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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  Q140  Chairman: The Environment Agency seem to have gone out of their way to say, "Urban is not us".

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: Well, it is not.

  Q141  Chairman: No, and that is why I am saying that you are now immediately loading the responsibility for this flood risk assessment in an urban environment under the Environment Agency whilst they are busy saying, "Urban ain't us"?

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: It is not that, but you could change that if you wanted to. "You", collectively, could change that if you wanted to. If you wanted to say through Parliament that the Environment Agency was responsible for sewer-related flooding, no doubt it would be quite difficult in drafting terms to say what is a sewer and what is a river bed, that it is a different matter. You could do that, but currently it is not the Environment Agency's responsibility to worry about urban flooding generated by inadequate sewerage.

  Q142  Mr Williams: The Government will be spending round about £600 million on flood risk management or flood prevention this year. In the Foresight Report in 2004 the figure recommended was about one billion pounds, and that was a figure that was repeated in a report that this Committee produced about a year or so ago. The Government is now saying it is going to increase its expenditure to about £800 million. Perhaps you could tell us where this one billion figure came from and how it was calculated? How was it derived?

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: Well, it was not calculated in any very sophisticated way, because the Foresight Report did not look in that level of detail at exactly what the level of spend might be in any catchment in any one year. The Foresight Report said that it looks to be that there is a growing problem in this country, driven by climate change, which is having some effect, and societal change, which is having a big effect, and it modelled what flood damage might be in 2080 and said, "My goodness, we have got a problem here." Under any scenario, even the most benign scenario, flood damage was due to rise twofold and under some scenarios it was due to rise 20-fold, and if you compound that up over an 80-year period, you will find it comes to some large sums. A relatively small amount of investigation was done to say: what might be the level of expenditure which we could anticipate that would hold the line on that rather benign scenario of perhaps doubling flood damage over that period of 80 years, and it came up with something in the order of £975,000, and we thought that was far too precise, so let us call it a billion. The Foresight Report was done at that scale of analysis. It was not up to the Foresight Report to say: is it 975 or is it 980? It was not that kind of exercise. So it came up with that figure, which actually matched their analysis of what the flood damage potential on an annual basis was now, and it said, if we are a suffering that kind of flood damage now we probably ought to spend the equivalent sort of sum mitigating that damage in the future.

  Q143  Mr Williams: The Association of British Insurers has said that the Government has failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation and they have plucked out the billion pound figure as well. Are their calculations based on anything more than just wishing to get as much flood protection as possible in order to protect their industry, or have they got some other calculation up their sleeve?

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: I doubt it.

  Professor Wheater: I think there is an issue of what is an acceptable level of risk and that the situation across the UK is quite patchy, so for example Carlisle was flooded, as you know, with £450 million worth of damage and a couple of deaths. Part of that city was protected just to a one-in-20 level and part to a one-in-70. In fact it was a one-in-150 event that they were hit with. It seems to me that there are areas where the level of protection is probably not one that most people would be happy with. We are moving into an increasingly risk-averse society and even if you have a one-in-100 level of protection that means that within a lifetime there is a 50/50 chance that you are going to have that, so there is a rather difficult, ultimately political, question as to what is acceptable in terms of the risk of flooding.

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: One point I would like to make is if you look at the project investment appraisal process that the Agency and Defra operate, you will find that the average benefit to cost ratio for flood and coastal erosion management projects is something like six to one, so you spend £1 and get £6 back. This is very, very high internationally; in fact it is astronomically high in relation to the kind of investment that the World Bank would be interested in, but it is high even in this country and therefore, if you like, that supports the case of the Environment Agency in saying there is a queue of projects that cannot be done because of funding shortages, and it is demonstrated by this very high level of benefits to costs. I am working on projects where the benefit to cost ratio is five to one and we cannot get it through the process because the Defra score, which is designed to match the funds available to the projects coming forward, simply is working at an even higher level.

  Q144  Mr Williams: The calculation to get to £1 billion, or whatever, does that take into consideration just the traditional river and coastal flood protection or does it take into account the type of urban flooding that we have seen?

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: No it does not. That is just the Agency which is to do with rivers and coasts.

  Q145  Mr Williams: And if we were investing at that level, would there come a time when the level of investment could decline because we would have achieved what was thought to be a suitable risk?

  Professor Wheater: I do not think I can give a very informed answer to that because I am not really sufficiently on top of the costs, but clearly we do expect flood risk to increase with climate change and we do need to be aware that to provide the current level of protection in future climate is going to cost money just to stand still in terms of risk.

  Q146  Mr Williams: So the schemes that you are doing would give a return of £5 to £1 invested. If we were getting towards the £1 billion, would many more of those schemes achieve the Defra requirements?

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: Yes, absolutely.

  Q147  Lynne Jones: Could I ask Professor Wheater if you could explain the research base into flood risk management and how it is funded?

  Professor Wheater: Well, I guess there are three main areas of funding and two that are particularly important, so first of all MAFF and now Defra in conjunction with the Environment Agency have a research and development programme in the area of flood and coastal defence and that, I think we worked out, has a budget of the order of £2.5 million, which might sound a lot but compared to the annual spend is fairly pitiful actually.

  Lynne Jones: Is it pitiful compared with the annual spend or pitiful compared to the job it needs to do, because they are different things?

  Q148  Chairman: Or both?

  Professor Wheater: It is certainly pitiful in comparison with the annual spend, and I think there could be a lot of benefit from an increase in resources in that area. There are notable successes from that programme. The UK is fairly unique in having a national, integrated technical base of tools for flood design, and that was funded through MAFF and then more recently through Defra. There is a recognition that we need to change the kind of modelling tools that we work with to handle climate change, and this programme has been funding research which has delivered products that can contribute to that. That programme has been re-organised over the last three or four years, mainly following a review that Edmund carried out. It has become more thematic, it has become more inclusive, and in some areas it has, I think, done a very good job in looking strategically at what the research needs are and trying to map out the task, but it tends to shy away from the kind of fundamental research base that is needed, and so for that we turn to the research councils, and I guess particularly the Natural Environment Research Council, although Engineering and Physical Sciences has also been very active and over the years they have funded research in this area. Most recently there has been a really interesting development because actually the two sides have got together and there is an integrated programme which is led by one of the research councils—EPSRC—but co-funded by the Environment Agency and Defra and the Scottish Executive and Northern Ireland Rivers and UK Water Industry Research, and that is aiming to address some strategic issues and trying to satisfy all its masters by having some short-term benefits that the Environment Agency and Defra can latch on to, and of course the longer term benefits of improved techniques looking out to five or ten years hence.

  Q149  Lynne Jones: What about European funding?

  Professor Wheater: The third strand is European funding and there are some substantial European projects. I am not personally involved in those. European funding, in my experience, is somewhat idiosyncratic. You can have a very good proposal and not win funding and you can have a rather poor proposal and win funding. It requires a lot of investment of effort in Brussels.

  Q150  Lynne Jones: Would you care to suggest why that might be? Is that because of doling out the shares to the different Member States or just pure poor appraisal of budgets?

  Professor Wheater: A bit of both I think.

  Q151  Lynne Jones: Okay and you referred to—

  Professor Wheater: Just to follow that up there are some substantial resources available within the EU for flood research and UK organisations are active in that area.

  Q152  Lynne Jones: Tapping into it?

  Professor Wheater: And the research is linked, but in fact the programme that is put together through the EPSRC was originally funded for £5.6 million and we expect that there will be a £7 million extension, and that is quite a large funding in comparison with the European Union resource.

  Q153  Lynne Jones: I get the impression that you are not concerned then about the integration of the programme? You referred to this new integration under the EPSRC, so you are not worried about any overlap or omissions? You think that that is now sorted?

  Professor Wheater: I think that having an integrated programme with a consortium of funders is a very important step and it is relatively unusual within the UK research funding arena. That does not mean to say that there is not a lot of work to do and that all the work that needs to be done is being done to the level that one would like, because there are a lot of tasks and money has to be distributed.

  Q154  Lynne Jones: And yet earlier I think you said that we were disbanding centres of expertise.

  Professor Penning-Rowsell: That was Environment Agency centres, the national centres.

  Professor Wheater: The Environment Agency at one point set up particular areas of expertise and then it changed its organisational structure. That is a separate point.

  Q155  Lynne Jones: I am a bit confused as to whether we have now got a satisfactory structure or not.

  Professor Wheater: Within the research community of universities and research institutions, both within the research council arena and outside, I think there is very good integration at a national level. There are a lot of joint programmes and increasingly there is a community of expertise being developed within that and a framework of collaboration. For example, I am running work at the moment looking at agriculture and flooding in Wales in terms of run-off but within this framework we have people who are interested in sediments, so we now talk to them and understand their issues, and in fact are working together on models that actually reproduce the flow of water and the associated issues of sediment transport. The programme has also very much recognised the importance of social science, so again in the work that we do with farmers we use input from the social scientists to help us communicate, learn from the farmers what they know, and also what they need in terms of additional support, and Edmund has been working very much in that area with his colleagues in the rural and also the urban environment. Thus disciplines are being brought together for the first time within this programme and having a substantial programme does encourage people to work together.

  Q156  Lynne Jones: And so is the problem then about conversion of the research findings into practice—going back to this business about disbanding of centres of expertise?

  Professor Wheater: I did once sit on an Environment Agency R&D committee that looked at a long list of projects that they had funded and tried to work out how many had actually been successfully translated into practice, and it was a small number. That is very much an issue of concern to this flood risk management research consortium, which has end users who are really very keen to see products that are deliverable. There is generically a bit of a gap in that universities on the whole are funded to do research and graded through a research assessment exercise which is all to do with the quality of their published output, and what the UK actually needs is products that can be delivered into practice, and so there is a bit of a funding gap. I think that is increasingly being recognised and to some extent facilitated, but it is important to realise that there is a big step between producing research results and producing a tool that engineers can use in design, and that is a step which is not always easy to fund. However, I think Defra and the Agency are aware of those issues and are very keen to promote delivery of products that are useful.

  Q157  Lynne Jones: Could I ask you how severe is the shortage of trained flood risk management specialists in this country?

  Professor Wheater: I think it is very worrying. I can only speak from my own experience. I run a post-graduate training programme in this area and there is huge demand from industry for technically qualified, numerate graduates for consultants, for the Environment Agency and for research organisations, and yet we find it difficult to fill places on our Masters programme and we have research studentships for collaborative work with the Environment Agency currently unfilled because we do not have suitable candidates with the right qualities. When we come to staff research programmes for Defra and the Environment Agency, we need to appoint people with PhDs in relevant areas and we find none in the UK; we have to go to Greece and China and Italy and places like that, so my personal experience is that it is a big issue. It really relates to numeracy. If we go back 20 years then there was a stream of people coming through our programme from a range of backgrounds—engineering, the hard sciences and also geography. Nowadays people coming from the softer science background do not have the mathematical skills to cope with the methods that they need to use in practice, so there are a lot of people being produced who are effective managers but they cannot necessarily use the development tools and do the quantitative analysis to solve the problems.

  Q158  Lynne Jones: Have you got any suggestions as to what could be done about that?

  Professor Wheater: It really goes back to maths in schools.

  Q159  Lynne Jones: Back to more people doing maths at school and wanting to go on and do maths and physical sciences at university?

  Professor Wheater: Yes.

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