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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)



  Q700  Chairman: One of the things that intrigues me—maybe part two will deal with that—is that the terms of reference do not seem to have any cost dimension to them and your interim conclusions are a cost-free zone. Why?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We do intend during the second part of the review in the spring to look much more intensively at value for money. What we are trying to be sure of is that the recommendations we come up with are not only the right thing to do but also that they offer cost benefit for the country at large. I agree with you that at this stage we have not done a lot of detailed financial evaluations but that will become a much bigger part of the review this year.

  Mr Hargreaves: The difficulty for us, of course, is that we do not have a pot of money that we can spend ourselves; we are asking the Government and other organisations to spend money in response to our recommendations. What we think we need to do in the final report is to be quite clear about what the potential costs and benefits are so that government and others can make a judgment about what they choose to spend. In the final conclusions we may say, "Here are a range of options; here is their consequential range of costs and benefits" and allow people to make a judgment on the back of that.

  Q701  Chairman: Even if the costing of your shopping list—if we can put your 72 interim conclusions in that way—comes to a number greater than £800 million you will fearlessly publish the number even though it might exceed by a very large amount what the Government have said it can currently afford to spend in this area.

  Sir Michael Pitt: I am absolutely keen that the report is realistic, challenging—perhaps challenging to central government—but also regarded as affordable in the terms of the costs of the recommendations that we come forward with.

  Q702  Chairman: Inevitably there is going to be the odd bit of enquiry between you and the Secretary of State. He rings up and asks how it is going and you say, "Great, we are getting a lot of evidence in, it's really interesting, masses of submissions, great ideas" and he says to you, "It's going to cost a bit this, isn't it? Could you just tone it down because you know the state of Defra's budget?" Are you going to be robustly independent when it comes to putting numbers against these recommendations? You are not going to be influenced by the odd phone call you might get.

  Sir Michael Pitt: I am going to listen very carefully to all the messages and phone calls that I get but ultimately it is my report, I am independent and I am determined it will be done that way.

  Q703  Mr Gray: A moment ago you said that flooding was in the same league as terrorism and flu pandemics. The latter of course we do not know but I found that very difficult language to accept because terrorism is so gigantic. However, in that context, given you think it is that important, I was very worried just now when you said that it had to be affordable. If we had the head of MI6 in front of us talking about terrorism and he said, "We are going to make Britain safer but it has to be affordable; we cannot afford to breach any budgets. It has to be affordable and if unfortunately we cannot afford protection against terrorism then bad luck", there would be a national outcry. What the Chairman was saying was, supposing you looked into this and you came to the conclusion that many billions were required to be spent—to take to its extreme—by using the word "affordable" you are saying that you might not do that. Is that not right?

  Sir Michael Pitt: If—and we are being very hypothetical here—we discover that there is a very strong economic case for spending larger sums of money then the report would say so. Ultimately I acknowledge that it is the role of central government to decide about national priorities and that is always a difficult job for them to do.

  Q704  Chairman: Are you going to be able to address public expectation? What actually should we be protecting ourselves from? If you had been a victim of flooding—we have heard of some harrowing human dimensions to this, people still living in caravans six or seven months afterwards and our heart goes out to those people—they would be absolutely right in saying "I want protection" but in a cash limited world you cannot protect everything. Are you going to be able to offer some guidance to the question what degree of flood protection should the public and businesses in this country actually receive? In other words, what is going to be protected and what can we not protect?

  Sir Michael Pitt: The report has been drafted very much from the perspective of being a home owner or a business owner or a farmer directly affected by flooding. You will know from the various visits I have made that I have met many, many people who have been victims of flooding and I am very sympathetic to their position. Ultimately the choice about the levels of investment on flood defences and flood risk management must lie properly with the Government itself; the Government has to make those choices. I think we are in a position where we can expose the consequences of different levels of investment and that is something we would like to do in the second volume.

  Q705  Mr Drew: Sir Michael, the predecessor committee to this committee, made a very radical suggestion in terms of coastal flooding, that we should just face up to the fact that there would be—and would have to be—managed retreat. How radical can you be? I have people who have been flooded four times in six months and going to see them every weekend is pretty miserable, as you can imagine. To what extent are there now unprotectable parts of the inland parts of our country, as there certainly are in terms of the coastal parts?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Going back to lessons learned from last year, I think it is impossible for any government to fully protect all homes; the sheer volumes of water involved, the numbers of properties that already have been built in flood risk areas means that there can be no overriding answer to that very challenging question. What the report is about is ways of mitigating the impact of flooding, the ways in which the country—both nationally and locally—can prepare itself much more effectively for flooding events of the scale we experienced and also things that individuals can do to improve their own resilience to flooding as well.

  Mr Hargreaves: It is certainly true that our analysis points to the idea that you have to make hard choices about these things, but that is where the cost and benefit become all the more important. If there is an economic case to defend then fine, push ahead with that, but there will be instances where it is simply not and as we understand more about the cost and benefit equations we will get a stronger picture.

  Q706  Mr Drew: You will be looking at this in your final report, will you, at least the mechanics of how this might be done? I do not expect you to do into the detail; someone is going to have to sit down and work that out, but you will do that.

  Mr Hargreaves: Yes.

  Q707  Chairman: Can I ask you about the many other reports that have been conducted in this? We have seen ones about Sheffield, Hull, Gloucestershire and so on and so forth; are you planning to draw all of those people together to collectively share the outcome of their experiences and blend that into part two of your report?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Absolutely, yes. We have had something over 600 written representations to the review and as each of these reports becomes available around the flooding that took place last year we are taking account of that as we formulate our ideas and move towards the second volume. Also of course we have looked back historically at reports that have been done in the past on flooding and again taken account of their findings and reviewed the extent to which their recommendations have been implemented.

  Q708  Lynne Jones: You make recommendations about the Climate Change Bill and its importance, including adaptation. Do you think the Bill as it stands is sufficiently strong or do you think it ought to be amended in some way?

  Sir Michael Pitt: What I have seen of it so far suggests to me that it is heading in the right direction; there are a number of good provisions within the Climate Change Bill. I know there are amendments also being considered but our position is that we are very keen for central government to take this matter seriously. We are also keen that what follows is an action plan in terms of delivery in relation to that but as we were talking about a little bit earlier on there are concerns about the degree to which flooding will be more frequent than in the past and anything that can be done to reduce the consequences of that must be helpful.

  Q709  Lynne Jones: The proposal in the Bill is that the Government produces a report on identifying the need for adaptation and then later on a report on what policies should be.

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes.

  Q710  Lynne Jones: Is that adequate? Is there anything else that might improve it?

  Sir Michael Pitt: One of the things we discovered during our evaluations was the extent to which water companies or electricity companies, for example, were running their affairs without enough conversation taking place with local resilience forums, for example, sharing their information. We think that we need mechanisms that hold all organisations to account, both locally and nationally. It seems to us that this idea of having regular reports from those organisations to demonstrate how they are adapting and changing to changing climatic conditions is a really good thing.

  Q711  Lynne Jones: Should there be something in the Bill which requires the Government itself to seek out and identify where the risks are before producing its report or a requirement to consult with certain organisations over the need for adaptation?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think what is needed is a system which is self-improving. Whether we are talking about the water industry or the power industry the mechanisms in place for reviewing the extent to which they are investing in flood defences or flood risk management are such that they undertake that work anyway. It is good for them from a business point of view, for management point of view, that they are constantly reviewing the safety of their facilities. Also I think we need to have arrangements whereby their performance is being independently scrutinised. That is why we are bringing forward scrutiny at the local level. I think the provisions that we have just been talking about in the Bill might well provide a fall back for scrutiny at the national level. Hopefully those systems, operating together, will produce a much better outcome.

  Q712  Patrick Hall: With regard to adaptation to climate change already locked into the system, one of the first reports the Government will have before it, with regard to the Climate Change Bill and the adaptation element of it, will be your second follow up report. I am a little concerned from what you said earlier on about affordability that you will be second guessing the Government's job. It is the Government's job to determine national priority and to determine what is and what is not affordable. That determination will surely be better informed if independent reports such as yours tell it as it is rather than perhaps watering down what you think it should be because of your perception of what is affordable. I think it is very important to get that philosophical distinction clear because it is not just a theory, it could very much influence the independence and the power of the report which then links into adaptation, et cetera.

  Sir Michael Pitt: To make myself clear, we must tell it as it is but that advice must be qualified by a value for money analysis because clearly there are almost infinite demands for more flood defences in the country and only some of those proposals will be fully cost effective. We have to come to some sort of conclusion about what represents good value for money for society, for the community as a whole. It is then ultimately a government decision about whether they invest in the way we are recommending.

  Q713  Mr Drew: Are you monitoring the follow-up to the July floods and what happened in Hull and Sheffield previously to see in particular whether monies that were promised by central government are being delivered? My experience is that this is a usual place of argument between central and local government about who is paying what and is there really money flowing. Is that one of the things that you are doing?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We are now. We have had the terms of reference of the review extended to fully include the recovery phase so that is a change which happened around about Christmas time. We will now be looking at the costs of recovery, the extent to which local organisations are being financed and supported by central government and the quite complicated regime that currently exists for funding both the emergency works and expenses and the recovery costs.

  Q714  Chairman: When you produce your report you will become very knowledgeable about flooding; you will probably be one of the most knowledgeable people about every aspect of flooding in the country.

  Sir Michael Pitt: A flood tsar.

  Q715  Chairman: Yes, that is it, a flood tsar. If the Government offered you a position in the Environment Agency would you take the job?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think I would have to ask my wife that question.

  Q716  Mr Drew: In terms of the urgent 15 recommendations, is there movement on those? How do you carry those through? Obviously the other ones are going to be much longer term.

  Sir Michael Pitt: There is already movement taking place. We know that discussions have been taking place ever since we published the report on implementation. We know that the Secretary of State has accepted those 15 urgent recommendations. He did that in fact on the day of publication. More than that, we have told the organisations concerned that we will return to the issues of the 15 urgent recommendations on 31 March and we will be asking them the extent to which they have made the changes that we are requesting, so we are going to chase that up.

  Mr Hargreaves: We have been in regular dialogue with some of the key organisations like the Environment Agency and Defra; we are also sending members of our team out to the regional forums to talk about how local areas are implementing some of the urgent recommendations. Not everything in the urgent recommendations that is in the gift of government. As Michael says, come 31 March we will be able to make a public assessment of how well we are doing which will tell us something not only about the urgent recommendations but the general will of these organisations towards the review as a whole.

  Q717  Mr Drew: Moving onto legislation then, from all the evidence we have received the legislative framework is a bit of a mess and that has a huge impact on who takes responsibility. Do you think there is a need for a flood agency or do you think that the powers of the Environment Agency allied to the way it works with other bodies like British Waterways and Natural England are at least sufficient in essence?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We have not come forward with a proposal about a supremo organisation. What we are arguing is that the role of the Environment Agency needs to be amended. As you know at the moment they do not deal with surface water flooding and I think that is something that can be radically improved quite quickly. If I could turn to the legislation more generally, I think as this Committee may have heard from other sources, the legal framework is pretty unsatisfactory and it would be very helpful to all concerned if there could be a clarification of the legal position. Some aspects of the law are ambiguous; some are interpreted by different people in different ways. What we seem to have, I think, are gaps in accountability. When we talk to many members of the public the one thing that seemed to really anger them was the extent to which they could not identify the responsible organisation. Everybody seemed to be running for cover when the high costs of putting things right were being addressed.

  Q718  Mr Drew: To what extent would you say that this becomes even more of a problem the closer to the ground you get? Let me give you my feelings to see if you agree with them. When we were in the depths of the emergency in Gloucestershire Gold Command was set up. When there is a crisis spirit, to be fair, most reports, including your own, are fully complimentary about the level at which that crisis was handled. However, the closer you get to the ground you have all sorts of issues—this is something that has happened again to my area recently—the co-ordination at that level is absolutely key and you do not have a command structure, you just have people you are asking to do it but they are not quite sure what they have to do and they are not at all sure who they should be working with. Is that something that you recognise and you will be making some recommendations about?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes, indeed. I would like to join you in saying that when it came to the emergency the responders acted in the best possible way imaginable. Huge efforts in terms of recovery took place and I take my hat off to them. However, as we make clear in the report, I think the local organisations could have been better prepared. There needs to be more sharing of information. Category two responders which are water companies and electricity companies were too remote from the emergency at the beginning of the emergency and they need to participate in the planning of preparations for the next time it happens and to be there in Gold Command from day one rather than being brought in at a later stage. A whole series of chain reactions took place in Gloucestershire in particular where it started off with being a flooding problem but very quickly became a crisis around critical infrastructure and saving these extremely important sites. We think those are areas where some quite major improvements can be made.

  Q719  Mr Drew: To what extent can you drill down in terms of the legislation so that in a sense there is an identikit map that actually tells people at a fairly local level that there should be such a person as a flood warden and this person should have these powers, should be able to commandeer these facilities? Is that something you think is a role for legislation or is it basically common sense, except that common sense does not always work in every area all of the time?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think the legislation is there to provide a framework within which people can then make local decisions to give the right answers to these complicated questions. One of the things we discovered very quickly when travelling to different parts of the country was how the nature of flooding and circumstances varied so radically. If you look at the floods in Gloucestershire, for example, and compare them with what happened in Hull, there were two completely different situations demanding different responses from emergency services, for example. That is why we argued in the report very strongly for not just changes at the national level but also the changes at the local level. One of the recommendations there is for a much stronger role for local government, for councils, who of course have a very important and long term stake in their local communities, to be a key part to these preparations for these emergencies and also the scrutiny aspect which I referred to earlier.

  Chairman: We are going to adjourn the Committee for the vote. Would colleagues please be back in ten minutes. The Committee stands adjourned for the division.

The Committee suspended from 3.36pm to 3.46pm for a division in the House.

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