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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 369)



  Q360  Mr Gray: I can understand how you can bring in new standards for new housing but surely the big problem actually in many towns—I had flooding in my own area of Wiltshire—is the highways drainage is so inadequate that the existing roads take no account of new building. Do you look at that?

  Mr Jordan: We do but we have to revisit the whole issue about where and how we allow development to go alongside. A lot of the time highway drainage will potentially become inadequate because you have increased run off onto the highway because a new development has been put in which does not cater adequately for its own drainage needs. There is also an issue whereby you can allow adequate water flow on a highway because it can be used as a drain conduit in itself. It is where do you then discharge it? We could go through the whole country, upgrade all the highway drainage and it still has nowhere to go and all you do is move the problem.

  Mr Dudding: I think you are right, there is an issue about existing highways and retro-fitting. I reckon that generally, although not perfectly, PPS25 issued in December 2006 is aimed at the planning side of flooding. It is quite a comprehensive statement whether you are doing a regional plan, a district plan or a planning application. That in principle I think does put quite strong standards on anything new, including anything new with a highway. We are trying to build a road through Witney through the flood plain and the Environment Agency quite rightly are being extremely stringent on what we can do. That will not alter the fact that for the existing highway I think you are right, there is a considerable problem on drainage. We move money around from drainage to potholes to killing weeds and we are moving inadequate money around. We would all recognise that we are not spending as much as we would like on clearing gulleys. I do not think there is any issue about that, but we are doing it with an envelope of money which is not enough and that is the fundamental problem.

  Q361  Dr Strang: A lot of the submissions which the Committee has received refer to the need of maintenance of water courses. How do we ensure that non main rivers are better maintained in the future?

  Mr Dudding: I think there are issues around responsibility but I think you need greater clarity whatever happens. People just about understand after a crisis how the current system works; they certainly cannot understand it ahead of the crisis which is when they should be keeping things in a good state. I think also it is a rural problem as well as an urban. Even in rural areas you will find the same water course will go very rapidly through very different responsibilities. It needs simpler responsibility and it needs someone who is able to crack a bit of a whip to make things happen. I would personally probably give a bit more to the Environment Agency on this. People think they are responsible for flooding, but they are only responsible for part. At a strategic level they probably need more.

  Q362  Dr Strang: What about new duties on these riparian owners to cut back their vegetation?

  Mr Dudding: They have a duty at present. One of the problems if they are conscientious—which might not be common—and try to clear their drains you can actually fall foul of environment considerations and habitat considerations. I think part of getting this right is not just getting responsibilities clarified but also getting the trade off right between flood risk and environmental risk. I have environment in my job title so I am not likely to want to destroy anything, but perhaps that trade off does need looking at especially where water courses are particular crucial to protecting people.

  Mr Jordan: Coming in from a slightly different slant, I totally agree with all of that but I think we have also got to make people more proactive themselves because we are going to face more and more of these different types of crisis and I think we have to equip people to be able to defend their properties and actually educate them in terms of steps they can take so that if these events do happen—and they will—that actually the impact on their lives is not going to be as great as it is at the moment. One of the things we have done in Gloucestershire is that we have just produced the Flood Guide—I am happy to leave copies—which is designed to give people tips as to what they can do themselves, what we can do through the public purse and what are the responsibilities of private landowners and also what we can all do as individuals in our homes.

  Q363  Chairman: Can we focus on this private landowner issue for a second? I do not ever like to suggest that you should have great laws and central powers, but there does not seem to be any mechanism to impose an element of responsibility. If you could say that a riparian home owner does what they are supposed to do then there might be a liability, for example, if their lack of maintenance causes somebody else loss. How do you deal with it? I think, Mr Jordan, you said that this is a very complex area in law. Without going into prescriptive solutions would I surmise from that that you would think that out of the outcome of the inquiries into flooding that we need a good hard look at how you get landlords or landowners to exercise their responsibility over the water courses which are theirs?

  Mr Jordan: Absolutely. The thing to bear in mind is the fact that let us say all the landowners did what they needed to do and they all cleared all their ditches I still think we would then have a fundamental problem because the rivers cannot cope with the volumes of water that we are talking about, so it has to be the whole package. It also has to be the package of: let us clear it from the downstream end and not the upstream end because otherwise we are in danger of just creating even more problems at the moment. To be fair though, there are some really good landowners out there. It is where you get the bits and pieces and it is not a substantial section of ditch and whatever. A simple example is highways. Often the ditch on the side of that road will not actually be part of the highway, it will belong to the landowner adjacent; let us bring it under the highway. It makes it so much simpler. The public would understand it; the landowner would understand it, but it just needs the money to then maintain it.

  Q364  Chairman: The wider issue that comes out of the discussion is that we actually have not had a public debate about what level of flooding we are prepared to accept. You have made the point that there comes a limit to how much all of this good work can prevent being overrun.

  Mr Jordan: Absolutely.

  Q365  Mr Drew: In terms of this issue of riparian ownership, given that like you I am dealing with specific cases where it really does highlight that if an owner either cannot be discovered—as does happen—or really is completely intransient about what work they are prepared to accept and pay for, there must be some power now to really go in there and do the work and worry about how it is going to be paid for afterwards.

  Mr Dudding: I personally think that is right, but I think it is not the whole answer. I can speak from personal experience. I live in a village very close to the Thames which is prone to flood, but the main danger for us is from a water course going into the Thames rather than the Thames. What is quite striking though is the way the parish council can coordinate action among all the small owners and also work with the highways authorities who then get a farmer acting on behalf of everyone and it gets done. I daresay the farmer by mistake might do someone's who is a bit intransient as well. I know just up the road in another village called Kennington which previously got badly flooded. The parish council has worked with the main utilities to clear their drains. Action at a local level is quite important in reinforcing and acting with the big powers which you need as well. The big powers cannot reach everywhere and I think towns and parishes have quite a role in getting that reach and getting things to happen.

  Q366  Paddy Tipping: I think I am right in that district councils have powers to take action.

  Mr Dudding: They have but they are reluctant to use them.

  Q367  David Lepper: Can I just ask about the strategic flood risk assessments? We heard last week from representatives of Sheffield City Council how helpful it was to have had their risk assessment in place. I think Hull, on the other hand, had not completed theirs yet. From what you have been saying from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire this afternoon the impression I have had is that the local authorities, district councils in your areas had completed their strategic flood risk assessments and had them in place. Is that so?

  Mr Dudding: I might not have my knowledge perfect on this, but I think the key is the timing of the local development frameworks which districts are preparing. They are all under new planning legislation, replacing the old local plans with new local development frameworks. In preparing local development frameworks one of the things they need to do is to produce a strategic flood risk assessment; that is one of the key steps in that. People will be at different stages and dependent on that. All will have to do it and we will get more and more experience if it is effective, but I think it is to do with the timing of that government framework not a willingness or unwillingness to do an assessment.

  Q368  David Lepper: Did the completion of a particular district council of their assessments play any part in helping your two authorities in dealing with the problems of the summer?

  Mr Dudding: My own view is that the strategic assessments have a longer term impact. That impact is on the development framework which will affect housing will happen over five, ten, fifteen years ahead. I think the Sheffield case which was quoted quite a bit was actually on an individual planning application rather than a development plan. That had an immediate effect, it was on a proposition which was about to happen, but I think it would work through over time.

  Mr Jordan: I know our timetable in Gloucestershire is spring next year for the adoption of our strategic flood risk assessment plans. Because it is about new development and how things take off, the thing that was robust here for us was the fact that we had an emergency major flood plan and that was a document that took us through this emergency.

  Q369  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for your evidence; it has been very helpful. Thank you also to Gloucestershire for sending us the flood guide; I am keeping it by my bed just in case. I notice, however, it was not on waterproof paper so I had better read it fairly rapidly. Thank you very much indeed for not only your evidence this afternoon but your very helpful written submissions; we will certainly be looking at them very carefully.

  Mr Jordan: I also have a copy of our completed scrutiny inquiry into flooding in Gloucestershire as well. We can get more if you want them, but we will leave that for you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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