Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



Mr Williams

  40. The real problem is in paragraph 4.14 where it makes the point that nearly half of the structures and a third of the barriers were categorised as fair, poor or very poor and we find that 165 kilometres of flood defence is in a derelict state. The situation described by Mr Steinberg is actually far too common.
  (Dr Mance) Again, that reflects our ability to do the work given the resources we are given.

  Mr Williams: So we are back to the 100 million a year shortfall.

  Mr Steinberg: Which I was going to come on to if I had the time.

  Mr Williams: You may have a second bite later on. Mr Rendel.

Mr Rendel

  41. Thank you, Mr Williams. My constituency is one which just borders on the River Thames but only a fairly small area, the rest of the area has mainly fairly small rivers flowing through it, multiple rivers flowing through it off the Chalk Downs. Therefore, that is mostly my experience of the sorts of floods we have been having up to now. We do have a problem with development in the area. The first question I would like to put to you, if I may, is you have now come out with the view, I think quite naturally and rightly from the Environment Agency, that we have to be careful about building on flood plains but, of course, a large part of the development that has taken place up to now in my area and the areas I mentioned like it has been in the valleys. What you have got is wherever you have got a brown field site it is almost certainly also on flood plain. What is your advice?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The proposition that we hope will come forward with PPG25 is for a sequential test for development in the flood plain. We are not saying that development in the flood plain simply cannot happen. The test would take account of the sort of development—is it one that would be severely discommoded by flooding or is it one that could bear flooding, for example recreation facilities might bear flooding on a periodic basis—and what is possible in terms of flood defence for that particular development funded as part of the development and also what the impact is on the operation of the flood plain as a flood plain. If those sorts of sequential tests are taken account of, we are not saying that there can be no development in flood plains and therefore we are not saying that brown field sites are incapable of being developed but it does need planning and development applications to be tested in that way.

  42. Can you give us any advice as to whether you prefer a brown field site to be developed on a flood plain or a green field site outside a flood plain?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think there are ways in which environmental and economic appraisal could look at the alternatives and come to a conclusion. It is a complex situation but there are ways of judging.

  43. I accept that. I think it would be useful perhaps to some local authorities, including mine, if some guidance could be given as to where the priorities lie for this. There are going to be clear conflicts here between brown field sites and flood plains, certainly in my area it will happen the whole time.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Certainly in the process we adopt of talking early to local authorities, particularly through the structure in the local plan system and ultimately in individual planning applications, we can give advice on the flood defence and environmental issues associated with that.

  44. The problem in an area like mine, and I guess the problem in general in flooding, is how you get rid of water from areas which are inhabited. Clearly flood plains are flood plains and even lovely lush areas are lush because they have flooded. In some senses I suppose one would want to encourage, perhaps MAFF in particular would want to encourage, a certain amount of flooding in flood plains in order to retain some fertility in the ground and so on. The problem is getting the water out of the areas that are inhabited. That is the most important point. It seems to me that one of the things that has come out of recent floods in my area certainly is that there are opportunities sometimes to divert water around the inhabited areas. It may not be possible in large cities like Gloucester but certainly when you are talking about a small village if the main river goes straight through the middle of the village then you can divert the same flow of water around the village and you can often save a lot of these houses from flooding. In remote parts, it is the same flood water at the top, it is the same flood water at the bottom but you are actually diverting it around so that in the village you are not causing flooding. How much work are you doing on that sort of defence work?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) There is a considerable amount of work going on looking at the schemes which will be most appropriate for this circumstance where there is a built up area with very little option in terms of the river coming through. Lewes is a prime example of that. Chichester, where we had a particularly successful flood alleviation scheme built at record speed in order to save Chichester during the November floods, was an example of that. Again, it depends on the cost benefit and priority scoring techniques and also whether it is practicable. In some places it is not practicable. Dr Mance is more experienced in these things than me.
  (Dr Mance) I was going to pick up on that theme because it does depend on the topography around the area as to how broad the valley is and how easy it is to take a diversionary route for the flow or not. The other alternative is actually to try and hold the water further upstream. We have examples where we are creating deliberate storage, creating greater wetting. In one particular place at Melton Mowbray we have a scheme going forward to actually increase the value of an SSSI by guaranteeing wetting of the meadows every year but in extreme events it will store water and release it more slowly past Melton Mowbray avoiding flooding. There are different techniques. The extra funding made available by MAFF and Government in the autumn, 51 million, 2 million a year of that from this year just finishing into the next two years has part of that to enable us to do whole catchment modelling to enable us to get at what the trade-offs are between building banks in the town for instance, building diversionary channels or holding water higher in the catchment by various techniques. This whole catchment modelling is the approach we think will enable us to get into this and to a greater extent to identify those schemes which give us the maximum benefit for the whole of the catchment, not just for individual pinch points in the catchment.

  45. Talking about holding water upstream, most of my area is upstream. The water has been held back in my area and not allowed to go downstream. Have you considered at all the possibility of tunnelling? If you have a valley like that and villages at the bottom, you may need to tunnel to some extent around. That is obviously going to be more expensive. A cut and cover tunnel might not be that expensive.
  (Dr Mance) It can be very environmentally disrupting though. We do have to live within the constraints of the environmental requirements depending on the area. In an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or SSSI, for instance, we have constraints to live with as well. We do use tunnelling on occasion. It is expensive, substantially more expensive than other means. For instance, at Minehead we used a tunnel to move water past Minehead to avoid flooding there.

  46. One of the other problems, apart from water coming into the houses, in my area it actually comes up underneath the houses very often rather than into the houses from a stream, but one of the other problems is water getting into the sewers. We have had a lot of problems with the sewers backing up because they have been flooded by rainwater which has then stopped the sewers being used for the usual sewer purposes. What is being done—and I recognise this is probably a question for the water companies rather than the people here today—with the water companies to ensure there is sufficient capacity in the sewers, or alternatively that the rainwater does not get into the sewers, to allow sewers to be used as sewers even when there is a lot of rain?
  (Dr Mance) Various issues, if I may. The draft Policy Planning Guidance 25 dealing with development of flood plain will also raise the suggestion that so-called sustainable urban drainage systems should become the norm. Those are various methods. For instance, pervious pavements rather than impervious pavements which allow water to soak into the ground where it falls rather than be squirted off straight away into the sewer. Retention basins around car parks and similar things for the same purpose so that you do not have the same degree of run off into the sewers to constrain the water flow a bit to avoid overloading the sewer system. We believe Government is going to include that in the planning guidance and subsequently in building regulations. That is a package we have been discussing and negotiating with Government which will be helpful. During the review of water pricing for the industry which was concluded last year we repeatedly raised the issue of the need for infrastructure renewal, particularly of sewers, because of their capacity to carry flows. There is a tendency to see infill development eroding the carrying capacity of sewers, they can no longer cope with rainfall in the way they were originally designed. If you like there could be some form of hidden asset stripping almost by failing to renew the capacity adequately as growth in catchment takes place. We have raised that. Government took a view that was something for the next funding review rather than this price review for the industry, because they wanted to take in immediate environmental gains. That will be something they will address in 2005. It is something that is being kept on the agenda very firmly. There are two issues there. In your particular part of the country down in Hampshire where we have got extraordinarily high ground water levels at the moment there may be very little we can do to stop the water actually getting into the sewer because in places the ground water table now is actually above the sewer and the sewer is providing a drainage channel. That is extraordinary, one has to say, and we have been doing quite a lot of talking to local historians to find out if there is any record at all in, say, Hambledon village, which is one place affected, of springs in the past in the village and we can find no trace at all. We are seeing a unique ground water level at present which hopefully, if it stops raining, will subside.

  47. As Mr Williams has indicated, with the possibility of global warming then my area is very concerned this may happen frequently in future. Can I turn to Mr Bradley and ask a question about the Environment Agency's pipelines. There are a number of pipelines around which have in fact been used now for moving water, as I was indicating earlier, around villages. Is that something you are trying to make happen more frequently at all?
  (Mr Bradley) I do not believe so. It sounds to me more of a question for the Environment Agency than for me. I do not quite understand which sort of pipelines you are talking about? Is this following up your earlier question about diverting water around villages rather than through them?

  48. Yes. There are pipelines which the Environment Agency has for its own purposes, I understand, which we have not been able to get local authorities to use. I would hope the Department might see some way of encouraging their use.
  (Mr Bradley) I am not familiar with that issue, I am afraid.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We are rather mystified as well.
  (Mr Bradley) If you can answer it, please do.

  49. There is a pipeline in my area which has been used in the past for piping water upstream in summer in order to make sure there is sufficient water upstream. In winter I find that is unused and has proved a very successful way of getting water downstream in winter to avoid some of the flooding problems. For a long time it was not used because apparently the local authority had no means of knowing it was there, so it was known only to the Environment Agency that this was a possibility. There was just a lack of co-ordination between the bodies, as it were, to get this solution, the solution was not found for a long time.
  (Dr Mance) I now comprehend. There are about eight locations in the country where in trying to deal with problems of low summer flow because of over-abstraction we have in the past installed pipelines to enable us to recycle the water back up stream. In those situations clearly it would be sensible, and it would depend upon the size of the pipe and obviously the scale of the rainfall and the flood as to how much impact they would actually have. It may be in some circumstances, particularly smaller floods, they would be beneficial. In larger events it may be doubtful as to how much benefit they would actually provide because of the sheer volumes of water involved.

  50. Is the DETR aware of this as a possible means of flood defence?
  (Mr Bradley) I am certainly not, I am afraid. I can let you have a further note if there are any issues raised that the Department does feel it ought to be doing something about.

  51. The Environment Agency have already told us that they are worried about their lack of means of ensuring that their supervisory duty can get through to the local authorities having no means of telling the local authorities what to do, but there is also a problem with the local authorities, I understand, in that they do not have very good means necessarily of forcing riparian landowners, who are private landowners, to take their responsibilities seriously. Do you recognise that as a problem within the DETR and, if so, is anything happening about it?
  (Mr Bradley) I think the issue of responsibilities for riparian owners in terms of flood defence is mainly an issue for you, is it not?
  (Dr Park) It is my role in life to remain quiet until the question is directed at me.

Mr Love

  52. He has been here before.
  (Dr Park) The situation about responsibilities is fairly clear if we remember how it started. Initially, in the good old days, riparian owners were always responsible for the defence of their land. What has happened over time is that as communities are at risk of flooding then communities have developed ways of protecting themselves. The classic case is the Internal Drainage Boards where landowners got together and shared the responsibility for providing protection from flooding. Gradually that has developed so that local authorities, and now the Environment Agency in the national sense, have a responsibility. A riparian owner has a responsibility to protect his or her own property, not to provide protection for the community.

Mr Rendel

  53. My understanding is that in the upper reaches of some of the rivers in my constituency where it gets beyond the Environment Agency's responsibility, places where sometimes the river does not even flow, and sometimes for years the river has not flowed, in those areas it is the riparian owner's responsibility to keep the water course clear.
  (Dr Mance) If I may. There is a body of common law which puts the onus on the riparian owner to maintain the carrying capacity of the channel on his land so that it will convey water across his land. That built up primarily over concerns 100, 200, 300 years ago about landowners damming the water course so that no water carried on to the downstream owner in summer rather than in relation to flood flows, although it clearly has a relationship to flood flows as well. It was a common law basis and is enforced, in as much as it is, through civil law as opposed to statutory sanction. We have no statutory powers in this, nor do local authorities, it is actually a common law base.

  54. So who has the power to deal with it? My understanding is that the local authority has some power but finds it very difficult.
  (Dr Mance) I am not aware of the local authority having a power, it is actually the neighbouring riparian owners downstream who might be disadvantaged.

  55. Can Mr Bradley help at all from the DETR's point of view?
  (Mr Bradley) I am afraid I cannot answer that as to whether local authorities have a power but I am happy to come back to you with a note on the issue subject to anything my MAFF colleagues have to say about your knowledge of the powers of local authorities in this area.
  (Dr Park) I think our understanding would be very close to that of Dr Mance. The responsibilities of the riparian owner are largely to do with their own land and to do with the transfer of water across their land and not to provide a deleterious effect for those that are downstream. The enforcement of that is quite difficult because it can only be enforced if there is a damage to a neighbouring landowner or a neighbouring community through some of the actions of that riparian owner, or inactions as the case may be.

  56. I am concerned that the witnesses we have before us today appear not to be very fully aware of what I understand from my own local authority is the position. I hope that we can have a note afterwards to make sure that this responsibility is fully understood.
  (Mr Bender) We will co-ordinate between us and ensure that the Committee gets a note[4].

Mr Leigh

  57. I apologise for being late, I had a royal visit in my constituency for which I had to be in attendance. There has been a lot of press speculation in the last few days and criticisms of MAFF that the reason why they are not burying these carcasses with foot and mouth is that the Environment Agency is stopping them. Is that true? Is that because you are worried about foot and mouth getting into the water course?
  (Mr Bender) Baroness Young will answer the specific question but I would like to make clear at the beginning before she does that there is good co-operation between MAFF and the Environment Agency over the disposal of carcasses. This is not a straight forward issue. We are, as you well know, talking about very large numbers. The Agency does, of course, have legal obligations to protect but I would not want anything you have read in the press to give the impression that there has been obstructionism or anything like that. There are issues to be resolved but the co-operation has been good on the ground locally and nationally.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) As Mr Bender says, the Agency is working very closely with MAFF and with the Ministry of Defence and all the other agencies involved in the foot and mouth crisis and we have been helping identify sites for disposal and advising on disposal methodologies. The particular circumstances of burial are that we have to be quite careful that burial sites do not compromise water tables and aquifers and that we do not either have infection going into water supplies, which might then transmit to other farms and other animals, or into the public water supply, or indeed organic matter from organic sources, rotting cows and sheep. We now turn around advice on a particular site within three hours of being notified that there is a disposal requirement. We give advice on what the preferred disposal route would be and whether, in fact, there is any restriction on burial at that particular site. We are delighted to say that in many cases we have been able to go ahead with burial. In some, because of our environmental responsibility and our statutory responsibility, we have had to advise that that would not be the best disposal route. I can assure you that in terms of delay in disposal and contributing to the spread of the disease, the amount of time required by the Environment Agency to approve or otherwise these sites is tiny compared with the other logistical issues associated with the disposal of carcasses. We are not the ones who are holding it up.

  58. Is the reason why you have got to consider this because you are then worried about it getting into the water courses?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Yes.

  59. There is no other reason? Obviously once it is buried, it is safe.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The regulations say that if you bury you have got to be sure that they are not going to be dug up by carnivorous animals or, indeed, come to the surface again. Part of the problem also in terms of disposal at the moment is that the water tables are so high that many of the holes that might be dug in particular areas would simply fill up with water before we could actually get beasts into them, so burial would not be a very secure route quite frankly.


4   Note: See Evidence, Appendix 1, page 17 (PAC 00-01/154). Back

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