Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fifth Report

6  Flood defences

The priority scoring system

67. Defra has set the Agency a priority scoring system to determine which new flood defence schemes it should spend its capital money on (we discuss the Agency's maintenance programme in paragraphs 73-83). Defra says the purpose of the scoring system is to "ensure that the projects with the greatest benefits per unit cost are carried out first and to allow authorities to devote resources to those projects". The system is based on three criteria: economics (based on a benefit/cost ratio); people (number of people protected, including a higher scoring for the number of "vulnerable" people); and environment (for example, projects that contribute to the Government's Biodiversity Action Plan obligations receive a higher score).[134] The Agency told us the system was traditionally heavily skewed towards economic criteria, although it was reviewing whether to give more weighting to social and environmental factors.[135] Proposed projects—submitted by Regional Flood Defence Committees (RDFCs) as part of their medium-term plans—had to achieve an overall score threshold to be eligible for grant.[136] Once a total points score had been allocated, the Agency said it also undertook an additional "moderation" process to determine whether a proposed scheme was "sensible", and whether other considerations needed to be taken into account "in order to produce a balanced programme".[137]

68. A number of witnesses criticised the priority scoring system. The Institution of Civil Engineers said the priority system had resulted in some economically justifiable schemes not receiving funding, and had exacerbated a "stop-start" approach to developing flood risk infrastructure. It added that the system favoured schemes in more affluent areas and/or areas with large populations, because it was largely driven by assessment of economic impact.[138] This was a point raised by several other witnesses. The Pickering Flood Defence Group strongly criticised the system, saying it "fails to take account of the specific needs of communities in more rural areas".[139] The Country Land and Business Association said rural populations have suffered due to "priority being given to urban areas".[140] The Alde and Ore Association said the Agency had told it that little of the additional CSR 07 expenditure would be spent in Suffolk, because "priority will be given to people and property in inland areas".[141]

69. We questioned the Agency about its priority points system, and the criticism that the system neglected the funding of schemes in rural areas. The Agency acknowledged that schemes were decided on an individual basis, and the majority of funding went towards urban areas as they were deemed to be more cost-effective. However, it told us that the system was ultimately guided by Treasury funding rules. For this to change, there needed to be a policy decision made at Government level about what the appropriate cost:benefit weighting as between urban and rural should be, and subsequent changes in Treasury rules.[142]

70. In February 2008, the Government announced "Outcome Targets" for the Agency to meet with its CSR 07 funding. One of the five targets the Agency has to meet is to protect 145,000 additional households from flooding, including 45,000 at significant or greater possibility of flooding, although it also has targets to protect natural habitats.[143]

Our views

71. Given the human suffering caused by flooding, it will always be difficult either to refuse to spend public money on flood defence in a particular area, or to fund only a lower standard of protection than those at risk would like. Some prioritisation system will always be necessary in determining which communities benefit from publicly-funded schemes. The current priority scoring system vastly favours the building of schemes in urban areas, at the expense of rural areas. On an individual basis, funding of projects in rural areas will nearly always miss out at the expense of schemes in urban areas. The Department and the Agency should explore the possibility of ring-fencing a minimum proportion of the Agency's capital expenditure over a three-year CSR period for new capital schemes in rural areas. Such a move would be clear evidence of the Government's commitment to "listen to the views, needs and concerns of rural people, businesses and communities".[144]

72. We also note there currently exists a tension between the national and local approach to flood risk management. The RFDCs, composed mostly of local authority representatives, are often more in touch with local issues, yet the points-based system is run nationally. We recommend that the Government consider the possibility of ring-fencing Grant-in-aid directly to Regional Flood Defence Committees.

Maintenance of flood defences

73. The Agency said its flood defences generally coped well during the summer, although many were simply overwhelmed by water. It said there were "no catastrophic collapses or failures", except for a few mechanically or electrically operated defences that failed because of power loss.[145] The Agency has recently been criticised for the state of its flood defences. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported in June 2007 that the Agency had not met its target to maintain 63% of flood defence systems in target condition, and that an additional £150 million per year for ten years was required to bring all flood defence systems up to their target condition.[146] Some witnesses believed this demonstrated that the Agency's priority should be to maintain its existing flood defences, rather than build new schemes.[147] This view appears to run counter to current Government policy. Most of the Agency's additional CSR 07 funding has been allocated for capital projects. Its resource (operational & maintenance) costs either decrease or remain level in real terms for the first two years of the period, although the Agency told us that about £64 million from the CSR07 capital programme funding would contribute towards asset maintenance.[148]

74. When questioned on this issue, the Minister told us he thought the NAO's assessment of the Agency was a "bit tough" and did not represent the "true picture".[149] He said the recent flooding events showed that maintenance levels had been "adequate to do the job".[150]

Our views

75. There is a danger that the Government and the Agency will overlook maintenance of existing flood defence schemes in favour of funding the building of new schemes. The Agency should develop a clear strategy for expenditure on new capital works versus maintenance of existing systems. It should ensure that any proposed new scheme should have an estimated maintenance schedule in the same way that it is accompanied by a construction bill of quantities. The Agency should also ensure its maintenance budget for the CSR 07 period includes the additional maintenance work necessary on the new capital schemes it will build during the period.

Maintenance of watercourses and rivers

76. The Agency is responsible for the maintenance of "main rivers", and a mixture of local authorities, Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) and private—"riparian"—owners have responsibilities for other watercourses.


77. Many submissions to our inquiry highlighted inadequate maintenance and dredging of rivers as contributing to local floods, especially from local organisations and members of the public. Some provided photographic evidence of blocked watercourses.[151] Often, the blame was laid at the Agency's door.[152] Representatives from IDBs, for example, said that several watercourses had received "little or no maintenance" since being taken over by the Agency for flood risk reasons, which was causing concern amongst local residents.[153] The National Farmers' Union (NFU) gave examples of "poor" watercourse maintenance by the Agency, such as on the River Millbrook near Wantage, which it said had exacerbated flooding during the summer.[154] The Institute of Civil Engineers said the Agency was "not adequately resourced" to carry out its watercourse maintenance responsibilities.[155]

78. When questioned on this issue, the Agency said it employed a risk-based approach to maintenance because it was not cost-effective to maintain all watercourses and rivers. Currently, it spent £3 million per year on dredging and about £8 million a year on cutting weeds but routine dredging and clearing carried out as "an act of faith" as in the past was "simply not good value for public money". The Agency added that maintenance and dredging would have had a limited effect on the kind of flooding seen in the summer, and dredging rivers could even sometimes exacerbate flood risk because it increased water flow.[156] Natural England told us traditional forms of maintenance—weed cutting and dredging—could be environmentally damaging by destroying habitat, and wanted some upland systems of land drainage to be abandoned.[157] The Agency said, however, that it only considered undertaking channel maintenance work where it was "environmentally acceptable and sustainable" to do so.[158]

79. Sir Michael Pitt also played down the issue of watercourse maintenance, which he described as a "myth". His single interim conclusion in this area called for the Agency to communicate better with those landowners who would be affected by either a withdrawal or significant reduction in the maintenance of rural watercourses.[159]

Our views

80. Our inquiry has showed that maintenance of watercourses is one of the major issues of public concern. Too often, local people—who are the ones closest to the problem, and with most at risk—are frozen out of the decision-making process about watercourse maintenance. Given the enormous level of interest, we believe it is appropriate that local people have to be involved, and consulted, in the formulation of decisions about watercourse and river maintenance. The Agency, and local authorities, must open up dialogue with members of the public, through appropriate local fora, to ensure that they are part of this process. This would at least ensure that local people have opportunity to discuss their concerns with Agency, or other, staff, and that public expectations are managed appropriately.

81. Once decisions have been made, the Agency should make clear, via its website or other means, the maintenance programme for all its watercourses—even if this, in some cases, is minimal—including the risk assessment which the Agency has made in deciding its approach to maintenance of a particular watercourse. The future schedule of maintenance should be announced whenever possible.

82. The Government should ask the Environment Agency and Natural England to agree on how to resolve any conflict between effective drainage for flood defence purposes and the preservation of watercourses as important wildlife habitats, and publish the results.

83. The Government should re-examine the money available for the maintenance of watercourses and produce a clear analysis, by the end of 2008, of the balance between maintenance and capital spend, bearing in mind the National Audit Office's conclusions, the scepticism of the public that not enough maintenance is being done, and the views of the Environment Agency.


84. Watercourses are generally owned by a number of "riparian owners" (anyone who owns a property alongside a watercourse), often farmers or other land-owners.[160] These owners are responsible for the maintenance of that watercourse, although it appears they are sometimes not aware of these responsibilities or choose not to carry out such maintenance.[161] If the watercourse is designated as a 'main river', the Agency has permissive powers to undertake maintenance and recover the costs from the riparian owners. For non-main rivers, the relevant local authority has an equivalent power. In practice, however, this does not appear to be exercised very often.

85. When questioned on this issue, the NFU acknowledged that a minority of farmers may not carry out their maintenance duties, but said the main rivers (the Agency's responsibility), main roads and motorways (Highways Authority) were likewise not being maintained enough to encourage everybody else to fulfil their role.[162] Some witnesses, however, believed it was necessary to make some changes to the existing system. Oxfordshire County Council suggested that the Agency should take over maintenance of some of the watercourses currently in ownership by private landowners in rural areas.[163] Gloucestershire County Council said the process could be simplified by transferring the ditches next to highways from the adjacent riparian land-owner to the relevant highways agency.[164]

86. Either the existing system of riparian duties needs to be made to work more effectively or it needs to be replaced. The Government should explore the practicality, costs and benefits of pursuing both courses of action. Work should begin as soon as possible to examine whether riparian ownership is fit for purpose.

87. We previously endorsed the Pitt Review's interim conclusion that local authorities be required to compile a register of all the main flood risk management and drainage assets, including details of the responsible owners. This register should include the owners of all watercourses, and be publicly available.

Working with natural processes to mitigate flood risk

88. An alternative flood risk management approach to building costly 'hard' defences is to work with natural processes, through better land-use planning and management. Creating washlands and wetlands, realigning river channels and reconnecting rivers with their floodplain, all help store and slow water to reduce flooding downstream. The Government stated, as part of its 2004 Making Space for Water strategy, that it would promote greater use of such rural land use solutions.[165] As part of our inquiry, we visited Lincoln to see one of the two washland schemes in operation in the region, where agricultural land is deliberately flooded to protect urban areas. The scheme was used to great effect during the summer of 2007 and, to a lesser extent, in January 2008.

89. Several witnesses, including Blueprint for Water and the RSPB, pointed to the multiple benefits often provided by natural process schemes, including improving water quality and biodiversity.[166] However, it was said that Government often found it difficult to put together funding packages that reflected such multiple benefits.[167] When questioned on this issue, Defra's Director of Water acknowledged that Government generally "finds it easier to do single sources of funding for single outcomes than it does for multiple outcomes". However, Defra pointed to Catchment Flood Management Plans, River Basin Management Plans, environmental stewardship schemes and catchment-sensitive farming as evidence that it recognised the need to bring agencies together to work for multiple outcomes.[168]

Our views

90. We believe that working with natural processes to mitigate flood risk, such as greater use of washlands and wetlands, is an important element in measures to reduce the risk of flooding. Most of the organisations involved in developing such schemes are Defra bodies, work very closely with Defra or are regulated by Defra. The Department should be able to bring these organisations together to ensure the common benefits of such schemes are realised. Defra should work with its partners and bodies to decide, by the end of 2008, how natural process flood risk schemes with multiple benefits can be best funded and developed. We strongly support the creative use of the Single Farm Payment to reward land owners if their land is used for the purpose of natural flooding to protect people and buildings elsewhere.

91. We accept that riparian landowners need to be suitably compensated if more land is to be used for washland or wetland purposes. We also believe there is a need for proactive intervention to build in resilience by man-made measures such as the addition of balancing tanks upstream in order to prevent floods downstream.

134   Capital Grant Allocations-2007 Medium Term Planning, Defra website, 15 August 2007, In terms of social considerations, many of those flooded in Hull in June were lower-income families. Back

135   Q 93. The Agency and Defra have been exploring the possibility of using 'multi-criteria analysis' in prioritising its flood defence programme. The Chairs of the Regional Flood Defence Committees, however, said it was "very unlikely" that a wholly objective system can or will be devised [Ev 262]. Back

136   There are eleven Regional Flood Defence Committees (RFDCs) in England, composed mostly of local authority representatives, who advise the Agency on its plans and priorities for flood risk management investment in the region, including proposed flood defence schemes [Ev 250]. Back

137   Q 896 Back

138   Ev 499 Back

139   Ev 494 Back

140   Ev 441 Back

141   Ev 552 Back

142   Q 53 Back

143   HC Deb, 4 February 2008, cols 49-50WS Back

144   Rural Affairs, Defra website, 6 March 2008, Back

145   Q 7 Back

146   Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Session 2006-07: Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England, HC (2006-07) 528, pp 14, 19. Back

147   For example, Ewan Larcombe (Ev 541). Back

148   HC Deb, 4 February 2008, cols 49-50WS. The HM Treasury GDP deflator has been used to assess whether there has been an increase in real terms. For each of the financial years covered by the CSR07 period the GDP deflator is forecast to increase by 2.75% on the previous financial year. Based on the table provided by Defra on 4 February 2008, the Agency's resource increases by only 1.61% for 2008-09 and 2.79% for 2009-10. Q 946. Back

149   Q 1081; Q 1087. Back

150   Q 1087 Back

151   For example, Strensall & Towthorpe Parish Council [Q 843] [not printed]. Back

152   For example, Edward Stephens [Ev 470], Pickering & District Civil Society [Ev 496], Datchet Parish Council [Ev 528], Ewan Larcombe [Ev 541].  Back

153   Q 313 Back

154   Ev 266 Back

155   Ev 500 Back

156   Qq 51-52 Back

157   Q 803, Q 826 Back

158   Ev 338 Back

159   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, pp 4, 135. Back

160   Definition by Epping Forest District Council. Under common law, riparian owners possess rights and responsibilities appertaining to the stretch of watercourse which falls within the boundaries of their property. Where a watercourse is situated across a boundary between adjoining properties, it is normally presumed that a riparian owner owns the land up to the centre-line of the watercourse, unless records exist to prove otherwise. Taken from Riparian Owners-Guidance Notes, Epping Forest District Council, Back

161   See Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council [Ev 561], Ewan Larcombe [Ev 541], Jane Marrott [Ev 391]. Back

162   Q 826 Back

163   Q 361 Back

164   Q 363 Back

165   Defra, First Government response to the autumn 2004 Making Space for water consultation exercise, March 2005, p 25. Back

166   Ev 483; Ev 534. Back

167   Q 818 [NFU] Back

168   Q 1101 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 2008
Prepared 7 May 2008