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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 100)



  Q80  Mr Cox: As my colleague says, it is not just concreting over gardens, it is of course building in gardens which is happening on a massive scale now. That is what I meant, in fact, where in my own patch we are seeing a lot of small developments going ahead often in green spaces within urban areas—market towns, coastal towns and so on—without interaction or involvement of the Environment Agency but which manifestly cumulatively are going to have an effect on the ability of the land to soak up the water and could cause a real problem. What are we to do about that unseen and hidden problem? You are dealing, I know, with several thousand a year and are objecting to them (4000 I think in 2005/06) but of course that is a fraction of the applications that are going forward to use up green spaces and gardens and other pieces of land inside urban areas. Cumulatively this is going to become a massive problem; in my own patch it is a serious problem. What can we do about that? PPS25 is not really dealing with that, is it?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think this is one of the areas where the whole question of risk assessment in the urban setting is going to be crucial. David may want to talk about the hierarchy of plans and strategies that we envisage under a system that would mean that eventually carrying out the flood risk assessment for a local authority for its own areas would mean that they could pinpoint where some of these issues were actually creating flood risk and then develop the strategies to include that within their flood risk assessment and where there were flood risks there should be a requirement on developers to undertake the risk assessments and submit those with their planning applications.

  Q81  Mr Cox: You agree with me that the building on gardens which we are seeing on an increasing scale is a potential problem. You are nodding; is that right, Baroness Young?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think there are number of problems associated with it. One is that if it is in a flood plain and it is diminishing the amount of flood storage, that is an issue. The second is that if it is increasing the amount of concrete and therefore the run-off issues. There are a number of things we would be concerned about. David may want to say more about the way in which we would plan for that in the future.

  Dr King: I think there are a number of things that could be done. We would like to see the mandating of sustainable urban drainage in new development and also there is currently a right to connect to a public sewer and we think that again should be modified and that sustainable urban drainage should be considered part of that, so there are things that you can strengthen and encourage in planning law. PPS25 does indicate that SUDS should be considered but that needs to be strengthened.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I just comment briefly on other things to do with development? We would be particularly keen to see a change to the building regulations to improve the flood resilience of properties and also to encourage the insurers to reinstate properties post-floods to a level of resilience rather than the level that they were before the flood occurred.

  Q82  Mr Cox: Can you provide some examples of the kinds of resistance and resilience requirements you would like to see in the building regulations?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The sorts of things that we would be envisaging are water resistant plaster, solid floorings rather than sprung flooring, electricity supply being brought in at a higher level rather than at ground floor level and also simply appliable gadgets to block airbricks and block doors and entry points. The estimate is that the average cost to a property after flooding is about £26,000 and that could be brought down to single figures with the right sorts of resilience measures providing the flood is not so huge that you are up to the top of the first floor which is clearly a different kettle of fish. Where the ingress of water would be comparatively low these simple resilience techniques could make a huge difference to the bill being faced by householders and indeed by the insurance industry in the country as a whole.

  Q83  Mr Cox: How would you enact them?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Building regs.

  Q84  Mr Cox: Applicable to high risk areas? Applicable to all new buildings? How would you do it?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: To be frank I think these days with the surface water drainage issue and the flash flood issue, it may well be that we simply have to recognise that you can flood on top of a hill these days which is not the traditional approach we have had which is very much to focus on the floodplains. I do think there are issues of simple, more resilience that we could look at that might be cost effective generally. Certainly some of the more heroic stuff would only be appropriate in areas of high risk. Personally I would like to see the kitchen manufacturers making a non-exploding kitchen. At the moment most of the kitchens that are made from chipboard if you add water they simply turn into grey goo quite quickly.

  Q85  Chairman: We have had an indication now of the way in which money will flow to the flood defence budget up to 2010 in the form of a parliamentary answer but the Association of British Insurers (ABI) came out today indicating that their £1 billion figure is something which they think ought to be here now rather than later. It was a position they adopted in 2004 when this Committee did the Foresight Report. Can I ask you to respond to some evidence which came to the Committee from the Norwich Union, part of the ABI, who said the following: "At present Defra's budget for flood management is not accompanied by any clear rationale to justify allocation of flood defence resources in one area as opposed to another. The UK's flood defence budget must be spent appropriately and directly related to flood risk posed. A clear assessment of flood defence is a key element in underwriting flood risk for insurers."[7] So place versus place, no rationale. In the same evidence they go on to be critical of your points system in determining where investment is made and they cite the following: "Under the terms of the points system that currently exists some communities such as Upton-upon-Severn and Lewes which are regularly flooded do not have flood defences in place and it is unlikely they will receive them in the future."[8] That is a direct challenge to the fact that your points system does not deliver the flood defences when the insurance industry thinks they ought to be and in terms of giving comfort for them to maintain their cover clearly they are looking for burden sharing between government and the industry in terms of investment. Norwich Union do not think much of the current investment criteria. Can you comment on how you think this money that you now know is going to come and the phasing of it is going to be spent, and how the way you will decide that money's use stacks up against the industry's criticism?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I am rather mystified at the Norwich Union criticism because we do have a system for allocating funding that takes account of risk and increasingly prioritises our maintenance towards high and medium risk systems and provides a nationally consistent process for deciding which new flood defences and improved flood defences should go ahead. They may take issue with the points system but it is the fairest way we have at the moment. We are looking at the moment to see whether we can develop a revised prioritisation process building on the experience we have had with the points system. However, the points system does not just take how often people flood. Let me take the one I know best which is Pickering. Pickering floods regularly but we are unable to put together a flood risk management scheme that provides the right return on investment that would give it sufficient priority to go ahead. The new funding will help with that in that some of the schemes that previously were too low priority on the points system will now be able to go ahead because we have additional funding. Gradually, with that increased level of funding, we ought to be able to catch up with some of those communities where a flood risk management system is viable but is not at the moment able to get a sufficiently high priority. I am rather bemused by the Norwich Union's approach to that. Certainly there are two things underway that will also help. Our catchment flood risk management plans are a catchment based approach to look at what the risk and priorities ought to be within each catchment and we are working on a long term investment strategy looking forward 20 years over what needs to happen both by way of maintenance of the existing assets and creation of new assets to look at what the scale of that should be and therefore how we can anticipate over a longer timescale how much we are going to be able to get done with the level of investment that we currently have or a future level of investment.

  Q86  Chairman: You said at the beginning of your evidence that we should be moving faster in a number of areas in responding to flooding. Does that mean that whilst you welcome the money it is still going too slowly?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We welcome the money and we will put in place measures to take rational risk based decisions about spending it. If we had more we could probably do more. If we had a million tomorrow we would have some difficulty because it does take some months or even in the case of some complicated schemes several years to put them together, to consult on them and to get planning permission. However, I do believe there needs to be an uplift for the future.

  Q87  Chairman: I did a little calculation. I applied a 2.5 per cent inflation rate to the current £600 million budget and by the time I got to 2010 the actual net extra that this money worked out was £115 million above what you need to inflation proof current spending proposals. It does not sound like a lot of money to me.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: In fact the 2.5 per cent inflation rate is probably inadequate because construction costs are going up much more dramatically.

  Q88  Chairman: So the actual net extra by the time we get to 2010 is actually quite small really.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes, but that has been offset by the fact that as we get bigger programmes and as we get better at the risk based approach and at the work we do with our contractor partners, we are able to get better efficiency from the money we have so we are improving our efficiency by about £15 million annually on the current budget so some of that inflation is offset by our improved efficiency.

  Q89  Dan Rogerson: I am trying to get to grips with the size of the task that is there. Obviously as you said there are schemes which would be nice to do if you had the resources to do it, but in terms of those that are there and ready to go subject to funding what would be the total cost in today's prices of those sorts of schemes, not those that hypothetically we might do but those which are drawn up and ready to go?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We try not to do that because we know from bitter experience if we put a scheme in place and consult on it widely and have it ready to go and then the money is not available, (a) the scheme ages quite rapidly, and (b) it raises expectations within local communities which are then dashed and it is very hard for them. What we are trying to do now is in fact to anticipate over a longer period what we believe the basic funding will be so that we can get moving on schemes that we know will go ahead and then use any additional funding to accelerate that pace, but we do not want to have a huge backlog of schemes stacked up ready to go because it is really hard on people to say that we know we can do this for you but we are not going to be able to do it and we do not know when we are going to be able to do it. We want to have those schemes in place so that we can say to people that we have this scheme, we know we can do it for you and we will do it in 2012 or 2009 or 20-whatever.

  Q90  Dan Rogerson: In my constituency there was a scheme that was in that particular bracket, it was do-able but because of the points system other schemes were higher up the priority order. There must be a point at which a scheme moves from being a "Yes, we could to something in this area" to "Yes, we could do something, we know what it is and this is how much it would cost". You have to feed it into your points system and go through that process so you may not be consulting on it publicly but there must be a batch of schemes that are at the moment beyond funding. I would like to get a picture of how big that is.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We did a piece of work to look at how long with the level of funding we were anticipating it would take us to work through the schemes that we have got to a point where we know we can do them but I cannot remember what the timescale was but it was comparatively short. We have not backed up a huge backlog to the point where they are all ready to go and buildable. Something like four years I think.

  Q91  Dan Rogerson: You said that the existing schemes by and large worked quite well. Of that money, extra money being made available, how much of that would need to go to deal with those schemes where they did not quite work as they should have done?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Sorry, I do not quite understand the question.

  Q92  Dan Rogerson: Where schemes have failed in some ways or not failed but you have looked at the extremity of the event and because of climate change you think those defences might need to be re-visited, how much of that budget would need to go to make those schemes future-proof rather than looking at new schemes?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: That is where our long term investment strategy is going to be really important. What we are looking at there is what is going to happen in the next 20 years, including the impact of climate change and including what we need to do by way of maintenance and improvement of schemes. Also we have been modelling what would happen in terms of investment if the decision was made as a nation that we wanted to go to a higher or lower standard of protection. However, we are long way from having completed that work.

  Q93  Lynne Jones: Does your points system, which is driven by economic impact, favour affluent areas as suggested by the Institute of Civil Engineers?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We do not think it does. It has social and environmental points in it as well as economic, but the economic ones tend to be quite strong. One of the things we are doing as a result of the work we are doing on looking at alternative ways of prioritising is to see whether in fact there needs to be an adjustment of the relationship between the environmental, the social and the economic.

  Q94  Lynne Jones: So there could be something in it then?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It favours property but it also has social issues attached to it. One of the things we are very anxious about is not to penalise people at high risk of flood for whom it is more devastating than if you are rich. If you are rich and you lose stuff and you are insured you buy some more, you get the insurance company in. If you are poor like we saw in Hull and places like that and you have no insurance and you lose everything, it is devastating.

  Q95  Mr Drew: Going back to critical infrastructure, in your evidence to us you identified that 57 per cent of water and sewage and treatment works are in flood risk areas. I was not totally clear earlier whether you would be asking for additional powers or indeed you would take on more duties to really say that somebody has to do something about this. I know David King did say, "Look, sorry, that is up to the individual companies and so on" but after what we have learned from Gloucestershire or what is likely to come out in the report, somebody has to do much more in this area. A final area really is, if you were asked to take it on what would you want as your bottom line in terms of the support and the authority to be able to deal with this?

  Dr King: There is a way forward and there is the opportunity with the draft Climate Change Bill and what we would advocate is that there should be a duty on those operators to consider adaptation.

  Q96  Mr Drew: Do you not want a power yourself?

  Dr King: No.

  Q97  Mr Drew: Why not?

  Dr King: At the end of the day it will be the operators of those critical infrastructures that will have to undertake the work.

  Q98  Mr Drew: That is very risky. We were talking about evacuating 550,000 from the county of Gloucestershire, that is pretty high-risk, tightrope walking work that somebody has to evaluate. Surely there must be a power that you would welcome to insist on some of these important infrastructure places being properly maintained and protected.

  Dr King: The Agency would have a role in terms of provision of advice including mapping and risk characterisation. If you put a duty on an operator, make regulations, you can define standards and then there is a clear responsibility on that operator to put in defences to whatever standard is decided is acceptable. We can advise but it is very much the operator of the infrastructure's responsibility to provide flood protection.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We do also recognise that flood risk is a contingency that the Civil Contingencies Act is aimed at helping co-ordinate much as any other civil contingency. If we were going to cut across that for flood risk then fine, but I think we would need to make sure that we are not in a position where umpteen different people are involved. At the moment the mechanism that government has chosen is to give people a responsibility for collaborating with local contingency fora and I believe that is the best way forward for flood risk as well as for other risks that communities are facing. We could be given a role with some installations to check their plans, but again it would require considerable resource.

  Q99  David Taylor: When you say in your evidence that some of these strategic control centres and some of the regional fire control centres were said to be in floodplains and were at risk of flooding, what level did you set that risk at? Are you talking about one in a thousand, one in a hundred years or what?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Many of the figures we have been quoting are one in 75 years. We categorise by one in 75, one in 100 and one in 200.

  Q100  David Taylor: So when you said "at risk of flooding" you mean a greater risk of flooding than one in 75 years.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. It has been a long but useful session and you have given us a very good start to our inquiry. Can I thank you again for your written contribution and for your offer to provide further technical briefing to the Committee should it be necessary as we proceed with our inquiry. I think it is an offer that certainly some of us will want to take up. Thank you very much indeed for coming.

7   Ev 125, para 15 Back

8   Ev 126, para 19 Back

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