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

Memorandum submitted by the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University (FL 113)


  1.  Overall, flood risk management in England is advanced compared to other countries. Particular strengths are the community of researchers and practitioners that Defra has built up through its annual conference and the tradition of local involvement in decision making.

  2.  It is important that flood risk management is not treated in isolation but only in the wider context of sustainable development and integrated water and land management.


  3.  The big challenge and necessity, shown up by the 2007 floods, is integrated land and water planning, and integrated water management, including integrated urban drainage plans. The imperative is to deliver integration through what is necessarily a mosaic of organisations, and thus we have to become good at partnership models. The success of an organisation is increasingly determined by its ability to influence the actions of others (e.g. the Environment Agency's ability to influence the spatial planning strategies of local authorities and also the public through flood warnings).

  4.  We have always had to manage water in order to make the best use of land: land is scarce, absolutely scarce in the case of the South-East of England. Since local authorities are also generally the Highway Authorities, the logic is to make the development of sustainable drainage plans the responsibility of the planning authorities. Indeed, the case can be made that the River Basin Management Plans required under the WFD ought to be the responsibility of the local authorities rather than the Environment Agency. It might be useful to look at France and the Netherlands to see how they are trying to integrate land and water management.

  5.  We also have to shift away from treating flood risk management in isolation from Integrated Water Management; for example, how we manage flood risk management can impact upon the risk of droughts. For example, Ian Calder has shown that afforestation, whilst it may reduce the risk of floods, can simultaneously increase the risk of low flows in summer. Climate change will make water management more difficult, particularly through increasing rainfall intensities. Storage will become an increasingly prevalent flood risk management option and likely to be combined into drought management.


  6.  New development is potentially a great opportunity which must be grasped; currently we are only replacing our existing housing stock at the rate of 0.1% per annum which means that we have to deliver sustainable development very largely through our existing stock of buildings. Thamesmead was an early attempt at development on a major flood plain in which the development was adapted to the flood risk. Therefore we must avoid unnecessarily "sterilising" flood plains by prohibiting development there, but we must plan development and flood defence / flood risk management in tandem.

  7.  Equally, it is our existing stock of buildings that constitutes the major part of the problem. With climate change, it is likely that we will have to abandon parts of some existing urban areas in order to make space for water. We have to do this without creating planning blight but we lack the instruments, for example, to buy up land. One possibility would be a "Water Conservation Charge", similar to that used in China, which could be used to improve the sustainable development of rivers and coasts.

  8.  Because we need to move towards Integrated Water Management, rather than PPS 25 we need guidance on integrating water into spatial strategies. At the same time, spatial planning must continue to be multi-objective and to recognise multiple constraints: a land use planning system based only upon water management issues would be a disaster.


  9.  The Environment Agency proposed, after the Boscastle flood, to identify the areas of highest risk to life from flooding; this study is urgently needed.


  10.  Under the existing financing system, both water and wastewater companies lack incentives to promote sustainable water management. The anticipated shift towards demand management, source control, rainwater harvesting and similar techniques will potentially reduce the revenue to the companies without necessarily reducing their costs. Moreover, the revenue of the wastewater companies is tied to that of the water companies but their interests do not necessarily coincide, particularly when the emerging target for demand management is a reduction of 50% in consumption. In consequence, it is not surprising that the companies are not promoting the adoption of sustainable water management techniques.

  11.  The increasing investment in flood and coastal defence potentially creates a dangerous imbalance for the Environment Agency which always had four roles:

    —  integrated water management,

    —  integrated pollution control,

    —  promoting sustainable development,

    —  and a major construction and operational role in flood and coastal defence.

  Since its inception, the bulk of the Agency's funding has been for flood and coastal defence. With the increasing expenditure on flood and coastal defence, there is a risk that the other strategic roles of the Agency will be overwhelmed by the high visibility activities of flood and coastal defence. At some point, it may become necessary to separate the constructional and operational aspects of flood and coastal defence into a separate agency.

  12.  Across the world, flood and coastal defences are generally primarily funded collectively rather than exclusively by those at risk. At present, river and coastal flood and coastal defence schemes, on average, cost about £15,000 per property protected. Dealing with sewer flooding can cost £250,000 per property, OFWAT agreeing that a significant proportion of schemes with such a cost being included in the last price and quality round. The £15,000 average cost is equivalent to about three hip replacements, and over their lifetime the average household will "give" (through general taxation) some £1500 to those at risk of river and sea flooding in the way of funding flood defences. So critical questions are:

    —  How much are members of the public prepared to contribute towards protecting other people from flooding?

    —  Under what conditions?

    —  For what?


  13.  Insurance is a luxury good: uptake of all forms of insurance increases with income and lack of access to insurance is recognised as a form of social exclusion. At the same time, the UK is essentially unique in providing flood insurance without governmental support either in the form of subsidies or as the reinsurer of last resort. The UK is also almost unique in that governments have never provided compensation to those affected by natural disasters, and historically the Treasury has rejected compensating disaster victims. It is not clear that this model is viable over the longer term.


  14.  The 2007 floods revealed some major knowledge gaps that need to be filled with new research:

    —  How much are members of the public prepared to contribute towards protecting other people from flooding?

    —  The major effect of the floods on infrastructure and hence on disruption (M5; water; power).

    —  Evacuation triggered by power and water outages, as well as from flooding itself.

    —  The extent to which floods occur well beyond the floodplain when in essence they are pluvial driven events. This is a serious issue for spatial planning, insurance, etc.

    —  The apparently increased connections between urban drainage and river flooding.

    —  We have had serious floods in 1998, 2000, 2003 and now 2007. Yet we do not know if this is a new trend. It is not yet clear whether this is because we do not know, or because it is still not outside the confidence limits of the normal events.

Flood Hazard Research Centre

Middlesex University

September 2007  

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