Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 10 OCTOBER 2007
Q40 David Taylor:
Can we turn to the question of flood defences. In your opening
remarks on that, Baroness Young, you said that with virtually
no exception the majority of flood defences performed to the design
standard and did not fail; they were simply overwhelmed and overtopped
by the sheer volume of water. You went on to say in the evidence
that many communities were satisfactorily protected by flood defences
which, in one or two cases, had been recent investments. For a
flood defence to be effective it needs to be deployed in time
if it is a temporary flood defence. Norwich Union's suggestion
about the performance of the Agency in the Worcester area was
that the failure to react quickly to changing weather conditions
in Junethe decision by the Agency not to erect temporary
flood defences in Worcesterresulted in severe flooding
in that area. Do you accept that charge?
Dr King: I cannot specifically
comment on Worcester.
Q41 David Taylor:
Would you write to us later with a detailed reaction to that?
Dr King: Yes.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My
understanding of the issue of temporary defences is that in some
places where we did not get our temporary defences up there was
substantial flooding but not necessarily flooding that affected
property, it was mostly affecting gardens and roads which is a
nuisance but nevertheless less severe.
Q42 David Taylor:
Are you suggesting that was the nature of the Worcester flood?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: We
need to come back to you on the Worcester ones but I know there
were a number of places where people were unhappy that we had
not deployed temporary defences where the flooding that occurred
was extensive but not serious in that it did not actually get
into houses. There were other cases where, had we deployed temporary
defences, we would not have held back the floods because the size
of the floods was sufficiently large that even temporary defences
would not have been overwhelmed.
Q43 David Taylor:
Are you telling us then that the situation in Worcester was a
concrete decision not to deploy defences and not a slow reaction
to swiftly changing weather patterns?
Mr Rooke: I think we will provide
you with a note on that.
Q44 David Taylor:
There is another example that I would like to put to you which
I know you are familiar with, I saw you on the day. Three members
of this CommitteeDavid Drew, James Gray and myselfspent
a day in Gloucestershire and South Worcestershire and we went
to Upton-upon-Severn where we encountered one of those who had
been affected by the flooding of that community and asked what
his views were. He was utterly speechless and disappeared indoors
muttering language that I have not heard for a long time. The
substance of his case was that flood defences had not been able
to reach Upton-upon-Severn because they were stored 23 miles away
at Kidderminster and were being transported to the region as their
community was being flooded yet again. Is there a lesson to be
learned from that?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: There
certainly is a lesson to be learned from Upton. The question of
where the barriers could be stored had been the subject of considerable
discussion between ourselves and the local authority and community
in Upton. Upton is, as you saw, quite a difficult town because
it is waterfront; that is what makes Upton so special. The size
of the barriers is such that they would need a substantial building
to be stored in and that was not thought to be the best solution.
Under normal circumstances, where we are able to give warnings
long in advance of the river rising we would have plenty of time
to get the defences from Kidderminster. The fact that there was
so much surface water flooding blocking the roads because of the
sheer scale of the event long before the river came up meant that
we could not get through even with the best support from the police
and emergency services. I think there are questions about storing
closer but there are also questions about how far in advance of
events we put barriers up because the other thing that the barriers
in Upton do is disrupt the town quite considerably and for a town
that is dependent on its waterfront, having a whacking great barrier
across it on a kind of prophylactic basis just in case it floods
is not something that the community wants. We did in fact make
the decision to deploy the Upton barriers some four hours earlier
than we would normally do because we were aware that there was
severe rainfall coming. That, in retrospect, was not early enough
but even had we got the Upton barriers up it would not have stopped
the town from flooding because the floods would have overwhelmed
Q45 David Taylor:
To paraphrase what you have just said, it was something of a leaden
footed reaction by the Agency to the needs in Upton which led
to an unnecessary flooding of that town.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: No,
we do not accept that at all. We believe we acted in advance of
our normal trigger point for taking the barriers to Upton and
that even if we had been able to get through we would not have
been able to save the town from flooding. I think there are issues
for the future that may give more reassurance to the people of
Upton, but faced with a flood of the nature of the one that we
had no amount of temporary barriers would have saved it.
Q46 David Taylor:
How long does it take to erect and deploy in Upton, do you know?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Quite
a number of hours. We would normally set off at the trigger point
that would allow us plenty of time to get the barriers up successfully
before any flooding risk occurred. Because of the fact that the
roads between us and Upton were full of water as a result of surface
water flooding and in spite of the fact that we set off earlyconsiderably
earlier than we would do under normal circumstanceswe were
just unable to get through in company with a very large number
of folk who were stuck as a result of the same flash flooding.
Q47 David Taylor:
You referred to the overwhelming and the overtopping of the flood
defences. Presumably that caused some damage to them. Do you have
any assessment at this point of the cost of the damage that was
done to flood defences by that overwhelming and overtopping and
will that cause you unsustainable pressures within your budget?
Dr King: Specifically Upton?
Q48 David Taylor:
Dr King: Across the country?
Q49 David Taylor:
Yes. You have had damage to your flood defences caused by the
fact that they did not fail but they were just overwhelmed by
the volumes they were trying to handle.
Dr King: The total cost for us
managing the flooding, including the damages to the defences,
is in the order of £20 million.
Q50 David Taylor:
The damage was not £20 million but it is included within
that £20 million.
Dr King: Yes, it is included within
that £20 million.
Q51 Mr Gray:
I do not think anybody would disagree with your broad thesis at
the beginning of your evidence that these were exceptional circumstances
and extraordinarily heavy rain which, certainly in urban areas,
caused surface water flooding. Would you accept that there might
be slightly different circumstances in some rural areas less badly
affected perhapsone thinks of my own constituency in Wiltshirewhere
there was severe flooding of quite a different nature and quite
a different type to what we saw in Gloucestershire. If you accept
that, do you accept what a number of people who have given evidence
to us have said that it was not only to do with exceptional rainfall
in those areas, it was actually to do with lack of maintenance
of the waterways and rivers in rural areas. I saw myself in East
Tiverton, just outside Chippenham where the Avon flooded because
of the lack of activities of the authorities. One or two parish
councils just south of Gloucester said the same thing. The rivers
had not been dredged, there was a lack of maintenance, there was
blockage. The Environment Agency was not performing as it should
have been in previous years and that caused the flooding in those
Mr Rooke: We have only got so
much money that we can spend on flood risk management and so we
have to prioritise. Most of our money goes into urban areas because
that gives the greatest return on the investment to the tax payer.
We do a considerable amount of work still within rural areas to
protect rural areas and to protect agricultural areas. However,
we have to prioritise and in prioritising we choose the most appropriate
maintenance. We have cut back in some areas on some of our maintenance
activities; in other areas we are still carrying out maintenance
activity that we have carried out for a number of years. So it
will vary across the country on this risk based approach where
we look at our high risk, our medium risk and our low risk systems
and we make the investments accordingly. There will be variations
across the country but I can assure the Committee that we still
spend some £3 million a year on dredging; we are still spending
some £8 million a year on cutting weed and we are still spending
a lot of money on grass cutting, tree removal and that type of
activity. There is a lot of activity going on. In terms of our
risk based approach the bulk of it now goes into urban areas.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could
I just comment before we move on from that point. There are two
issues, one is that it was complicated by the fact that this was
the height of summer which is probably the worst time to have
a flood like this because there is at that stage the biggest amount
of weed growth in rivers and therefore they are less able to carry
away water. Under normal circumstances where the flooding season
is the winter, by the time our maintenance programmes have been
carried out at the back end of the summer and into the autumn
we are ready for the rain as it were. However, this of course
was a summer flood. The second point I want to make is the sort
of "cleanliness is not next to godliness" point. There
was a tradition in flood risk management in the past that routine
bank clearing, tree clearing and dredging were carried out almost
as an act of faith, that it was just what flood risk engineers
did. Now with our risk based approach we do look at where the
£13 million or so that we spend on dredging and bank maintenance
is best spent to make sure that it is focussed on reducing flood
risk. Probably the biggest mail box following the flood has been
about clearance of obstruction, weed clearance, bank maintenance
and generally the belief that if only we had dredged the rivers
harder the water would have been able to run away more quickly.
We do not believe that that is the case. In many cases dredging
systems simply erodes banks, it moves water further down stream
and floods urban areas more quickly and very often simply corrects
itself very rapidly. If a river wants to silt up it will silt
Q52 Mr Gray:
There is a slight difference between what you have said and what
David Rooke said a moment ago. He said, "We do our best within
the resources available to us", the implication being that
presumably if there were more resources more would be done. What
you are now saying is that even if you had more resources you
would not want to do it.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I
think there is a middle course. The reality is that if we had
more we would probably do more that was effective in reducing
risk; in some of the lower risk systems we could do a bit more.
However, I do not think we want to go back to the routine dredging
and clearing that was carried out as an act of faith in the past
because it is simply not good value for public money.
Q53 Mr Gray:
You have been given a strategic overview of coastal flooding and
you are bidding for a strategic view of inland flooding as well.
For those of us concerned about rural areas, is there not a risk
that if you do that you are becoming increasingly strategic, your
focus on urban areas will become worse and your interest in rural
mattersof key concerns to MPs such as myselfwill
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I
hope not but there does need, I think, to be a discussion and
a policy decision made at government level about just exactly
what the balance between urban and rural needs to be. At the moment
with the risk based approach that we take and the cost effectiveness
approach that we take it will automatically mean that the majority
of funding goes towards urban areas. If, as a nation, we want
to make sure that the rural areas also get a fair whack it may
well mean that there needs to be a policy decision that that is
the case. At the moment we have an agreed process for assessing
priorities under a process whereby we assess the cost effectiveness
of individual interventions. If that is to change we would need
that to be a government policy decision and indeed a treasury
policy decision because much of the assessment that we do is blessed
in terms of the rules by the Treasury.
Q54 Mr Gray:
Can you talk us through how you would see this strategic overview
role with regards to inland flooding actually working in the event
of another very severe event of the kind we saw in the summer
happening again? What would be different?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Just
before I leave the last point, I should advise the Committee that
the Public Accounts Committee gave us a very bad time because
they felt we focussed too much on protecting what they called
empty fields, i.e. the rural stuff.
Can we just be clear that the criteria which currently determine
how you assess and respond to risk is something which is, in terms
of history, agreed between the Agency and the Government or did
the Government say, "We have looked at it, these are the
ground rules, now you guys carry out a policy"?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I
do not quite know how to respond to that one. Certainly the processes
by which we choose priorities are agreed with Defra.
Dr King: There is clear government
stated policy that the Agency, in carrying out maintenance, should
move away from maintaining uneconomic sea walls and there is the
expectation that that same approach should apply to inland. If
it is about reducing risk and best economic return then that automatically
guides you towards more urban interventions than rural.
I just want to pursue this question of the definition of risk
because if you talk to the people in rural Britain who have been
affected by the recent flooding, in the light of what you have
just said they might feel a bit let down that somehow the risks
that they, as individuals face, seem to have been downgraded in
some way in relation to the higher score which is put to dealing
with risk in an urban situation. I suppose the question we ask,
given what has happened, is: does there need to be a re-assessment
of relative risks in determining how the resources ultimately
are to be used to deal with the results of potentially more extreme
weather conditions? Is that a fair assessment of the way the debate
at least has to go?
Dr King: At the moment we would
define risk as the probability times the consequence and the consequence
would be a measure of what is the risk to life and property, so
the greater number of people and the greater economic value will
be in urban areas. As Barbara has pointed out perhaps there should
be a debate following this: what is the value we put on agricultural
You used the word "should", are you going to be specifically
asking the ministers in Defra for clarification of the risk criteria
which underpin the work that you do in the light of these recent
events? You have raised some interesting questions about it but
are you going to specifically say to Defra ministers: "We
would like you to review the instructions you have given us on
these relative risk issues?"
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I
do not think we would. Unless there was hugely more funding provided
I still think that, as a tax payer apart from being Chief Executive
of the Environment Agency, at the moment we still have a very
large number of densely populated communities with big economic
value at stake.
You are almost saying, "I am not going to ask the question
because I know I do not have the resources to deal with a possible
change in the answer". Do you not think that your job is
to pose the difficult question to ministers and then make it quite
clear who bears the responsibility if ministers say, "No,
the risk scenario stays where it is". At least the ball is
firmly in somebody's court as opposed to bouncing backwards and
forwards between you.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I
am sure that the many, many people who have been in contact with
us and indeed with you about the issue of protection for rural
areas, particularly for agricultural land, will be making that
point in spades to ministers.
Q59 Mr Drew:
Can we just turn this on its head because obviously in the various
reports we have done one of the points that we have been arguing
is that there should be a policy of managed flooding, that we
should be recognising that some land will flood on some occasions.
We have argued very clearly that people who face that threat,
when it happens, should be compensated, but also recognising that
this is something that is going to be increasingly happening we
should be using the single farm payment to compensate those people
for the risk as well as the reality. Where have we got to with
this? You seem to be backing away from that and I do not understand
that. I thought we were all as one saying that this was a very
sensible way to take forward how we could manage that flooding
Baroness Young of Old Scone: Whenever
we are putting forward a flood risk management scheme we will
look at the options of using land for flood storage as an option
and if it is a sensible option and gives us a good return on investment
we will deploy that. For example, Lincoln has two major flood
storage areas round it which are operated at times of flood and
indeed saved Lincoln this time round. They were the result of
an agreement with farmers 14 or 15 years ago to do so and they
were compensated for that. Indeed, in terms of issues around the
coast we have also got a number of areas where we have agreements
about using agricultural land and we will continue to do that,
but I think that is a different issue from farmland flooding fortuitously
or as a result of heavy rainfall where we do not have a proposition
that that land is specifically there for flood alleviation. I
think one of the things we do need to get better research on is
the concept of using land as a sponge to hold water back in order
to reduce flood risk further down the catchments. There is a lot
of support for that but there is not, as yet, much research evidence
for what the possibility is. There are some groups going around
saying that if we had simply got land management up the catchments
better we would not have these floods. That is clearly not true.
It may make a contribution and we need to assess what its contribution
is, but it is not the panacea, particularly in the case of these
flash floods where quite frankly what was happening in the catchment
was immaterial to what was going on in Sheffield or Hull or wherever.
There are a number of areas where the whole issue of land management
needs to be properly evaluated but I do not think we should be
using single farm payment as a kind of recompense system for flooding
of farm land in general. I think the single farm payment needs
to be targeted at where we really believe it is going to make
a significant flood reduction impact and these payments that we
make from our flood risk management budget to use farm land in
a very specific way need to be absolutely because they are the
best option for a particular flood risk problem.
5 Ev 29 Back
Ev 29 Back