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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  Q320  Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. For members of the public who were expecting to see us begin our evidence session this afternoon with the Chief Constable and the Assistant Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, I am sorry to have to tell you that due to problems in getting here the Chief Constable, as you can see, is not in attendance, which is very disappointing. He has sent his apologies to the Committee but I gather that the traffic en route has been such that he has not been able to find his way from beyond Chiswick; that is as far as he has got. He was under some pressure to return for an appointment so I am afraid he has had to send his apologies and the Committee will do its best to try to find some way of talking to the police from Gloucester in due course, but they have actually sent some very helpful information.[2] I think Mr Drew is volunteering to go personally and interview the Chief Constable. So we have decided to press the fast forward button and colleagues from Gloucestershire County Council have very kindly managed to get themselves here early for which we are very grateful. Can I formally introduce Mr Duncan Jordan, the Group Director for the Environment from the County Council. From Oxfordshire—we are also very grateful to you for coming early—we have Mr Richard Dudding, the Director for Environment and Economy and Mr Dave Etheridge who is the Assistant Chief Fire Officer for the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. I think you were to have been joined by your Chief Executive but for some reason she has not been able to make it here. If we here a story about a fast car with a chief constable and a chief executive in it we will know what has happened. Let us begin at the beginning with the responsibilities of local authorities in dealing with major events such as flooding. You are Category 1 responders under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and that Act is supposed to set out clear lines of roles and responsibilities for those who are involved in emergency preparations. I think it would be quite useful if the two authorities could briefly describe what you understand your responsibilities are under the different pieces of legislation. If there is one thing that is quite clear, this is a complex area—a complex web of responsibilities—wherever water and flooding matters are concerned and I think for our greater understanding if you could describe those roles and responsibilities and refer to the different pieces of legislation that would be a very good thing. The second thing you might turn your minds to is giving us some commentary as to how you think the different agencies with a responsibility to deal with flooding issues actually cooperated during the summer's incidents. Mr Dudding, you look very enthusiastic to start so I am going to pick on you and ask you to start.

  Mr Dudding: What I was going to suggest was that for the issues to do with immediate emergency and resilience if Dave spoke to those. There are also issues about responsibility when it comes to alleviating a flooding, making sure it does not happen so when it gets onto that I would happy to speak myself. I think on the immediate emergency that is Dave's role.

  Mr Etheridge: As a Category 1 responder under the Civil Contingencies Act the Emergency Planning side of Oxfordshire County Council has played a very strong hand in terms of leading through the local resilience forums, working with district councils in order to ascertain a plan which can be used and utilised for instances such as flooding. If there is a need to evacuate an area then there are local plans which tie in with local district councils which then can tie in with the county plans in terms of emergency planning. The Fire and Rescue Service sits within the local resilience forums and has a part to play in the creation of those plans. We also have training responsibilities within the Civil Contingencies Act as well to ensure that we are aware of those plans and are able to discharge those when we need to. I think it is fair to say that certainly within the floods in Oxfordshire the local emergency plans that came up through the districts did tie in very nicely with the county plans and certainly the fire service, when we were involved at both the silver and gold levels, at instigating those plans were very comfortable with the way they were executed within our fire authority.

  Q321  Chairman: A lot has been made of gold and silver commands—gold appears to be what is described as strategic and silver appears to be operational—could you just describe for the Committee what the difference is between the two?

  Mr Etheridge: Certainly. It is very difficult to actually come up with a set definition of what gold is and what silver is because it really depends on the incident that you are dealing with. If you specifically look at the floods the gold responsibility was very much looking at the forward planning side of things, making sure that we were able to look at any lessons learned and start to hand them over to Berkshire as the bore of water, for example, which went through the county. Gold was very much looking at instigating very early the Recovery Working Group side. Silver, which I headed up, was based at the Thames Valley Police at Abingdon Silver Suite. That was a multi-agency response which was very much making sure that we could do practical things there and then to make a difference to the people affected by the flooding. That does not meant that we did not do things that were three hours ahead, six hours ahead, nine hours ahead, twelve hours ahead because every meeting that we had we were looking at things that would slide into those timescales. Certainly the areas that gold also looked at were things like, for example, ensuring that the fire service could call upon the national assets that had come from the New Dimension programme.

  Q322  Chairman: What is the New Dimension programme?

  Mr Etheridge: The New Dimension programme is where the Communities and Local Government actually purchased some high volume pumps, 44 pumps which are now situated all over the UK. If Oxfordshire, which actually does house one, wish to call on additional ones that is done through a national control centre that is based up in West Yorkshire. Gold's role within that would be to make contact with those to be able to draw down those resources and then for me to be able to feed up from silver a picture of what is going on in the county all the while, particularly concerning things like infrastructure. I was able to provide them with information that we did not have any hospitals taken out, that we were fairly comfortable with our electrical substations, with our water treatment works; there were no schools that seemed to be adversely affected; we did not seem to have any roads that were being washed away—we had some that were impassable—and I was able to feed that information up from silver so that the gold could then look at the strategic long term issue of both the resilience of the county and business continuity but also early instigation of the Recovery Working Group.

  Q323  Chairman: I am not getting any message, Mr Etheridge, from you that there were any difficulties in the cooperation between all of the different agencies. Is that a fair assumption?

  Mr Etheridge: I have been in the fire service for 22 years and I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I have never experienced such a one-team approach to a major incident like we had in Oxfordshire.

  Q324  Chairman: Is that because you followed the strictures of the law and the policy in this area of regularly up-dating your civil contingency plans in a way that people were used to working together before the emergency came?

  Mr Etheridge: Yes. Certainly within Thames Valley Police we have had a programme of gold, silver and bronze level training over the last two to three years and that paid dividends when it came to the floods. We were aware of what different agencies could do, but what we also came together as was as one team, for example, when we were looking at the flooding footprints within the county we were predicting where the flooding could be. I would like to pay tribute to Thames Valley Police because I worked very closely with Thames Valley Police, our fire fighters and their police constables worked shoulder to shoulder, pro-actively knocking on doors of houses that we suspected would be flooded and as a result of that the level of insurance cost, I would imagine, was significantly reduced by that action.

  Q325  Chairman: Where were the problems?

  Mr Etheridge: I think the timely information that could be fed into the silver control room was an issue. I think the situation concerning the Environment Agency not monitoring tributaries was a significant factor for us. The River Thames is monitored but the tributaries were not and because we had a huge amount of rain that fell over a very large area the tributaries very quickly burst their banks. What that meant was that we had lots of localised flooding rather than global flooding similar to Gloucestershire—we were a very different incident to Gloucestershire—but we had a lot of localised flooding where the tributaries burst their banks. Indeed, it was some 48 to 72 hours later that the River Thames level started to come up as those tributaries start to feed in. If we could have had some information concerning the behaviour of the tributaries and certainly if now, in hindsight, we could have flood plans and flood footprints associated with how those tributaries behaved, that would make a significant difference to any future incident.

  Q326  Chairman: Mr Dudding, do you want to add anything to that?

  Mr Dudding: Just on the cooperation, I would like to reinforce what David said. We went through three phases, one was the immediate emergency being coordinated by gold and silver. Overlapping with that we had a recovery phase when we were trying to work out how to deal with the clean up, how to get people who had been evacuated back in their homes. I have never known so many agencies that might normally have their differences between them not having them at all. This is also so in what is known as the third phase—which for me is the most important phase which I will come back to later on—which is longer term planning to remove the risks or reduce the risks of flooding. I think there are issues about the nature of the flooding being very dispersed in Oxfordshire, largely pluvial rather than fluvial. There are quite big lessons about how we handle that so if you do want to ask some questions later on I think there are some big issues about the nature and the way we organise for what we have discovered is quite a different type of flooding to some of the classical patterns which we were used to before. I am happy to come in later on on that.

  Q327  Chairman: Mr Jordan?

  Mr Jordan: To pick up on a few extra points from my perspective I also sat on the gold command myself at Gloucestershire so I had first hand experience of how that was working. We had the same experience as Oxfordshire, loads of cooperation, the agencies came together. The thing that held it together, though, as far I was concerned—and I was fairly new to this area—was the strength of the emergency planning work that had been done before: the robustness of those plans, the robustness of the local resilience forum insofar as it had looked at umpteen scenarios of different risks, different eventualities and that kept it together. Bearing in mind how many agencies came into this—I think we had over 35 different agencies around that gold command table—if that framework had not been so strong and had not been in place then those who were not used to working in that way it would have fallen apart, which it clearly did not. The level of cooperation again was tremendous throughout the whole system. An area that I would say where we know we need to improve on is the general one of communication. That was between different tiers, particularly the county council with the district councils. Normally in an emergency situation we would have potentially one district involved and therefore communications are straightforward; in this scenario we had five districts in Gloucestershire all affected at the same time. Not only were they all affected at the same time, but all in different ways. We had things like the closure of the M5, the M50; we had flash flooding in the Cotswolds; two days later we were in the situation where we had river flooding through Tewkesbury and down the Severn. Later on from that we had major swathes of the area affected by loss of electricity and then followed up by loss of water.

  Q328  Chairman: You said that one of the things that had impressed you was the robustness of the system and the things you did together. In terms of what you planned for, had you actually dealt with something as complex as you have just described to us?

  Mr Jordan: That is a really interesting question because I posed that to our head of emergency planning and he basically said to me, "If I had put something as complex as this on the table everybody would have laughed at me and said that this was not a realistic scenario and therefore we do not consider this to be a realistic training exercise". It really was a case of: What is the next problem that we are going to be facing? And how much wider spread can the issues be that we are facing at the moment? Our plans were great, the framework stood, people adapted and responded to what they needed to do. What we now know is that we can take those plans and we can develop them further based on our latest experiences, but I think there is only so much you could realistically plan for.

  Q329  Chairman: One final point before I hand over to David Drew, the Government in March 2005 published its first response to the Making Space for Water consultation document. Did anything come out of that exercise which has beneficially or adversely affected what your two respective local authorities are now doing or did from 2005 onwards to prepare for this type of contingency?

  Mr Jordan: I am not familiar with this document so I cannot comment.

  Q330  Chairman: This was a document which was published initially in 2004 under Taking Forward a New Government Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management.

  Mr Jordan: I am certainly aware that we have our major flood emergency plans in place and we would tie those up with the Environment Agency's local flood warning system.

  Q331  Lynne Jones: Could I ask you a question we were going to ask the Chief Constable, which is how satisfied were you with the rainfall forecasting and flood warnings that you received before the event, the performance of the Environment Agency? We have had Mr Etheridge commenting but in a way they had not got that information to pass on. How satisfied are you that the information that they did have or should have had was passed on in a timely manner?

  Mr Jordan: Certainly the Environment Agency played a full part in the whole emergency operation for us. I would not knock the colleagues that work around that table. I think there is a limitation which comes down to resources and the level of profiling and forward alert they can give us is only as good as the sophisticated models that they have available at their disposal. With what they have I think they did a very good job.

  Q332  Lynne Jones: What about the Met Office?

  Mr Jordan: Again the Environment Agency, as I understand it, had really good links with the Met Office and they were given the information they needed.

  Q333  Lynne Jones: The Chief Constable was quite critical about the information.

  Mr Jordan: From my experience at the actual gold session the criticism was about not being able to give a clear picture, one hundred per cent, what is going to happen and I have yet to find anyone that can do that with weather. I think what could have been slightly better was the map modelling.

  Q334  Mr Drew: Moving onto the emergency itself, obviously I have a particular knowledge about Gloucestershire as Duncan knows and I went to some of the briefings so I did hear from the Oxfordshire MPs about what was happening during the actual period of time and obviously in the immediate post-flooding recovering period. What I would like to do is look at the four categorisations of organisation which to me are statutory, military (which obviously were brought into Gloucestershire; I do not know if you had much military support in Oxfordshire), private sector and lastly the voluntary sector (I know in Gloucestershire's case that was invaluable). I just wonder what your views were very broadly—this is not a detailed analysis—on how those four sectors worked during the immediate emergency and perhaps just shortly afterwards. Perhaps we could start with Oxfordshire.

  Mr Etheridge: Just to go back to the local resilience forum plans, part of the local resilience forum plans are to draw upon the third sector/voluntary sector for incidents like this. That certainly was achieved, particularly when gold made the call for the county centre to be opened because the districts could no longer cope with the volume that was coming through. There is a third voluntary sector element in that which worked very, very well. What I will say, though, in terms of lessons learned was that because of the longevity of this particular incident we need to ensure that there is the sustainability of that third sector in supporting an incident like this. Certainly from the fire and rescue service point of view we were able to draw upon assets from other fire authorities that were dealt with through that national emergency control centre from West Yorkshire. We had high volume pumps come to us from London; we had some swift water rescue teams come to us from Essex and Lincolnshire and then we worked with some charities such as the RSPCA who also sent their swift water rescue team to us.

  Q335  Mr Gray: And Wiltshire also, if you do not mind me interrupting. Chippenham Fire Station too, if I may say so.

  Mr Etheridge: Right, thank you. What I will say is that we were absolutely inundated with offers of assistance and one thing that we needed to do was to filter out what we needed. We actually had at one point an offer of hovercrafts from Italy and, believe it or not, my colleague in Gloucestershire benefited from them; we turned them down and they went to Gloucestershire. Whereas we thought initially it might be a wind-up, it actually turned out to be absolutely factual. To be quite honest with you, from a military point of view Oxfordshire had a very light touch with the military. We did not declare a major incident within Oxfordshire; we did actually contact the military at one point purely and simply for the provision of sand bags. They assisted in the sand bag provision; they did not actually assist in any operations to do with any fire and rescue or water rescue activity. We had a light touch with the military. That said, we did actually have two fire stations that flooded, one was in Abingdon and as a result of that we decamped the fire station to Dalton Barracks which is also in Abingdon and the military were extremely supportive and welcoming in that process.

  Q336  Mr Drew: And the private sector? Water, electricity?

  Mr Etheridge: Certainly through the silver control side of things we had regular meetings with the power companies and with Thames Water. They were able to confirm for us the positions of all of their substations, pumping stations et cetera. We were then able to work with the flooding footprint diagrams that we had to see whether they would be at risk. From that we came up with some control measures just for one particular substation in Oxford. Again we had a very different picture compared to our colleagues in Gloucestershire to do with the utilities in the private sector.

  Q337  Chairman: Mr Dudding, do you want to add anything to that?

  Mr Dudding: I would like to say one thing. It has not come up and I think it is worth reinforcing. The sheer scale of this—it is a scale for all the agencies and not a point about any particular agency—raised issues about one or two organisations at some stage being close to being overwhelmed. Those who were not close to being overwhelmed nevertheless had real issues of fatigue. The adrenalin worked very effectively for a while but I think we all learned some lessons. You need to rotate staff and that means you need to have enough people to rotate and it means you need enough people to cross all the sectors who can rotate as well. There are real lessons for us in having trained people who you can rotate. I think that arose, for instance, in the voluntary sector; it certainly arose in our own staff as well. It works for about 48 hours and it is fine but after that people start dropping.

  Q338  Lynne Jones: Are there any issues about apportionment of costs when you said you had help with other organisations?

  Mr Etheridge: All of the agencies that supported us did invoices for their time. Those invoices then have gone into a cost centre within the county council so from a fire service point of view we are able to identify the additional costs of support and for the fire service that sits at about half a million pounds.

  Q339  Lynne Jones: Did you have to pay for the hovercrafts?

  Mr Jordan: Not so far but we are keeping quiet about that.

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