of West Sussex County Council, that "changes in that part of the built development pattern that is controllable through the planning process form only a relatively small part of the several processes that might influence the incidence of flooding. As well as climate change and isostatic sea level adjustments, important factors include agricultural and forestry practices , road construction and improvement...water course straightening and channelling, the provision of drains...".[16] We briefly consider these issues after our examination of PPG 25.

Development on the flood plain

7. The evidence also clearly indicated that ill-considered land use changes have significantly added to flooding problems. This was readily accepted by the Minister for Agriculture and the Countryside, Elliot Morley, MP, in the House on 24 November 2000.[17] The storage capacity of the flood plain has been significantly reduced. The Environment Agency estimates that 1.85m houses, 185,000 commercial properties and 5 m people are now at risk.[18]

8. The pressure for development continues. We heard of concerns about proposals for building on, or near, the flood plain just outside Aylesbury.[19] The Environment Agency informed us that evidence from commercial databases shows that 4,000 houses were proposed in flood plains in 1996, compared with 20,000 to date in 2000.[20]

9. However, there is some evidence that local planning authorities are taking flood risk issues more seriously than in the past.[21] Information from the Environment Agency shows that in the year to March 2000 the Agency objected on flood risk grounds to only about 1% of the planning applications on which it was consulted and its concerns were resolved in 6 out of 7 cases. These figures include objections to sites allocated for development in the local plan.

10. These statistics are very welcome, but cannot be taken as endorsement of the present guidance. The Environment Agency argued that the serious floods of Easter 1998 had made it possible to persuade planning authorities of the significance of flood risks. However, it added:

    "the memory of flooding is short-lived (2-4 years). The Agency is therefore concerned that, in the absence of a strong, clear, Government policy on development in flood risk areas, a few flood free years will result in progressively less success in influencing the planning system".[22]

Moreover, the fact that local authorities have in the last year been able to follow Environment Agency advice with little difficulty suggests that a stricter regime would not impose too great a restriction on development. Following the 1998 floods and considerable effort by the Environment Agency, local planning authorities have taken steps to reduce the number of planning permissions for development on the flood plain. Nevertheless, there are powerful continuing pressures both for development which is on the flood plain and which affects it. There is accordingly a need for clear guidance in respect of development and flood risk.

Draft Planning Policy Guidance Note 25

11. The key features of the draft PPG are:

12. The decision to introduce a PPG dealing with development and flood risk was widely welcomed. The Department provided the Committee with a brief summary of the 220 to 230 responses it had received.[24] Local Authorities were broadly satisfied with the draft PPG. The DETR summary concluded that:

     "local authorities welcomed the guidance and felt that it was clear and non-prescriptive. Many considered their policies and procedures were already in line with the draft PPG."[25]

Lewes District Council informed us that it had long supported the "policy of resisting the allocation of new urban extension housing sites in river flood plains".[26]

13. Some responses, however, were critical. The House Builders' Federation was concerned that the draft PPG would pose too great an impediment to development, particularly on brownfield urban sites. In contrast, Government agencies, headed by the Environment Agency, and conservation groups expressed concern that the draft PPG "did not provide sufficient protection to flood plains".[27] The DETR summary described their views as follows:

    "The impression gained had been that if protection was provided it was alright to build on flood plains. They sought a firm statement of Government policy to protect functional flood plains. They felt that the risk-based approach could go farther in terms of including a search sequence when identifying sites for housing, that there should be clearer definition of terms (high/low risk), of the weight to be given to flood risk considerations and specification of minimum standards of defence."

The Environment Agency considered the guidance too vague and weak, and argued for a firmer approach.[28] The draft seemed to tell local planning authorities that they may consider taking certain actions, whereas it should indicate what they ought to do.[29]

14. In its written submission the Department indicated that it was persuaded by these arguments and was considering strengthening the draft PPG.[30] In oral evidence the Minister amplified these points. He told us:

    "Firstly, we are going to make it absolutely clear there should not be inappropriate development in flood plains. Secondly, we are considering seriously whether to restate the precautionary approach which we set out in the draft as a formal sequential test working from low to high risk areas. Thirdly, we would expect to indicate that building in the functional flood plains used to hold water in times of flood should be avoided except in wholly exceptional circumstances, such as public infrastructure or water-related development such as boathouses. Fourthly, while we think there is still plenty of opportunity to make good use of previously developed land, we will make clear the need for developers to demonstrate they can provide adequate flood defences, avoiding adding to flood risk elsewhere...".[31]

Planning Policy Guidance Note 25: the Final Version

15. We welcome the Minister's statement to the Committee that he plans to issue a stronger PPG. The draft PPG should be significantly strengthened. The Minister should at the very least introduce all the proposals he is currently considering, and in a number of areas should go further.

16. The central issue to be addressed in the PPG is the management of risk, and there are many risks which are difficult to assess, including the following:

  • the extent of the land at risk from river flooding - the flood plain - is not known accurately everywhere;

  • the land which constitutes the flood plain depends on the quantity of water present, and so is not a fixed entity;

  • measures to protect land from flooding can be breached in extreme cases;

  • the infrequency of floods means that statistical concepts such as 'the 100 year flood' cannot be known accurately, and furthermore underlying changes in the climate or weather pattern mean that there may be a distinctly more frequent risk of that level of flood event; and

  • risk of a particular flooding event can be interpreted in different ways: what may be acceptable to the owner of a property or to a developer may not be acceptable to society because of its implications over a wider area and in the longer term (e.g. maintenance responsibilities).

Responding to the issue of risk requires a clarity of purpose, analysis and presentation.


17. To manage these risks the draft PPG proposes the use of the precautionary principle. This means erring on the side of caution when deciding whether development, or what kinds of development, should be permitted in areas at risk of flooding. The emphasis of policy is to move away from flood defence and the mitigation of the consequences of new development in flood plains, towards a more emphatic avoidance of development in areas at risk of flooding. However, the draft PPG does not go far enough in this direction, and still gives the impression that flood plain development is acceptable with suitable flood defences in place.[32] The scope for developers to build in areas at risk of flooding provided certain conditions are met (e.g. it is 'safe' for the occupants and will not cause adverse effects elsewhere[33]) should be curtailed. This is especially important on greenfield sites where wholly new implications for flood waters arise.

18. The Environment Agency proposed ensuring that development on the flood plain is a last resort by introducing a "sequential search sequence for sites......preference going to sites with no flood risk followed by those sites with low risk."[34] This approach has now been accepted by the Government. The Minister told us:

    "we want to ensure that in cases of all new developments 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".[35]

He added:

    "Our aim would be to ensure that all developments that take place, 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".[36]

The DETR memorandum stated that the PPG might:

    "encourage the avoidance of all but essential (water-related, utility and transport) development in the functional flood plains deliberately used to hold excess water in times of flood, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons".[37]

19. To work effectively, a sequential approach will require the Government to provide enough detail on the thresholds between one step and the next. Advice must clarify what the normal rules are, and where they will not apply. For instance, the Minister suggested that while there should be a presumption against development on the functional flood plain, there should be an exception for boathouses. It will also be necessary to define concepts such as the functional flood plain.

20. We welcome the proposed introduction of the sequential approach as a progression from the precautionary approach. We also strongly support the Minister's proposal that building on the functional flood plain should be avoided. The final PPG 25 should indicate clearly the thresholds which will determine the choice of one or another planning response. These should include the following:

    -No facilities for emergency services should be permitted in the flood plain of even the most extreme (1000 year) flood.

    -Only very exceptional development should be allowed in the functional flood plain.

    -The Government should investigate whether the functional flood plain should be defined as the one hundred year flood or the two hundred year flood, which is used in coastal regions and which might be more appropriate in view of climate change.

21. As well as boathouses, small extensions to existing buildings might be another example of a suitable exceptional development. The draft PPG suggests sports-related developments might be acceptable, but, in view of the number of buildings and car-parking often associated with them, they are probably not appropriate where they would reduce flood water storage capacity. In a very few areas where all the land forms part of the flood plain (the Environment Agency suggested parts of East Anglia[38]) a sequential approach would necessarily indicate that the flood plain was the only area where development could take place.

9  Memoranda were received from several of the affected areas, including Devon, Sussex, Worcester and Yorkshire. Back

10  FP16 Back

11  The recent floods in Ryedale followed a similar period of extreme flooding in March 1999 (FP12). Back

12  Official Report, 24 November, c. 601. Back

13  Sixth Report of Session 1997-8 (HC 707-I). Back

14  Sixth Report of Session 1999-2000: The Environment Agency (HC 34-I). Back

15  Q 20. Back

16  FP05; see also FP09. Back

17  Official Report, 24 November, cc. 597-8. Back

18  FP07. Back

19  FP11. Back

20  FP07A. Back

21  See FP20 from the local Government Association. Back

22  FP07A Back

23  PPG 25,  Back

24  FP10 Back

25  FP10 Back

26  FP16. Back

27  FP10; and see also the memorandum from English Nature (FP06). Back

28  FP07; others also called for clearer guidance; eg. the Association of British Insurers considered that it would be desirable for the Government "to give a clear message on inappropriate development" (FP01).  Back

29  See also the evidence of North Yorkshire County Council ""Rather than leave the issue to individual authorities the final PPG should give guidance on national standards" (FP09). Back

30  FP10 Back

31  Q85 Back

32  FP04. The City of Worcester Council's Head of Planning told us: "My principal concern about the draft PPG is that there is too much emphasis on the resolution of problems by means of defences". Back

33  Eg. see para 40 of the PPG.  Back

34  FP07 Back

35  Q121 Back

36  Q122 Back

37  FP10 Back

38  Q6 Back

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