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

Memorandum submitted by Gloucestershire County Council (FL 84)


  1.  This is an initial response from Gloucestershire County Council to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee.

  2.  The flooding and associated events experienced in Gloucestershire this summer and in July in particular were both exceptional and dramatic. Indeed, the emergency that quickly unfolded from 20 July was unprecedented in its scale for this county. Not only was this an event of international significance, such was its scale that there were two visits by the Prime Minister and numerous other ministerial visits to see the impact and the effectiveness of the response. The Army, Navy and Royal Air Force were all involved, together with the emergency services, local authorities, Coast Guard and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. Additional resources were brought in from across the United Kingdom and Europe.

  3.  The scale of the devastation is well documented. During the height of the flooding a number of communities were virtually cut off from access, most notably the town of Tewkesbury. The situation was seriously exacerbated by the flooding of the Mythe Water Treatment works operated by Severn Trent, leading to its shutdown and more than 135,000 homes and 7,500 businesses being without any mains water for up to 12 days. It was only on Tuesday 7th August that Severn Trent announced that tap water was safe to drink; some 17 days after the Emergency began.

  4.  In addition the Castlemeads electricity sub station was flooded, resulting in the loss of electricity to 25-48,000 homes for 2 days. The larger sub station at Walham was within 2 feet of flooding, only saved by the rapid deployment of temporary flood defences, its loss would have had a catastrophic impact affecting as many as 500,000 homes.

  5.  During the crisis 40 million bottles of drinking water were distributed and 1300 bowsers were deployed which is believed to be the total number of bowsers in the country. Around 200,000 litres of drinking water had to be delivered direct to hundreds of vulnerable people in their homes.

  6.  Loss of electricity, drinking water and sanitation facilities created major logistical challenges for the agencies dealing with the emergency. More than 5000 homes and other buildings were affected by flood damage. The dislocation of the road and rail network was extensive. At times major roads had to be closed creating huge problems for the agencies dealing with the crisis and people who needed to travel. For example, people living 3 miles west of Gloucester had to drive 50 miles to get into the city when the A40 and A417 were closed by floodwater.

  7.  At the present time the cost of the damage to the highways infrastructure in Gloucestershire is estimated to be as much as £25 million. Hundreds of local businesses have been severely affected by the flooding at one of the most important trading times of the year. It has also had a serious impact on tourism for 2007 with many people cancelling trips or holidays to the county with further major consequences for the local economy.

  8.  The scale of these events raises a number of serious issues and questions for a wide range of government bodies and agencies. The county council is going to use its own scrutiny process to explore some of these issues and seek action to mitigate the impact of future flooding events, in the expectation that they may become more frequent. We would also like to see these issues explored at a national level through the work of the Select Committee. The following questions are some of the initial areas we have identified, but we expect others to emerge during the course of our investigation:

    a.  The July floods, although unprecedented, resulted in the catastrophic failure, or near failure, of critical utilities leaving tens of thousands of homes and businesses without essential services for a protracted period of time. The Emergency highlighted the fact that the main electricity and water installations in Gloucestershire represent single points of failure in the supply system. It is not clear what, if any, specific risk assessments and emergency plans were in place to mitigate any disruption of the supply network. The question is therefore, what steps are being taken to improve the protection of those facilities against future flooding or other events?

    b.  The effectiveness of rivers and critical watercourses to cope with large increases of water is of serious concern. Are rivers maintained as effectively as they should be, for example through dredging, to ensure they can cope with unexpected levels of water? Can other critical watercourses, such as the Horesbere Brook that runs through Longlevens near Gloucester, where properties were flooded in both June and July, really be left to the responsibility of riparian owners to maintain them?

    c.  The effectiveness of large scale, multi-million pound flood defences eg in Cheltenham, needs to be examined to ensure that the defences did the job that they were designed to do.

    d.  How can an effective system be established that ensures land owners take responsibility for dealing with the run off of water from their land, for example through the provision and maintenance of ditches?

    e.  Why is house building continuing to take place in flood plains and how can both the planning system and the agencies have the knowledge and power to influence such building be improved to ensure homes don't get built in areas of risk?

    f.  Why is there a lack of investment in what is widely acknowledged as a largely inadequate and outdated highway drainage system? Why does the government have targets and performance indicators for matters such as road condition, but no such targets for highway drainage?

    g.  What is being invested in the resilience of flood defences in Gloucestershire and how does this compare with what is actually needed to ensure we have the necessary systems and infrastructure for the 21st Century?

    h.  What financial protection is available for the people whose homes and businesses have been devastated by flooding, both to help them get back on their feet, but also with regards to them getting future insurance cover and, indeed, being able to sell their houses if they so wish?

    i.  What has been the social and economic impact of these recent events?

  9.  In addition to these questions, we will be also examining the effectiveness of our emergency management planning and response. We believe the local community and all the services involved in dealing with the emergency were heroic in their efforts, but we also want to learn so we can respond even better in the face of such circumstances in the future.

  10.  We hope that you find this initial contribution useful. Many of these questions have national relevance and don't just apply to Gloucestershire. We would like the opportunity to provide you with further information as our scrutiny process progresses and contribute to the evidence sessions that are expected to take place from 10th October 2007 in order to help ensure that the views of the people of Gloucestershire are heard.

Peter Bungard

Chief Executive, Gloucestershire County Council

September 2007

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