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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  Q20  Lynne Jones: Thursday morning at ten o'clock.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: At that point we agreed jointly with them that we would issue public information about a severe weather warning and its location and that we would contact our partners—local authorities and others—about the fact that there was a severe weather warning on the way. As soon as a severe warning goes out the public begin to get information through the media. Our regions issued press releases and generally speaking we were able to up the tempo of the fact that there was a severe weather event on the way. The process of moving from that to actually being able to say in detail how these surface water systems would react is not currently part of our remit, nor are we able to do it with current technology. The process of that then resulting in river levels going up and us being able to activate our flood warnings in the way in which our modelling systems trigger particular flood warnings at particular times was very much the back end of the process because most of the early flooding was in fact from the surface water impact. I think that that continues to highlight the issue of the fact that we have not at the moment got a co-ordinated process for dealing with flooding from all sources but that is a fact and we cannot deny that.

  Q21  Lynne Jones: The flood warnings that went out, were they going out throughout the day? How did they work?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think you have to differentiate between a warning that there may be flooding to the public as a whole.

  Q22  Lynne Jones: The 45,000 Floodline warnings, when did they go out?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: They would be going out throughout the event depending on where the particular flood was likely to happen.

  Q23  Lynne Jones: When did they start going out?

  Mr Rooke: For the River Avon we issued our first warning on the 20th at 15.13.

  Q24  Lynne Jones: But you had had warnings on the 19th early on that there was going to be these excessive rainfalls.

  Mr Rooke: Yes, and we fed that information into our models. We were talking to what we call professional partners—the local authorities, the police, et cetera—on the Thursday. I was talking to the Met Office on the Thursday and we got the warnings out before the properties flooded in good time on the River Severn and the River Avon.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think we have to make this distinction between the warnings that we give jointly with the Met Office that there is going to be severe weather and the individual warnings which go to the public at large and to our professional partners. The individual warnings that we give to members of the public through their mobile phone or through their pager or through their landline or whichever way they choose to have it, they are about what is going to happen in their particular flood area and we have a commitment to give them that warning two hours before they flood. So we give the general warning to the public in a particular area that we think there is going to be very heavy weather that could result in flooding and then as the rivers respond we can give individual and particular flood warnings to people based on our modelling of how the rivers are responding.

  Q25  Lynne Jones: You should have had plenty of time to get those warnings out to give people the two hours since you had had this warning from the Met Office on Thursday, and yet people are telling us that they were not getting these warnings in time.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Only where they were able to be warned about flooding from rivers because we do not have a responsibility to warn from surface water flooding. Nobody at the moment has a system in place to warn about surface water flooding other than in a very general way to say that there is going to be a lot of water and we could find some surface water flooding.

  Q26  Lynne Jones: People might say that it is difficult to distinguish between the two because if there is heavy surface water that affects the rivers and then we get river flooding, so I am not quite sure of the distinction. People will say, "We signed up to these floodlines; we thought we would get advanced information rather more advanced than what is being given out generally".

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think what you are saying very much reinforces the fact that we now have to get a proper co-ordinated approach and proper co-ordinated role and clarity about who is actually responsible for co-ordinating. Let me just take Hull as an example. 95 per cent of the flooding in Hull was from surface water flooding rather than from river flooding and it is actually quite possible to determine which was which because the amount of river flooding in Hull was comparatively small and quite localised compared with the vast majority of flooding which was from surface water drainage.

  Q27  Lynne Jones: What needs to be done to improve public information and what role should the Environment Agency play? Do you expect to have responsibility for issuing flood warnings about surface water flooding?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think that is one of the things that needs to be clarified if we are given a role in having an overview of flooding from all sources in urban areas. The fine grain of what happens in terms of drainage systems is very much a local issue. You can understand that when you are looking at flooding from rivers you are looking at the whole river system because it is one system. If you are looking at flooding within the urban area you are looking at the rivers but you are also looking at some very, very complicated and fine grain drainage and surface water systems and sewerage systems as well. This is very heavily influenced by the development process and also by things like roads and what water companies do. We believe we should have a national overview which would put in place advice, guidance, tools and techniques for being able to do the risk assessment and the mapping but that there needs to be a key role for local authorities in individual localities because they are the folks with the levers in their hands. They have the planning levers that can impact on drainage systems and surface water systems and the whole process of getting permeable and sustainable drainage systems, not building too much impermeable concrete, making sure that urban settlements are planned in ways that allows drainage to be sustainable.

  Q28  Lynne Jones: You mentioned earlier that there had been one area where you had had more successful co-ordination. I forget where it was but what was the impetus? Who took the lead in developing that sort of strategy?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The example I used was Carlisle, following the two sets of Carlisle floods which were quite complicated combinations of river and surface water flooding. David Rooke may want to comment on the whole issue of surface water drainage, including the whole issue of sustainable drainage systems. Working with Defra at the moment we have 15 pilot projects looking at how this issue of surface water drainage systems and floods from surface water can be dealt with. They are trying out a number of different techniques and also different ways of collaborating and having governance of that to see what works. Our anticipation is that once Defra have completed those pilots there will be some models there that emerge that look as if they are successful and can be applied across the country as a whole. Just going back to the issue of predictions of flooding and what we would like to see, if we do get this overview role we will want to look at what mapping and modelling of surface water drainage looks like and whether a warning system is possible. However, to be frank, at the moment we think that technically it will be extremely difficult and financially incredibly expensive and so it may not be the best way of dealing with surface water drainage issues. The best way of dealing with surface water drainage issues may be to start rapidly getting surface water plans in place for those areas that we know are prone to surface water drainage issues and resolving some of the hot spots, making sure that new development takes account of these issues and actually has got better flood proofing in its water drainage systems.

  Q29  Mr Drew: If we could now move on to the actual emergency itself, as someone who had a fairly interesting role through it, there is just one thing that I suppose surprised all of us. When the Mythe water treatment centre went down (and obviously the Environment Agency were key to Gold Command in Gloucestershire) what was the response of the Agency when Gold Command turned to Severn Trent and said "You have lost your treatment centre; what is Plan B to get drinking water to thousands of people?" and the answer was, "We do not really know". Has the Environment Agency played through in some of your roles what happens when you lose key establishments like a water treatment centre or an electricity sub-station? To what extent are you now re-thinking the whole way in which you would work in an emergency and prior to an emergency?

  Dr King: In terms of the critical infrastructure and utilities it is very much the responsibility of the operator of that facility to have a business continuity plan in place. Severn Trent Water in that case have responsibility under the Civil Contingencies Act and indeed I think under the Water Services Act to ensure that they have emergency plans to put in place. The Agency does not actually have a role in that at all, but there is legislation that covers it.

  Q30  Mr Drew: What level of discussion did you have with water companies and electricity companies prior to this season of floods and have you had a lot more chatter since then on what should be done to protect some of these key establishments?

  Dr King: Clearly one of the lessons coming out of the floods is the vulnerability of the critical infrastructure and it is certainly unacceptable. The operators of those installations do have to flood proof the installations. There is a role undoubtedly for government in putting a duty on them to do so. We can certainly help in characterising the risk but at the end of the day it is the operator that will have to make the flood risk assessment of that particular installation and prioritise where they want to put the investment in.

  Q31  Mr Drew: What happens if they will not? What happens if you have a clear case where a particular important facility that you know is in the wrong location because you know how risky that particular location is, you have done all your measurements, and they do not come to you, do you have any powers at all to go to them and say, "You have to get hold of this because if it did go down you will have major problems"?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I just pick this one up because I think there is a real issue for the Committee here. We have done the work to map the flood risk to a whole set of public services and critical infrastructure—not just water but telephones, roads, railways, healthcare facilities, power distribution, energy installations of all sorts—and our role is to provide information to these installations and the people who run them about their degree of flood risk through our flood mapping process. That is our role. The Civil Contingencies Act lays upon them a requirement to be contingent and we take part in local contingency fora where all the players get together to try to establish what the biggest risks locally are. On occasions flood risks have been pretty low down the pecking order. Many of the civil contingency fora have been very, very obsessed with the threat of terrorism and other issues like that and I think that it would be good if flood risk comes up the agenda now.

  Q32  Chairman: Have you actually discussed the recommendation in paragraph 7.2 of your evidence that an amendment to the Civil Contingencies Act to address this deficit should be included in the Climate Change Bill?[3]

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have done a number of things. One is that either through the Civil Contingencies Bill or through the Climate Change Bill to get a duty laid on what would be category one responders and category two responders under the Civil Contingencies Act to have a duty to take account of adaptation in their plans.

  Q33  Chairman: Have you specifically discussed this with Defra?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have indeed, yes.

  Q34  Chairman: What have they said?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think we are not clear about their response yet; you need to ask them. The other thing I think the Committee should note again the mixed responsibility here. I was asking who should now write to all of these services that we have identified as being in the floodplain and at high risk and say to them, "If you have not already got your act together, you need to start thinking about it sharpish". That is a moot point. Is it Defra with their role in flood risk management? Is it the Cabinet Office with their role in civil contingencies? Is it BERR with their role as the industry sponsor? To be frank, I think it is probably all of them so again I think we need a clarification on who is actually going to drive through getting our infrastructure resilient for the future. It is not just about people being alert to the issue; there will be investment issues for these businesses.

  Q35  Chairman: Who is responsible for these creaking reservoirs you have mentioned in paragraph 9.1 of your evidence?[4]

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Creaking reservoirs are even more complicated. I am beginning to get depressed about this evidence. If you were reading it cold you would be thinking "Who are these people? They are supposed to be responsible for floods and every time you ask them a question they are very simply telling you it is not their job." However, that is the reality. It is a hugely diverse set of responsibilities at the moment. If you want to hear the story about reservoirs David is a world expert.

  Q36  Chairman: You have 30 seconds to enlighten us on reservoirs without repetition or deviation.

  Mr Rooke: We took over the enforcement authority for reservoirs across England and Wales in October 2004 so we have some three years' experience. Ulley Reservoir which was on virtually every television screen across the country in June highlighted some of the issues. We do think that as a result of our experience of being the regulator and what happened at Ulley and elsewhere—there were a number of other reservoirs which were adversely impacted—that it is timely for a review of the legislation. The legislation goes back to 1930 and it is still basically in force today. It has been updated through the 1975 Act and some amendments since then, but primarily it is back to the 1930 Act which came out of a number of reservoir failures that led to the deaths of quite a large number of people. We want to move it into a modern risk based approach. We have ageing reservoir stock and the average age of reservoirs in this country is 110 years. With climate change we need a modern risk based regulatory approach in place before those risks start to increase.

  Q37  Mr Drew: Presumably you were happy with the way in which—I can only talk my own experience in Gloucestershire—the Gold Command structure worked.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Broadly speaking we feel that the Gold and Silver command structure is the right structure.

  Q38  Mr Drew: There were some issues about how Gold related to Silver.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes and one or two issues also for us about just how we get the right sort of input into this, but generally speaking I think the model is a good one.

  Q39  Mr Drew: I think everyone would agree from all the evidence we have received and from all the personal experience that Gold and Silver command worked very well. However, a lot depends on people being able to deliver once decisions have been taken and in one respect there is a very good story that there was a lot of helpful intervention by British Waterways (which is quite close to our heart) but if there had not been the ability to pump water through the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal the potential flooding in and around Gloucester and Tewskesbury would have been even worse. On what basis were those decisions taken? They were certainly taken and I am interested in that which is a good news story but also what is not such a good news story where there were water courses where flooding could have been prevented if other private individuals or private organisations had also been acting in the same way because so much depends on people opening the sluices, people making sure that they maintain under riparian ownership their responsibility. Can you take me through what I see on the one hand a good news story but what potentially is not very helpful where you may not have the ability let alone the capability to be able to instruct people to do some of the things you need them to do?

  Mr Rooke: I support what Barbara said in terms of the Gold and Silver which worked extremely well. The Gold takes the strategic decisions and the Silver takes the tactical decisions. There is also a Bronze level as well which is actually on the site; people on the site can take local decisions. That command structure is well tested; it is used for all emergencies, not just flooding. All the players generally know each other and come together and they exercise when there are no real events as well. The exercising is an important part of being a member of Gold or Silver. When you attend Gold or Silver you bring with you your organisation's resources and put them at the disposal of the Gold or Silver or Bronze commander and that enables resources to be prioritised. It enables additional resources to be brought in from outside if necessary and certainly during the flooding the military played a key role in coming into Gold and Silver to help and that was very valuable indeed. Trying to get that replicated at a very local level with private individuals is maybe something that needs to be looked at. Often parish councils could play a role in this. We do have flood wardens who we use to issue flood warnings. There may be a role for flood wardens to co-ordinate very local specific activity but it is at street level, it is at farm level, it is certainly not at county level or beyond that at regional level.

3   Ev 4 Back

4   Ev 4 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 7 May 2008