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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  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 June—the decision by the Agency not to erect temporary flood defences in Worcester—resulted 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.[5]

  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.[6]

  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 Committee—David Drew, James Gray and myself—spent 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 the barriers.

  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 early—considerably earlier than we would do under normal circumstances—we 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: In general.

  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 perhaps—one thinks of my own constituency in Wiltshire—where 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 rural areas.

  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 up.

  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 matters—of key concerns to MPs such as myself—will become less.

  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.

  Q55  Chairman: 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.

  Q56  Chairman: 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 land?

  Q57  Chairman: 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.

  Q58  Chairman: 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 risk.

  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.

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