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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 548)

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

  Q540  David Taylor: A final question, Chairman. Were there any or many more recent developments in Tewkesbury that were flooded where you have the opportunity to go back and see what the Environment Agency had to say about the flood risk and whether or not they ever urged a refusal on the grounds of flooding or operational issues?

  Mr Robertson: That one is the most obvious one. There are another couple of developments called Stonehills-Wheatpieces which in themselves did not flood, but if they had been green fields they would have soaked up all of the water which went onto the nearby estates at Priors Park and Newtown where people are still out of their houses. I have raised this with the council. I have had the response, "It did not flood. There you are; it is okay to build there." To me that is complete nonsense. The water just goes somewhere else. The water gets very deep, not because that much has fallen but, when it is all crammed in one place, it becomes very deep, and that is the point.

  Martin Horwood: It is important to emphasise that flood plains are not the same as flood risk, and it is probably the same in Sheffield, but where we were flash-flooded, sometimes there were very dramatic examples. There was one at Brookvale in Charlton Kingsley, in my constituency, where the stream is normally about an inch deep and it turned into a 15 foot deep river, it returned to the natural course of the river, and in the meantime houses had been built on the path of that river and gardens had been culverted over the original brook. So it is about intelligent planning, even on uphill areas, as well as on flood plains, and we just need to get much smarter about this.

  Q541  Lynne Jones: I think it was Laurence who said that the Environment Agency had objected to a particular development and had withdrawn their objections. I wonder whether the withdrawal of their objections had anything to do with the incorporation of sustainable urban drainage systems, green roofs, or other measures which might have meant that the Environment Agency's concerns were alleviated? The other point: I think Richard was talking about the problem, not just of infill developments, but of permitted development: people tarmacing over their front gardens, making space for the car rather than making space for water, and I wondered whether you had any thoughts whether there ought to be changes in permitted development? For example, if you wanted to tarmac over a soft area, then that would require planning permission, and space for the car would only be permitted without planning permission if it did incorporate sustainable urban drainage?

  Mr Robertson: I think the particular one I was referring to is at Longford. I am not quite sure why the Environment Agency has said that they are not going to object. I need to look into that, it is a very recent thing they have said, but I did talk them about it, in fact at a public meeting, and they said if water is just below the surface, rather than on the surface, they would not have an objection. To me that is outrageous; that is completely wrong. I have shown them photographs of this land. Part of it is flooded. I have shown them photographs of the access to the land, which is flooded. It is also very close to other areas which flooded even worse and, if there are 600 homes built on that land, the other areas will flood even worse again. So, why they take that view I simply do not know.

  Ms Smith: I think your point, Lynne, is well made. In my area when I talked about the river forming at the side of my house, it is in a very recent development, it is a brownfield site, but it does already contain quite a large area of green space and woodland. What has been suggested is that they may plan wet woodland as a means of draining the water off more successfully, and it is a problem in that it is very steep either side, but I think as well, when we are talking about whether or not people should be allowed to tarmac or concrete over their soft green spaces, I tend to think that, if there is an established problem in an area with drainage, maybe we ought to seriously consider that, but there are alternatives as well, such as the use of gravel, which allows the water to sink through and allows the water to be permeated and pollutants taken out before it joins the water system. So there are other alternatives as well which still allow us to create the spaces necessary for people to live their everyday lives without necessarily becoming draconian.

  Q542  Lynne Jones: How do you ensure that people opt for such measures rather than perhaps the cheapest measure, which is just getting somebody to tarmac over their drive?

  Ms Smith: That is where the planning law comes into effect. I think planning law always has to be flexible and—

  Q543  Lynne Jones: Apparently the consultants who drew up the consultation for the Government on permitted development recommended that one of the options should be that planning permission should be acquired if more than 50% of a porous area was to have hard-standing on it, but the Government rejected that suggestion and it did not even see the light of day.

  Ms Smith: I would be sympathetic to more consideration of that, but I do think the planning always has to be as flexible as possible when looking at local circumstances as well. Whether or not the same guideline would be the right one, I could not, obviously, give an opinion on.

  Mr Curry: Chairman, that would quite a big battle to pick, because the whole spirit of the planning bill which is now in front of us is to have far fewer decisions passing through local planning authorities and to give much greater discretion. One can understand the reasons for it. The Committee, I am sure, is aware that it would be sort of counter-cultural, given the sort of mood at the moment.

  Q544  Patrick Hall: I am struck by the sentence in David Curry's brief presentation that reads, "If the score is high enough to justify the preparation of the complete scheme, how can the score then not be high enough to justify its implementation?" David, can you just run through the process that applied in Ripon? Who asked for the flood defence scheme and who then agreed to prepare it and pay for that preparation? I gather it got planning permission and then along comes the Environment Agency to risk-assess that approved scheme. Your sentence implies that the Environment Agency was there at the beginning to say, "Okay, let us go ahead and prepare it"?

  Mr Curry: That is right. Who asked for it? The answer is me, I think, but that was hardly a stroke of brilliant political intuition given that I had umpteen houses flooded. I talked to the Environment Agency, they agreed that a scheme needed to be prepared, they drew op all the plans, they were subject to all the usual consultations in Ripon, it achieved planning permission, and, of course, planning permissions only last for a certain number of years, we must remember, but they also attribute a score to their own project. I can understand that they need to have schemes ready to be moved into the programme as the funding becomes available; the difficulty is we are now about to embark on our fourth year and almost a millimetre away from our second flood since the scheme was originally prepared, and that is a difficulty. So the Environment Agency both prepares and scores the scheme, and it is the Environment Agency which, because it adjusted the productive frequency of flooding, then increased the score but only from 16.3 to 17.3 and at least the information regionally is that the score of about 30 is what would put you on to the sort of real shortlist. Given what has happened in the southern part of Yorkshire, one simply cannot foresee that happening without something changing the equilibrium.

  Q545  Patrick Hall: Resources will always have an influence, but are you saying, David, that in terms of flood risk the Environment Agency accepted the merit of the case to prepare the flood defence scheme?

  Mr Curry: Yes.

  Q546  Patrick Hall: But then, in terms of assessing priorities, in terms of the resources available, it did not score highly enough; and that was purely a resource-based assessment rather than a flood-based assessment?

  Mr Curry: The assessment in terms of the score is based upon economic factors, environmental factors and factors of feasibility. The feasibility, by definition, poses no problem because the scheme has been prepared, but the element of properties affected, a relatively smaller number in Ripon compared with South Yorkshire, relatively few business affected, keeps it relatively lower on that score sheet. The only way we are going to move it up the score sheet is to make it easier for the Environment Agency to carry through that scheme within a finite volume of resources.

  Q547  Patrick Hall: But it is using its limited resources to prepare a scheme that it knows it cannot implement?

  Mr Curry: Yes, it is.

  Martin Horwood: Can I say, the economic case will start to change with climate change. The Environment Agency gave us evidence on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that once-in-100-year floods could be happening once every three years by 2080, based on the Foresight Report. These numbers start to become meaningless in a while, but for these floods this summer I think the insurance cost is in excess now of three billion pounds, so the economic case for bringing more and more schemes forward is going to be very strong.

  Q548  Chairman: One of the issues we are going to be taking with the Met Office is this whole question of the relationship between probability and intensity, because I think it is a dimension that does not seem to rate in terms of the flood risk analysis. In the remaining seconds before the bell goes, Martin, I just wanted to ask you, you made an interesting point, the second point in your evidence. You said why, when we had nearly a week's notice of the rains, were those homes and businesses at risk of flash flooding still not protected with sandbags and diversionary trenches, and you identified a precision of fore-knowledge which is not typical of some of the comments that we have received, but what you have said there implies almost that local authorities should have a contingency kit ready to move to deal with this kind of situation if the knowledge is good enough to advise that an event is occurring. Is that what you had in mind?

  Martin Horwood: Yes; absolutely. I suppose one of the points I was making when I was speaking earlier was that the warnings were perhaps not quite specific enough. We had had quite a serious flood in June. We were expecting something on the same scale. What we got was something much, much worse, but it was clear we ran out of sand bags, there were not enough bowsers, there were lots of bits of kit that actually Gloucestershire struggled to find in the July floods, and that is a lesson for everybody.

  Chairman: Colleagues, can I thank you all very much indeed for your excellent contributions and for the written evidence. I note your body language—you are nodding in agreement with Martin—so I think we take that as an additional contribution. Thank you very much. The Committee stands adjourned hopefully for ten minutes whilst this division is on.

The Committee suspended from 4.15 p.m. to 4.33 p.m for a division in the House





 
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