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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 524 - 539)

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2007

MR RICHARD BENYON MP, RT HON DAVID CURRY MP, MARTIN HORWOOD MP, MR LAURENCE ROBERTSON MP AND MS ANGELA C SMITH MP

  Q524  Chairman: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to a further evidence session in the Committee's inquiry into flooding. Between now and whenever this session finishes, or four o'clock when we anticipate that there will be a vote, we are going to be taking evidence from some of our colleagues in the House whose constituencies were affected by flooding and who were kind enough to send in evidence to the Committee. May I formally and for the record welcome Richard Benyon, the Member of Parliament for Newbury, David Curry, the Member of Parliament for Skipton and Ripon, Martin Horwood, the Member for Cheltenham, Laurence Robertson, the Member for Tewkesbury, and Angela C. Smith, the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough. Colleagues, what we plan to do is to ask each one of you if you would be kind enough to speak for, say, five minutes and give us the benefit of your thoughts. I know that you were kind enough to send in some written evidence, and I am sure, on both what you have to say and on the basis of the written evidence that you have sent in, we will then ask you some questions. In the case of Richard, I know that you have to go in a little while, so I am going to start with you and then just run down the table and ask colleagues if you would be kind enough to make a short presentation to the Committee. Richard, would you like to start?

  Mr Benyon: Thank you, Chairman. I will be very brief. My constituency experienced the worst flooding in the south-east on 20 July. Around 2,000 houses were flooded in my constituency. In the small unitary authority of West Berkshire, which looks after about 144,000 people, just over two and a half thousand homes were flooded in all. There were two distinct types of flooding that affected this area. Firstly, there was surface run-off, overwhelming drains and flooding into houses, and, secondly, there was impeded flow in small chalk streams in the Berkshire Downs which affected four or five villages in that area. Very quickly running through the areas I would really hope that your Committee might be able to look at, Thatcham is a town of around 20,000 people sitting in the Kennet Valley just to the east of Newbury. A huge quantity of rain fell that day—you are all aware of that—but it fell sodden fields to the north and on a ridge to the north of the town, and it ran off that, down roads, through gardens and just overwhelmed the drainage system. There are a number of issues that arise from this: insufficient maintenance of some drains, and the local authority are carrying out a very detailed survey and will, hopefully, identify that. Thames Water is an issue here in Thatcham but also in Newbury, where I spent a lot of time on the twentieth with families who were being flooded. The drainage system was completely unable to cope, and I think there is an issue with companies like Thames Water. They go in there and deal with it when there is a problem but I do not think there is an on-going maintenance programme which is able to help with these situations, and I might come back to that very quickly. There is another issue relating to soakability. We have built over our towns, we build over gardens, we are infilling on precisely that hill I was just talking about above Thatcham on estates that were built 15 years ago, the local authority is being overruled on planning applications that have been refused and we are still building in gaps. Roofs and tarmac driveways are now adding to this problem, and I think this is a major issue. There is also the issue about who owns the problem: whether it is Thames Water, the local council and in one case Network Rail is responsible for the culverts that could possibly have blocked and caused some flooding in certain areas, and, of course, there are local community issues. I had a school in a village called Aldermaston that was flooded by this sort of service run-off and 10 years ago they had suffered similar flooding and the headline in the local paper said, "Aldermaston suffers once in 2,500 year floods." Ten years later the same thing has happened. We need to know how to live with these floods as well as mitigate them. Finally, to deal with the impeded flow issue, the Pang and the Lambourn Valleys are down and chalk stream river systems, both SSSIs, and have management plans which are a mystery to me, frankly. The Environment Agency requires levels of weed growth to be left, for environmental reasons, but this, undoubtedly, caused flooding in these villages. The local communities on some occasions took those matters into their own hands and cleared the river themselves, and the water level in their houses dropped immediately. We have got to sort out with the Environment Agency who is taking responsibility for this. If they are going to have these environmental requirements on the whole river system, particularly around villages such as Bucklebury, Stamford Dingley, Eastbury and Lambourn and Great Shefford in the Lambourn Valley. These places are where people live, these are their homes and they have to understand that environmental factors have to be balanced against people's needs in the houses in which they live. I could go on and talk about my dealings with the Environment Agency on this and what the community, particularly the community in Bucklebury, have done, which I would urge your Committee to look at. There is a very good website—I will give you the details—showing a very proactive approach which involves assessing the cause of the floods, producing a high-level design solution and trying to implement the scheme working with partners such as the Environment Agency and the local authority. I will come back and answer any questions you have on those matters, but that is a very quick gallop through a really awful experience for thousands of people in my constituency, and there are a lot of lessons that can be learnt and that must be learnt from these experiences.

  Q525  Chairman: Thank you very much for giving us such a dramatic word-picture. I think some beautiful named villages are now seared into the parliamentary record as a result of what you have said. David.

  Mr Curry: Chairman, I would like to focus on ways in which we can accelerate the flow of funding to schemes and the timescale for schemes, and I take as my example the flooding in the Ripon, which sits at the confluence of three rivers: the Ure, the Skell and the Laver. In 2000 the Ure and the Skell flooded 43 properties—so nothing like the scale of my colleagues but for those who live in them dramatic—and three peaks of water passed through the village. On 14 and 15 June 2007 more than 70 millimetres of rain fell in a 12-hour period, 96 millimetres in 24 hours, which is one month's average rainfall, and 142 millimetres in 72 hours, and this was a week before the big floods in South Yorkshire, so we were the sort of aperitif for the main course! Flood warnings were issued to 350 properties out of 442 which were registered to receive warnings, but some of them did not receive a warning because the river which was flooded was not the river which was expected to flood at the end of the day; so 40 properties and businesses were flooded. Then, one week later, the big floods bit South Yorkshire, and Ripon escaped, literally, by half a millimetre from its third flooding experience, as the Environment Agency calls it, within seven years. The flood frequency prediction for Ripon has moved from a 100-year flood to a 75-year frequency, and this has lifted our priority score from to 17.3 from 16.3, and this is the nub of the issue. A flood relief scheme was approved in Ripon in 2004, consisting of flood walls and an upstream dam. It has got planning permission, it has got a cost to it—£11 million—but because Ripon's score is only 17, it has no chance in the foreseeable future of being carried out because the score needed to trigger schemes is around 30 at the moment, and the score is based on economic return—that is properties and businesses spared—some environmental factors and the feasibility of the scheme. Ripon now sits at number 160 in the list of Environment Agency schemes and, of course, higher priority schemes can come in at the top, not just at the bottom. So the people of Ripon who have had these experiences (and some houses are still evacuated as a consequence of it) know that there is a recognised risk, know that there is a scheme to deal with it, know that the scheme has got planning permission but have not got the faintest idea when it will happen. What can we do about it? Could local contributions advance the project? Local authority parish rates, for example, or regional flood defence committees. Just to give you an indication of that, the Yorkshire Regional Flood Defence Committee last year levied the rate of 34p per Band E property per year. This yielded £518,000. You could hold a precept at below two pounds per year for a Band E property and still raise three million pounds. The biggest levy in the country, just out of interest, was Wessex, at £2.92p. But the problem is that none of this makes any difference at all because local contributions do not influence the Environment Agency/Treasury calculation of the priority of the scheme or the eligibility of the scheme and, what is more, locally raised funding through council tax or precepting authorities counts against the capping totals. So there is not only no incentive to try to bring local funds to address the problem, there is a positive disincentive to try to bring local funding to address the problem. Will it change? The answer is hopefully. The Environment Agency is intending, from next spring, to introduce what it calls "outcome measures", which would permit local contributions to influence the cost benefit ratios, which themselves would trigger the public funding. So if Ripon could "find" contributions towards its scheme, the Environment Agency contribution would reduce, its value for money would increase and we would stand a chance of moving up the league table of eligibility. Ripon is the second oldest city in the country, but it is still a parish council constitutionally. It does not have the resources to make more than a token contribution. The yield of 1p on a Band D property in Ripon is the magnificent sum of £65.92, and so you would have to be pretty heroic to raise the sort of sums which would make a meaning, but larger conurbations could certainly raise significantly more funds from a relatively modest increase in the council tax. So, we do need local funding which is raised by councils or by precepting bodies (and the regional flood relief agencies are also precepting bodies); they must fall outside capping purposes for recognised defence schemes for which planning permission has been obtained, which would limit the eligibility to schemes which are capable and ready to be taken forward immediately. So you could envisage a package of contributions being put together, something from the local council, something from the regional flood defence committees and perhaps use a business improvement district mechanism to raise funds from business to deal with specific schemes. That would increase the value for money, it would improve the score and it would be for schemes approved and with planning permission. We have been flooded twice in seven years and, as I said, escaped a third time by a millimetre and yet there is no prospect of the present scheme being implemented that I can see in the immediate foreseeable future, unless we can tap new forces of funding which both lower the Environment Agency cost and improve its scores. Even in areas which could not lever in funds themselves readily, the fact that other areas might be able to do so would (a) help them and (b) would help us in that it would get schemes accomplished higher up the league table from us and give us a better chance of getting our scheme done. So, I hope, Chairman, you will find, by the constructive contributions, possible ways in which we might be able to accelerate funding into the schemes, not only for those who are relatively precept rich, as it were, but for other areas well.

  Q526  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I was interested that you identify that the magic number in this case was 30 and not 42, as in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

  Mr Curry: That comes from my local environment. I contacted my local Environment Agency offices in preparing this and that is the number they gave me.

  Q527  Chairman: Excellent. Thank you very much indeed for that very positive contribution. Martin.

  Martin Horwood: Cheltenham is, I suppose, a little different from some of the other places that you will have seen on the TV in Gloucestershire, because we are actually on relatively high ground. We are just nestling beneath the Cotswold Hills. It is very scenic, but it meant that there was a crescent of hills around the town, all of which fed flood water into the town; so we had flash flooding and surface water flooding but we did not have the kind of scenic standing water for reporters to stand in while they did their reports. We were flooded twice. On 24 June, the Environment Agency tells me, we had a once-in-80-year flood event. On 20 July we had, variously estimated at a once-in-120 years to once-in-330 years. Broadly speaking, we had two and a half months' rainfall in just over a day, and that was an enormous quantity. It was above the specification of the other interesting feature of Cheltenham, which is our brand new £20 million flood alleviation scheme, courtesy of the Environment Agency. That was only designed to cope with a once-in-100-year flood, so in a sense you could not have expected it to cope with what happened on 20 July, but it did not actually entirely cope with what happened in June either, and well over 100 properties flooded in the centre of our town due to weaknesses in the design of the scheme. Having said that, it is right to recognise that, had that scheme not been there and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water not been held back, the devastation in Cheltenham would have been much greater, but it does point out, from a budget point of view, that just because a scheme has been completed it does not mean to say all the money has already been spent, because there may be refinements to these schemes. Once tested in real life, they may have to have more money spent on them, and there are various places where the Environment Agency has accepted more work needs to be done even in Cheltenham, where we have already a spent a lot of money. We had two crises. We had the initial flooding, which although it was rapid devastated the town just as much as it would have done if it had hung around, but we also had the water shortage. I am going to treat those separately, because there are different questions to be answered on each. In terms of the basic flooding, I think the Government does have some questions to answer about critical infrastructure, which I know you have already talked about on the Committee, about the kind of house-building issues that have been referred to by colleagues already, and I endorse those, about the adequacy of the overall flood defence budget, which I would agree with the ABI in saying is inadequate, and about clearing up this tangle of legal responsibilities for who maintains especially things like culverts and the minor streams as well as the main rivers. The most extreme example I had was a long culvert, which runs for about a mile underneath various housing estates in Cheltenham, where I was seriously told that ultimately the responsibility for maintaining that culvert lies with each household that lies above it, which is clearly a complete fiction in practice, and the Environment Agency and other authorities simply step in when they feel the community need is great enough; and we need to clear up that legal tangle and, I think, act on the Making Space for Water report in 2005, which said you need to give clear responsibility to one agency, and I would say the Environment Agency is the one to give it to. There are some issues for the Environment Agency, particularly in its liaison with the Met Office and how specific and useful the flood warnings it gave in advance were, because we seemed to have a lot of advance notice of the July flood—we were getting the flood warnings for about a week—but nobody realised they were going to be on the scale that would devastate us in the way they did. The main issues, I think, are around the response of Severn Trent. I know they have already been before you, but I think you perhaps let them get away a little lightly. In terms of the response to the crisis, the critical thing that they failed to do was to let Gold Command in Gloucestershire know in sufficient time to do what National Grid did with the Walham Substation, which was to warn Gold Command and Gold Command basically brought in the Army and protected that critical piece of infrastructure, not with much time to spare, but they protected it. Severn Trent, essentially, according to the combination of their report and the constabulary's reports to the Pitt Review, really called in a fire appliance to pump water out but never let Gold Command (which had been convened on the Friday) know until nine o'clock on the Sunday that they, in fact, had lost the Mithe Water treatment Works. They had actually evacuated it at six o'clock that morning and they only told Gold Command at nine o'clock, three hours later. There are reports in their submission to the Pitt Review of their local staff being worried about the flooding, and they kept on phoning the Environment Agency to see how high the water levels were going to go but they never actually joined up the dots, and I am afraid in a couple of other respects it does rather imply that they had not got their resilience and their emergency planning sorted out. As David will know from his constituency, the distribution of bowsers was patchy at best. They missed out entire parts of Cheltenham. Bowser hotlines were set up. There was a bowser that was still there in one of the central shopping streets in Cheltenham in mid August because, clearly, Severn Trent did not realise it was there, and I think there were weaknesses. To be fair to them, it was an event on a scale that they perhaps could not have predicted, but their response did not seem to me to be very adequate, and they did not even supply people with ten litres of water a day. I was a volunteer on water distribution duty and I was handing out strictly nine litres per adult, so that was not anything like ten litres per person. Since the bowsers were at that stage largely empty, they were not meeting that ten litre target. The blame game with respect to the Mithe is quite important, because Severn Trent had used the fact that there were circumstances beyond their control to escape from the Guaranteed Standards Scheme, which is supposed pay compensation at a set rate to anyone who loses water supply. They have claimed that circumstances were beyond their control and so they do not have to pay that money, and Ofwat, in advance of all the results of the inquiries, of your inquiry and the Pitt Review, has let them off the hook. I actually think that is very wrong. I think there are, at the very least, questions to be asked about whether they were really responsible for the loss of water supply and they should not have been let off the hook so quickly.

  Q528  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I cannot think it will have done you a lot in the popularity stakes to see that you were "Mr Nine Litres"!

  Martin Horwood: We were all told, very strictly, that we could only hand over nine litres. It was interesting. The volume of water actually, nine litres, was quite adequate in the sense of drinking water, and there were houses in Cheltenham, to be honest, that had gallons of water for months afterwards. The problem was the amount you needed to flush the loo. If we had all had rain water harvesting and perhaps access to less clean water, it might have solved some of those problems a bit faster.

  Q529  Chairman: The water hoarders can now come clean, and we will move on to Laurence Robertson.

  Mr Robertson: Can I thank you for the invitation to give evidence. I am very pleased that the Committee is carrying out an inquiry. If I may, I would like to go through it in three stages: what actually happened in Tewkesbury, where we are now and where I think we need to go in the future. It was very interesting. In June there was actually quite a bit of flooding in my constituency, and I visited people who said, "We have lived here for 40 years and we have never been flooded", and it struck me as being very odd. There were areas of the constituency which flood all the time but not to this scale; there were areas which flooded in June which had not flooded before; and so when we collectively say the rainfall in July was a complete surprise, I am not entirely sure that it was, given what had happened earlier the previous month. As everybody knows, there was tremendous heavy rainfall on 20 July. One of the very quick, clear, noticeable things was the mobile network went down pretty quickly. Everybody is obsessed with their mobile phones these days, including me. It was not actually possible to use them after a certain time. People were stranded in council offices, in their own offices, on the motorway. People actually slept on the motorway; some people stayed in the pub or the hotels where they were, which was probably the preferable option but not necessarily what they would have chosen. People had to start being rescued. Part of the hospital in Tewkesbury was evacuated and the town of Tewkesbury became cut off, as everybody saw on the television screens across the world in fact. Other areas, as well as Tewkesbury town, were affected, which form part of my constituency. Some people's gardens actually collapsed into rivers, 350,000 people lost their water supplies across the country, we almost, as everybody knows, lost the electricity supplies and, in fact, some people in my constituency did lose the electricity supplies for about two days. The Emergency Services, the Armed Forces, the councils and very many volunteers got involved in distributing bottled water. It was a very successful operation. The bowsers operation was impressive but not quite good enough. There were not enough bowsers quickly enough and they were not filled frequently enough. Nevertheless, there was a tremendous effort. The sort of tragic story, though, in Tewkesbury is that three people lost their lives as a direct result of the flooding and possibly some more as an indirect result, but three people actually died as a result of the flooding. Where are we now? People are still living in caravans on their own drives or they are otherwise displaced from their homes. I think the figure is in excess of 800 in my constituency, which is quite a lot of people, and as we get towards Christmas it is an awful situation, and I am told that they will be displaced for probably another three or four months yet, or even slightly longer. Business in the town of Tewkesbury has been affected badly, of course. People get the impression that it is like New Orleans and it is not open for business. It is not that bad, it is recovering, and the shops are open, but they are suffering and continuing to suffer because of the effects of the flooding. It is a very long process getting insurance assessments, getting the building work done, of course. We are involved in trying to get the drains and the ditches and culverts sorted, which is a massive job, and one of the fears for the future is will people who have been flooded or live in the area be able to get insurance at all and, if they can get insurance, will that mean inflated premiums? Anybody living in the GL20 post code area is seriously worried about the future with regards to getting insurance. What about the future? I would like to put forward one or two suggestions as to how we may avoid similar difficulties in the future. Obviously Tewkesbury, sitting on two rivers, is going to flood sometimes—people accept that—but I think there are things we can do which make things better or at least reduce the risk of a very bad effect from heavy rainfall in the future. I mentioned about clearing ditches and drains and repairing culverts. We are having great difficulty establishing who is responsible for what. It could be the Environment Agency, it could be the Highways Agency, it could be the county council, it could be the borough council, it could be the riparian owners, and I suspect that the reason we are finding difficulty in identifying who is responsible is because, when it is identified who is responsible, they actually have to find the money to fix these things and they are all complaining that they do not have the money to do that work. What I really think we need to do is form some kind of agency, maybe a new agency, which has an over-arching responsibility for these kinds of problems. I have to say (and this is not the first time I have said this, I have said this for many, many years), I believe the Environment Agency is an inadequate agency. I think it either needs more powers and more responsibility and possibly more money, but if it is to be left as it is, I really do not see the point of its existence. It is not a good agency to deal with and I think it has showed itself to be very ineffective over this issue and many, many other issues. I think we have to look where we are building houses. There are a number of examples I could give in my constituency where we have built houses and either they have flooded, or they have caused the water to go into other estates where they, in turn, have flooded. One particular housing estate is not quite finished yet and it flooded and there is a proposal to build another 100 houses on that site. That in itself is bad, but it would also have to link into the existing drains and sewage system, and I really do shudder to think what would happen if that goes ahead. There is an appeal on the desk of the Secretary of State at the moment for a project at Longford in my constituency. Part of that land flooded, the access road flooded, and yet the Environment Agency has withdrawn its objection to building on that site for 600 houses. The Regional Spatial Strategy is proposing something like 8,000 houses just north of Cheltenham and just north of Gloucester, the very areas that are vulnerable. This simply cannot go on. We had a very, very good performance from the Tri-Service at Quedgeley, but there is a proposal to regionalise part of that service. I hope that does not happen, because they were able to respond straightaway, they knew the local politicians, they knew the local people who deal with water and electricity and so forth, and it was really a great advantage, the fact that they could work together locally, so I really do hope that is retained. We need a priority list of vulnerable people and vulnerable buildings should such an occurrence happen again. I myself stumbled across a number of people, old people, people who were disabled or in wheelchairs, and number of us had to literally push them out of their premises in wheelchairs. The water was coming through the floor. We could not get ambulances because they were evacuating the hospital and yet that building did not appear on anybody's radar screen. Goodness knows what would have happened to those people if we had not stumbled across them. I do not say that to bull myself up in any way, Chairman—a number of other people did similar work—but it was just a matter of coming across these people who were in very difficult situations. We also need, of course, to protect the Mithe Water Treatment Plant, which is just down the road from where I live, and, indeed, the electricity substation at Walham. Both sites now have HESCO bastions, which are another two words I had never come across before the flooding, but as well as protecting them I think we need to network the system so that, if we have a situation like this again, electricity can be obtained from elsewhere and water can be obtained from elsewhere. I think it is very important that we do learn these lessons, because although people say this is just a once-in-a-150-years flood or 100-years flood, firstly, how do they know that and, secondly, we are forever, and probably quite rightly, talking about climate change. Does that mean that it is going to happen next week, next year, ten years' time? We do not know. I do not think we can assume that we will not see rainfall like that again. Can I finish, Chairman, by very briefly paying tribute to the Emergency Services and the Armed Forces, the media, who did a tremendous job, Tewkesbury Borough Council, the parish councils and very many individuals who worked so very hard. It was actually the biggest peace-time operation in Britain. As I say, my constituents know they live in a vulnerable area but what is of primary concern to them is that the lessons are learnt. That is what we are talking about today. We owe to it those who died; we owe it to those who worked so very, very hard; we owe it to those who are still displaced from their houses to learn those lessons.

  Q530  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I do not think anybody will ever forget the very dramatic pictures of Tewkesbury when it was cut off. Thank you for filling in some of the detail behind those unforgettable pictures. Angela.

  Ms Smith: Thank you, Michael. I would just like to take this in two parts. First of all, I would like to talk about the nature of my constituency in order to explain why the flooding in Sheffield took the form of a raging torrent rather than a static flood, as we saw in some other places, and, secondly, to draw attention to one or two other things that I think need to be done. My constituency is in the north, north-west of Sheffield, which was actually the source of the flooding in the city, and 55-60% of the land mass in the constituency to the west is in the Peak District National Park, so it should come as no surprise to find out that there are ten reservoirs in my constituency, I think about nine of which are in strings across, feeding three of the rivers or, in effect, by three of the major rivers in the area. I have got half of Howden Reservoir, which neighbours Tom Levitt's High Peak constituency. The electorate is concentrated on the eastern flank of the area, which should not surprise anyone, and, as a result of this, the majority of the population live very close by to moor land such as Broomhead, Howden and Bradfield, so it is characterised by urban density and surrounded by Peak District moor land. The River Don rises at 1,500 feet in the Dark Peak and flows through Penistone, then Stocksbridge in the Upper Don and then flows through the city and on bordering the Lower Don Valley with Rotherham. The river is fed, as I said in my letter, by a number of tributaries. The Porter, or Little Don, which I omitted to mention in the letter, is one of those, and the Ewden and Loxley are two others. As I have said earlier, they all feed a series of reservoirs and flow into the Don as it moves into what has been described as a deeply entrenched course through its steep, wooded upper reaches, and it is the very wooded, steep nature of the valley and of the Ewden Valley as well and the Little Porter in the Don Valley, which helped to create, I think, the conditions which we saw in Sheffield that terrible Monday evening. Sheffield, of course, built its industrial strength on the basis of the sheer power of its rivers, including the Loxley, which flooded in 1864. The Loxley flooded then because of the bursting of the wall of the Dale Dyke Dam and 270 people died that evening. The Loxley had been the source of much of the industrial development in Sheffield, but, of course, in latter years it was the Don that was the principal site for the large-scale development of the city's steel and engineering industries. This has produced a very different river, one which all of us who live in Sheffield are very used to but it is one which has been heavily squeezed, if you like, into channels and culverts, so it does not feel like a mighty river any more. It feels, more often than not, to be honest, like a pretty major stream some of the time; it does not feel like a big river any more at all. This was the context for June's rainfall. We had 90 millimetres over 48 hours around 15 June and, of course, parts of my constituency flooded that weekend. On that Friday it took me an hour and a half to get from Sheffield to Barnsley, a trip that takes 20 minutes most of the time. There was pretty severe flooding in Chapeltown, a village in my constituency. One young boy had to be pulled from the brook in Chapeltown. He had been swept into the culvert, banged his head and nearly died. When they managed to pull him out he had just a T-shirt, boxer shorts and one sock left on because of the power of the water—it had swept all his clothes from his body. He was very lucky to survive. The flooding on the fifteenth was very difficult to deal with, and then we had 100 millimetres over 24 hours over Sunday 24 and Monday 25 June. We were fearful on that Sunday evening of what was going to happen. At the side of my house a river had formed. I live high up on the Don Valley and a river had formed down the side of the hill on 15 June and had disappeared once the waters had subsided. It formed again on Sunday 24, and I can remember thinking and saying to my husband, "This looks pretty bad. We have already got very high water levels from ten days ago. We have now got the river at the side of our house." It was literally like living by the side of a river. I just wondered what was going to happen. Even so, I do not think any of us expected to see what did happen in Sheffield the following afternoon at two o'clock, and the ferocity of what happened, I think, took everybody by surprise. I do not think any of us will ever see the city in quite the same way again. It feels like a different place, to be frank. The River Don effectively broke free of its now very constricted course and became a powerful, fearful life-threatening force. It swept away Livesey Street Bridge, it nearly swept away a major bridge in the city centre, Lady's Bridge, and all that happened in the course of two or three hours. Twelve hundred homes were flooded, not just in my constituency but across the city, and a thousand businesses were affected, including Corus steel works in my area (and Corus's move back into profitability, I think, has been delayed because of the flooding, quite frankly), Georgia-Pacific, a paper-making plant at Oughtibridge and Hillsborough Stadium—Sheffield Wednesday is a business at the end of the day—went under six foot of water. Lots of jokes went around about how Wednesday were probably better at water polo anyway than they ever were at football, but we have got over that one as well, as you will all be aware. What do we need to think about for the future? I think the point made about the better co-ordination of the management of the waterway courses is a good one. Whether it is the Environment Agency that should take that overview role, I would not like to say. I think that is for the Committee to make a judgment on. All I would say is that, whichever agency takes responsibility for co-ordinating the management of our waterways, it needs to have the necessary powers to do the job. I think that is the critical point. My understanding is that Yorkshire water, for instance, works to a different standard to the Environment Agency. That is not good enough. Yorkshire Water is incredibly important to my constituency. You would expect me to say that, with ten water storage reservoirs. It owns a lot of the land in the area. It is incredibly important that the utilities are made to work to the highest possible standards and that the agency responsible has the power to deal with that. Sustainable urban drainage systems, I think, have to be a part of the way forward. The problem in Sheffield was not the state of the gullies in the end. We thought it might be, I think everybody in all the areas thought it might be, but actually the drainage system had been maintained as it should be; it just could not deal with the amount of water that fell over those two occasions and, in a sense, whichever drainage system you used, we may well have had a problem that weekend anyway because the rain was so unprecedented. Nevertheless, I saw rivers forming outside my house, my home, down the sides of the valley. It is a very steeply sided city. We have seven hills, numerous steeply-sided valleys, seven rivers in our city. Sustainable urban drainage systems have to be part of the answer, because I do not think traditional drainage and sewerage systems can deal in the long-term with the new climate that we appear to be having to live with. Catchment: the catchment for Sheffield, as I have explained, is the Peak District, and nature's natural flood defences are the blanket bogs for our area. They are not working as they should do, and I do believe that Defra is going to have to commit properly to funding programmes that will help to restore the blanket bogs to their proper function. It is not just about reducing flood risk—I accept that the incidence of flooding may only have been reduced if the blanket bogs had been working properly—but they also work to help absorb carbon, so they could play an important part in helping to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere. I have read somewhere that the blanket bogs of Britain absorb more carbon than all the forests of France and Germany. That is a pretty incredible statistic. I really do feel that that the softer end of our flood defence system needs as much attention as the provision of more hard flood defence on our river banks and so on. I think it is an equally important consideration. Finally, economic development. I have mentioned 1864. I have just found out today that the last recorded big-scale flood of the River Don was in 1536, when it effectively arrested the progress of an armed Catholic rebellion against Henry VIII. You may want to thank him for that or you may want to thank the River Don for that, or not. On a serious note, what I am trying to say is that the fact that we have had one major flood this year, probably for the first time in three or 400 years, is worthy of attention. Does this mean that we are going to have this flooding at this level more frequently now, or is it just a one-in-two, three, four-hundred-year event? It is very difficult to judge, but I do not think we can afford to take the risk of assuming that it is a rare one-off event; I think we have to prepare. Most of Sheffield is developed on the valley floors. It puts before us some very difficult choices, because if we do not continue our economic growth in terms of redeveloping brownfield sites on the valley floor, if we do not take account of our increasing population by making good use of brownfield sites, then we are going to have to build up the sides of the valleys and on the tops of the valleys, and if you do that, we are encroaching on our open spaces, our green spaces, our green belt. They are very difficult choices and I do believe we have to make the best use of developing design solutions. I have read about some of the design solutions that are being applied to South Yorkshire now, and I really do think we have to look at these issues properly, on a case by case basis, taking note of the advice of the Environment Agency. I do not believe, however (and I will finish here), that the Environment Agency can be given a veto over planning and economic development. I do believe that if the Environment Agency are going to have a major say on planning decisions, it needs to be on the basis of a very rigorous set of criteria and that they need to be able to justify any of their objections to planning applications on the basis of absolutely rigorous evidence that they can justify in front of a planning board and in an appeal process.

  Q531  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Richard, I know you may have to depart.

  Mr Benyon: I naively stuck to my five minutes. I must learn better that MPs never stick to the time. Can I leave you with one vignette?

  Patrick Hall: Could I ask a question?

  Chairman: You can ask him a question, but he might want to give his vignette as well.

  Q532  Patrick Hall: I was interested in the comment about aquatic vegetation in streams and rivers, because it reminded me of the practice of maybe 30 years or so ago when river authorities used to regard rivers and streams as an open drainage channel and they stripped them bare of vegetation, of shallows, of islands and all sorts of things that give us biodiversity, et cetera. I was very interested in the comments that Richard made about residents taking action themselves to clear aquatic vegetation from a flooding river or stream. That would be quite telling evidence, because the Environment Agency today denies that its policy towards biodiversity actually contributes to an increased flooding risk. I have checked that point, it so happens. The Environment Agency says that changing the old practice to what they would say is a better practice does not increase the risk of flooding. You have got evidence that intervention by residents has led to an instant reduction in flooding. Could I ask, though, how on earth did these people do that? How did they have access to whatever length of river? How did they get into the water? How did they remove the vegetation? What did they do with it in order to get this dramatically improved effect? That is evidence that the Environment Agency must, surely, have.

  Mr Benyon: I was disappointed when we raised this at the meeting with the Secretary of State in the Moses Room two days after 20 July. The reaction of Barbara Young when I told her this—a number of MPs talked about this sort of thing—she put her hands over her ears and said, "I am not hearing this. This is illegal. I do not want to hear this." This is people's homes. In Bucklebury 22 out of 24 homes were flooded. The water was pretty static in the residents' sitting rooms. They went down and, with a neighbouring farmer with a JCB, they literally just cleared the weed which had blocked the river, which was about six foot wide and was running about two foot because of it. I forget the name, it is not ranuncules, which is what you want, it was the other thing that fishermen do not want but conservationists do; there is a bit of a conflict. Anyway, that disappears in the winter; it is a summer weed. They cleared that, and it instantly dropped. That is in the Pang Valley. Another village, Eastbury in Lambourn, had precisely the same experience. The issue is that the Environment Agency produce work gangs which come and clear this in accordance with a protocol which has been agreed. That protocol has slipped and these work forces are under threat. Some of these villages are putting together working parties who want to learn from the Environment Agency what they can and what they cannot do, and that is an on-going process, but the experience of the people in villages such as Bucklebury is there to be seen on their website—I will give you the details. If I could leave you—

  Q533  Chairman: Your vignette.

  Mr Benyon: Yes. Mr and Mrs Campbell-Murray, who live in Craven Road, at the convergence of three drainage systems, have been flooded three times in as many years. If you stand and look at the Edwardian street scene, you will see that interspersed into that street scene are modern, infill developments and you have an Edwardian drainage system trying to cope with a 21st century, much more congested street scene. The point is that Thames Water will look at it, have looked at it and any day now are going to come back and say whether or not they are going to do something. It is entirely up to them whether they do something, and that is my first point. They are a commercial organisation and can make a decision: "This is too much money. We have got other priorities." The second point is that Thames Water (and they would try and make this point to you, I know) are not statutory consultees, as I am sure Severn Trent and other water authorities are. When it comes to large housing developments, I think they should be statutory consultees. Can I leave?

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. Paddy Tipping has caught my eye.

  Q534  Paddy Tipping: I just wanted to comment about the priority score, the ranking that occurs. It is the case, is it not, that big urban schemes, because of the number of properties involved, are always going to get priority over smaller villagers and hamlets. David, your solution was to build partnership schemes. The other way of doing it would be to tackle the criteria, and one way you might do that is to look at the proportion of houses as part of the settlement that is liable to flooding. It seems pretty clear to me that a lot of rural communities who are in danger of flooding under present schemes are never going to get any work done.

  Mr Curry: I agree completely. The reason why I focused on trying to find a way of accelerating the flow of cash in the schemes is because I recognise that in Ripon 40 odd properties flooded on both of the flooding events compared with Sheffield, Doncaster and South Yorkshire. Nobody is suggesting that we should be bumped ahead of that. The problem is that there is sufficient risk both to have a scheme and to get planning permission, and people cannot understand that, if the risk is there, and if it mattered enough to put something place, why does it not matter to it do it? As you say, quite rightly, there are two ways of doing it. One is to revise the criteria and, indeed, the Environment Agency is doing that—we are getting the new schemes—but as far as Ripon is concerned our best hope, it seemed to me, was to try and assemble a package, and the Yorkshire Regional Flood Defence Committee at the moment has got a precepting power and precepts literally a third of a loaf of bread a year per Band D household. It could even be less than that, given the price of wheat at the moment. I do not exclude individual businesses—Wolseley, in my constituency, was severely affected in the floods of the year 2000—might be willing to make individual contributions, the local authority through business improvement district schemes may be in a position to be able to make a contribution, but none of this will work unless that money is accepted as a way of improving the priority, because it releases funds for the Environment Agency and so gives it a bigger bang for the buck. Knowing that this is a self-contained scheme in Ripon, and the remedy is agreed by everybody and not in dispute, it seemed to me the sensible thing was to try and find a way in which we could make it feasible for the Environment Agency to get the scheme done by lowering that 11 million cost before inflation starts sending it upwards again. The capping criteria is an important element to that.

  Q535  Mr Drew: If we are to make a recommendation to our sister committee or Department for Communities and Local Government regarding what areas are inappropriate for development now as a result of the possibility of more regular flooding, what sort of things should we be saying to them? We have got Angela's point that there should not be a complete ban on development, even in flood risk areas. My Gloucestershire colleagues may have some slightly different views on that.

  Martin Horwood: If you take the flood risk areas, I have got one in Lakehampton—the site is actually in Laurence's constituency but it is right on the edge of mine—where we have an application outstanding for 360 houses on an area that was under water in July. The thought of those houses' insurance premiums is enough to make you go pale, I should think, and they may even, in fact, be unsaleable because the ABI are clearly threatening that, unless enough flood defence work is done, they may be withdrawing insurance in some respects from flood defence. They point out that it is a fairly unusual thing that British insurance covers flood defence. So, clearly, I think planning has to respond to the floods but, as we all know, the nature of the regional spatial strategies that are being handed down from DCLG via the regional authorities to local authorities in Gloucestershire, are, if anything, putting the numbers up now after the floods, not putting them down, and that cannot be right. Somebody must stop and think about this area of research, where these sites are being looked at and whether it is still appropriate to have the numbers that are being handed down.

  Q536  Chairman: Am I not right that local authorities in that context have got to identify the land areas that are suitable for housing as part of this process?

  Martin Horwood: No, the regional spatial strategies define the areas of search for new housing; so local authorities can try and challenge, but they do not actually have the right in the end to turn that round.

  Mr Robertson: I think the RSS is area-specific, not necessarily site-specific. The problem is, when companies take the issue to appeal, again it becomes out of local hands. To answer Mr Drew's question directly: "What would you recommend?", I would recommend that planning should be a local matter and not a regional matter, and if the local council build on a flood plain, they are democratically accountable, at least, whereas the RSS is not democratically accountable. We have to build policy on philosophy. If the philosophy is to build in safe areas, it means that when a decision has to be taken sometimes the answer to the developer has to be, "No."

  Q537  Chairman: David wants to come in on this, and Angela as well. We have got a little bit more time before the vote, we have got about another 15 minutes, so do not panic. David.

  Mr Curry: Can I make a suggestion for a couple of bits of joined up government. We discussed a planning bill earlier this week in Parliament. A planning bill provides for infrastructure levy. There is an opportunity there to say that no development can take place unless it is associated with adequate infrastructure measures which protect it from flooding. The Government has moved away from the planning gain concept—that is now a roof tax to all intents and purposes—enshrined in a 106 agreement, so not just a site-specific thing like for social housing, which would be the characteristic one for a site-specific scheme, but for the broader infrastructure measures which, it will insist, will be new infrastructure. So that is one element. Another bit of joined up government which would help is when Defra does its environmental schemes for farmers. At the moment if a farmer's land is flooded, his first cry is, "How quickly can I get the water off this land?" What we want is for him to say, "How long can I keep this water on the land to stop the run off?" So, if some of the environment schemes were tailored to water retention, that might take some relief, and that goes back to a point about the bogs, it goes back to the moor land, which is a great repository of water, and so the more we can get the land to retain the water, the more control there ultimately is. It is not entirely outside government control.

  Ms Smith: On that point, one of the stumbling blocks in terms of schemes to put farmers funding into that kind of work rather than the stray Pillar 1 cap funding is Ofwat. Ofwat object, or have objected, to schemes in the Peak District, and their objections have been overcome because the utility companies are involved in the investment and they do not see that as good use of water customers' money. I do. It has an impact on water quality as well, it improves water quality, and I think Ofwat here have to be brought more clearly on board. I do not think I said entirely that I think we should just build in flood risk areas, David, we have to be sensible about this, but for the record, what I said was that it has to be on a case by case basis, and that infrastructure and designing to cope with risk is an important part of it. In fact there was a scheme announced today in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, which is a partnership between a private enterprise, the Environment Agency, and Yorkshire Borwood for a 1.5 million office project which involves a big contribution from the property developer towards dealing with the flood risk. That is potentially a way forward: the involvement of the private sector and the public sector and coming up with the design solutions necessary in order to enable us to get round some of these issues. Incidentally, in Sheffield we are not experiencing this insistence that the regional spatial strategy overcomes any local consideration of where and where we should not build. That is not the case in Sheffield. The local development framework is being developed locally in consultation with local people. I have had my say on that and, if it works properly, it should actually be people at a very local level who have a major input into what is decided for a particular area.

  Chairman: Right.

  Q538  David Taylor: I think for most of us the most enduring picture that we carry in our minds of these floods is the one at Tewkesbury with the abbey?

  Mr Robertson: The abbey stood out strong.

  Q539  David Taylor: Myself, David Drew and James Gray went as a sort of advance guard of rapporteurs to Gloucester and we went to Tewkesbury and, as we were leaving Tewkesbury, I vividly recall seeing a sign, something like, "Come and visit our river view" or "Riverside development". You talked earlier on about having planning decisions taken more at a local level. Do you know the development I am talking about and how many of the newer developments in your town, your constituency, were built in the teeth of opposition from the town council, the district council, even the Environment Agency's advice? Do you recall?

  Mr Robertson: Some of them go back a while. The one that I am referring to, I think, is possibly the one you mean, at Bredon Road, as far as I know was a council decision. It is an area which was built on what was previously allotments. When I say things should be decided at a local level, I am not for one minute suggesting that every decision taken locally is the correct one, it may not be, but if it is taken at a local level, the local people have a chance to influence that decision. I think, the one you are referring to on the Bredon Road, there is now an application to build another 100 on that site, which, yes, overlooks the river. The difficulty now is linking into the drainage system, the sewage system. I put a question to the Minister saying, what assumptions are made? Does it have to be a one in-a 100, a one-in-150 year rainfall to prohibit that kind of building? The Government did not want to know about that. They said Ofwat have to deal with that. So, again, we go round in a circle to try and define who is actually responsible.


 
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