Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fifth Report

1  Introduction

The summer 2007 floods

1. England is accustomed to wet weather. But the floods that occurred across several areas of the country in June and then July 2007 shocked the nation. The geographical scope of the floods, and the physical and economic damage they caused, were on a scale not seen for sixty years. They occurred, unusually, in the summer rather than the winter. Some of the places they affected had not been thought to be at special risk from flooding and were therefore not well prepared.

2. The human effect was very distressing: thirteen people lost their lives; thousands of people lost their power, their water supply or both; and 44,600 homes were flooded.[1] 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.[2] Those affected, and many others, now suffer the worry that such damaging floods could happen again.

3. Two separate major flooding events occurred during the summer: one in late June, the other in late July. The June floods primarily affected parts of Yorkshire and the Humber, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Worcestershire, after a deep and slow-moving area of low pressure brought prolonged heavy rain on 24-25 June.[3] Up to 111mm (4½") of rainfall fell, with some places receiving over four times the average monthly rainfall.[4] Urban northern cities Hull and Sheffield were particularly badly affected. A 'one in 150 year' rainfall event in Hull overwhelmed the city's pumped drainage and sewerage system, resulting in over 7,000 houses, 90 local schools, and dozens of businesses being flooded.[5] In the Sheffield area, about 2,200 homes and businesses were flooded, and 40,000 people lost power in the South Yorkshire region after an electricity sub-station was shut down.[6] Sheffield city was effectively divided in half by floodwater, along a corridor some 23km in length.[7]

4. The second flooding event occurred a month later in central England, particularly the counties of Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. On 19-20 July, a slow-moving depression centred over south-east England, and moved gradually northwards. Up to 157mm (6") of rain fell in 48 hours, with some places receiving nearly six times the average monthly rainfall.[8] About 7,000 homes and businesses were flooded in Gloucestershire, and a further 5,700 properties in the Thames Valley area.[9] 350,000 people across the Gloucestershire area lost mains water—some for up to 17 days—following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury.[10] The local water company, assisted by the armed services, had to provide water through bottles and bowsers to numerous locations across the county. Several local electricity substations were also affected: over 40,000 properties in the area lost power, including at Castle Meads and Tewkesbury.[11] A major National Grid switching station at Walham, Gloucester, was under threat, which could have resulted in 500,000 people losing their supply.[12] The armed services were called in to prevent the station from flooding by erecting a temporary barrier around the site.

5. The summer 2007 flooding was unusual because it was predominantly caused by surface water flooding. Many major English floods in the past have been river floods, such as in 1947, or coastal floods, such as in 1953.[13] About two thirds of the summer 2007 flooding was caused by surface water flooding.[14] In northern England the situation was more extreme with 95% of the flooding in Hull coming from surface water flooding, and Sheffield experiencing a combination of river and surface water flooding. [15]

6. Surface water flooding occurs when a high volume of rainfall falls on an area in a short time but it is unable to drain away effectively. It is a particular problem in urban areas, where much of the land is impermeable. Surface water flooding often happens quickly and is difficult to predict because it is dependent on the particular features of certain streets, drains, and the topography of urban areas. It is expected to become a more common type of flooding event than we have seen in the past—partly because more land has been paved over with impermeable materials and also because of the more intense rainfall expected as a result of climate change.[16]

7. After the first set of floods, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, announced that an independent 'lessons learned' review would be held to look at how the floods were managed and responded to by the Environment Agency, local authorities, the emergency services, and others.[17] The review also aimed to establish why the flooding was so extensive and whether the scale and impact of the flooding could have been predicted, prevented or mitigated. Sir Michael Pitt, chair of the South West Strategic Health Authority, was appointed to head the review.[18]

Our inquiry

8. In July 2007, we decided to hold an inquiry into the 2007 floods and the Government's response to them. Our work was intended to contribute to the recently-announced Pitt Review. The inquiry sparked an unprecedented level of interest, with 187 written memoranda submitted from various interested parties, including many members of the public and MPs whose constituencies had been affected by the summer's flooding (see box below). Our Chairman, the Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, also appeared on the radio programme You & Yours on 22 January 2008 to discuss flooding-related issues with callers to the show. The programme received 101 emails and 79 calls and texts. [19]
Evidence from members of the public

43% (80 memoranda) of the total written evidence we received came from members of the public. The comments most frequently made were:

  • poor maintenance of drains had contributed to local flooding;[20]
  • poor watercourse maintenance and lack of river dredging had contributed to local flooding;[21]
  • "riparian" owners, such as farmers and other landowners, were unaware of their responsibilities for watercourse maintenance;[22]
  • development on the flood plain should be stopped;[23] and
  • houses built on the flood plain had to be properly flood resilient and resistant.[24]

Evidence from Members of Parliament

We received 20 memoranda from MPs whose constituencies had been affected by the flooding. We also took oral evidence from five of those Members (Mr Richard Benyon MP, Mr David Curry MP, Mr Martin Horwood MP, Mr Laurence Robertson MP, and Ms Angela C Smith MP) at Westminster. Some of the main points raised by Members included:

  • there was a lack of clarity about responsibility for certain drainage assets;[25]
  • poor watercourse maintenance could contribute to local flooding;[26] and
  • critical infrastructure needed to be protected from flooding.[27]

9. From October 2007 to February 2008 we took oral evidence at Westminster from a number of witnesses. We also held three visits as part of the inquiry. We visited Gloucester in August 2007 to witness the aftermath of the flooding in the region; whilst there, we observed what measures had been put in place at Walham substation following the summer's events. In December, we visited Lyon, France, to see how regional authorities, and others, were addressing flooding problems in their area through the use of sustainable drainage systems and a strategic approach to development and planning. Finally, we visited Lincoln in January 2008 to see the city's flood defences and one of the Environment Agency's two 'washlands' schemes in the area. We took further oral evidence in Lincoln, including from local bodies and members of the public with personal experiences of flooding. We are very grateful to all those who gave evidence or otherwise assisted with our inquiry. We wish to give special thanks to our two flooding specialist advisers, Professor Colin Green and Mr Frank Farquharson.

The Pitt Review's interim report

10. On 17 December 2007, Sir Michael Pitt published an interim report on the lessons learned from the summer floods.[28] This followed the publication of several other similar 'lessons-learned' reports by the Environment Agency, the Audit Commission, Hull City Council, Gloucestershire County Council, the Association of British Insurers, Water UK, Ofwat and Severn Trent Water. Sir Michael Pitt's report contained 72 interim conclusions and 15 urgent recommendations addressed to a variety of relevant parties, including central and local Government, insurance companies, utilities and members of the public. It focussed not only on the need to improve flood risk management, but also on emergency response and post-flood recovery. The Government announced that same day that it agreed with all of the 15 urgent recommendations and would work with other organisations in implementing them.[29] The 72 interim conclusions, which form the bulk of the report, are subject to a consultation process to determine issues of feasibility, practicality, and cost. Sir Michael Pitt's final report is scheduled for summer 2008.[30] To date, Government has allocated £34.5 million from funding retained in Defra to implement Sir Michael Pitt's final recommendations. We discuss funding of the Pitt Review later in our Report (paragraphs 56-58).

Our report

11. Our recommendations and conclusions are aimed at a narrower audience than those in Sir Michael Pitt's interim report. Our job is to scrutinise the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its associated public bodies. We therefore address our recommendations and conclusions primarily to Defra and the main Government agency responsible for flood risk management, the Environment Agency. The issues we cover largely reflect Defra's remit in this area—that is, managing flood risk. Unlike the Pitt Review, we do not examine post-flood recovery, a responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). We are also particularly interested in the political dimensions of this issue, such as the level of flood protection the public can expect from public bodies, and how they balance and assess risk. Our report reflects our primary interest in the political aspects of flood management and prevention, and responds to public concerns about this issue.

1   Ev 2 [Environment Agency] Back

2   Ev 120 [ABI], 2 Back

3   Ev 180 [Met Office] Back

4   The 111mm of rainfall was recorded in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire. Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, p 12.  Back

5   Ev 54 [Hull City Council], para 1. Hull City Council described it as the "most devastating flood in living memory". Back

6   2007 summer floods: What happened near you? Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, pp 149-150. Back

7   Ev 60 [Sheffield City Council], para 2.2. Back

8   Ev 180 [Met Office]. The Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, pp 12-13. Back

9   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, pp. 151, 153. Back

10   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, p. 152. Back

11   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, p. 152; Oral Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP], HC Deb, 23 July 2007, c163-4. Back

12   Oral Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP], HC Deb, 23 July 2007, c163-4. Back

13   The coastal flooding of 1953 took place along a thousand miles of the east coast in 1953 and killed 300 people. Cabinet Office, The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom, Cm 7291, March 2008, p 15. Back

14   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, p 15. Back

15   Q 26 [Environment Agency] Back

16   The Greater London Authority said that surface water flood risk in London was predicted to increase, and was a greater potential threat than river flooding [Ev 209; Q 608]. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology also said climate change would increase the risk of surface water flooding more than traditional river flooding [Ev 172]. Defra's Future Water stated that, with climate change, winter rainfall could increase in some regions by as much as 30% by the 2080s, while rainfall intensity could increase both in winter and summer [Defra, Future Water: The Government's Water Strategy for England, Cm 7319, p 57]. Back

17   HC Deb, 12 July 2007, cols 63-4WS Back

18   "Appointment of independent chair for the Flooding Lessons Learned Review", Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs press release 2007/252, 8 August 2007. Back

19   Ev 586 [BBC Radio 4 - You & Yours] Back

20   For example, Peter Collier [Ev 388], Judy Chipchase [Ev 389], Rev Stephen Cope [Ev 394], Colin Newlands [Ev 394], Gill Pett [397]. Back

21   For example, Christine Adamson [Ev 396], Graham Shelton [Ev 414]. Back

22   For example, Janet Marrott [Ev 391], James Harris [Ev 396].  Back

23   For example, Lorraine Smith [Ev 389], Roger Hendry [Ev 394]. Back

24   For example, Roger Martin [Ev 389], Dudley George [Ev 391]. Back

25   For example, Colin Burgon MP [Ev 370], Graham Stuart MP [Ev 372], Clive Betts MP [Ev 376]. Back

26   For example, Nigel Evans MP [Ev 370], Richard Benyon MP [Ev 155], David Heathcoat-Amory MP [Ev 379]. Back

27   For example, Chris Huhne MP [Ev 371], Graham Stuart MP [Ev 372], David Cameron MP [Ev 376]. Back

28   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007. Back

29   HC Deb, 17 December 2007, cols 89-91WS Back

30   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, pp 129-132. Back

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