Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2007
Q120 Mr Drew:
The reason I am interested is obviously, sadly, the deaths in
Tewkesbury all came about, if you like, as a consequence of the
flood rather than because of the flood.
Professor Penning-Rowsell: Yes.
Q121 Mr Drew:
That may be sad, but it is a bit of a difficult game to try and
say how many people would be well served---. Can we look at this
issue of pace of change then. This is something that we are obviously
going to major on and Sir Michael Pitt is also presumably going
to try and spend some time on. The Chairman has already mentioned
the Foresight Report and we have got the Defra Report Making
Space for Water. The Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental
Management basically said that the lessons have not been learned.
Rather that these have been occasions to note what has happened
previously and then perhaps there will be some unearthing of policy
in the due course of time. Is there a lack of urgency and does
that really mean that, sadly, the next time we get Hull, Sheffield,
Gloucestershire happening the same issues will arise but they
could be worse, could be slightly better?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I do
not agree with the CIWEM comment there at all actually. Obviously
each flood incident is slightly different and, therefore, there
are always lessons to be learned from each one, and sometimes
those lessons are learned immediately and sometimes they take
time; but if you go back within the last decade, we had a serious
flood incident in 1998 which largely affected the Midlands and,
as a result of that, it was recognised that the flood warning
system, that the embryonic Agency that was operating then, was
not adequate and a great deal of work has been done to improve
the flood warning system as a result of the experience from that
flood. I know it was a different kind of flood in autumn 2000,
but the warning arrangements in autumn 2000 were a dimension better,
an order of magnitude better than those of 1998. So, lessons were
certainly learned from that. I want to go on a bit further than
that and talk about the autumn 2000 event, which had a slightly
different characteristic of flooding, being very dispersed across
the country. The key lesson that was learnt from that was about
development in flood plains and, as a result of that, PPG25 was
first of all drafted and then debated and then changed to PPS25
so that a much tougher regime was put in place.
Q122 Mr Drew:
In terms of planning policy is that the right gradation of impact,
if you like, in terms of intervention, or should it be tougher,
or should it be more widespread in terms of the implications of
that particular planning policy statement?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: It
is a national policy position. It is applied
Q123 Mr Drew:
I raise that because we still do it in the flood plain. We might
be clear and say no building in the flood plain.
Professor Penning-Rowsell: No,
I would not take that view at all. We are rather short of land
in this country and we need to use every square metre that we
have, and certain developments in flood plains are actually a
wise use of that resource and should be promoted and not rejected.
It would be wrong to sterilise our flood plains and prohibit development
when in fact here we are sitting in the Thames flood plain now
and enjoying the benefits of the central location; and if somebody
was to decide to build a new building such as this one, I do not
think it would be very sensible for the Agency to say no.
We are on the first floor!
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I was
very conscious of that when I accepted the invitation to come,
but you take my point. We have some very successful flood plains
which are protected, and the key point we make in the paper is
that we need to make those decisions in concert so that when we
develop flood plains, we also protect them.
Q125 Mr Drew:
In terms of the idea of a European flood directive, does that
make any sense at all? Is there any commonalty? Given that both
of you have alluded to the fact that these are somewhat unpredictable
events and are unpredictable events within a country, even between
areas, quite close to one another, what has Europe got to do with
this? What is the sense of a directive? What can you actually
direct governments to do that they are not already wanting to
do even if they do not necessarily do it?
Professor Wheater: The big problem
in Continental Europe is that they have big rivers and those rivers
Q126 Mr Drew:
We could develop a few bigger rivers, I am sure. We dug out the
Professor Wheater: We only have
little rivers in the UK. Our biggest rivers in England are the
Severn and the Thames. They are 10,000 square kilometres. The
Nile is several million. The big rivers like the Rhine and the
Danube clearly have an international dimension that needs to be
resolved, but I think that by and large the proposals, the flood
directive reinforces what we are already doing in the UK. It talks
about the need to manage on a river basin basis, which we are
doing. It talks about the need to put flood risk maps in place,
which we are doing. There are some interesting aspects that emerge
though. For example, they talk about the need to have maps that
show velocities, which is the point that Edmund was making, and
they also talk about the need to recognise that there can be pollution
associated with flooding, and that is something which we are starting
to think about in the UK at the moment but very much from a zero
base. So, the first studies are being done at the moment, and
clearly it is an interesting and potentially important area and
that would be reinforced by the EU requirements.
Can I jump in and ask: there was a point in paragraph 23 of your
evidence where you said, "It is however unfortunate in this
context that the recent reorganisation of the Environment Agency
has removed the river catchment as a basic management unit."
Does that not slightly go at odds about what you said was a good
way of organising your flood policy?
Professor Wheater: Yes. I think
that for about the last 30 years we have been able to travel the
world saying that the UK is a flag ship in the way in which it
integrates its water management based on river catchments, and
I was rather horrified to find when I ran a workshop recently
on the Severn that when they are looking at flood risk they are
now moving to districts and those districts do not necessarily
coincide with the
Professor Wheater: I think it
is a problem with the multi-functionality of the Environment Agency.
It has responsibilities not just for flooding but for waste management
and ground water contamination and so, I think, for administrative
reasons that has been a change.
So it is wrong in your judgment?
Professor Wheater: Yes.
Q130 Mr Drew:
Wearing one of my other hats, Gloucestershire Rural Issues Taskforce,
we did actually identify that. The Environment Agency and, I seem
to remember, Severn Trent came to talk to us, but it was partly
at our instigation, because there were some issues about how they
were going to divide the upper reaches of the particular area
round the Severn that they now define as the Upper Severn and
the lower bit. I raised the point then (and I well remember this)
that if the Water Framework Directive meant anything, we did need
catchment management across the whole Severn, and this has always
been the issue. I know that this is not being recorded so I can
say this. I have always argued quite strongly to make sure Gloucester
does not get too much protection, because if it gets it, then
we get it lower down. My secret is out now! But there is an issue,
and I have always felt this, that if you look at the protection
of some areas to a greater extent, then you cannot isolate that
from what happens elsewhere along the length of the river because
somebody else will get it some time.
Professor Wheater: You need an
integrated solution based on the whole river system.
Q131 Mr Drew:
That is not what we are doing at the moment.
Professor Wheater: I think it
is being done in practice, despite this administrative change.
There are offices, for example, that manage the Upper Severn and
the Lower Severn as integrated units.
Mr Drew: Tewkesbury flooded in
the recent episode. They did suffer along with the rest of us,
to be fair.
Chairman: I am going to move on
to Mr Taylor.
Q132 David Taylor:
This is to Professor Penning-Rowsell and about his evidence, particularly
paragraph three of that evidence.
The northern city inundations that we sawHull and Sheffield
in particularwere typically caused by flash floods with
the fact that drains and sewers were totally overwhelmed by the
amounts they were being asked to absorb in a very short timescale.
You refer in your comments to a mosaic of organisations that are
responsible or have some responsibilities, and that would include
internal drainage boards, riparian owners, Environment Agency,
Highway Agency, local authorities, waste water companies and so
on. How do you feel that (to use your words) the mosaic of organisations
coped, particularly in the northern cities, with the responsibilities
that they had?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: It
is quite difficult to answer that question without having a model
of how else you would do it: because each of those organisations
have legitimacy over their own territory but it is still a mosaic.
You could not, I believe, have a single body being responsible
for all aspects of water and flooding in metropolitan areasI
do not think that would make a lot of senseso they do need
to have several different types of organisations. You say: how
do they cope?
Q133 David Taylor:
Jointly and collectively, with the specific focus on co-operation.
Mosaic suggests some sort of shape, form and function but sometimes
there will be gaps and there will be overlaps. It is all of those
concerns I wondered whether you could comment on?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I do
not have experience of the operational efficiency of those organisations
on the ground in Hull or in Sheffield or wherever, so I would
be loath to criticise them, I am afraid, and say that they were
not fit for purpose. What I did observe was a great deal of activity.
People were not sitting on their hands. There was a great deal
done to help the people who were affected and afflicted. Again,
emergency response organisations were apparently affected, but
I probably only read the same reports as everybody else, I have
not done any research on that about how effective or efficient
they were. The Environment Agency and actually the Met Office
did give warning of those floods. Whether it was adequate people
will have to judge for themselves, but there was warning, which
there certainly has not been in certain floods before, and that
warning was disseminated as effectively as they could do, which
is never perfect but it is very difficult to make dissemination
of warnings perfect. I am probably not answering your question
very well because I do not have the evidence-base to know (a)
exactly what happened on the ground (you probably know that better
than I do) and (b) what organisational change would lead to a
greater degree of effectiveness. That second point I really do
not know the answer to.
Q134 David Taylor:
It is just the inference I draw from your statement that the imperative
is to deliverI assume in bracketsbetter integration
through this mosaic of organisations. What ideas do you have as
to how that integration can be better achieved? You have already
discounted the possibility in an urban or metropolitan area of
having a single body responsible for flood risk management. If
not that and if not the existing mosaic, which did seem to have
significant weaknesses, what suggestions do you have as some sort
of, dare I say, third way?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I think
in urban areas such as Hull, I do not know so much about Sheffield,
you do need a much more finely graded view of what the risk is.
If you look at the flood map for Hull, which I happened to do,
it is blue all over the place, but it does not differentiate within
Hull where areas are more serious, where is the greatest severity.
It does not, for example, show you areas where there are more
vulnerable populations or more vulnerable infrastructure or services
that could be disrupted. So in metropolitan areas we do not have
a very good risk assessment system, partly because that is a split
responsibility between the sewerage agencies and the Environment
Agency, and I think probably in urban areasno, I do not
think, I am sure that we need a more sophisticated risk assessment.
Moving on from that, you also need to be more sophisticated in
your response to events when they happen by tailoring that response
more to the risk that is likely to occur. Obviously, you direct
your resources to where risk is greatest and move them away from
where risk is not so great. From my experience of emergency planning
organisations, they are not very good at that, they are not very
good at differentiating different levels of risk in different
areas and actually targeting the response accordingly, and I think
that could be more sophisticated. From what I know, from my experience
of major events, I think the co-ordination during flood events
has hugely improved, thanks to the gold and silver command systems
that the police have set up. I do not think it is a lack of information
necessarily that leads to an ineffective response, if there is
an ineffective response, but it might be, for example, lack of
equipment or lack of personnel in the right place at the right
time; and you have to bear in mind that these are very rare events.
You would not have a standing situation in Hull, for example,
every summer, every July, to counter the floods that might come,
because they might only come once every 100 years. So it is quite
a delicate balance you have to strike to learn how much resource
to give to these things and how much you can, as it wereI
was going to say on-the-hoof, I suppose I do mean on-the-hoofactually
create systems and structures as you are going along during a
flood event. That is difficult in the kind of event that we had
in 2007, because it was such a sudden event and you may get overtaken
by events, but the response to these events is never going to
be perfect; it is always going to be imperfect. There are always
going to be problems; there are always going to be mistakes made;
there is always going to be suffering of the afflicted population;
there is always going to be damage and destruction. The question
is: what is the balance between mitigating that and having a standing
system of emergency response which costs you money while it is
Q135 David Taylor:
So you say insufficient differentiation was an issue?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I think
that is where you start.
Q136 David Taylor:
Then you went on to say that authorities should learn to focus
on that which is more probable. Where you are dealing with very
rare events anyway and where the past history does not give too
much of an accurate indication as to what are the high risks in
East Yorkshire, for instance, authorities have a very difficult
task, do they not?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: Absolutely.
Q137 David Taylor:
Therefore they are going to be literally bailing out on the day
rather than anticipating years ahead as to how they might avoid
all of this?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I am
afraid, and it sounds a rather callous thing to say, that might
actually be the best strategy for the nation to adopt in countering
many of these very rare events. You do, however, need to look
at certain things. You need to look at the infrastructure, for
example. In South Gloucestershire we realised that the infrastructure
was much more vulnerable than we had thought and the effect of
flooding or disrupting the infrastructure has an effect way beyond
the flood plain. It affects people who are nowhere near being
flooded. So that is something that I think we learnt from this
summer's events. It is something of concern.
Q138 Mr Gray:
Responding to events is one thing, but I am still slightly puzzled
here and forgive me for using a very low key constituency example.
Being a simple child that is the sort of way I operate. The town
of Wootton Bassett in my constituency was flooded in these events
and in attempting to discover why and what we could do about it,
it appears at the moment that the County Council are saying that,
while they are responsible for surface flooding in the town, they
cannot do anything about it because that would be a matter of
infrastructure; the Environment Agency are saying they have no
responsibility for it at all; the District Council are saying
that, while they are allowing planning of 20 new homes in the
particular area that was flooded, they are not allowed to take
account of flood risk in terms of the issue and anyhow it was
done some time ago and the planning permission was already in
place; Network Rail are saying they cannot clear out the culverts
because of the amount of work and absolutely nobody, that I can
make out, seems to have responsibility for the very serious floods
that occurred in Wootton Bassett. Surely there is an argument
that says: okay, let us have a senior organisationthe Environment
Agency, and I suspect that they would rather like that taskwho
would be able to say to this myriad of different organisations,
"Your responsibility is to do such and such and here is what
you are not doing and here is what we would like you to do",
and so on. Give them a sort of over-arching responsibility in
some way or other for flood prevention rather than dealing with
Professor Penning-Rowsell: That
is absolutely fine, but you would have to fund the Agency to do
that, and you would have to give it substantially more funds.
The Agency is only responsible for flooding on a main
Mr Gray: Sure, but our problem
is not funding, that is for the Treasury. Our problem is deciding
what needs to be done. If the Treasury then turns round and says,
"I am very sorry, you cannot do that because it costs too
much", that is another matter, but the purpose of our sally
today is to assess what went wrong and to assess what you do about
it, and the Environment Agency, I think I am right in saying,
are bidding for an over-arching role of that kind so that they
have responsibility for all planning.
To fire up that. I wrote down a moment ago that you said, "We
need a more sophisticated risk assessment in the urban situation",
and the thought that went through my mind, to follow Mr Gray's
thought processes, was who would trigger that improved risk assessment
being undertaken? Who should be the person who says, "We
must do this"?
Professor Penning-Rowsell: I was
not thinking of Wootton Bassett at the time, I was thinking of
London, Birmingham, Manchestermajor metropolitan areas.
Who would do it? The Environment Agency would do it. It is the
organisation with the greatest expertise in flooding in this country.
It would not, in my view, be the sewerage agencies, the water
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