Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2008
One of the things that intrigues memaybe part two will
deal with thatis 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.
Even if the costing of your shopping listif we can put
your 72 interim conclusions in that waycomes 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
Sir Michael Pitt: I am absolutely
keen that the report is realistic, challengingperhaps challenging
to central governmentbut also regarded as affordable in
the terms of the costs of the recommendations that we come forward
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
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 spentto take to
its extremeby using the word "affordable" you
are saying that you might not do that. Is that not right?
Sir Michael Pitt: Ifand
we are being very hypothetical herewe 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.
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 floodingwe 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 peoplethey 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
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 beand
would have to bemanaged 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
countryboth nationally and locallycan 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.
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,
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.
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.
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 issuesthis is something that has happened again
to my area recentlythe 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.