Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency (FL 121)


  The Environment Agency welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry into the recent flooding across England.

  The following memorandum summarises the role of the Environment Agency, our initial views on the key issues arising from the floods of June and July 2007, and on the significant policy and leadership challenges we face.

  This memorandum will cover:

    —  Inland Strategic Overview Role

    —  Characterisation of Risk (mapping flood risk)

    —  Development and Flood Risk

    —  Sustainable Drainage

    —  Emergency Planning

    —  Protecting Critical Infrastructure

    —  Rural Flood Risk Management

    —  Reservoirs

    —  Investment

    —  Governance

  Our internal review is due to report in December 2007, but we have incorporated our preliminary findings into this submission. We look forward to the findings of this and other reviews of the floods this summer. Our initial conclusions include the following:

    —  The weather event that led to the flooding was unprecedented in many places, with significant amounts of rain falling in very short periods of time. The flooding occurred largely because urban and land drainage systems were unable to cope with the large volumes of water which resulted.

    —  We are still analysing the performance of our flood defences during the event but early indications are that with virtually no exceptions, the majority performed to design standard and did not fail. They were, however, in many places simply overwhelmed and overtopped by the sheer volume of water.

    —  There were many communities that were satisfactorily protected by defences, including some for the first time following recent investments.

    —  The Environment Agency's flood warning systems performed well with no problems with service provision. We warned over 45,000 properties at risk; our flood agents took almost 55,000 calls; we received over 200,000 calls to our recorded message service and received over 43 million "hits" from 4 million individuals on our website. All of our systems stood up to the challenges of increased usage.

    —  Our links with the Met Office and the data provided by them were crucial in allowing the appropriate deployment of staff and resources. However, the specificity of forecasting information is not yet such as to define with sufficient accuracy where rain will fall so that more local impacts on surface water and small watercourses can be assessed.


  1.1  The severe flooding that affected much of the country in June and July followed what we now know to be the wettest May to July period since records began in 1766. The sheer volume of water overwhelmed many drainage systems and some defences, and much of the flooding occurred because these systems could not cope with the sheer quantity of water. However, whilst little reported, our activities and previous investment to protect homes and businesses substantially reduced the impacts of this extreme event.

  1.2  Nevertheless, the effects were severe. Several people lost their lives. 44,600 homes and 7,100 businesses were flooded. Transport infrastructure was disrupted, and many properties were without power and water for many days. Recovery from such an event can take years, as properties are dried out, cleaned, repaired and redecorated. Rural areas and businesses too have had to face the impacts of flooding. Many farmers have suffered significant losses of livestock and crops.

  1.3  Every flood provides a learning opportunity to examine the root causes and identify areas for improvement. The summer floods brought into sharp relief a number of issues, many of which we were already tackling. This incident was characterised by severe surface water flooding and potential problems with reservoirs, as well as flooding from rivers and other watercourses.

  1.4  A particular challenge is urban surface water drainage. In many places, flooding occurred as a result of prolonged heavy rainfall, leading to surface water run-off and drainage systems being overwhelmed. Pressures on drainage infrastructure had been increased by new development, infill of previously undeveloped land and increased levels of impermeable paving. Climate change is likely to make urban surface water flooding more common as rainfall is predicted to increase by 10-30% by the 2080s, and intensity could increase by up to 20% (UKCIP, 2002).


  2.1  There is a need for clarification of responsibilities for inland flooding from whatever source. At present, no single organisation has the strategic overview role for all inland flooding issues, including flooding from river systems and surface water. Whilst local government will be the key local player for urban surface water flooding, there needs to be a strategic overview and co-ordinated approach to flooding from all sources, including rivers, seas and surface water. There are benefits to be gained from a co-ordinated national approach. These include, for example, in the methodology and techniques used for risk characterisation and surface water management; in aligning the design capacity of surface water systems with those of river and coastal defences; and in the contributions that whole-catchment approach to water management offers.

  2.2  Defra wrote to key stakeholders in June 2007 to seek views on their approach to the intended Environment Agency Strategic Overview for Inland Flood Risk Management, and to ask for feedback on their draft impact assessment for the Integrated Urban Drainage work. Additionally, the Defra Making Space for Water initiative has funded 15 pilot studies in urban areas in England examining different approaches to urban flood management. These studies will report in 2008 and provide an evidence-based approach to policy development. The Environment Agency believes there is an urgent need to establish a strategic overview role, to provide national leadership, advice and support to all bodies who have roles to play in the management of flood risk for the future, including the several bodies locally who have a key role to play in the management of surface water flood risk. The issue of the overview of surface water flooding is also identified in the independent review of the 2007 floods in Kingston-upon-Hull, commissioned by Hull City Council.

  2.3  Working within a strategic framework, advice, support and tools provided by the Environment Agency, Local Authorities, as the key local players, would undertake Strategic Flood Risk Assessments covering all forms of flooding to inform spatial planning decisions. Where necessary these would trigger the preparation of a Surface Water Management Plan (SWMP). A SWMP would take account of flooding from surface water, sewers, combined sewers and the impact of these sources in combination with flooding from rivers, the sea, groundwater, canals and reservoirs to provide a more holistic approach to the problem of urban flooding. Input on flood risks from rivers, the sea, groundwater, canals and reservoirs would continue to be provided by the Environment Agency. At present markedly different design standards are applied by operating authorities to urban drainage systems. Typically, return periods of up to 1 in 30 years will be applied but not universally and not in a co-ordinated approach with others to appropriately manage urban flood risk. Retro fitting the application of higher standards and increased risk protection would be prohibitively expensive but regulation to ensure that all new build and redevelopment conforms to new standards would bring significant improvements over time. Surface Water Management Plans would also allow the identification of priorities for the remediation of surface water flooding "hot spots" in current systems.

  2.4  The forthcoming Planning Reform Bill could introduce a duty for all utilities, regulators and agencies to work with local authorities to produce a Strategic Flood Risk Assessment (SFRA), where Environment Agency Catchment Flood Management Plans identify a significant risk of urban flooding.

  2.5  A methodology for developing these plans is critical. The Environment Agency could develop a methodology that would be applied nationally by Local Authorities. A SWMP would provide input to the Local Development Framework for the Local Authority.

  2.6  We believe that the Environment Agency could perform an effective strategic overview role for all types of inland flooding. However, the role needs careful specification and the balance of responsibilities between the Environment Agency, Local Authorities and other organisations will need to be clearly articulated.


  3.1  We already have a well-established way of characterising and mapping the risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. The Environment Agency is not, currently, responsible for floods from surface water. Were we to be given the overview role outlined above, it would still be far more difficult to characterise and warn against the risk from other sources of flooding. Water moves in complex ways through the changing landscape in a dynamic urban environment, and is extremely challenging to map. Planning decisions, urban design and changes in sewerage provision all conspire to make it difficult to accurately predict flooding. Little work has been done on mapping areas at risk from urban surface water flooding. There is no nationally consistent approach. There needs to be developed a workable, risk-based methodology for characterising urban flood risk. This will be an important part of implementing the European Floods Directive, and critical for the Environment Agency in taking a meaningful strategic overview for all forms of flooding, as proposed by Defra.


  4.1  The new planning policy guidance on development and flood risk (England: PPS 25) published in December 2006 introduces a strengthened presumption against developing in areas of flood risk. At the same time the Government introduced new powers for the Environment Agency to challenge planning authorities that overrule our advice based on the basis of riverine or coastal flooding and flood risk from surface water drainage. It remains difficult to identify urban areas at high risk from surface water flooding in a consistent way and therefore the full potential of PPS25 is not being realised.

  4.2  In 2005-06, we objected to more than 4,000 planning applications in England because of concerns about flood risk (High Level Target 5—Development and Flood Risk, 2006). In the end, only 10 major developments went ahead against our advice in 2005-06, but that is 10 too many. Our report on building in the floodplain for 2006-07 will be completed in November.

  4.3  Increased storminess and the possibility of flooding occurring more widely outside the floodplain due to surface water issues, means that the resistance and resilience of buildings to floods needs to be increased, to reduce the damage when such floods occur. The feasibility should be examined of introducing flood resistance (preventing water entering buildings) and resilience (reducing the impact of water which has entered buildings) requirements into the Building Regulations as part of measures to adapt to climate change.


  5.1  Sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) slow the movement of surface water through the built environment to emulate natural processes. These include allowing water to soak into the ground and providing absorbent surfaces, buffering or storage. In doing so, they reduce the impact of rainfall on the drainage system. However such systems do require long term maintenance and, at present, there is no legal clarity as to whose responsibility this is or who will fund it.

  5.2  Local Authorities should take the lead on providing SUDS. In the forthcoming Planning Bill, a presumption in favour of SUDS should be introduced to add weight to existing policy in PPS 25. Local Authorities should apply a presumption in favour of SUDS in planning applications for new developments by applying conditions. So-called General Binding Rules could be introduced, requiring parking areas or other surfaces to be made permeable, as envisaged in the Defra non-agricultural diffuse pollution consultation.

  5.3  Section 106 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (right of connection to a public sewer) should be amended to encourage the use of SUDS. Currently this section gives property owners a right to connect to a public sewer without having to consider alternatives or demonstrate that SUDS are not feasible.

  5.4  Greater transparency in charging for surface water drainage could reward organisations that place a smaller load on the surface water drainage system. This would encourage more permeable surfaces, reducing surface water runoff.

  5.5  PPS 25 requires that drainage issues be appropriately considered as part of the flood risk assessment. Where flood risk from drainage has not been adequately considered in this way the Environment Agency will object.

6.  Emergency Planning

  6.1  The multi-agency approach to emergency planning is sound. The Environment Agency, Police, local government, Fire and Rescue Service and others jointly develop strategies for responding to flood emergencies and these worked during the floods. The fora and collaborative mechanisms set up under the Civil Contingencies Act stood in good stead during the flood emergency, so these need further development to focus on particular flood emergency issues.

  6.2  The Environment Agency played a full role in supporting the Government at a national level through attending meetings of the Civil Contingencies Committee (known as COBRA meetings) and in providing briefings for Ministers and members of Parliament.


  7.1  The experiences at Walham electricity sub station operated by National Grid and the Mythe Water Treatment Works operated by Severn Trent Water have brought into sharp relief the necessity for protecting our critical infrastructure. The Receptors Vulnerable to Flooding project (Environment Agency and JBA, 2007) found that significant numbers of public and private sector critical infrastructure facilities were at risk from flooding. These included 15% of major energy installations, 14% of emergency response installations (fire, ambulance and police stations), 9% of hospitals and health centres and surgeries, and 57% of water and sewerage treatment works, as well as railway stations and lines, roads, telephone exchanges and schools.

  7.2  The Civil Contingencies Act requires business continuity plans to be prepared by category 1 and 2 responders. However, this does not extend to a specific duty to protect critical assets from flooding. Our experience of the recent floods suggests that some utility companies may not have appropriate business continuity plans in place to address all the potential impacts of major flooding. We encourage utility companies to review their business continuity plans in light of the most up-to-date information that we have available. Our reviews from previous floods have identified this as an issue. To ensure that adequate progress is made, the Environment Agency would want to see proposals to include a specific requirement in the Climate Change Bill for utilities and all critical infrastructure and service providers to take account of climate change adaptation needs.


  8.1  Considerable rural land flooded during the summer floods. The Environment Agency works with landowners and Internal drainage Boards to help manage rural flood risk where possible. The Agency prioritises the provision of defences and the maintenance of watercourses on a risk basis. In the case of maintenance of watercourses, including dredging, the Environment Agency provides maintenance and dredges where that will help reduce flood risk. There are a number of ways in which land owners and managers can help reduce flood risk. Two current research projects under Defra's Making Space for Water initiative are helping to provide the scientific evidence to show land owners and managers what role they can play in reducing floods from their land. In addition, the use of farmland adjacent to rivers to store floodwater and re-create natural floodplains, perhaps subject to payment, can help manage flood risk.


  9.1  During the floods problems were identified at a number of reservoirs including the well-publicised Ulley Reservoir near Rotherham. The Environment Agency became the enforcement authority for reservoirs across England and Wales in October 2004. Our experiences over the past three years and from the floods lead us to conclude that a review of the legislation would be timely. The combination of the impacts of climate change and an ageing reservoir stock mean that risks from dam failure are likely to increase and having a modern risk-based legislative framework in place is in our view a pre-requisite to managing those risks.


  10.1  There is strong justification for increased investment in flood risk management to cope with the existing backlog of floodplain development, growing development pressures, additional duties and obligations placed upon us by our changing role and developing legislation, and to take account of the impacts of climate change. The economic benefits are clear—for every £1 spent on protecting homes and businesses and building in resistance and resilience, the cost of clean-up and repairs following a flood can be reduced by up to £6 (Defra Zero-based review of flood risk management, 2006 unpublished). The investments we make are therefore paying for themselves many times over. The pressures on the flood risk management budget remain and the cost of bringing urban drainage systems up to standard and improving standards will also be considerable.

  10.2  The continued investment and provision of flood defences for properties in areas at high risk of flooding is a fundamental part of Government's agreement with the insurance industry. The "Statement of Principles" agreed with the ABI states that insurance for flood risk will continue to be offered by the industry as long as Government investment in flood risk reduction measures continues. The ABI has called for flood risk management budgets to be increased at 10% per year (A future for the floodplains, ABI, 2006), and the Environment Agency believes it is prudent to increase the budget this steadily so that capacity can increase in line with a real increase in budget.

  10.3  The Government announced in July its intended expansion of overall funding in flood risk management from £600 million per year to £800 million per year by 2010-11, although it is not yet clear how much the Environment Agency will receive, or when. The National Audit Office identified the need for an additional £150 million to be spent on bringing our existing assets into "good" standard. The ABI's view is that this commitment should be made over and above the increase to £800 million annually already announced, and they have identified a case for an additional £8 billion to be spent over 25 years on east coast defences alone. The Government's Foresight report also advised that an increase in spending of £30 million per annum in real terms would be necessary to contend with the best current predictions of the effects of climate change.

  10.4  So, we warmly welcome the extra funding announced by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We believe it should increase steadily in 2008-09 and 2009-10, and in accordance with the ABI's proposals after 2011. Increases should continue through the next spending review, towards reaching over £1 billion annually.


  11.1  Some commentators are already suggesting disaggregation of flood risk management to more local control. The Government consulted on governance and funding after the extensive floods in autumn 2000 and concluded that a national approach was needed to enable effective focus on priorities and more efficient use of resources and skills. Government has just agreed that the Environment Agency will take on the responsibility for strategic overview on the coast and is consulting on giving the Environment Agency a similar role inland.

  11.2  Other commentators have suggested that management of flood events point to the need for a single flood agency which would handle all aspects of flood emergency management from forecasting and warning through to event management, community support and post-flood recovery. The management of flood events requires collaboration of a wide range of organisations. For example, the skills of both the Environment Agency and the Met Office are needed for flood forecasting. Emergency management needs close collaboration between Local Authorities, the emergency services, utility companies, Internal Drainage Boards, voluntary organisations and others. The important factor is clarity of responsibilities and excellence of co-ordination, not the creation of a single organisation, which would cut across the ongoing "peacetime" responsibilities of other organisations.

  11.3  A fundamental principle behind the creation of the Environment Agency was the need for the integrated management of rivers, including pollution control, water resources, the land / water interface and biodiversity as well as flooding. This is even more valid now. The Water Framework Directive requires such an approach and this will soon be universal across Europe.

  11.4  A response to the flood event that focuses on organisational restructuring rather than action on the issues risks losing output for up to two years while restructuring takes place and reductions in productivity for some three years after as the new arrangements bed down. Many of the issues identified as arising in the summer floods were highlighted in reports from previous flood events. It is vital that the real issues are tackled, rather than resorting to restructuring as a substitute for real focus and action.


  12.1  In reaching conclusions and making recommendations, we must bear in mind that the full picture of the events in June and July, and the full impacts of the flooding have yet to be clearly understood. The internal "lessons identified" review that we are undertaking, together with reports from other studies, will add flesh to the bare bones of information that have so far been available, and help us direct our future thinking, policies and activities. Our interim views, based on what we know so far, are as follows:

    —  Recommendation 1—We believe that there needs to be an effective strategic overview role for all types of inland flooding. The role needs careful specification and the balance of responsibilities between the Environment Agency and other organisations will need to be clearly articulated. The Environment Agency could provide leadership, advice, expertise and national support. Local Authorities would need to take a lead role in the local management of surface water flooding. These roles would need to be supported by appropriate powers and resources, and by Surface Water Management Plans that would set out a package of responses to risks that were identified in a consistent way (Section 2.0).

    —  Recommendation 2—We need to develop a workable, nationally consistent toolkit for characterising urban flood risk and prioritising responses (Section 3.0).

    —  Recommendation 3—PPS 25 gives the Environment Agency the greater involvement in planning decisions we called for. However, to be effective it must be rigorously applied and supported by Local Authorities (Section 4.0).

    —  Recommendation 4—Resistance and resilience requirements should be included in the Building Regulations for new development in areas that could flood, from whatever source (Section 4.0).

    —  Recommendation 5—In the forthcoming Planning Bill, a presumption in favour of SUDS should be introduced to add weight to existing policy in PPS25. Local authorities should apply a presumption in favour of SUDS in planning applications for new developments by applying conditions and clear arrangements need to be put in place for ongoing maintenance (Section 5.0).

    —  Recommendation 6—Section 106 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (right of connection to a public sewer) should be amended to encourage the use of SUDS, and charging regimes should reward organisations that place a smaller load on the surface water drainage system (Section 5.0).

    —  Recommendation 7—Local Authorities together with Local Resilience Forums should be given greater accountability for ensuring emergency plans are adequate in relations to the level of flood risk (Section 6.0).

    —  Recommendation 8—Measures that promote investment in resilience and prevention of flooding of critical infrastructure need reviewing. There should be a specific climate change adaptation role for utilities and service providers in the Climate Change Bill (Section 7.0).

    —  Recommendation 9—Land owners and managers should be encouraged to consider the many ways in which their activities can help reduce flooding, for example by careful soil management or creating washlands and water storage areas (Section 8.0).

    —  Recommendation 10—Reservoir safety legislation should be reassessed to learn the lessons of the recent events (Section 9.0).

    —  Recommendation 11—Investment in flood risk management is promised to increase but longer-term commitment to such funding needs to be given by Government in the face of climate change impacts (Section 10).

    —  Recommendation 12—Fundamental changes to governance of flood risk would be counterproductive. Defra should take forward its intention to give the Environment Agency an overview role of all inland flooding (Section 11).

Environment Agency

September 2007

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