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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 10 OCTOBER 2007

BARONESS YOUNG OF OLD SCONE, DR DAVID KING AND MR DAVID ROOKE

  Q60  David Taylor: A moment or two ago you said that the Agency needed hugely increased resources to be able to respond to flood risk management in a way which would satisfy more people. I think that is what you said.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: What I meant was that you would have to have an awful lot of money around in the flood risk management system to be able to do everything in the rural areas that people ideally want us to do. We think that the amount of funding that has come into flood risk management which has doubled since 1997 is going in the right direction and the £200 million that the prime minister announced in the middle of the floods is extremely beneficial.

  Q61  David Taylor: Your budget for flood risk management in this year, 2007/08, is £600 million and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs today announced in a written answer that that would go up to £650 million next year, £700 million—both leaps of about eight per cent—in the year 2009/10 and in 2010/11 it will go up £100 million to £800 million. They seem very substantial increases with the backdrop that we heard announced yesterday by the Chancellor. They are hugely increased resources are they not? Does that mean that the future is set fair to be able to respond to some of the concerns my colleague James Gray referred to?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We are very pleased with the way in which funding has increased over each of the Spending Reviews and we are very pleased about getting additional funding for the next three years and also to see what is going to come in year one and two as well as year three because we need to get planning to use that money. However, we do not think it is the end of the road by any means. This will allow us to tackle the backlog of flood defence schemes that have been waiting for communities that are inadequately defended, for example Leeds which is not defended particularly at the moment and is a huge economic asset for the nation if it went under. It will allow us to improve the amount of maintenance we do on our high risk and medium risk assets to make sure they are all up to the standard that they ought to be, but there are still pressures for the future both in terms of creating new assets and in maintaining the growing body of assets, in coping with the fact that climate change is going to mean that we need to increase the standard of protection in many of our flood defence systems. If we take the Thames barrier, for example, and the whole Thames Estuary system, we could be looking at several billion required to invest in bringing that up to scratch for climate change. Of course we have more properties being built as a result of the development boom, all of which are going to require some flood risk assessment if not flood defences. We think that the assessments that were made by the Foresight study which said that we should be aiming for a billion pounds a year investment by 2015 are in fact in the right ball park and we would want the following spending review (the one after this) to continue that upward trajectory of investment. I do not think it is Christmas and birthday yet; it is good but it is not the end of the road.

  Q62  Mr Williams: Those of us who have contacted the Environment Agency from time to time about the maintenance of water courses have been told that the Environment Agency responsibility is only for main water courses. Is that an arbitrary decision that has been taken by the Environment Agency or does that rest in legislation?

  Mr Rooke: It is written in legislation and we have only got powers to do works on what are called main rivers. A main river is a river that is marked on a map that has been approved by the Secretary of State.

  Q63  Mr Williams: Where do we see those maps?

  Mr Rooke: They are available on the Defra website and they are also available in our offices.

  Q64  Mr Williams: It does seem to me that a lot of responsibility for maintaining water courses does rest with private individuals and it is not very encouraging for those private individuals to be involved in very expensive work if they see that the water courses that they are responsible for which flow into the water courses that the Environment Agency are responsible for are not going to be maintained in a way that is thought to be acceptable. I am not promoting scouring out water courses but as Baroness Young said there is a middle way here and the Environment Agency have a responsibility to play their part in what is a private/public responsibility.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I would agree and where we have internal drainage boards that represent particularly agricultural riparian owners of these smaller water courses, we do have quite an intense relationship about how the funding that they provide to us for carriage of water away from their area most effectively works. I am sure you have had a submission from the Association of Drainage Authorities on that one. Where it is more complicated is where there is no internal drainage board and where we are dealing with a very large number of riparian owners and that becomes extremely complicated. It may well be that there needs to be this debate about what the relative priorities between urban and rural are. As I said, I would not want us to get back to a point where we were simply carrying out maintenance for maintenance sake rather than truly reducing flood risk.

  Q65  Lynne Jones: You were referring earlier to the need for mapping and modelling of urban drainage systems and you said this would be extremely expensive and you started talking about concentrating on hot spots. Could you perhaps elaborate further on what is exactly a workable risk based methodology for characterising urban flood risk that you envisage?

  Mr Rooke: That is a piece of work that we would want to take forward once we have the green light from government in terms of giving us the overview on urban flooding. There is some work that Defra is undertaking with the Met Office that we are involved with on characterisation of extreme flood events, the types of rainfall, and there is various work being done by some of the universities and some local authorities. I think in Scotland Glasgow is a good example of where there was urban flooding some years ago and the local authority, with loads of other partners, have got together to come up with solutions. At the urban level a solution can be down to what height is a particular kerb on a road, what green spaces can be used to store water or to channel water if the sewers cannot take it, so it does get very local. In terms of our ambition were we to be given this England overview, working with the Met Office we would be able to forecast where these so called pluvial events—as opposed to fluvial being rivers—would take place and provide a warning for that, and to be able to provide a mapping of those areas so that you could go onto our website where you can at the moment see whether your house is on the floodplain or not, you would be able to go onto our website and see what risks there were from surface water flooding. Then the local authorities, water companies, the Highway Agency and ourselves involved in urban areas would again be working together under our leadership to provide solutions.

  Q66  Lynne Jones: How feasible is such an approach in a very widespread manner? What input does the insurance industry have into this work because they have their own mapping system for flood risk?

  Mr Rooke: We want to work with the insurance industry as we do at the moment. We provide information to the insurance industry that is also available to the public on our website. We provide that to the insurance industry. We envisage that we would do the same, but this will need powers from government; it will need funding from government to enable us to put in place all this new technology and there will be some groundbreaking stuff. It is done in some other parts of the world and we want to learn from that.

  Q67  Lynne Jones: Which other parts of the world?

  Mr Rooke: Certainly parts of Europe where they are taking forward urban flooding and experiencing urban floods. Also, interestingly (Barbara had an e-mail from a company the other day on this in terms of intense, heavy rainfall) in parts of the Middle East.

  Q68  Lynne Jones: What about individual responsibility? A lot of people are concreting over their gardens, even their back gardens; should there be some control over this?

  Mr Rooke: There is an interesting statistic; we can give you a note on it in terms of the number of gardens that have been paved over in London over the last five years and it will be having a significant impact in terms of water no longer being able to get into the ground and be stored in the ground and is running straight off into sewers. We are advocating what we call sustainable urban drainage systems such that where there are new developments taking place we would want them to drain through SUDS before they come into a sewer system or before they come into a river system such that you would try to replicate the run off had it still been agricultural land.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I just comment on the overview role because I think what David has described by way of mapping, forecasting and warning is ambitious. I do not know whether it is do-able quite frankly. I think technically you could do it ultimately, but whether as a nation we are able to afford to do that is a moot point. The second issue for me is in terms of actually taking action to make sure that urban drainage and sewerage systems are actually as flood proof as possible and there it has to be the local authority in the lead co-ordinating the local partners, including us, using our information but very much taking the lead because they are the people who are the planning authority, they are sometimes the highways authority, they are certainly in touch with developers and re-developers. Just looking at the task, as it were, of re-draining our cities I do not think we are going to see a scale of investment that would allow that to happen wholesale. I suspect that what we need to press for is first of all to make sure that no new development goes ahead with inadequate drainage and sewerage and we have some powers under PPS25 in that, and secondly to make sure that re-development re-develops the sewerage and drainage systems as well as the actual properties themselves. Thirdly, focussing on the priorities—the hot spots—where traditionally we know there have been problems. If we can make fast progress in solving those three priorities the remainder of urban drainage systems can come along behind that.

  Q69  Chairman: You have given us the Barbara Young "if we can make progress" shopping list, have you specifically made formal recommendation to Defra that those items be actioned?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: All the policy proposals and changes that we have outlined in our evidence have of course gone to Defra as well.

  Q70  Chairman: Specifically to ask local authorities to start, for example, a scoping study on the capability of their own drainage systems to cope with the types of event that we have been discussing. Have you asked for that to be done?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We know that some local authorities that were involved in the flooding this year are now beginning to look at that as an issue, but Defra's position at the moment is, having consulted on the role that we should have in overview, they want to wait until they get the Michael Pitt recommendations before they work out, as it were, what the system will look like so that it is clear what our responsibility would be and what the local authority's responsibility would be.

  Q71  Chairman: Do local authorities have the resources and expertise to do that work?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I do not think at the moment anybody really has the resources and expertise to do that work. The few places we have done it are beginning to develop that expertise and the 15 pilots sponsored by Defra on urban drainage and urban surface water issues are beginning to develop track record in that so it can be spread more widely.

  Q72  Mr Gray: Why do we not just have one major agency for flooding? What is wrong with that?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: There have been two sorts of one-stop shop proposed really and I think there is a third emerging. One is a kind of emergency floods agency that does everything from predicting the weather down to restoring individual houses and sorting out benefits for people which I think is clearly not on because the numbers of different functions that need to be included in that need to be done by the specialist folk. What you need is good co-ordination and through the Cabinet Office and subsequently through BERR the co-ordination of that in terms of handling the emergency and then recovery post-emergency is already the responsibility for co-ordination of these two elements of an event are already fairly clear. Then there is the proposition that we have a sort of single floods agency that all our floods responsibilities are taken off into a separate agency. I think there are two concerns about that, one is in the urban setting, like it or not, the water companies, the local authorities, the Highways Agency and a number of individual owners and developers will have to be involved so it is never going to be a kind of single bullet. The other issue is, as this Committee well knows, the integration of management of water is extremely important and rivers are not just about floods, they are also about water resource, water supply, water quality; they are about the biodiversity of our rivers and the wetlands and indeed the Water Framework Directive brings together the management of land with the management of water bodies. Our view is that our integrated role which takes land, air and water together and particularly takes an integrated approach to the management of our rivers and river basins, is a very important one. We have had that role in the UK—not the Environment Agency but its predecessors—for several tens of years. Europe as a whole is only coming late to that as a proposition. Indeed, many countries in Europe are having to adopt a much more integrated approach than they have had previously. We believe it would be a backward step for the environment and for flood risk if the rivers were being managed for flood risk by one body but managed for all sorts of other purposes by another body. The third little bit of tittle-tattle that is coming out of the system at the moment is whether you need somehow to split off the regulatory role of the Environment Agency and the doing role of the Environment Agency. Our view is that we are not hugely a regulator in this although obviously if we had an overview role in an urban setting we might be conveniently put in the box of being a regulator, but we do not think that is the role that we want in the urban setting. The role that we want in the urban setting is to set a framework to provide advice, to provide tools, to provide expertise on a national basis that the local authorities can then take forward.

  Q73  David Taylor: One of my most vivid memories of that day in Gloucestershire is when we were on the minibus leaving the badly hit town of Tewkesbury. We were splashing along and we saw the yellow developers sign to the Riverview Development or something like that. You said a moment or two ago that you doubted whether or not the £800 million in 2010/11 would be sufficient to meet the pressures placed on you for flood defences. You explained that a little by saying in the light of developments that will take place between now and then. Do you think you have the powers to influence the building of properties on the floodplains? Are they adequate? Are you trying them out? Is your eye on the ball on this one?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps I could ask David to respond on the issue of development and control, but you are obviously right. The one that I dine out on is Swan Pool in Lincoln where there is a whacking great proposal to develop in the floodplain. There is a bit of a clue in the name, if it is called Swan Pool and if you are living in a house in the middle if it you might not want it to be a swan pool. I think there are real issues about development on the floodplain that still exist but David will tell you more about that.

  Dr King: I think I would say that we are not where we would like to be in terms of development control but having said that there has been a significant tightening and improvement of the legislation under PPS25. Our most recent analysis is for the period April 2006 to March 2007 which was under the old PPG 25. If you look at performance there we still had 13 major cases that went against the Agency's advice. We had five appealed decisions which were determined contrary to our advice and something like 63 per cent of our objections were because there were inadequate flood risk assessments carried out. In December last year we had a change in the legislation which was to PPS25. That has improved things in a number of ways. Firstly the Agency is a statutory consultee. Secondly, if a local authority is now minded to go against our advice there is the power of direction for us to request call in first to the government office and then to the secretary of state. Thirdly, in terms of the actual guidance of steering development away from high risk areas, it is a lot clearer and a lot tighter than previously.

  Q74  David Taylor: Collectively you feel you probably do not have the authority necessary to adequately control.

  Dr King: I think the PPS25 is actually a good piece of legislation. What remains to be tested is how rigorously it is applied. We are still in the first year of that so it is difficult to say. I think PPS25 is a big step forward.

  Q75  Mr Cox: Baroness Young, you said it yourself I think but what has been striking me as I have been listening to your evidence and those of your colleagues, is that it seems to me, summing up your evidence, one conclusion could be that you are an institution that has only partial responsibility for the overall problem, that is too weak to influence government agencies and local authorities to take appropriate pre-emptive action. Almost on every occasion when a problem is confronted to you by a question you answer that you either do not have the power or the legislation is not in place or it is a very complex problem. What we need, do you not agree, is an agency that has the power to take a real lead in this and provide genuine leadership which I think was the perception that people had at the time of these floods, that there was an absence of some single directing body that could take a lead with the urgency required to address the problems. Surely what we need is either a flood defence agency with genuine powers to compel authorities, even possibly private individuals, to take the action that is required if we are going to be faced with a serious succession of these floods, or your own Agency needs to be given the powers to deal with these problems.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: First of all if I can take the issue of the many agencies involved, I think it is a complicated picture and it is distressingly complicated not only for those of us who have to operate within it but also for the public in understanding. I am not sure that you can magic that one away by a single agency because the reality is that it would have to operate by getting other agencies to do things and governments are notoriously anxious when faced with the prospect, for example, of laying costly duties on local authorities for example but at the dictate of a government agency. I think there will continue to need to be an agreement between parts of government about who does what and a tasking down governmental/departmental lines of individual bits of government machinery.

  Q76  Mr Cox: You do not have the responsibility for so many aspects of the overall problem, do you?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: If this had been a winter flood I think you would have seen ample examples of leadership, if this had been a flood that resulted in rivers rising and flooding being primarily from the systems for which we are responsible, ie the rivers or on the coast. We have revolutionised our approach to flood risk management over the last ten years and indeed I think it is a sign of confidence in what we have been trying to do that the Government has given us substantial additional funding on every occasion when the spending review came round. There is a very, very confused set of responsibilities and accountabilities in the surface water urban area and that is becoming more pressing as a result of climate change so I do believe that one of the things that must come out of the various reviews following these sets of floods is a greater clarity about what government cites, about what the Environment Agency's role is and about what the role of local authorities and providers of critical infrastructure are.

  Q77  Mr Cox: Planning is an example, is it not? I hear what you say about the progress made in PPS25 but as you rightly point out there are still major developments going ahead in spite of your objections. Some developments are going ahead, certainly in my own patch in Devon, without significant Environment Agency involvement despite them being on floodplains (these may be smaller developments). What can be done in your view to improve your ability to get local authorities to heed the need to take these issues seriously when it comes to planning approvals?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think there are a number of things we have already done. The annual reports we produce on local authority performance have had an impact. We are seeing an improvement in the performance of local authorities and PPS25 will help with that. I think the current floods will have woken up a few local authorities to the fact that building on the floodplain against our advice is not good news. The insurance industry we would like to flex more muscle but it is quite nervous of that. The insurance industry does point out that development on a floodplain against our advice will mean that insurance will only be achievable at very high premium but that is not to say they are not prepared to insure which would be the most successful way of persuading local authorities.

  Dr King: PPS25 is less than one year old so I think we need to have the opportunity to test it. I would just reiterate that it is significantly stronger than PPG25 in that we are now a statutory consultee, local authorities have to consult us and we do have the power to request flooding direction. I think it is significantly stronger and we will see at the end of this year how things have panned out.

  Q78  Lynne Jones: I would like to come back in here about planning guidance. There was recently a consultation on permitted development. I want to go back to the point I was raising earlier about the propensity for people to concrete over gardens which I think is having a significant effect. Apparently the consultants recommended that there should be a requirement for planning permission if more than 50 per cent of the garden was being concreted or tarmacked or covered over and yet the Government did not include that in the consultation paper. Is this something you think ought to be looked at because it is happening all over the place?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Certainly we believe there needs to be an assessment of the permitted development rights of concrete. The figure that David referred to was 22 parks' worth of concreting of front gardens alone in London as assessed by the mayor.

  Q79  Lynne Jones: This is not going to be covered by the planning guidance for new developments and it would be a very simple thing for the Government to do which might help some of the problems that we have been talking about.

  Dr King: The other point worth making is that if people are concreting over for parking or whatever there are other ways of doing this using gravel or membranes or porous pavements that is as effective but at the same time allows the water to go through.


 
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