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


Annex 1

Our role and activities during the summer floods 2007

1.  THE ENVIRONMENT AGENCY

  1.1  We are the lead agency for providing flood risk protection and warning of flooding from "main" rivers. Other bodies, (Local Authorities, the Highways Agency and utility companies) are responsible for the standards and maintenance of smaller watercourses, culverts, drains and sewerage systems. We have a regulatory role in managing flooding from reservoirs, except where we own reservoirs specifically managed to reduce flood risk. Riparian owners are responsible for other watercourses on their land.

  1.2  This memorandum explains how we discharged our responsibilities during the summer floods. It explains how we worked with others in discharging those responsibilities across the range of our activities, including mapping and modelling flood risk; interpreting weather warnings; forecasting flooding and issuing flood warnings; building and maintaining flood defences; incident management and response; clean-up operations; and aftercare.

  1.3  Although it is not possible to conclusively attribute any particular event or series of events to climate change, we do know that predictions for the UK suggest we can expect more severe storms accompanied by intense rainfall. This, combined with predicted sea level rise, mean that the risks of coastal and inland flooding are likely to increase.

2.  FORECAST AND WARNING

Mapping

  2.1  We map flood risk and provide free to the public, via our web site, the most detailed mapping analysis of flood risk of any country in Europe. This information is regularly updated and shared with local authorities and the insurance industry to assist in planning and insurance provision. We map areas at risk of flooding from the sea and from rivers. We do not currently have a responsibility to map areas that may be vulnerable to surface water flooding, sewer or groundwater flooding.

  2.2  Most of the areas that flooded were identified on our flood maps as being at risk of flooding. Those that weren't identified by flood maps as being at risk tended to be areas affected by drainage systems being overwhelmed by the run-off from exceptional rainfall. Early data analysis shows that five times as many properties were affected by surface water flooding as against those directly affected by river bank overtopping, although the relationship between the two is complex. Areas where urban flooding was caused solely by overwhelmed urban drainage systems do not receive flood warnings under the current system.

Data gathering

  2.3  We constantly monitor rainfall, river and sea conditions. We also use weather forecasting information provided by the Meteorological Office (Met Office) on rainfall forecasts, weather radar, tide levels and wind conditions. These data help us plan and warn for events.

  2.4  The data are fed into our national flood forecasting system (NFFS), which predicts river and tide levels for critical locations across England and Wales and allows us to warn people at risk and professional partners. When severe weather is predicted, our national and regional flood forecasting duty officers are in regular and direct contact with Met Office forecasters.

Triggers for action

  2.5  The Environment Agency's operational flood response can be triggered in a number of ways, depending on the response required, for example:

    —  Using weather forecasts from the Met office—for informing professional partners, running river level and tide forecasts, putting staff on standby;

    —  Using detected river levels through remote sensing or direct observations—used to issue flood warnings and operate our flood control structures, including putting up our temporary flood barriers; and

    —  Through reports of flooding from the public or others—these can be received by Floodline (our flooding information telephone service 0845 988 1188); our National Customer Contact Centre (NCCC) during office hours, or through our Regional Communication Centres (RCCs) using our emergency out of hours contact number. They are then passed to the relevant local duty officer to investigate and act.

Flood warnings

  2.6  We issue flood warnings when rivers or sea levels reach trigger levels, or when high levels are forecast. Before we issue warnings to ensure we try to be as specific as possible about which communities will be affected. However, we have to find a balance between the needs for accuracy and the importance of alerting the public and our partners early enough for them to react appropriately. We also need to be aware of the problems of raising false alarms, which, if repeated, reduce the willingness of people to respond.

  2.7  We aim to give at least two hours' notice of flooding, but in some locations, where catchments respond very quickly to rainfall, this notice period is not feasible. We do not currently have a responsibility to provide a flood warning service for flooding from sewers, drains or surface water, although work is currently being done under Defra's Making Space for Water initiative to study the feasibility of expanding current flood warnings to cover other flood risks.

  2.8  During the summer floods:

    —  We warned over 45,000 properties of flooding through our free flood warning systems.

    —  Our flood agents took almost 55,000 calls and we received over 200,000 calls to our Floodline Recorded Message Service. Our call centres were manned with triple the usual number of staff.

    —  We issued 233 Flood Watch Warnings, 272 Flood Warnings, and 51 Severe Flood Warnings.

    —  We received over 43 million "hits" to flood pages from 4 million individuals on our website which contain advice on preparing for flooding, what to do during a flood and on cleaning up after a flood.

Floodline Warnings Direct (FWD)

  2.9  We have invested £10 million over the last 3 years in our new national flood warning dissemination system, Flood Warnings Direct (FWD). It has proved a robust and reliable way of getting warnings out to public and our professional partners. This system is unique in the world, warning free of charge registered users at the highest risk of flooding via telephone, fax, text, mobile, pager and email.

  2.10  We have sustained a long running campaign to raise awareness of flooding and the availability of flood warning and advice. To date 40% of those offered FWD have voluntarily signed up for the service. We continue efforts post flood to encourage sign up, for example by taking out full-page adverts in three national newspapers, local newspaper advertising, direct mailing, and going door to door.

3.  RESPONSE

  3.1  During the June and July flooding we mobilised all appropriate head office and regional operational teams. Their activities included checking the condition and stability of our flood defence assets; confirming telemetric readings; installing demountable flood barriers; monitoring and forecasting; issuing warnings; manning our incident control rooms; and responding to queries from the public, Government Ministers and officials, Members of Parliament and the media. Many staff from non-flooded areas and other disciplines of Environment Agency work were drafted in to supplement formal flood risk management staff, an example of where a large, multi-functional agency is able to provide a more robust response in such emergencies.

  3.2  Over this period, up to 23 National, Regional and Area Incident Rooms were operational, and staff attended the same number of Gold and Silver Control Centres.

Gold and Silver Controls and Civil Contingencies Committee

  3.3  The Gold and Silver Command structure is used to co-ordinate a managed response to major incidents where a range of agencies and emergency services have a role to play. Communication between the Environment Agency Regional contacts and Gold and Silver Controls across the country worked well, largely due to pre-established relationships and links made during emergency planning exercises and Local Resilience Forums. We were able to provide updates as necessary on flood risk in many areas. These were widely cascaded to responding agencies and authorities on a regular basis and the information was often the basis for informing evacuation plans and informing the public. The same material was used extensively by our own staff to brief the media, provide press statements and give interviews.

  3.4  The importance of our role in control centres is recognised—Hull City Council and Humberside Fire and Rescue have both indicated that the Environment Agency were "invaluable in providing accurate and vital information on river levels, tides, and weather forecasts" at Silver Command in Hull (Hull Floods Independent Review Body).

  3.5  We also provided liaison officers in the Met Office and in the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) National Flood Support Team. These staff were able to keep direct contact as needed with both the National Incident Room (gathering and co-ordinating situation report information from local Operational staff for onward transmission) and with Area Forecasting teams (monitoring river levels and environmental conditions predict their possible effects). For the FRS, this provided useful intelligence on how rainfall was affecting river flows and levels, predicted peak times and locations. Without this, the FRS would not have been able to co-ordinate the deployment of water rescue staff and assets as effectively.

  3.6  We played a full part nationally in the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Committee (known as COBRA).

Local communities and residents

  3.7  After the floods, we put significant efforts towards working with and talking to local communities and answering questions about flooding in their areas. We organised or took part in drop-in centres and advice sessions where our staff were on hand to answer questions and offer practical advice on all aspects of the flooding, as well as to hear first hand from people affected by flooding. Many of these took place on a multi-agency basis so that together we could provide as much information as possible locally. We also had staff acting as "flood ambassadors" in some communities to offer on-the-spot advice and answer questions.

  3.8  Our Floodline is available to provide advice 24 hours a day during a flood event. Flood pages on our website contain information on preparing for flooding, what to do during a flood and cleaning up after a flood.

  3.9  We provided four national briefings to MPs during and after the flooding as well as briefing MPs in affected constituencies at a regional and local level. We supported the Government by providing briefings for Ministers and assisted with Government briefings for members of Parliament.

4.  ASSETS

  4.1  Across England and Wales, the Environment Agency flood risk infrastructure assets comprise 17,400 structures and 22,800 kilometres of coast and riverbank defence with an estimated replacement cost of £20 billion. Over the five years to 2007-08, our capital investment programme will have reduced the risk of coastal and river flooding to an additional 155,000 properties.

  4.2  We assess the condition of our assets and grade them from 1 (very good) to 5 (very poor). Improvements to our condition assessment work have helped to improve the classification of our defences based on fit-for-purpose performance. Currently more than 90% of our assets are graded as being in fair (3) or better condition.

Performance during events

  4.3  Past evidence has shown that the majority of instances where flooding occurs is due to either an absence of defences or where the design capacity of the defences is overwhelmed. Our records show that only around 1% of instances of flooding arises directly from an asset failure. Current evidence from the summer flooding of 2007 confirms that asset failure was not a significant contributory issue.

Standards of protection

  4.4  Flood defences in England and Wales are provided under the Environment Agency's permissive powers—there is no legal requirement on the Government to protect property to a given standard, or at all. Government policy in England, set through Defra, identifies indicative standards of protection. These are currently between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100 for fluvial defences and 1 in 200 years for tidal flooding. The standard for each location is established through economic assessment and focuses on optimising the benefit to cost ratio. It typically enables standards of protection of around 1 in 100 years for urban river systems and 1 in 200 years for urban coastal defences. There are exceptions; most notably on the Thames where defences protecting London from tidal flooding are set to the 1 in 2000-year standard.

  4.5  Calculating standards of protection is based upon statistical analysis of the historical record. The frequency and severity of intensity of rainfall are predicted to increase as a consequence of climate change. These are major drivers of river flooding. We therefore build increased tolerances into our flood management works to cater for climate change inland and at the coast. We allocate funds to areas of highest risk taking account of the need to spread risk reduction as far as possible with the funds available.

Temporary and demountable barriers

  4.6  Temporary flood barriers are totally removable and portable flood control systems and are one of a number of mechanisms that we can use to protect people and property from flooding. They are used as a short-term measure, for example when repairs to permanent defences are being undertaken or during construction of a permanent defence. We regularly use them in a number of locations in England (where permanent schemes cannot be justified). Our temporary defences were used to protect the electricity substations at Walham, maintaining electricity supplies to 500,000 people across Gloucestershire and South Wales, and Castle Meads. Temporary barriers at the Mythe Water Treatment Works near Tewksbury enabled recovery work to start at the plant and restoration of water supplies to begin far earlier than would have been possible without defences.

  4.7  Demountable defences are set in pre engineered locations where permanent fixings are in place to which barriers can be attached. They are used successfully in a number of places where it is not possible to put permenant barriers, often for aesthetic reasons. We successfully deployed demountable defences at Bewdley in Worcestershire and Shrewsbury protecting many properties.

  4.8  Reliance on the use of temporary barriers however is not without risk, as shown in the case of Upton-upon-Severn, where we were unable to install temporary defences in time. As previously agreed between the Environment Agency, local community and Local Authority, the barriers for Upton are stored 23 miles away at Kidderminster, where secure storage facilities, equipment for loading and removing them from lorries are available. Under normal circumstances, excellent transport links enable us to be on site within an hour. However, the extreme weather conditions caused severe traffic disruption and, despite our best efforts and help from the police, we were unable to reach Upton in time to erect the barriers. We now know that due to the unprecedented amount of water flowing through the area, even had we been able to erect the barriers, they would have been overtopped.

  4.9  Even though the barriers were not used at their intended location in Upton, we were able to deploy them to great effect at Walham electricity sub-station, preventing the loss of power to half a million people.

Dredging

  4.10  Whilst there are certain circumstances where dredging and channel clearance may help reduce flood risk, we have largely found in the past that, overall, channel maintenance contributes little to reduction of flood risk in major events and it is therefore less economically beneficial than other flood risk management tools. To reinstate more widespread channel management practices on top of our other flood risk management activities would, therefore, require significant additional resource.

  4.11  River channel clearance would have had limited immediate benefit during the summer floods. Rivers only stay inside their banks in low to medium flows. Above this the river will flow onto the floodplain, which is as much a natural part of the river as the channel itself. Channels, which are over-deepened beyond their natural profile, quickly silt up as they try and find their natural state of equilibrium.

5.  RECOVERY

  5.1  The focus on the floods has now moved from incident management to the recovery phase and to longer-term reviews of what went well and the challenges for the future.

  5.2  Our immediate role in the aftermath of a flood is to inspect defences and other equipment to ensure they remain serviceable and to remove debris and blockages from main watercourses where we believe they are increasing flood risk. Local Authorities have the lead role in co-ordinating recovery efforts following a flood. We believe that planning for recovery is as important as planning for the flood itself.

  5.3  Current direct costs of the floods to the Environment Agency stand at £20 million. Three quarters of this will be needed to repair our flood defences.

Clean up operations

  5.4  We have a limited role in post event economic and social recovery but we work with others to help people get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible. As flood levels receded, our workforce was deployed to help remove water from flooded areas as quickly as possible, including using large temporary pumps through to unblocking debris from culverts and under bridges, and helping the emergency services remove obstacles and blockages.

Environment Agency

September 2007





 
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