Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Norman Baker MP (FL MP 17)

  Thank you for your letter dated 24 July regarding your Select Committee's inquiry into flooding. I welcome the opportunity to share with you my ideas for what aspects of current flood prevention/defence policies are working and where they need to be reviewed.

  The Associate Parliamentary Group on Flood Prevention last met in April 2007 when representatives from the Environment Agency and the Department for Communities and Local Government gave a presentation on Planning Policy Statement 25, which aims to ensure that flood risk assessment is made an integral part of the planning application procedure.

  I have divided this submission into the four sections I believe are in most need of attention: government spending, the points system, planning and lessons learned from the floods this summer.


  The Committee is encouraged to consider:

    —  Whether the recently announced increase in spending on flood management and prevention is sufficient, particularly in light of recent events.

    —  How available funds should be spent.

  The Group welcomes the Secretary of State's announcement to the House on 2 July 2007 that spending on flood management and prevention would be increased from £600 million in 2007-08 to £800 million in 2010-11. However, whilst it is not yet clear when or how this funding will be allocated, it is clear that the level is still not enough to protect the UK. The cost-benefit ratio of government spending on flood defences would appear to be enormous; the money put in is more than repaid by the avoidance of floods and I would encourage your Committee to consider this aspect. Taking the recent floods as an example, the Association of British Insurers has estimated the costs to the insurance industry alone to be in the region of £3 billion. This figure is four times that committed by the Government for future flood management and prevention, and I therefore believe there needs to be a realisation that government spending on flood defences is money well spent and does reap benefits in the future.

  I look forward to hearing further detail about how and where this increase in government spending will be spent. For example, what does the Government believe constitutes as a flood defence, and what constitutes as its maintenance? I look forward to seeing a timetable outlining when this money will be invested, and believe the urgency illustrated by the adverse weather conditions this summer requires it be spent sooner rather than as the three years is coming to an end.

  In response to a Parliamentary Question (PQ151147, 26/07/07) regarding progress made on flood defence schemes announced for construction in 2006-07, we have learned that of the 33 schemes announced with a construction spend greater than £250,000, only 13 have been completed or are likely to be completed in 2007. In his reply the Environment Minister, Phil Woolas MP, stated that "the overall programme of flood and coastal erosion risk management works is prioritised on an annual basis in the light of demands on the system and the budget available". This statement causes some concern, and I believe the Committee should inquire as to what assurances the Government will give that the backlog of schemes will be carried out as a matter of urgency, and that future schemes will be carried out on time. This point was echoed by Members in a Westminster Hall Debate on 11 July 2007, including by myself, when concerns were raised that Government promises made in 2000 and 2003 in reaction to flooding, were no longer kept once the issue had fallen out of the public's mindset.


  The Committee is encouraged to consider:

    —  Whether the present points system is the correct means of allocating funds for flood defences and whether alternative systems should be considered.

    —  How smaller communities can be better protected from flood risk.

  As highlighted in the National Audit Office report entitled "Building and Maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England" (published on 15 June 2007 prior to the severe floods), the points system by which helps the Environment Agency to decide which schemes should receive funding for flood spending is recognised as complex. The current system is based on three key components (economic, people and environment) with a maximum award of 44 points. This scheme attributes the same importance to the number of people and homes protected, as it does to the creation or improvement of existing wildlife and the protection of the existing conservation designated areas. Undoubtedly the protection of the environment is extremely important; however I believe further examination is required as to whether it should be deemed at the same level of importance as protecting life or property.

  Additionally it could be argued that the present system is unfairly weighted against smaller communities. My constituency in Lewes suffered severe flooding in 2000. It caused devastation with hundreds of people driven from their homes and the financial centre of the town left in ruins. Lewes was divided into six cells and seven years on, only one of the six cells has seen adequate improved flood defences provided. The Cliffe area in the middle of town, the financial and shopping centre, has not been protected because the points system has determined that too few people live there. It has not made any allowance for the fact that the whole town depends on the prosperity of Cliffe. This is a disgrace and further supports the need for this system of funding allocation to be reviewed.


  The Committee is encouraged to consider:

    —  Whether planning authorities should be able to ignore Environment Agency advice on new developments and, if so, what conditions should be put on mitigating flood risk on such developments.

    —  Whether flood risk can be reduced through better property design and whether tighter standards should apply.

    —  Whether HIPs should have a greater role to play in warning home buyers of potential flood risk.

  In December 2006, the Government published Planning Policy Statement 25, which made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee to ensure that flooding would be taken into account in the planning application procedure. The Government should be congratulated for ensuring flooding is an integral part of the process. However under PPS25, the "exception test" allows planning authorities to effectively ignore the Environment Agency's advice if the benefit of development is deemed to outweigh the risks of flooding.

  In addition, it is clear that one of the Government's top priorities is building for a sustainable future. However, what is not clear is where this building will take place and at what cost environmentally. Aside from the risk of building on flood plains, a significant flood risk remains in modern house building standards. The fashion trend has changed over the last decade or so to have smaller gardens, paved driveways and conservatories. All of these features post a significant risk to flooding, as surface water has nowhere to drain away. The Government needs to take this into account when it considers its future plans.

  On 1 August 2007, the Government's long awaited Home Information Packs came into force for properties with four or more bedrooms. Stepping away from the political debate, it is disappointing that a "flood" search, in respect of river and coastal flooding, is only part of the voluntary Home Condition Report element of the pack and I believe this is an important piece of information that homeowners have an automatic right to know when they are purchasing a house. In addition it is disappointing to see that only Environment Agency maps can be used within the flood report element of the Packs. Other information is available on the market, both from the insurance industry and other independent organisations, and it is therefore unclear why the Government has taken this decision.


  The Committee is encouraged to consider:

    —  The potential dangers caused by small watercourses.

    —  The effect of overburdened sewers and traffic calming measures on flood water.

    —  Flood-compatible building materials.

  Some of the areas hit by flooding during the summer of 2007 had already been fortunate enough to benefit from effective flood defences from the major rivers but were nevertheless profoundly affected. This was in many cases as a result of flash flooding from extremely heavy rain on the catchment areas of normally very small watercourses. The Group would therefore like to encourage the Committee to look into ways of protecting buildings located near relatively minor watercourses from flash flooding and, in hilly areas, from potentially devastating landslips.

  Another aspect worthy of the Committee's consideration is the exacerbating effect on flooding that comes when surface water drains and sewers cannot cope with the volume of flood water and the potential for adapting these systems in flood-prone areas. Similarly, some traffic calming measures, such as sleeping policemen, also had an unexpected, adverse "damming" effect on water flow.

  Finally, the Group believes that it would be helpful if the Committee looked at the potential for using "flood-compatible" building materials in new construction projects in flood prone areas, such as paving materials that are porous and underground storage systems that are far more effective than conventional soakaways.

  In conclusion, I would like to congratulate your Committee for holding this important inquiry. It is clear that the summer floods of 2007 have raised the profile of the issue to the top of the Government's agenda, and pressure should be applied to ensure this is where it remains.

  I hope this is helpful.

Norman Baker MP


Chair, Associate Parliamentary Group on Flood Prevention

September 2007

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