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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2007

MR DUNCAN JORDAN, MR RICHARD DUDDING AND MR DAVE ETHERIDGE

  Q340  Chairman: Duncan?

  Mr Jordan: Pretty much the same in terms of the statutory organisations but the first big difference for us was the military. I do not think that it is an understatement to say that we would not have survived without the military. We had about 250 troops on the ground, those alongside our three emergency services, alongside highway staff and so on. They made all the difference. They meant that we could keep the electrical station dry, effectively, and if that had gone we would have lost power to 500,000 homes. They were also instrumental in supporting us in terms of all of the water distribution systems. The uniqueness, I think, about the military is the fact that they say they need X number of lorries and they turn up. One of the things that would be really helpful on a civil contingency basis for this country is that you need a source of resource. One of the big things we struggled with every time we needed something was where do we go for it. At a local level we can manage because we know the local issues, but it is where you get that resource from. There is one lovely story where, because we had lost water and we had sanitation issues, we found out about something called a wag bag which is basically a portable toilet which is a bag, but they only have them in America. We were trying to facilitate the delivery of these bags from America, whereas actually on the civil basis for the UK, things like that need to be available. Similarly with water bowsers; we had 1300 water bowsers distributed—I think we had virtually the whole of the UK stock—so if there had been another emergency of that type at the same time the country could not have coped. I think something I would recommend to this Committee is that there is something done about that provision of resource. The other big one for us obviously related to this with the private sector was that we were not aware of the risk to the utility plants and to be fair I do not think the work had been done. It certainly had not gone through our local resilience forum in the way that most other things had.

  Q341  Chairman: Why not?

  Mr Jordan: I think it was the case that we had never had a flood event of this nature before. The worst last flooding in Gloucestershire was in 1946. If we had experienced a similar flood again, those sites would not have been at risk. It is the scale of risk and therefore this raises a whole question of at what level do you stop planning your risk? That is a difficult one because you get into all sorts of logistical issues and also cost and economics. That is the bottom line. There had not been on record a flood of that severity.

  Q342  Mr Drew: That is a key point. I was going to go on to look at that, the degree of forward planning that you had engaged with. Jack and I will share our experiences having nuclear installations either on or close to our constituencies and you will both know that there is at least an absolutely top drawer, fully worked through plan where everything is tested and yet when we come to both water treatment plants and substations and distributing power that does not seem to happen, even at a more limited scale. Is that a real lesson to be learned from this experience?

  Mr Jordan: To be fair to the utilities companies, I think they have done reasonable endeavours in terms of their risk analysis. What we were not aware of when we went into that emergency situation was the fact that we had a sole source of water supply and a sole source of electricity supply and there was a built in assumption that you have always got backfeeding on both of those utility supplies which we did not have in Gloucestershire. That is a fundamental weakness which I know is now being addressed by those utility companies in terms of future resilience. Aside from that weakness, it was the fact that it was not brought through the local resilience forum as a key risk area. The other one that I would just like to pick up on is the voluntary and community sector because they were tremendous. You name the sector, they were there. We had search and rescue charities there: RAPID UK, Severn Area Rescue Association, Maritime Volunteers; we had the Red Cross who did a tremendous job in terms of helping us with the vulnerable in the community. People like HM Coastguards and also—this is something that was just raised by colleagues—loads and loads of offers of help, so many in fact that we could not actually coordinate them so we actually had to say to people, "Sorry, our resources are fully occupied at the moment dealing with what we are dealing with; we will get back to you". Over time we have got back to these people and we have been able to take them up on those offers of voluntary help, but at the time it was phenomenal, the overwhelming nature of it.

  Q343  Mr Drew: Does Oxfordshire want to say anything about infrastructure in the sense of have you done any contingency planning at the site of any of these major installations?

  Mr Etheridge: Certainly in terms of the major installations in Oxfordshire the answer to that is yes. To echo my colleague's comments, it is these smaller type pumping stations and the smaller type substations which are dotted here, there and everywhere that we did not actually have a fantastic picture of when we were in the silver control room looking at the flooding footprint. I think certainly that is a lesson learned, that if we have the ability to draw upon a flood footprint which says that in 2007 it happened like this, we are then able to look at what is within that flooding footprint and therefore ensure that that information gets fed into things like the local resilience forums and different agencies' and organisations' plans.

  Q344  Mr Drew: Can I just presume that the Environment Agency did not draw to your attention that this was something that may be in their looking at one in a 100 year flood analysis and so on. This is perhaps something you should have known.

  Mr Dudding: I think we knew where all the utilities were relative to the flood plain. I think we knew experience about previous flooding and dealing with that. We had an electricity substation which we knew was in a flood plain, we knew there were issues about and we had quite a lot of experience of dealing with it and protecting it. Again one of the problems is that flooding is becoming much more dispersed so just looking classically at the map of the flood plain it does not give you all the answers, especially the smaller facilities which might be affected by flash flooding and more localised flooding. There was a change in the nature of the problem.

  Mr Jordan: Just to add to that, the other scenario is that the Environment Agency could rightly say that anything could flood given a certain weather condition event and it what is reasonable and what is expected. I think the latest prognosis on the Gloucestershire event was that it was a one in 300 years storm. Should we be designing everything to be able to cope with a one in 300? I think that is a key question for us now to be asking in relation to climate change: is this going to be a more regular event? In the past, economics wise, it would not have been something you would necessarily design for.

  Q345  Paddy Tipping: Can I ask you about SUDS and what experience you have of them and would it have made any difference in the situation you faced this summer?

  Mr Dudding: Whether it made a big difference I would not like to say. Whether it is important and right is massively yes and it is something which we have given quite a bit of attention to over time, to try to ensure the new housing estates or whatever are built with best drainage and not only in the flood plain. I think it is crucially that that happens absolutely everywhere, not just because everywhere can be flooded by flash flooding but we are learning more and more about the run off from everywhere into the flood plain. It would not necessarily have solved or avoided all the problems but in terms of the future, yes, yes, yes.

  Q346  Paddy Tipping: Who is responsible for SUDS? Who is going to do the maintenance? Who provides the money to put them in?

  Mr Dudding: There is generally a requirement upon the developer so the issues go with the developer; they bear the costs. I think there are issues around maintenance. You might have a better knowledge of the problem than me but I was certainly told of one or two instances in Oxfordshire that did not work quite as they should have worked on the day and there might well be that maintenance issues are one of the future lessons for us. I think the more we go into this, the more solving these problems in future, requires a very, very dispersed responsibility and new ways of bringing those responsibilities together to make sure they happen, and that is part of it.

  Q347  Paddy Tipping: That is interesting, is it not, the notion that the developer, who will disappear, is responsible for maintenance? Is there not an argument that the water and sewerage utility should take them on?

  Mr Dudding: My own view is that in a number of respects—SUDS is only one—there are responsibilities which presently fall on individual landowners, developers, owners, which probably are not realistically being carried out fully by them and given the dispersed nature of flooding which could happen anywhere we are going to have to find new ways of either changing responsibilities or making sure those responsibilities happen. I think that rises over a whole range of things. The river flooding (fluvial) in Oxfordshire was historically only a 1 in every 30 years event, whilst the rainfall flooding (pluvial) was nearer 1 in every 500 years. The increased risk of pluvial flooding, potentially covering a much wider geographical range, means we have to build into having that dispersed responsibility to handle maintenance over a much wider area than the flood plain. I think it requires new ways of doing it.

  Q348  Chairman: Have you had any feedback at all about the work of the national SUDS working group?

  Mr Dudding: I suspect—and I should know—that we have contributed to it because we have been quite active in it. I am afraid I cannot help you more on that.

  Q349  Chairman: I am delighted about that because this is another of these Making Space for Water things. The Government say they acknowledge the valuable work of this august body of SUDS persons and that they will continue to work with the group, building on what has been achieved so far. It obviously has not quite reached Oxfordshire yet?

  Mr Dudding: It has reached Oxfordshire; we have been very much part of it. We pride ourselves in actually working at national level on these issues. We have been quite active in this.

  Q350  Chairman: If you have been part of it, what has it contributed to what you are doing in Oxfordshire?

  Mr Dudding: It is producing best practice guidance. To take a little example—it is little but I will still give it as it something that makes a difference—an increasing number of people are paving over their front gardens. That has a significant impact on run off and cumulatively it is quite a big problem. Anyone in Oxfordshire who wants to apply for a dropped kerb so they can drive their car into their front garden, they will receive quite full guidance on how to actually avoid paving over their garden in a way which causes drainage problems. That is a small practical thing but quite a significant one.

  Q351  Chairman: Does that apply in Gloucestershire?

  Mr Jordan: It does in terms of looking at the effect of run off and so on.

  Q352  Chairman: One of the bits of evidence that one member of Parliament put to us about Sheffield was about the state of the moorland, for example, around the city. They were commenting on the fact that eventually that became full of water so it could not be a SUD, it could not be sustainable, it could not absorb any more. Somebody else made an observation about heavy sheep crushing down the grazing area and suddenly you discover that what might be sustainable soakaways is a more complex subject. I just wondered if, in the light of this, there was any counting or evaluation now taking place of the potential for developing this type of arrangement and, if you were embarking on that, were you yet in a position to draw any conclusions about it? Obviously it affects the whole question of spatial planning.

  Mr Jordan: I do not know the answer to that from Gloucestershire's perspective.

  Q353  Mr Drew: One of the issues in my constituency is the degree to which you try to pre-empt the threat of flooding by looking at places where you can make a balance, in towns where you may be able to hold water so that it prevents that water from flooding down into the more urbanised area where it causes enormous problems. Is this an active discussion in your local authorities? To what extend do you have the powers to do something about it? Clearly you have to work with the Environment Agency and potentially the water companies, but is this something you can engage with and should be engaging in?

  Mr Dudding: If I could take that in two parts, the Environment Agency with ourselves and districts and others are carrying out a series of studies—there are 15 I think in the Thames western area of which we are part—looking at catchments, what actually happened there, what caused it to happen, what some of the micro-engineering solutions are around that and in doing so getting a lot of local knowledge because people tend to know locally how it floods and why. They are trying to develop from that some local small solutions alongside the bigger ones which people are calling for. It varies area by area, but I think some of the issues around the smaller tributaries and brooks and drainage and where there is knowledge around them there are local things which can be done. I think there is an extent to which we will always be referring to last time's problem, but it will be different next time, but I think those local studies by the Agency are quite important. The first one was published in Abingdon last Friday and I think the follow-up around that will raise issues about the way the organisers are able to do these things because the recommendations will effectively range from the main river (which is the Environment Agency's responsibility), to local rivers (which is the riparian owner's responsibility), to highways, to the responsibilities of the utilities. I think again it is in that follow through from that that we might need some new ways of making things happen.

  Q354  Paddy Tipping: Moving to highway maintenance and highway drainage, there has been a lot of pressure on local authorities, how much do you spend on highway drainage and maintenance. Given the scale of flooding in urban areas the present system simply cannot cope and needs renewing and enlarging. There is a big cost to that, is there not?

  Mr Jordan: It is a classic area because up until now drainage has not been a priority. All of the government indicators, all of the government allocation of funding is for improvement of road network and not for drainage. So straightaway you have a head-on issue there in terms of where is the funding going to come from to improve drainage systems. For somewhere like Gloucestershire we probably spend at least half a million pounds a year maintaining drains but there is not a budget for new drainage; new drainage goes in as and when we build a new road or we do an upgraded system to an existing road. On the issue of scale of drains again this comes back to what are we designing for? If we take a normal housing estate that is probably designed for a one in 20 weather event.

  Q355  Chairman: Who defines the design specifications?

  Mr Jordan: This is based on best practice guidance nationally so this is something coming through the whole planning system; it is built through what developers are and are not allowed to do alongside what is needed from a highways design perspective. One of the debates that we are having at the moment through joint working arrangements is do we, as local planning authorities, actually want to up those standards now? The question is, if we do, what do we want to up them to? Is it a one in 100? Is it a one in 300? Again this has to come back to risk versus to cost and practical delivery. To be fair the systems we have in place at the moment are there because historically they were adequate, which clearly they are not now in terms of climate change.

  Q356  Paddy Tipping: So you would appreciate some national guidance on that.

  Mr Jordan: I think it has to be because I think it has to be there for house builders as well. If you look at the pressures that local authorities are under with all of the regional housing allocations that are required, the first thing that a developer is going to do is to say, "I don't have to meet those standards" because it is cutting directly into their profit margins. So yes, I think there needs to be national guidance on this and I think there needs to be a set standard. That standard could vary for different scenarios, for example if you are building on the top of a hill you do not need to meet the same requirements, but where you have risk of flooding—bearing in mind there is still the main requirement on us to allow housing development in flood plain areas—there has to be better infrastructure from day one on those sites.

  Q357  Paddy Tipping: That is for the new housing; what about retro-fitting?

  Mr Jordan: On the retro-fit one of the things that we have is a multi-agency review of all 300 of our flood sites going on at the moment. I know what that will come up with. At best there will be some easy fixes but for most of those there is going to be major investment required. Again I will come back to: where does that come from? Not only major investment, but this issue that Richard was talking about in terms of enforcement because a lot of this will come back to riparian ownership because even in housing estates you will be amazed at how much of the drainage system is owned by the house owner and is not part of a communal or district system. I think we need to change the statute in this country as to who is responsible and then put the resources there to match it.

  Q358  Paddy Tipping: Riparian owners is a bit of a medieval phrase, working in rural areas where there are big land owners. In urban areas, as you say, it becomes fragmented very quickly. What are you suggesting in its place?

  Mr Jordan: I think it is an old expression because it is an antiquated system. If I am honest I have had lawyers pore over it to try to give me some guidance as to where my powers are and it is an absolute nightmare. I think there has to be a power and again I was speaking to Richard about this earlier and we slightly differ on this. I would put a power with local authorities—top level local authorities so that would be unitary or county level only—to take responsibility for let us call it all localised drainage and then leave the main rivers with the Environment Agency. Within that I think there has to be recognised that the local authority needs funding to enforce those powers and to be able to go in and do work itself even though by law it is not responsible, and then recharge the landowner. That would be my approach.

  Q359  Paddy Tipping: You have to be able to identify the landowner.

  Mr Jordan: You have, but in most cases you can nail it down. If you cannot then perhaps the public purse should be able to support that.


 
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