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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 415)



  Q400  Chairman: Thames?

  Mr Collington: My answer is very similar to Severn Trent. We have all of the measures in place that Tony described. We have event management procedures in the company that deal with a range of emergencies and how events are escalated through the company from local level right up to the chief executive. We have mock emergencies that we plan for each year and we engage with the Metropolitan Police and other agencies in planning for major civil contingencies. There is a major event planned for February where we are going to model a scenario of a Thames flood in parts of London. We have all those processes in place.

  Q401  Chairman: It has been suggested to us that the Climate Change Bill should include in it a measure to ensure that all utilities take account of climate change adaptation needs. I get the impression from what both of you have said that you are already there so I would not think that you would need a piece of legislation to help you do what you are already doing.

  Mr Aylard: Absolutely not, but we have no objection to it.

  Chairman: Very diplomatic. Mr Drew?

  Q402  Mr Drew: If we could turn to some specifics—obviously I know a bit about what happened in Gloucestershire as you can imagine and to be honest with you I have not yet read in detail the county's independent report but I have looked at their summary—how do you respond (I did talk to you about this when we met and I was very grateful for you taking me round the Mythe plant) with the benefit of hindsight to the criticism which was advanced on a number of occasions that you were unprepared for the scale of the problem and you took quite a time to gear up? Subsequently I then did receive complimentary remarks made about individual people on the gold command and other lower levels of the command structure.

  Mr Wray: Very straightforwardly we have cooperated through all of this and with the Gloucestershire Scrutiny Committee to a complete degree. It is a very balanced report and they point to the same things that we have seen for ourselves. I think, the sheer scale of this undertaking, and Duncan Jordan earlier on made the comment which I would agree with: if anybody had run the scenario it was unimaginable. However, notwithstanding that, we learned a huge amount about the scale. The second important thing was the whole mobilisation at scale and the gold command structure which I believe worked phenomenally well in a civil emergency of this nature. The benefit of having that structure and the command and control structure—and having all the agencies—was invaluable. We had not previously been involved at a gold level as a Category 2 responder and that is a key issue. Category 2 responders and certainly utilities we believe, now should be, if not Category 1, called to gold command from the outset. Over and above that I think we agree with the lessons and I would simplify them into three major lessons. One, the rather obvious one, the adequacy of flood defences. We have, as I mentioned before, a completely new assessment of risk to deal with and we learned that there are ways of responding and dealing with that very rapidly: flood defences, not only our own but in the broader flood plain. Secondly, the resilience of networks. Thames mentioned re-zoning of networks; we also did that, we were able to re-zone and protect an awful lot of the area but we had a single point of failure in the network. All utility networks have that; that is an endemic issue that we have and that comes back to the issue of what is the level of risk that we are prepared to take and how do we invest smartly to build that resilience? Thirdly was the adequacy of contingency plans. We certainly learned lessons about rehearsing at that scale but also the mutual aid that we had across the industry and the all sector working. I think we have learned some incredibly invaluable lessons that I think should be embedded with the way that we work now. For instance, we learned that despite the fact that we have customer records the people who know customers best on the ground when you are dealing with a large emergency actually are the voluntary sectors—they know where Mrs Smith who is not capable of carrying ten litres lives—and that network is absolutely invaluable.

  Q403  Mr Drew: I want to ask a more general question now so obviously Thames can be part of this. Since Gloucestershire and obviously Sheffield and Hull, to what extent have you now already started to put additional measures in to protect critical infrastructure?

  Mr Smith: Around Mythe, as you know from your local knowledge, we have a barrier around Mythe. We have looked at all of our sites, all of our critical assets and we are working right now on those that we have designated as being at most risk of flooding looking forward rather than looking backwards at past historical records. We have already started that and the temporary engineering work will be in place this side of Christmas.

  Q404  Mr Drew: Give us an idea of how many places we are talking about.

  Mr Smith: We are talking about four or five places.

  Q405  Mr Drew: Even though the Environment Agency said there was something of the order of 40 per cent of critical assets were in flood plain areas.

  Mr Smith: What we have looked at is a combination of flood risk and resilience of our network so we are particularly focussed on those areas where the likelihood of flooding is greatest and the impact on our supply to our customers is greatest.

  Q406  Mr Drew: So what you are saying is that you are going to have to go back and re-evaluate but you are doing the most urgent first.

  Mr Smith: Yes, very much so. As we go forward into our next price review over the next five years that is where we will be bringing in the full engineering design, the thinking and the discussions with our regulators about the cost burdens that the Chairman has already mentioned.

  Q407  Mr Drew: Thames?

  Mr Aylard: Very similar. I mentioned earlier that we are doing a full scale review of the resilience of our assets based on the latest information from the Environment Agency. We have also done a very detailed—as you would expect—lessons learned exercise internally to see what went right and what went wrong on 20 July. Things were complicated for us because in the middle of this our customer centre in Swindon flooded, all the lights went out, all the computers went down so we had to deal with a full scale customer problem as well as the issues with water and waste water.

  Mr Wray: To make one additional point, it is to the broader issue of planning and all of the agencies that have to be involved with that. In the Gloucester event, after the first flooding when we had the alarm for the second flood, we constructed, with phenomenal support, a one kilometre perimeter barrier around that site. It was a huge feat of engineering delivered in just short of 24 hours which gave us an extra four feet of flood protection around that entire site. To do that in normal circumstances would have taken, I believe, a number of years to achieve with the planning consent, with the investigations that have to be carried out before it goes through. That is not a criticism in any way of planning constraints but I think there is a debate to be had about a sense of urgency around protection of critical infrastructure that I think will require an all agency response in the future.

  Q408  Mr Drew: Can I carry on in the same vein in terms of coordination and information. Let us look at what happened in Gloucestershire which is what I know best and is most pertinent. Was there enough information given to you by the statutory agencies all the way down from Floodline information coming from the Environment Agency? If there were weaknesses what were they and how could you improve on that?

  Mr Wray: We have very good systems and contacts with the Environment Agency. We have electronic warnings systems which are manned and we have ways of getting those out to all of our managers. They were in place and working fully and we were getting a constant stream of information down there. What changed for ourselves, the Environment Agency and practically everybody that I have met in the area—and we can see this from the data—was the speed of the rise and the absolute level that the ground water and river levels came to were at a rate and a speed that nobody had previously seen. We were in a position of having regular updates and in the very, very late hours the nature of those indications indicating that it was going to overtop our works was probably late in the day. So the communication was there; it actually worked incredibly well. I think the lesson to be learned is: is there a way of us having better modelling techniques that are more able to indicate rather than the generality of flooding, the more specific location? I think that is where the effort needs to go. The communication lines were open and worked very well.

  Q409  Chairman: Just a point on that, we had some supplementary evidence sent to us by an engineer, a hydrologist, and he said, "Less modelling, more qualified people who understand what is going on on the ground". Are we short of people who can, if you like, bridge the gap between the modelling work but who understand hydrology on the ground to help with the kind of predictive work that you have just been discussing?

  Mr Wray: I think there is absolutely a place for local knowledge and for visibility. Certainly internally we do not rely simply on the warnings that we have got. We have a huge distributed workforce in the network; we have a lot of eyes and ears out there assessing what is going on. I think somebody said earlier on that the broader use of information, certainly local information, would be very helpful.

  Q410  Mr Drew: If I could move on then to what happened post the immediate impact of the flood, if nothing else the word "bowser" in Gloucestershire is one that everybody understands with some trepidation, as you can imagine. Again with the benefit of hindsight how well do you think that supply of water was handled? I think the thing that probably shocked most of us was that there was not a plan B for getting piped water in. You may want to say something about what you have done subsequently, but it was a tremendous episode in the sense that ways were found of getting both drinking water in the form of bottled water but also bowsers to support that. However, should it have happened and can it be prevented?

  Mr Wray: If I can deal with the operation first of all, it was always our intention from day one to make sure that our customers had sufficient water. We did recognise early on that despite what the SEMD plan says about ten litres a day, from the very outset we were not sure that that was going to be enough to meet needs and in fact a better figure, as it turned out when we looked at the statistics after the event, was that customers were needing about 20 litres of water which we did supply. We were clear that we needed bowsers in the street but also bowsers mean that you are carrying large amounts of water, you need the utility of water and therefore we mobilised the bottled water stream. In normal incidents that has never been a problem for us; we have been able to mobilise bowsers and bottled water on a small scale. We were absolutely inundated with the sheer scale of this and it took us about 36 hours to get up and running. I have to say, getting up and running was with the huge help of certainly the army logistical corps with military help and some key supply chain suppliers that we have. What happened there and the key lesson for us is how to run a unique supply chain in that event. The key components for us were that we were good at sourcing; we were good at buying the bottled water; we were good through our colleagues in the rest of the industry in getting hold of bowsers. The logistical help at scale from the military logistical corps was then key in handling the scale of that. The fine points of distribution we learned were really working hand in hand with the local authorities and the voluntary agencies who knew the points of supply. It was of a scale we had never dealt with before and we had to learn very, very quickly which we did and we have a better handle on how to do that in the future.

  Q411  Dr Strang: You referred to the ten litres per person of water you were required to provide, how much of that was supposed to be for cooking and drinking et cetera?

  Mr Wray: Believe it or not ten litres is supposed to be for everything.

  Q412  Dr Strang: I realise that, but is there a rough break down?

  Mr Wray: Not that I am aware of. We got to a frequency of keeping our bowsers full; we got to a frequency of making sure there were about three million litres of bottled water a day. What we could see for static use was that consumers were getting to a level and not being out of stock, having stores of about 20 litres a day.

  Q413  Dr Strang: You are saying that ten litres was unrealistic.

  Mr Wray: I believe ten litres is unrealistic.

  Mr Smith: Certainly for that period of time what we found was that people were taking about ten litres a day of bottled water which we assumed was for drinking and cooking. The bowser water was for flushing the loos, washing and so on. That is how it split out in practice.

  Q414  Dr Strang: So if you had a scale of emergency that forced you down to ten litres a day that would involve very real hardship?

  Mr Wray: We believe it would. From what we could see we believe it would.

  Q415  Dr Strang: To what extent were you using antiseptic wipes or alternatives to water?

  Mr Kane: There were two things that we picked up on in terms of public health issues. One of the real concerns was that as this went on for a long time that flushing the toilet in the house with buckets of water could well lead to blockages close to the house in the local pipeline system. We looked at a couple of things. One of the things that Duncan Jordan mentioned was the provision of wag bags that were shipped in. They could be distributed to the house and used in the house as effectively a chemical toilet with a solid waste disposal route. The good fortune was that we never got to deploy those. We also looked at the alternative of bringing in ranks of portaloos and distributing those around the street. In the end we decided not to do that; gold command decided not to do that. We did provide antiseptic and antiseptic wipes at the same centres that we put the bottled water at so they were distributed along with bottled water.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for your contribution to our inquiry. If, as a result of anything you have said, there are further thoughts that you want to impart to us then we would be very happy to have those in writing. Thank you again for your written evidence.

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