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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to see so many people here taking an interest in the Committee's first session after the summer recess. Can I just deal with one small but important piece of housekeeping before we start? As some colleagues here may be new to the Committee or may have forgotten how we operate, it would be very helpful if you could make certain your mobile phones or other alert mechanisms are turned off. I welcome our first witness in our inquiry into Flooding, the Environment Agency: Baroness Young, their Chief Executive, Dr David King, their Director of Water Management and Mr David Rooke, the Head of Flood Risk Management. You are all very welcome and thank you for your comprehensive submission and offers to the Committee of further briefing to enable us to understand in even greater detail some of the lessons learned from the summer's flooding. I would just like to say at the outset that this particular inquiry has attracted an unprecedented response, particularly from members of the public. On behalf of the Committee I would like to express my thanks to those people, some of whose lives were blighted by flooding, but nonetheless have seen fit to share with the Committee their own thoughts and indeed posed some very pertinent questions which I hope, as we proceed with these hearings, we will be able to reflect and reflect upon when it comes to reaching our conclusions. I would like to start, Baroness Young, if I may, by asking you a question borne out of the fact that there do seem to have been an awful lot of reports on the subject of flooding and flood management with lots of very good advice. I looked back to the predecessor committee of this and I think it was in the Session 1997-98 when they published a report on Flood and Coastal Defence and in their recommendations they made an important observation that there needed to be integrated management of flooding issues.[1] They concentrate on main rivers, non-main rivers and internal drainage board areas and made the distinction between that and coastal activity. In the case of our own Committee we published a report, Climate Change, Water Security and Flooding on 16 September 2004 in which we made a number of pressing recommendations, including asking the Government to publish a White Paper on the subject of the Foresight Report which very accurately predicted the onset of more extreme weather conditions and made some very important recommendations about should be protected, including vital infrastructure.[2] The Government's own activity in terms of their response to Making Space for Water for example had conclusions which said (and I quote): "The aim will be to manage risks by employing an integrated portfolio of approaches which reflect both national and local priorities." Their first thought was that these were all aimed at reducing the threat to people and their property. With so much advice how come it went so wrong?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Thank you for giving us an opportunity to say that we do not think it went wrong as a result of the advice. The reasons why these floods were so severe was because the weather that prompted them was indeed severe. There was an unprecedented amount of rain in June and July, more than ever before.

  Q2  Chairman: Just to interrupt, you say it was unprecedented but Sir David King's report alerted everybody—albeit on a long timescale—to the onset of more extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. If you look at the scientific evidence in volume two of his findings a lot of the kind of the things that we saw happen in the summer—for example the lack of protection for vital infrastructure—were flagged up as work areas in that document. What did you, as an Agency, do when Sir David published his findings in terms of giving advice to the Government?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have looked, as you have, at all the reports that have been done on floods since 1998 and if you look at all the recommendations coming from these reports a considerable number of them have been acted on and implemented. Some of them are currently part of a process of implementation as part of Making Space for Water which is the Government's strategy for flood risk management. I think the issue really, as far as the previous findings are concerned, is the pace at which they are being implemented. In some cases this is as a result of the pace that can be achieved through funding; in other cases it is changes in legislation; sometimes it is cultural and a change in hearts and minds. It is a big and complicated process of implementing all of these reports. I believe we need to move faster and I do hope that the reviews that are currently taking place—your own and Sir Michael Pitt's—will in fact reinforce the need not to come up with new conclusions but to implement the ones that have already been reached.

  Q3  Chairman: Let us get to the heart of the matter. It is refreshing to hear you say that things should move faster and this is borne out of, if you like, a reaction of some very harrowing situations which occurred in the summer. Going back to 2004 when that report was produced—indeed, you are continually working in the area of dealing with flood prevention issues—did you sit down formally with government and in 2004 deliver a hurry up message in the context of the then available resources?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: There has been a huge amount of sitting down with government on the Making Space for Water strategy, which is the primary vehicle for changing the way in which flood risk management is delivered. That has achieved a whole variety of changes including the work that has gone on to take a risk based approach to flood risk management for the future. We have delivered more techniques of assessing risk, we have made considerable progress in delivering our mapping and warning systems. As a result of that report there was also the injection of additional funding into the system through the spending rounds and there are a number of things that are currently underway, including giving us a role on the coast to integrate (you made the point about integration) and consulting on whether we are going to have a role in flooding in-land from all sources of flooding. So some of these things have been done and some of these things are currently out to consultation and some of them remain to be done. I do not believe that any of the messages from previous reports or indeed from the report that you are referring to have not been worked through in the Making Space for Water strategy.

  Q4  Chairman: You made a very telling statement at the beginning, a candid statement in which you said that things should happen quicker. When did you start to deliver to Defra the message that things should accelerate? Was it as a result of what has happened this summer or was it as a result of study and thought at an earlier time?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It all depends very much on which of the elements of the report are taken into account. One of the things we have done in the review of all the various reports is to work out who, in fact, was responsible for taking the lead. Some of those things we were responsible for taking the lead in, others it was parts of government, others it was local authorities, others it was individual agencies, parts of government, whatever. I think the important thing is that we have pressed on as fast as we possibly could with the things that we were responsible for. We have urged government to move forward on the things that they are responsible for and there are quite difficult conundrums to face in terms of the wide variety of responsibilities, particularly for surface water and urban flooding where Defra was consulting prior to the floods on a "minded to" basis about our role in co-ordinating all of the organisations that are responsible in the urban and surface water areas, for example local authorities, water companies, the Highways Agency, highways authorities, the development and re-development process where clearly at the moment there is huge confusion to the public and a lack of co-ordination.

  Q5  Chairman: I think it would be helpful to the Committee if you could lay out in writing and in more detail, bearing in mind the reports to which I have referred, to give us some kind of time line of activity in terms of your exchanges with government to see the type of recommendations that you were making to ministers, what degree of urgency you, as an Agency, attach to them; the kind of response you were getting from Defra as to whether, in your judgment, they were motoring fast enough in the light of the advice that you were giving.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I am certainly happy to do that as far as our responsibilities go, but I would not want it to be left on the record that we are responsible for all flood risk policy. That is a Defra role and that is one you will have to put to them.

  Chairman: We are going to come on to who else may be responsible because in your evidence you put forward some quite candid conclusions about better co-ordination of bodies. You alluded to them in your remarks a moment ago and we will want to probe that in detail. Before I go on to look in more detail at the June and July floods I want to bring in David Taylor.

  Q6  David Taylor: In your comments a moment or two ago I think you were suggesting that you were going to take a risk based approach to flood risk management. What on earth other approach would you take? I do not understand that.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I can probably turn to David King or David Rooke on this because they have been around flood risk longer than I have, but my understanding is that over the last ten years or slightly less we have been increasingly able to map and assess flood risk and to direct our activities and our resources towards the areas of higher flood risk than we have been previously in the past. History played quite a large part and indeed if you remember the 2000 floods to some extent history played a bit of a part there in that the prime minister of the day went around standing on bridges, looking at flooded communities and saying "This must have a flood risk management scheme". So it was very much that if somewhere had flooded we tended to say that we should look at what needed to be done to resolve that situation rather than stepping back and saying, "Where, in these flood risk management areas, are the highest priorities? Where are the places that are most at risk? Where can resource and focus save the most in the way of property and risk to human life, rather than simply going on the basis of where had previously flooded. The two Davids may want to comment.

  Dr King: I think it is worth saying that the underpinning philosophy in the 50s and 60s and right up through the 80s was about flood defence. Almost implicit in that was that you could build defences that would stop flooding. The reality is, of course, that you cannot do that; you can only be better prepared against the impact of floods. Therefore it is a change of view; it is about looking at how you manage the risk down and it is also accepted that you manage the risk down by a basket of different interventions which on one side might be about development control, keeping buildings away from inappropriate development of a flood plain to, of course, building and maintaining defences. It is a whole different thought process that now exists around managing floods.

  Q7  Chairman: Let us look briefly at what happened in June and July because the view has been created that the floods that we experienced both in the rural and the urban settings were unprecedented and very different from anything that we had had before. Perhaps you could comment on that.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: They certainly were different from what we have experienced before to an extent that there was a huge amount of rain in a very short space of time. They were the wettest June and July ever recorded. Much of the flooding came not from what we would regard as a traditional flood, as it were, from the rivers or the seas but from the huge volume of water simply overpowering the surface water drainage systems and causing fairly instant flooding, quick flooding. That might later on have been complicated by flooding from the rivers in many cases as well, but the initial flooding was very much surface water flooding. For those of you who remember seeing some of our motorways running like rivers, that was certainly the cause there. I think there were some big lessons to be gained from that about these heavy rainfall events if they are going to become increasingly common with climate change. The other complicating factor was, I think, that it was a summer flood rather than a winter flood and indeed there were two events very close to each other so that we had a series of very saturated catchments and very little capacity either in the river systems in the second case or indeed in the ground itself to take more water. So that made the situation worse. Generally speaking in terms of a traditional flood, as it were, the systems that were in place worked well. We had good collaboration with the Met Office, although we have to make the point that the capacity of the Met Office to predict to very fine grain that helps us then predict floods to very fine grain is not yet technically there. We issued warnings for flooding from the river systems pretty well. There were a few occasions when it did not quite go right but mostly it went well. The big problem was of course that the majority of floods were not from the river systems, they were from surface water systems which are not currently subject to flood warning and indeed are not currently able to be mapped. They are very unpredictable and the title gives a clue on occasions in that many of them are very flash floods so there was not much time to warn even if the technology had been there. Our defences generally stood up well in that we did not have catastrophic collapse or failure of defences other than a few where structures that are mechanically operated or electrically operated failed as a result of their power supply going out. There were a small number of defences in that category but of course the majority of our defences that were implicated were simply overwhelmed by the volume of water because the sorts of design standards to which they had been designed were insufficient to take this unprecedented flood. We did have a number of flood defences that worked extremely well and did defend communities and worked well to their design standards. The message from us for the floods and what makes them so different was very much the huge volume of water in a very short space of time and the fact that it was the surface water systems that failed to respond. I think the third thing is the critical infrastructure issue.

  Q8  Chairman: We are going to come on to discuss that so you will be able to go into it in more detail, but there is a concerning point I want to conclude on this. You said that at the moment you do not have a model that can deal with the kind of urban flooding situation that we saw and yet you as an Agency, in defending your position about responding to these floods, have made great play about your flood risk mapping, about your helpline and your Floodline (the information that can go to people). It does beg the question that if we are looking forward what you are going to do to try and address the impact of what we currently regard as unprecedented but which might become the norm. One of the things that worries me about the modelling arrangement is that you do it on a frequency basis of one in 50, one in 100, one in 200 or even one in 1000 year events but nobody seems to have actually gone back and said, "Well, if this kind of rainfall occurs anywhere, what would the flood risk map actually then look like?" We have had a lot of focus on coastal and river flooding in terms of your mapping, but you have admitted that there is a gap in terms of the urban environment and there seems to be a dearth of mathematical modelling to say that if we get so-called unprecedented events anywhere, not trying to predict when it is going to rain but just to look at the country as a whole and say, "If this lot drops anywhere, what are the risk factors?" What are you doing to improve the modelling and the anticipation of this type of event in the future?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I make some points of principle and then perhaps pass to David Rooke to talk about the whole issue of characterising urban flood risk? We are not working on modelling of urban flood risk at the moment because we do not, as yet, have a responsibility for urban flood risk other than from rivers.

  Q9  Chairman: Why not?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Because as yet the Government has not given us that responsibility. They were consulting on whether they should put together a proposition before the summer events but we are not responsible for urban flooding from all sources.

  Q10  Chairman: So at the moment it is local authorities, is it, who are supposed to be responsible for that?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: At the moment it is a very complicated mixture of responsibilities of local authorities, of owners of land, of the Highways Agency, the highways authorities; in circumstances where it is the water company assets that are involved—sewers and drains—it would be the water companies. So it is a very mixed and uncoordinated picture. In some areas there has been a degree of co-ordination, for example following the floods in Carlisle there has been very good work to bring together all the parties and put together a surface water drainage plan and flooding plan combined. However, in the vast majority of urban settlements at the moment that will not have been done. As yet we are not looking at modelling floods from surface water issues within cities. Let me just take one point of principle also about your extreme events happening anywhere. We could in theory look at our flood mapping and risk approach and work out what was needed to protect everywhere against the possibility of a very extreme event. I personally do not believe that that would be the best use of public money because it would be highly unpredictable. Where some of these very extreme events will happen, although they may be increasing in frequency with climate change, only once in a lifetime or two lifetimes or three lifetimes in some locations. To engineer the whole of the country to that standard would be quite expensive.

  Q11  Chairman: I am not suggesting that that was the outcome I was seeking, it was "do the modelling and then decide from the response the approach" which seems to be lacking.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I certainly think that nationally there needs to be a discussion and debate at government level about the standard of protection that we believe is important and how frequently we would regard as acceptable an event that would overwhelm the traditional defences. We also need to look at other ways of making sure that if these extreme events occur that proper contingency planning is in place and that generally speaking we build our buildings and our settlements with more resilience.

  Chairman: We are going to come onto that but Mr Williams wants to come in here.

  Q12  Mr Williams: You have talked about the consultation that is taking place as to whether the Environment Agency should take the legal responsibility in urban flooding from surface water. How did that consultation arise? Was it because of a ministerial announcement?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It is part of the Making Space for Water strategy and this was the beginning of the process of looking at integration. We have gone through the process of Defra consulting on integrating the roles in coastal flooding and coastal protection. That has now been agreed and we are going to have a combined role in coastal flooding and coastal protection. This was now moving onto consulting on the inland role integrating surface water drainage with flooding from the rivers as well. It was partly the process of implementing Making Space for Water.

  Dr King: Making Space for Water is the Government's strategic framework for handling flood risk over the next ten to 15 years. Sitting under that strategy document are somewhere between 15 and 20 programmes of work which largely sweep up all of the recommendations that the Chairman made reference to. Many of those have progressed but it is true to say that most of the focus over the last number of years has been on fluvial and coastal flooding. However, the issue of urban flooding, for example last December the Government set a number of pilots looking at urban flooding, surface water flooding, specifically to try to understand how we might best manage the surface water issue. In addition to and as part of that Defra are consulting on the need for a strategic overview. There are five or six different organisations involved in managing urban flooding. They all have an important part to play and must continue to do so, but there is a need for a strategic overview part of which would be the characterisation of national risk. My belief is that in terms of characterisation mapping surface water flooding, which is a lot more difficult for a whole variety of technical reasons, we are significantly behind where we are with our understanding of characterisation and mapping of fluvial and coastal.

  Q13  Mr Williams: Can I just ask how far the consultation has proceeded? What conclusions have you come to?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It has gone through the consultative process and Defra now has the responses. They are not going to act on those until the review, chaired by Sir Michael Pitt, has come to some conclusions.

  Q14  David Lepper: Could I concentrate on your responsibilities for flood warning systems and public information. There is no doubt at all these have been under very heavy pressure during the summer. I think you talked of some 43 million hits to your website during that period, but you concluded in your evidence to us that the current system stood up to the challenges of increased usage. On the other hand, we have a number of those organisations and individuals who have submitted evidence to us which suggests differently, for instance Sheffield City Council say that severe flood warnings were only given when the water level was already up to the windscreens on vehicles. The National Farmers' Union says that farmers who had been signed up for a flood warning did not receive the warning until it was too late for them to rescue their livestock. Residents in Oxford complained about incorrect and confusing information. Would you agree that you do need to review the processes of warning—accepting the fact that this was perhaps a once in however many years occurrence—that pressures were put on the system and many of those individuals who were relying upon the Agency's own warning system and information felt that they were let down.

  Dr King: The first thing I would say is that when you get an event of the severity that we did clearly there will be lessons learned and there will be improvements that we will make. The second point that I would make is that our warning system is exclusively associated with fluvial, so flooding from rivers. In the dissemination of warnings we use the Floodline Warnings Direct which enables you to give a warning either by fax, phone or pager. We use the Internet and obviously we use the local radio as well as Floodline. In terms of warnings, we gave out 45,000 warnings and we strive to give a two hour warning. We know that about 75 per cent of warnings were given with at least two hours, but obviously there are 25 per cent where we did not. Given the nature of the flooding that unfortunately has happened. In terms of our website, you mentioned we had 43 million hits from 4 million people and although there was some minor slowing of the system we are talking about seconds. Normally 95 per cent of the enquiries are within three seconds, it went down to a minute in some periods.

  Q15  David Lepper: We had Tewskesbury Chamber of Industry and Commerce telling us that in relation to Tewskesbury, where the flood happened on a Friday night (or at least the worst part of it), they tell us over the weekend it was impossible to connect to the Environment Agency website. That is not just a matter of the slowing down of the process because of the number of hits, but they are telling us they could not get any connection at all to your website.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We can certainly give you the evidence from our own logging process that shows that the website was active throughout. If people were not getting onto it obviously we need to look at it. Perhaps I could just comment on one or two of the examples you gave. Sheffield, for example, was one of those areas where there was considerable, very rapid flooding from surface water drainage issues and that was the primary cause of most of the flooding in Sheffield and therefore it was very difficult to give warning at all. We currently do not have a warning system there. The NFU issue, if there are farmers who were signed up for a warning and did not get one, we need to explore that but my understanding is that in many cases it was that they did not feel they got it in time. Our standard is a warning, if we can, two hours beforehand. I think the one point I would want to make about the farmers is that we still have remarkably few farmers and others signed up to the warning system. Only 41 per cent of people who are eligible have signed up and we would very much like to press for more people to be signed up to it so that we can, where possible, give warnings. Again we can look at instances where farmers are saying they did not get a warning in time and see whether it was within our standards and whether, therefore, the standards are not going to be sufficiently long in advance for farmers to move stock which may cause us technical problems. It may not be possible, we would have to look at that. In Oxford the situation was very complicated. It is a very complicated river system in Oxford and I must confess at one stage when we were trying to predict the peaks of flooding points through Oxford somebody said to me that we had more peaks than the Himalayas because they were coming through in a very complex fashion and there were occasions when, having warned people that there was a peak, we then had a higher peak and they felt they had been short changed as it were because the first slug of water coming through which we would call a peak was obviously not the peak, if you see what I mean. There are a whole load of complicated issues about these flood warnings. Our local lessons learned reviews will be looking in detail at how every single flood was caused, what the issues were around forecasting these, around the warnings, taking on board the issues that people have raised locally. Generally speaking the reality of these floods is that the vast majority of our warning systems worked well. We dealt with a huge volume. There was a strong possibility that our systems could have fallen over with the degree of hits that they were taking and they did not. Part of the issue is that many of the floods that occurred were indeed not floods that we would normally warn against because they are from surface water issues. So there is a complicated picture there.

  Q16  David Lepper: Just to take up one point, Baroness Young, that you made a little earlier and that was about co-operation with the Met Office. From what you have said I get the feeling that maybe some of the information the Environment Agency was receiving was perhaps not always as accurate and as timely as it might have been. The Institute of Civil Engineers tell us in their evidence that they believe the Agency and the Met Office should work more closely together. You have talked about the need to improve co-operation between the two bodies, could you tell us a little bit more about the extent to which it is lacking at the moment and what you are intending to do about that?

  Dr King: I think the co-operation with the Met Office worked extremely well. As soon as the Met Office were picking up a weather depression they were talking to us from the Monday. During the week we had some forecasters embedded with the Met Office forecasting team. What is important to point out is that the Met Office did extremely well in some of their forecasts in that they were giving an 80 per cent probability that you were going to get heavy rainfall over a county. That is very good except a county may have a number of different catchments in it so, for example, if the rain was 20 miles north of where it fell in Warwickshire the floods would not have been in the Severn they would have been in the Trent. That is the issue. It is not a criticism of the Met Office; they are working at the limits of their forecasting at the moment but we must know where it falls in order to translate it into a flood warning.

  Q17  Lynne Jones: Could I just explore that a little more? Just after the floods I put down some parliamentary questions and what was conspicuous by its absence when I got replies was the lack of response to the "when" question. Dr King, you have just referred to the fairly accurate predictions of the Met Office and at 10.06 on Thursday 19 July they were predicting an 80 per cent chance of floods in areas centred around Tewkesbury. They were spot on in terms of the area they were identifying as having a very high risk of flooding. When after that did you start issuing warnings through the Floodline and through your press releases? You issued press releases the next day but referring to the weekend. It seems not to have been really timely in terms of the warnings. I know you say the surface water system is not subject to flood warnings, but you had this information from the Met Office and it should have informed the information that you already had in terms of your own systems.

  Dr King: My recollection is that we issued a joint press release with the Press Office on the Thursday and we have a tiered system of warning which goes from flood watch to warning to severe warning and we were certainly issuing flood watches on the Thursday and then we would have led into warning and severe warning. There is a big difference between a severe weather warning and a severe flood warning because a severe weather warning is issued for a whole series of different purposes and quite often a severe weather warning, even when it involves rain, may not involve flooding. We have to translate the rainfall into a flood forecast and that really does mean that we need to know on what river system it is going to fall. We use the Met Office weather radar, we use our own flow forecasting and we use a whole system of rain gauges, but all of that needs to be modelled and as I said 20 miles makes a big difference as to where the flood is going to happen.

  Q18  Lynne Jones: I accept that it is difficult to be absolutely spot on, but you have this quite localised area where the Met Office were predicting widespread heavy rain and it still appears from the evidence that we have that people were not getting warnings, so much so that you had your own flood defences trapped in traffic on the Friday. I still have not really got any perception of how you translate the information that you have from your own evidence and the information from the Met Office into warnings and the timescale for those warnings to be issued.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I just comment on the point that Dr King raised about the difference between a severe weather warning and a flood warning. Our flood warnings generally are based on our monitoring systems from rivers.

  Q19  Lynne Jones: It was widespread heavy rain.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes, but what we had been doing was keeping in close touch with the Met Office all the way during that week. Indeed I spoke to them on the Tuesday, there was regular contact with them. By the Thursday we were aware that this was going to be big and they were beginning to be able to tell us approximately where. Up until then we could not get much information as to absolutely where until Thursday.

1   Agriculture Committee, Sixth Report of Session 1997-98, Flood and Coastal Defence, HC 707-I Back

2   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2003-04, Climate Change, Water Security and Flooding, HC 558 Back

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