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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  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.

  Q124  Chairman: 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 are international.

  Q126  Mr Drew: We could develop a few bigger rivers, I am sure. We dug out the Norfolk Broads!

  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.

  Q127  Chairman: 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."[3] 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—

  Q128  Chairman: Why?

  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.

  Q129  Chairman: 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.[4] The northern city inundations that we saw—Hull and Sheffield in particular—were 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 areas—I do not think that would make a lot of sense—so 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 deliver—I assume in brackets—better 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 areas—no, 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 were—I was going to say on-the-hoof, I suppose I do mean on-the-hoof—actually 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 standing?

  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 organisation—the Environment Agency, and I suspect that they would rather like that task—who 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 the event?

  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.

  Q139  Chairman: 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, Manchester—major 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 companies.

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