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Session 2004 - 05
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Flood Risk Management-Flood Prevention, Protection and Mitigation

European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 8 December 2004

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

Flood Risk Management—Flood Prevention, Protection and Mitigation

[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 11422/04.]

2 pm

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cummings. As you represent a coastal constituency, elements of this subject will be of particular interest to you.

Flooding is a serious issue both here in the United Kingdom and in mainland Europe. The recent severe floods in mainland Europe underline that point. Sadly, they involved a considerable loss of life. The risk is predicted to rise over the coming decades as a result of climate change and economic developments. In recognition of that, the European Union issued a communication on flood risk management which seeks to get member states to take action to protect citizens through the establishment of flood action programmes.

The communication and proposed action programme focus on five elements: prevention, protection, preparedness, emergency response and recovery. Particular areas of focus include improving co-operation and co-ordination through the development and implementation of flood risk management plans for each river basin and coastal zone; flood risk mapping and warning; improving information exchange and the co-ordinated development and promotion of best practice; research; and increasing awareness of flood risk through wider stakeholder participation and more effective communication.

It is worth pointing out that we are discussing a European communication, and many European countries share catchments. The Rhine is a classic case. For countries at the end of the river system, such as Holland, this is a particular issue. We have only two trans-boundary rivers in the UK—they are both in Northern Ireland, between the UK and the Irish Republic—but the ideas are certainly consistent with existing flood risk management policy and practice in this country, although clearly the approach may differ from Administration to Administration, depending on the circumstances.

In England, we have been developing non-statutory shoreline management and catchment flood management plans to plan at the coastal and fluvial level respectively. The UK agrees that the production of flood risk maps, which is well under way in England, Scotland and Wales, is a useful tool in informing the

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public at risk and in development decisions. In Northern Ireland, a policy on flood plain mapping is currently being developed. The UK Administrations have existing policies to engage stakeholders. England has recently closed its consultation on a new strategy for flood and coastal risk management, Wales is planning a similar exercise for 2005 and Scotland has established a national technical advisory group on flooding, which is considering among other things how sustainable flood management should be implemented in practice.

The communication also addresses a key concern in mainland Europe—trans-boundary rivers—and the effects that the actions of one country can have on another's flood risk where they share river basins. It is here that many member states feel that the Commission could play a useful role, and we should not be surprised if an attempt to develop something stronger in this area is made.

The communication proposes links with the water framework directive planning process. We will argue for flexibility of approach, because while there may be some links between the two, differences exist between the main objectives of the water framework directive and those for flood risk management, which is largely concerned with the reduction in risk to people and property. Nevertheless, there may be some relevant overlap.

In developing the communication, member states and the Commission were clear that types of flooding and responses to the flood risk posed would differ from country to country and even within a country, so a flexible approach would be needed. That was reflected in the Council of Ministers environment conclusions, which state that any proposals that are developed should pay due regard to flexibility and subsidiarity. We welcome that approach, for which the UK has strongly argued.

The Commission is now considering appropriate proposals to develop a flood management action programme under the remit of EU water directors, and we will naturally monitor the development of those proposals very closely. One of the areas where the UK particularly values EU involvement is research. The UK has an established research programme addressing flooding and coastal erosion, and we will allocate approximately £4 million of that this year. We are also involved in European research through the funding of joint projects.

The UK already shares experience at an international level through a range of formal and informal routes. Although we are already advanced in flood risk management, development of the action programme should ensure that we benefit from the knowledge and experience of 24 member state partners on a more formal basis, and provide a useful forum to discuss developing ideas. That can only benefit the UK.

As a general principle, we welcome the idea of flood risk management and an EU communication on the subject. From our experience in this country, going back to the Bye report in 1998, we have well-established systems and are well placed to deal with the

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requirements of the communication. Nevertheless, flood risk is a serious, pan-European issue, particularly in relation to the implications of global change, and we welcome the Commission's approach.

The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that they have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. If questions are brief and asked one at a time, there should be ample opportunity for hon. Members to ask several questions.

Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): Does the point scoring system used by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for flood management schemes fit in with the European approach?

Mr. Morley: I should have thought so, although there is a slight difference. The EU is asking for overall flood planning, with strategies and planning implemented under the five main headings that I outlined. The point scoring system that we have in the UK is about determining the priorities for flood and coastal defences. Even though we have a record spend in this country on flood and coastal defence—it is heading towards £550 million a year—there will always be priorities in the list of schemes. It is appropriate to have an open and transparent way of assessing the priority that is easy for people to understand, so that schemes are put in priority of greatest need. In that respect, our point scoring scheme delivers very well.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): The Minister will know that my constituency includes Burton-upon-Trent, which narrowly escaped the most recent severe flooding only because we had new flood defences in place.

Mr. Morley: Yes, I remember.

Mrs. Dean: With that in mind, how much do EU and UK plans for mitigating flooding take into account the potential for an increase due to climate change?

Mr. Morley: We already build into our flood defence planning and strategies an element to take into account climatic change. For fluvial flood systems, such change might mean more frequent downpours or flooding. Members of the Committee may have seen the announcement that £1 billion will be used to deal with sewer flooding. That money is needed not only because there are serious problems with sewer flooding across the country, but because it may occur more because of extreme downpours in inland urban areas. We also factor into our coastal defence schemes an element to take into account the rising sea level and the effect of climatic change.

Matthew Green: I am sure that the Minister is aware that there is a lot of evidence, particularly from the Severn basin, that the removal of sheep from hills dramatically decreases run-off during flood periods, and that growing certain crops also has a dramatic impact. To what extent will the Europe-wide approach

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link with reforms to the common agricultural policy enabling us to fund farmers so that they can farm in a way that reduces run-off and flooding across the UK?

Mr. Morley: That is an interesting question. I read the findings of research in Wales with particular interest, relating to a catchment that drains into the River Severn. There is considerable scope for using our agri-environment budgets to give us a range of gains. Obviously, such an approach is helpful to farmers and land managers. It may mean changes in stocking, afforestation or a switch to different kinds of crops. It may also help with the objectives that we will have to meet under the water framework directive, which deals with diffuse pollution as well.

On agri-environment schemes, we may also have the opportunity of combining some of our flood and coastal defence budget with agri-environment budgets to give us some managed realignment. That would give us an environmental gain as well as sustainable coastal defences. There is a range of opportunities for using a number of budget headings in an integrated and holistic way. We have started that process with a number of schemes, particularly around the coast, but I am very interested in extending it further.

Matthew Green: Does the Minister have any concerns that action to stop farming may be needed in some areas, to allow them to go wild? Under the single farm payment—in England, at least, but not in Wales—farmers will lose their single farm payments if they are not actively farming the land. Is he concerned that that might work against some flood alleviation schemes?

Mr. Morley: We would have to look at the particular cases. Going back to diffuse pollution, the recent DEFRA consultation paper on dealing with diffuse pollution identified the fact that some land may have to come out of intensive agricultural production. Such an approach gives us a range of agri-environmental options from which farmers could choose with advice from DEFRA, which would mean that they could keep their single farm payment and receive an annual payment over a 10-year agreement relating to the management regime that they opt into.


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