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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720 - 739)



  Q720  Chairman: Sir Michael, on the subject of finance the Government has made a great deal of the fact that it sees a rising trend in terms of the money that is going to be available for flood defence expenditure, principally to the Environment Agency. Is your final report going to conduct any kind of specific analysis on the size of that particular budget item?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We are looking at the scoring system. As you know, there is a scoring system for flood defences which is approved by central government and used by the Environment Agency. We are going to be reviewing that scheme to make sure we feel that it is appropriate. What that does is to give the schemes in a list of order of priority. The other issue then is around the total quantum of money which is spent, which is currently in the order of £600 million and we know it is rising year by year over the next few years. One of the points that we need to address is the extent to which we feel that that quantum of money is the right quantum or should be at some different level.

  Q721  Chairman: Are you going to take into account, for example, the construction industry inflation which appears to be a missing element in deciding how much net new expenditure will be available from within the rising envelope? Having done a calculation it would seem to me that there is very little at the end of brand new money that could be used for new projects in what is currently being proposed.

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think we have to take account of things like Baxter indices and the extent to which construction costs are moving ahead. At the moment it seems they are moving ahead more rapidly than the general rate of inflation so I think that has to be put into the calculations.

  Q722  Chairman: One of my parliamentary colleagues sent me an e-mail before we came today because he, for example, finds that looking at his constituency where there has been a lot of local flooding which he and local people, for example, attribute to poor surface drainage systems or—one of the issues we will come onto later—land owner maintenance of waterways and streams within their land. He asks who has the budget to deal with all of these small scale works when most of the focus is on big numbers like the £800 million or £600 million which goes to the Environment Agency. Is that an area which you are going to be commenting on?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes, it is. One of the things we feel quite strongly about is the need for proper inventories of the drainage system in each local authority area. Even now there is confusion about who is responsible for a particular ditch or pipe work or whatever and part of the proposals is that those inventories should be drawn up effectively, ownership should be clear, quality and standards of maintenance should be clear and who is responsible for that maintenance should be clear. I think just doing that alone will be a significant step forward.

  Q723  Chairman: In the financial analysis are you going to be able to adjudicate between the shifting positions of people like the Association of British Insurers who, on the one hand said a billion pounds would be good (drawing, I think, from the Foresight Report), then they welcomed the Government's £800 million, then they issued a press release just before they came to give evidence to us saying that it is back to a billion. Going back to the point that Mr Hall was making when he said no holes barred, no predetermined position, are you going to be able to come and give some guidance on what ought to be the global investment in flood defence, drawing on all the bodies of evidence which are available for example the Foresight Report which gave an indication that a billion would be the right number?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Certainly at this stage we have not got figures that we can give to the Committee today but we will be looking at those issues over the coming months. Indeed, we are in very close conversation with ABI in relation to insurance and we pay high regard to the understanding that has been reached between central government and the Association of British Insurers in relation to the amount of capital investment by central government and the degree to which the insurers will ensure that people can get cover for their property.

  Q724  Chairman: I suppose the difficulty we face with what you have done so far is that even in the 15 priority areas we do not know whether any of that costs any more money to implement. Do you know whether that is the case?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We have carefully selected those 15; in my judgment they can all be afforded within existing budgets.

  Q725  Chairman: In their agreement by government to those priorities do you implicitly assume that in spite of Defra's straining financial circumstances that will be the case?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I am making an assumption that those 15 priorities will be delivered. As we said earlier we will be measuring their progress by the end of March.

  Q726  David Lepper: In answering a question from Patrick Hall a little while ago you used the phrase "value for money".

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes.

  Q727  David Lepper: Is there the suggestion there that some of the expenditure which is currently going on flood management schemes and flood protection could perhaps be better used?

  Sir Michael Pitt: The first thing I would say is that the analysis I have seen so far of current levels of expenditure and current programmes is that they do offer very good value for money, exceptionally so. From that point of view one starts from the point that flood defences, if properly constructed and designed, then flood risk management is a very good thing and an area where the country does get good value for money. I have no evidence at this stage of schemes which have been carried out wastefully or unsatisfactorily.

  Q728  David Lepper: In one of your interim conclusions—I think it is number 28—you talk about the need for the Government planning 25 years ahead in terms of investment in flood risk management. I appreciate the fact that you are not going to talk about particular figures this afternoon, but is the importance of planning in that longer term rather than up to 2011 as is the case at the moment something which you are going to expand in your final report? Is it likely that will have a bill of some sort attached to it?

  Sir Michael Pitt: What you will not see is a programme of schemes. We are not going to try to identify the next 25 years' worth of investments. The main point here is that to undertake these major civil engineering projects, to ensure that they have planning approvals, that they have been properly evaluated and consultation has taken place, means that you need a long lead time. It is very helpful to the industry to know what schemes are coming forward and also to have a good understanding of the amounts of money which will be available in the foreseeable future. The advantage here of a long lead time is that we will get better value for money on each project than we would do if we are hastily pulling them together.

  Q729  David Lepper: Is it likely you will advise the Government on this area of public expenditure that it ought to be thinking more than three years ahead at a time?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think we have to wait and see what conclusions we come to on these financial matters. There have been quite a lot of questions on that today but I think that until the work has been done, until we have reached our conclusions, we are probably just about at the limit of what I can say.

  Q730  Lynne Jones: In your model for the management of surface water flooding you envisaged the Environment Agency being given overall strategic responsibility, with local authorities leading on management of surface water flooding and drainage at the local level.

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes.

  Q731  Lynne Jones: Could you perhaps say a few words about how you envisage this model working in practice?

  Sir Michael Pitt: The starting point is to look at forecasting and predicting where flooding will arise. At the moment there is a major gap in terms of being able to predict the implications of surface water flooding. We have a pretty good regime now for coastal flooding and for river flooding, but surface water flooding is a major problem. We know that the Met Office is looking at a much higher resolution in terms of their forecasting model and there is a problem about computer power. They are looking at something called a super computer. We understand that the modelling itself of what happens to water once it hits the ground is highly complex. However, I feel sure that if we are going to make some real in-roads here in terms of being able to protect property and protect lives we have to improve our ability to predict where flooding will arise to make sure that people are properly warned and can take the precautions they need to take. I want to put that right at the beginning of this because the response teams—Gold Command or whatever it might be—or those people making preparations for serious flooding must have available to them the best possible information about where the rain is going to fall, the intensity and the implications for individual streets within their urban areas. There is a lot of work still to be done on this and some people say to me that it is all far too difficult to do, but I take the view that this is important work and we must make progress in this area. Even if for a while our estimates are very approximate they will be better than the ones we have just now. That is the first part. The second part is about this local leadership issue. I am not saying that the local authorities have to do all the work themselves; what I am saying is that they should be accountable to their local populations for ensuring that that work is being done. I would expect the local authorities to be relying very heavily upon the Environment Agency for different tools and techniques for measuring what would happen in their particular area if there is an intensive rainfall. I would expect there to be more resilience planning, more testing of different flood scenarios so that the emergency services are working at exercising with other local organisations. I would expect them to identify the critical infrastructure sites, to know which of those are vulnerable. Then ultimately the elected councillors of those authorities, through a process of scrutiny, would call into account the top management of different companies and other organisations involved.

  Q732  Chairman: You have described the co-ordination of a lot of bodies in a very interesting way. I note that in the Government's 2005 response to the consultation Making Space for Water it said the same thing, it said that a joined up approach to drainage management should be pursued in high risk areas. Two years on it has not happened. Do you hope your recommendation will actually happen when the Government, for two years, seem for whatever reason to have failed to make it happen?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I see the Government placing a legal duty on local authorities to undertake this work.

  Q733  Lynne Jones: That would be the checking of the infrastructure and what other tasks? Do you envisage this requirement in this new Flooding Act that you propose?

  Sir Michael Pitt: That is absolutely right. I have to say to you that local authorities now have been quite seriously denuded or professional expertise in the water area. The loss of water agencies, the privatisation of a great deal of engineering work I think presents us with a serious problem. We have to face up to this that many local authorities are not currently well equipped to carry out this work. One of the aspects of the second report will be looking at the consequences of this new duty on local government, the extent to which they would need to recruit a small number of very senior engineers who fully understand how drainage systems work and could stand toe to toe with senior management in water companies or in electricity companies or whatever to ensure that when scrutiny of those arrangements takes place the elected councillors are properly briefed.

  Q734  Lynne Jones: Do you envisage that that will require additional resources for local authorities?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes, I do.

  Q735  Lynne Jones: They need to have the ability to be intelligent commissioners and have oversight.

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes, and that is something we are discussing with the Local Government Association and we are meeting them again to talk through the implications.

  Q736  Lynne Jones: Have you looked at the way they do it in any other countries? France is considered to be a good model. We give a lot of responsibility to the Environment Agency and many people think that the Environment Agency has enough on its plate to cope with. Have you looked at the way it is dealt with in other countries and perhaps considered a greater role at the regional level?

  Sir Michael Pitt: We are thinking about whether or not we should go to one or two other places, perhaps in Europe or elsewhere, to check out how they deal with some of these problems. If we can find countries where they have made real advances in these areas then I think it would be well-worth spending some time there during the next three months.

  Lynne Jones: We went to Lyon and it was very interesting. They are well in advance of us in terms of their understanding of the local areas and where the susceptibilities are.

  Q737  Mr Gray: You talk a bit in your report about modelling; surely the Environment Agency has produced loads of models of the years with regards to surface water and the likelihood of it causing a problem. What is wrong with the current models?

  Sir Michael Pitt: The work of the Environment Agency has focussed heavily on coastal flooding and river flooding and that is where they have very high levels of expertise. Interestingly their terms of reference do not include surface water flooding and this is an area where we need to improve our expertise and our ability to model how water moves. When it does not penetrate the ground it is skidding along the surface because the ground has become saturated or because the ground has been largely paved over as a consequence of development or urban creep as it is called.

  Q738  Mr Gray: Is there a difference in modelling between the summer and winter? Presumably most traditional studies in these subjects have been in regards to winter flooding. Would there be a particular difference in terms of doing it in regards to summer?

  Sir Michael Pitt: There are differences, yes, and you are right to say that most flooding in the past has tended to be during the winter months and again this was something which was new and surprising about the major floods that we had last year. There are issues, for example drainage channels can often be overgrown with weeds much more so in the summer than they are in the winter; the extent to which ground is permeable can depend a lot on agricultural conditions at that time of year so there will be variables that will change between the summer months and the winter months.

  Q739  Mr Gray: We have heard evidence that one of the greatest single causes of urban flooding, particularly in summer, is the hard tarmacking over people's front gardens, a new phenomenon in the last 20 or 30 years. What can be done to prevent that?

  Sir Michael Pitt: One of the interim conclusions which we have reached in the report is that the automatic right of any householder to pave over their garden should be removed unless they use permeable materials. What we are saying is that if somebody wants to concrete their driveway or concrete their garden, front or back, that would require planning approval from the local authority and, if necessary, an opportunity for the Environment Agency or somebody to step in and say that this is a bad move. The obvious answer for any householder is to use permeable materials; they would have the same effect in terms of being able to get their car off the highway but without causing the consequential problems with surface water run-off.

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