Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fifth Report


The floods that occurred across several areas of the country in June and then July 2007 were shocking. The geographical scope of the floods, and the physical and economic damage they caused, were on a scale not seen for sixty years. The human effect was very distressing: thirteen people lost their lives; thousands of people lost either their electricity, water supply or both; and 44,600 homes were flooded. Nine months later, the misery continues for the thousands of people who have still not been able to return to their homes. The economic impact was also very severe: at least £3 billion worth of damage was caused, and 7,100 businesses were flooded. Those affected, and many others, now suffer the worry that such damaging floods could happen again.

The 2007 floods revealed that, to date, most organisations—including Government—have focussed almost exclusively on river and coastal flooding, and much less so on surface water and groundwater flooding. Coastal flooding does remain the most serious threat. But about two thirds of the summer 2007 flooding was caused by surface water flooding, often after intense heavy rainfall overwhelmed drainage systems. No organisation currently has responsibility for surface water flooding, at either the national or local level. This lack of responsibility must be addressed by Government. We believe local authorities should be given a statutory duty for surface water drainage in their area, working in partnership with other bodies with drainage and flood risk responsibilities. Local authorities are both the highways authority in their area and are responsible for land use and planning and control. They also have the advantage of local democratic accountability. Local authority leadership would also follow the approach successfully adopted elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany and France. The Environment Agency should have an over-arching role to provide advice and guidance to local authorities.

Regulatory changes are needed to ease pressure on the existing public drainage and sewerage system. We welcome the Government's Water Strategy policies to change householders' rights to allow them to pave over their front garden without planning permission only if the surface is porous and to review the automatic right to connect surface water drains and sewers to the public sewerage systems. We also strongly support greater use of sustainable drainage systems (SUDs), but agree that a lack of clarity about the ownership and long-term maintenance of SUDs is a barrier to their wider implementation. We believe local authorities should be responsible for the ownership and maintenance of SUDs, as happens elsewhere in Europe. Local authorities already have a number of key roles that link to SUDs, in land planning, managing open spaces, as highways authority, and their wider responsibilities for local sustainability issues. There also needs to be a stronger requirement on local authorities to insist developers install SUDs on new development, as often as is feasible. A presumption in favour of SUDs should be included in the Planning Bill, to add weight to Planning Policy Statement 25. The Government needs to resolve these issues as a matter of urgency to enable the current house-building and eco-towns programmes to incorporate maximum use of SUDs.

The Government has announced it will increase expenditure on flood risk management from £600 million in 2007-08 to £800 million by 2010-11, as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 settlement. However, this settlement looks far less impressive under close analysis, and inadequate to cope with both the traditional and new risks the country faces.

We welcome the Government and the Environment Agency's work to develop a long-term investment strategy for flood risk management. However, we reject the idea of a dedicated Flood Agency. This strategy should provide some answers about the level of flood risk protection that the public should expect, the research and organisation involved, the number of flood prevention and alleviation schemes required nationally, and how much this would cost. The strategy should also take account of the effect of climate change on the frequency and intensity of rainfall and storm surges.

The summer floods exposed the vulnerability of the nation's critical infrastructure to flooding. The Government should re-examine the current statutory duties on utilities in relation to emergency planning. A specific duty should be placed on utilities to ensure their critical assets are protected from flooding and that they have adequate business continuity plans in the event of a flood. This should include ensuring supply system resilience so that the failure of a key asset can be substituted by other means with a minimum interruption of service. The Agency should advise on plausible scenarios, taking into account climate change impacts. This work will cost money, but consumers should not foot the bill for any past failure by utilities to give their initial assets the protection they should have had in the first place.

We want to ensure that the Government implements the findings of the Pitt Review in a robust and transparent manner. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) should publish a costed and prioritised action plan to set out the timetable for implementing Sir Michael Pitt's findings, once known. A progress-chasing team, led by a high-profile non-Defra figure—we suggest Sir Michael Pitt himself—should be appointed within the Environment Agency to co-ordinate implementation and to monitor and report progress at given periods.

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