Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fifth Report

8  Emergency response and planning

Planning for emergencies

102. Most witnesses said the Gold and Silver Command Structure worked well during the floods, and was the most appropriate model to respond to emergencies.[188] However, it was clear that many organisations—particularly local authorities, who were at the forefront of the emergency response—were unprepared for the scale of such an extreme event. The Pitt Review noted that the scale of the 2007 floods stretched resources "to the limit and beyond", and responders in some areas "were not as ready as they might have been.[189] Hull City Council told us that the city had undergone a major training exercise for a tidal flooding event in recent years, but a major surface water flood had perhaps been "inadequately prepared for and inadequately thought about".[190] The Council told us:

It came from nowhere, no-one was really expecting it.[191]

It added that practising training exercises every three years was "probably not enough", partly because staff had often moved on to different posts. Instead, it believed "in-depth training" was required on a "much more regular basis".[192] Sheffield City Council told us it had carried out a flood risk emergency response exercise a year before—Operation Loxley—which had proved "absolutely invaluable" because much of what was rehearsed turned out to be the reality during the summer.[193] It acknowledged, however, that responders had not been fully prepared, or resourced, for an emergency event that lasted for several days, which had been an "incredibly tiring" experience—a view echoed by Oxfordshire County Council who also said staff had suffered from fatigue.[194] Gloucestershire County Council told us that many emergency training exercises had taken place in the region before the floods, but not on the scale of the summer's emergency because this would have been considered unrealistic.[195]

Our views

103. In some respects, the provisions set out in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 were not sufficient for the kind of emergency that occurred in parts of England in the summer. The Act is perhaps better suited to planning and responding to a terrorism event than to a flooding event. Local authorities—Category 1 responders under the Act—were not adequately prepared for an event on such scale. Many utilities, as "co-operating" Category 2 responders, also lacked preparedness and were unfamiliar with emergency response procedures.

104. There seems to have been a lack of imagination, on the part of everybody, about the possibility of such an extreme flooding event occurring—and consequently a lack of preparedness by responders. We recognise that local responders can only realistically prepare for certain scenarios. When planning for emergencies, however, it is important not simply to imagine convenient scenarios. Local authorities and other relevant local organisations need to rehearse emergency response exercises on a more regular basis. This would help to improve preparedness and also ensure people in various organisations know each other. The scale of the rehearsed emergency events should take account of the extreme weather events predicted as a result of climate change. The Government and the Environment Agency should be centrally involved in the formulation of such exercises to ensure that they are demanding enough.

105. On a positive note, we recognise that the work of the voluntary sector was extremely important in many different ways during the summer's events. The Government must ensure that the voluntary sector is included as part of civil contingency planning to maximise the effective use of the sector.

Co-ordination between authorities

106. Gloucestershire County Council told us that communication between different tiers of Government—such as county council and district councils—needed to be improved during emergency events. Five districts in Gloucestershire were affected at the same time during July, but in different ways, including the closure of motorways, flash flooding, river flooding, loss of electricity and loss of water. The County Council said that this caused problems in terms of the emergency response co-ordination and communication.[196]

107. Emergency response in two-tier local authorities can add complications to an already difficult situation. We support the Pitt Review's interim conclusion that "upper-tier" local authorities should be the lead organisation in relation to multi-agency planning for severe weather emergencies at the local level, and for triggering multi-agency arrangements in response to severe weather warnings.

Provision of water during an emergency

108. Severn Trent Water deployed over 1,300 water bowsers—virtually the whole of the UK stock—and delivered up to 5 million litres of bottled water per day, with assistance from the armed services, following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment plant.[197] Current Government regulations require water companies to provide a minimum of 10 litres of drinking-quality water per person when mains supplies fail.[198] Severn Trent told us that the Mythe experience showed this amount was "unrealistic"; it said customers actually required about 20 litres per day.[199] The Government has since announced, as part of its Water Strategy, that it will review the current minimum requirements of water to be provided in an emergency.[200]

109. Current planning contingency also requires water companies to prepare for an emergency event in which 200,000 people have lost supply for seven days.[201] However, we note that 1 million people lost their water supply during the 1947 English floods.

110. The biggest problem in Gloucestershire was the lack of logistical support. Until the army was deployed there was a serious shortfall of personnel capable of carrying out the necessary operations. The water companies had never carried out anything on this scale before and too many bowsers and other supplies of water were not delivered effectively until well into the crisis. Such a lacunae must not be allowed to happen again.

111. The Government should revise upwards both the planning contingency whereby the water industry is required to prepare for 200,000 people without water for 7 days, and the minimum per capita amount of water to be provided in an emergency. It should then ensure that water companies are able to demonstrate that they have the ability to meet these minimum standards, through the provision of sufficient materials such as bowsers and/or bottled water.

188   For example, Sheffield City Council [Q 180], Oxfordshire County Council [Qq 323-324], Severn Trent Water [Q 402]. Back

189   Pitt Review, Learning the lessons from the 2007 floods, December 2007, p 70. Back

190   Qq 173, 219. Back

191   Q 191 Back

192   Q 219 Back

193   Qq 181, 213. Back

194   Qq 219, 337. Back

195   Q 328 Back

196   Q 327 Back

197   Ev 105 [Severn Trent], 93 [Gloucestershire County Council]. Back

198   Security and Emergency Measures (Water and Sewerage Undertakers) 1998 [SEMG(4)], Paragraph 1(2)(b) Back

199   Q 410 Back

200   Defra, Future Water, Cm 7319, February 2008, p 42. Back

201   Defra/Welsh Assembly Government, Planning for Major Water and Wastewater Incidents in England and Wales, October 2006. Back

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