Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Second Report



22. While there should be a presumption against development on the functional flood plain, there is a danger that the proposals in draft PPG 25 could make it more difficult to develop urban areas close to services and on brownfield sites. Paragraph 36 states

    " because much past industrial development took place alongside rivers on suitable flat land, some brownfield sites will be potentially vulnerable to flooding....What was suitable for industry in the past may well not be suitable for housing today".

The House Builders' Federation stated:

    "PPG 25 is ambiguous. It can be interpreted as a presumption against development in many locations, including many brownfield sites in our older towns and cities. This will significantly harm the delivery of the Government's wider sustainability objectives."[39]

Several local authorities were similarly appalled at the prospect that infill housing and commercial development might be curtailed in urban areas which already possess flood defences.[40] There are difficult choices to make here between important competing interests. Infill could in some places cause real problems, as the City of Worcester indicated, but would be appropriate where the development is well protected for the present - the Minister suggested a location near the Palace of Westminster in London.

23. We are concerned that proposals contained in the draft PPG 25 could largely preclude development on brownfield sites in urban areas in the flood plain. There should be a clearer allowance in urban areas protected by flood defences for locally agreed solutions which take into account the alternative locations for development, the degree of risk of flooding, the scope for design solutions to mitigate risk, and other local considerations.


24. The risks arising from development in urban areas can be mitigated by what are known as flood proof or sustainable construction techniques. We were informed by the Environment Agency that there were many "relatively simple techniques that can be used to make development less vulnerable to the impact of floods". Such measures include the use of solid rather than plaster board walls and electrical installations supplied from ceiling level.[41] A number of riverside sites in and around York City Centre have been designed to minimise "any cumulative flooding impact" by incorporating techniques such as basement flood storage.[42] Flood proof construction techniques should be encouraged for use in developments in urban areas at risk of flooding. Advice should be issued by the Government for use by planning authorities when placing conditions on planning permissions and should be incorporated into the Building Regulations. This should be done within six months. Such advice should include how more sustainable construction techniques can be fitted into existing properties.


25. The draft PPG recognises that planning for flooding must be based on the catchment area, noting that "what happens in one part of a river catchment will often have effects on other parts many miles away".[43] The City of York was concerned about "the potential 'downstream' impact of development proposals higher up the river catchment".[44] The PPG rightly emphasises the role of Regional Planning Guidance as well as the development plan in ensuring that all parts of the catchment area can be considered together. Neighbouring authorities must work together on the planning implications of flood risk.[45] Regional Planning Guidance should include an explanation of how its proposals will adapt to flood risk. It should emphasise that planning should be based on the catchment area and indicate how the allocation of development land, especially for housing, have taken this issue into account.


26. The sequential approach to finding locations for development will be applied in development plans. Witnesses stressed that:

27. Development plans include many land allocations made "without the benefit of our existing understanding of flood risk".[46] The Environment Agency recommended that "reviews be undertaken by Local Authorities of the flood risk to and from sites already identified in Development Plans", and the Minister told us that "it is a reasonable assumption that when we come to issuing PPG 25 we will be expecting authorities to look at their existing plans in the light of the new guidance".[47] When reviewing their Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans, planning authorities should:

  • remove land allocated for development which is now found to be out of line with the proposed sequential approach for allocating fresh land, taking into account any advice from the Environment Agency; and

  • include flood risk as an issue in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of their plans.


28. The leading role of the Environment Agency in providing advice on flood risk and development is recognised in principle in the draft PPG. It is most important that the Environment Agency play a leading part in all stages of the planning process. It should devote adequate resources to pressing its case before Regional Planning Guidance and Structure Plan Panels, at Local Plan and Unitary Development Plan Inquiries, and in response to consultations on planning applications. Local Planning Authorities will be assisted by the Environment Agency taking a consistent approach at each stage of the consideration of development on individual sites - at the land allocation stage in the development plan, when an outline planning application is submitted, and at consideration of the details.

29. However, we expect that a presumption against development on the functional flood plain will reduce the number of controversial cases in which the Agency will need to intervene in the planning process. Nevertheless, more weight must be given to EA advice than has been general in the past since neither developers nor local authorities have similar expertise. Furthermore an additional safety net procedure is required to enable the EA to press its case where:

Subsequently, the Minister told us that he was considering issuing a Direction which would require local authorities to notify him in advance of any proposed significant development in an area where there was a defined risk of flooding.[49] We agree that the Minister should issue such a Direction. It is superior to the proposal in the draft PPG since it will encourage the Agency to set out its position fully on the original consultation and reduce delay in the majority of cases.

The Direction should apply to developments:

    -  which the authority proposes to approve;

    -  to which the Environment Agency objects on flood risk grounds; and

    -  which are within the functional flood plain of the 200 year river flood.


30. Under section 105 of the Water Resources Act 1991, the Environment Agency has a duty to "survey matters relating to floods, including the identification of areas where flood defence problems are likely".[50] The Agency argues that its Flood Risk Maps should be included in development plans. These maps are far from perfect. They are sometimes well out of date, can be inaccurate, and give insufficient information on the effects of floods of different severities. Furthermore the intention of the maps is to indicate land in the flood plain without necessarily taking account of flood defence arrangements. However, they are the best we have. They have now been put on the Internet and will be available to all.[51]

31. The Environment Agency's section 105 maps should be incorporated into Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans on a scale of 1:25,000 (or more detailed) where the accuracy (and thus reliability) of the maps is known and can be properly explained. Without this condition, maps might falsely give impressions either of security from flooding or liability to flooding. Maps should state the level of risk which they identify, and should indicate the amount of protection from flooding in the flood plain (if any) which has been provided in the area. These maps should include known areas of flood hazard which lie outside the flood plain. If any areas have been known to have flooded in the last 100 years that information should be available and the causes of the flooding marked if practicable.


32. The planning system will need to concern itself with a number of ways of improving flood management. Many witnesses identified the importance of washlands for storing flood water, and some suggested that the the PPG should consider identifying washlands as a new land use designation.[52] We recommend that land in the flood plain on which water will be deliberately stored in time of flood (washlands) should be identified on the ground, engineered as necessary, and identified in Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans.

33. Other matters which will need to be considered include:

    - ensuring that it is possible, if necessary, through planning and compulsory purchase, to remove obstructions in the flood plain;

    - ensuring that authorities responsible for drainage carry out suitable maintenance, including where appropriate dredging, so that flood water does not back up because of blocked channels; and

    - bringing certain activities within the ambit of planning control by making amendments to permitted development rights. This we consider below.


34. Run-off from developments, even those off the flood plain, can have a significant impact on flooding further downstream. The draft PPG therefore proposes that "local planning authorities should consider....the need for policies which encourage the use in appropriate areas of more sustainable drainage systems to control the water as near its source as possible".[53]

35. Appendix E of the draft Planning Guidance describes a number of sustainable drainage systems. Essentially they are techniques which move away from "traditional piped drainage systems to engineering solutions that mimic natural drainage processes". They include a variety of measures ranging from rain-water re-cycling to permeable surfaces for roads and pavements to basins and ponds. They may take the form of wetlands and reed beds which can both be attractive and encourage wildlife.

36. Sustainable drainage systems are widely considered a good idea. The technology is not difficult to apply and the Environment Agency has recently produced a good design manual. The main obstacle to their widespread use are the administrative problems in applying them. The House Builders' Federation was very critical of water companies' and highway authorities' reluctance to abandon their preference for traditional systems.[54] Given the administrative difficulties, the proposal in the draft PPG is too weak and so is the subsequent suggestion of the DETR in its memorandum to the Committee "to ask local authorities to encourage the design of new development which does not increase surface run-off from the site concerned".[55] This proposal is unlikely to see Sustainable Drainage Systems become the norm. We agree with the Environment Agency that "PPG 25 should promote the use, adoption and maintenance of sustainable drainage systems". Legislation regarding responsibilities for drainage from development sites (i.e. planning control, Building Regulations and land drainage) should be overhauled to enable the construction of, and maintenance arrangements for, sustainable drainage systems to be required when new development takes place. Sustainable Drainage Systems should become the norm as soon as possible everywhere.


37. To effectively implement PPG 25 several organisations, including the Government's regional offices and local authorities, will need more staff with the right skills and more money.[56] It is therefore unrealistic to expect PPG 25 to be cost free as it claims.


38. It is important that people should know whether their property, or any property they are intending to buy, is at risk from flooding. Para 40 of the draft PPG states that authorities should consider making flood-risk information part of their land-search procedures. These could be derived from the section 105 maps which are prepared by the Environment agency and which have been sent to local authorities. We questioned the Minister on these issues and he subsequently sent the Committee a detailed supplementary memorandum on the subject. This pointed out that land searches carried out as part of the conveyancing process for prospective purchases of property are not statutory but rely on voluntary arrangements agreed between the local government association and the law society. The latter is currently "considering whether flood-risk information should be added as a question on the standard search form". The Minister noted that in the consultation on the draft PPG 25 several local authorities had observed that information about flood risk might cause anxiety and distress; damage to property values; and planning blight. Purchasers might not go to the trouble of seeking further information which might require the purchase of further professional advice and possibly a site investigation. He concluded:

39. We do not underestimate the concerns raised in the Minister's memorandum, but they are not insurmountable. Information about flood risk should become a standard part of local authority searches. This should state whether the property in question is or is not marked on the section 105 map, and carry a standard disclaimer that this information is not a wholly reliable measure of the likelihood of flooding, and is reliant on the best information available at the time. The explanatory information accompanying the map should be reproduced in full. The alternative would be to direct prospective purchasers to look up that information themselves, which would inevitably cause a queue of anxious vendors and buyers at local authority offices.

Other factors which affect flood risk

40. While in PPG 25 the Government is rightly paying a great deal of attention to development as a major cause of flood risk, other important matters are all but ignored. These include permitted development rights, changing agricultural practices and the major new road building programme.


41. Permitted development rights provide that certain developments, which are considered by the Government to be too minor to warrant scrutiny by the local planning authority, are automatically given planning permission for development. Because of such rights some developments can automatically take place in certain places and in certain ways even though they would add to flood risk or increase the damage caused by floods.[58] For example, hard surfaces can be constructed adjacent to dwellings; walls may be built up to 1 or 2 metres in height to enclose properties; roads can be made for forestry operations; and agricultural land may be raised in certain circumstances. In addition heating fuel tanks are allowed adjacent to dwellings. Permitted development rights should be reviewed and should not be available without the installation of sustainable drainage systems where they would have consequences for flooding. The PPG should encourage local planning authorities to withdraw permitted development rights as a condition of any development on the flood plain where exercising such rights could affect flood-risk.


42. A major threat to the functional flood plain is the roads programme. The Ten Year Transport Plan and proposals in Local Transport Plans suggest that many new by-passes are planned, which according to press reports, will affect many flood plains including meadows by the Avon near Salisbury and the Lune valley. We are very concerned about the consequences of building new roads on the functional flood plain.


43. Agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of the land area of England, but it is not subject to the control of the planning system. The planting of winter wheat which became increasingly common in the 1970s, MAFF grants for land drainage and the ploughing up of meadows have all had an impact on flood risk. The Council for the Protection of Rural England told us:

The National Farmers Union argued that many of the points made in articles in the national media suggesting agricultural practices have been responsible for this year's floods were inaccurate, but noted that "declining farm incomes and consequent restructuring can not be disassociated from the extensive problems caused by grazing upland habitats".[60]

44. The difficult question is what to do about damaging agricultural practices, especially in view of the low level of current farm incomes. One thing we can be certain about is the need to apply the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive to agriculture. This would require farmers to undertake an environmental impact assessment in certain circumstances where they intend to change the use of their land. It has applied for several years to many types of development, but MAFF has managed to delay its implementation for 15 years as the Minister for Agriculture and the Countryside told the House on the 24 November. He has promised to bring forward regulations in the new year. It is salutary to consider that a contributory cause of the recent floods may have been the determination of MAFF over many years not to implement the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. This is a grave condemnation of this Ministry. We welcome the statement by the Minister for Agriculture and the Countryside that these regulations will now be issued. This must be done as a matter of urgency.

45. Environmental Impact Assessments can have little effect on the large amount of land already altered by the farming practices of the late 20th century. In previous reports we have stressed the advantages of cross-compliance, whereby a condition of the grant of production subsidies would be the enforcement of environmental standards. For instance it would be possible to ensure that rain water was retained on the farm. In addition further agri-environment grants could be given to support sustainable agricultural measures such as the re-creation of washlands. The National Farmers Union informed the Committee that it was considering proposals which will provide more sustainable flood defence and flood storage on farmland:

    "It may be possible with adequate funding to re-create riparian wetlands. These could act as flood storage, de-synchronise farm run-off, increase acquifer recharge, have a biodiversity benefit and act as a barrier to diffuse pollution".[61]

We recommend that cross-compliance measures be introduced to ensure that, where appropriate, rain water is retained on the farm. In addition the system of subsidies to farmers should be re-directed from production to encourage farming practices which retain water on the flood plain and slow down runoff from the uplands.

46. The Rural White Paper seeks to encourage farm diversification and the re-use of old farm buildings. Our concern is that such changes could increase the risk of flooding, for example if such changes are accompanied by the creation of hard surfaces for car parking. Proposals for changing the use of farm buildings could have consequences for flooding. We recommend that the Environment Agency be consulted about such proposals.


47. The matter this report addresses is important and likely to become more important. Climate change threatens to make flooding a more common occurrence. Before the middle of this century the Thames barrier will no longer be able to sustain its present standard of protection.[62] The costs of providing flood protection will be substantial and will continue to rise. The changes we have advocated to the planning system and to agriculture must be made as a matter of urgency. A final version of the PPG should be issued with dispatch.

39  FP02. Back

40  Eg. see FP19, FP13 and FP20. Back

41  FP07. The Minister told us that he was considering whether to bring electrical installations within the scope of the Building Regulations. Back

42  FP19. Back

43  Draft PPG 25, para 24. Back

44  FP19. Back

45  This is beginning to happen; eg.the City of York Council and councils and National Parks in North Yorkshire are preparing a Joint Structure Plan to address the interaction between flooding and land use planning. Back

46  FP07. Back

47  Q102; and see FP08 Back

48  Draft PPG, para 45. Back

49  Q115. Back

50  Draft PPG, para 17. Back

51  Placing the maps on the Internet has proved very useful. The Environment Agency informed us on the 8 December that its homepage had "received around 60,000 yesterday. Compare this with the usual daily total number of hits to the whole site which ...was 12,000 before the October floods began". Back

52  See FP06 (English Nature) and FP15 (RSPB). Back

53  Draft PPG, para 38. Back

54  FP02. Back

55  FP10 Back

56  FP03. Back

57  FP10A. Back

58  For a local authority's concern about permitted development, see FP12. Back

59  FP03 Back

60  FP14. Back

61  FP14. Back

62  QQ66-7. The Environment Agency stated that "Preliminary investigations indicate that the continued provision of a 1 in 1000 defence standard to the year 2100 is feasible but modifications of the Thames barrier and other defences will be required". (FP10A). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 20 December 2000