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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740 - 756)



  Q740  Mr Gray: What about rights of property and rights of the individual to do what they want to do with their own land? I understand the benefits from all that but do you not think that having the Government saying, "You can't actually put concrete down your garden unless we give you permission", that is the nanny state gone bonkers, is it not?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think on this one I am going to have to disagree with you. I think the consequences of paving over gardens are cumulatively very serious and something needs to be done to bring that under control.

  Q741  Lynne Jones: Do you envisage it being permissible to use porous materials without requiring permission?

  Sir Michael Pitt: Yes, that would be automatic.

  Q742  Paddy Tipping: I represent a rural area and there is a strong view around that the water courses and drains are not being properly maintained. Given the unprecedented nature of the flooding last summer is this a real complaint or is it a myth?

  Sir Michael Pitt: One has to be very careful about how you answer this question because many, many people we spoke to were very angry about what they regarded as lack of maintenance, that the local council had not cleared the gullies, the Environment Agency had not dredged a particular river or stream. You can understand this and I am quite sure that lack of maintenance can lead to local problems. Individual or small numbers of properties can be flooded; fields can become flooded as a direct consequence of poor maintenance. When you move away from the local position and look at the strategic position about flooding, sometimes maintenance can make things worse. I am fascinated by this idea of what we call "slow water"; slow water is a good thing, fast water is potentially difficult for people further down stream. I am arguing that maintenance, when it is carried out, has to be carried out with a very detailed understanding of the implications and in some case maintenance is absolutely vital to make sure that the system operates effectively; in other cases it probably will not make much difference or could even make things worse.

  Q743  Paddy Tipping: Just talking about who is responsible for water courses in rural areas, the Environment Agency is responsible for water courses over a certain size that are designated, but it is riparian owners for the rest. Do you think that riparian owners are, first of all, aware of their responsibility and, secondly, as I understand it, local authorities have reserved powers to do work. Is that a satisfactory situation?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I do not think the position now is entirely satisfactory. One of the reasons why it is not terribly satisfactory is that nobody is taking this strong overview of what needs to be done and what perhaps does not need to be done. That comes back again to this point about drawing up inventories of drainage and having the local authorities directly involved in looking at the whole system in their local area. I come from a farming family; farmers know a great deal about the drainage in their locality. Most farmers are very thorough in ensuring that their ditches are cleared and that things are done properly on their farms, but that is not always the case. Also you can get urban situations where a lot of landowners have a little bit to do with a particular part of the drainage system. This is very complex and it comes back again to this problem about complexity, accountability, who is responsible and why the public become so frustrated when there are problems.

  Q744  Mr Drew: I would like to pick up the point about the problem in trying to take one measure which alleviates an immediate problem, it has major ramifications. Going back to my earlier question, is this something that really only the law can sort out or is it, as we saw in France to some extent it has been overcome because of the way in which the commune has much greater authority over land ownership; it will not have any of this nonsense saying that householder A should not do this because of the impact on householder B, it will do what is best for that community. How do we resolve those sorts of issues in this country?

  Sir Michael Pitt: During the review so far we have come across a number of intriguing examples of how one simple part of the drainage system can involve multiple interests: the riparian owners, the Environment Agency, water companies. Water can be travelling on its route through various owners of that particular bit of infrastructure and I think this is presenting us all with major problems. I do not have a quick, slick answer to that problem; I think it is something we need to spend a bit more time looking into. Individual cases turn out to be extremely complex. We were hearing about one this morning where to really understand what was taking place took about 15 or 20 minutes of description and it is trying to find solutions to those difficulties which I think we have yet to solve.

  Mr Hargreaves: It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the answer to this is simply to take away the responsibility from all the individuals and organisations and so forth and put them in the hands of a single agency. Actually, if you go down that road, that single agency becomes terribly overburdened and struggles to deliver what people expect and faces many of the same problems in terms of not being able to meet public demands for maintenance and so forth. The answer is probably less about just piling everything into the same organisation and more about opening up the process of transparency, consistency and proper oversight.

  Q745  David Taylor: Three members of this Committee—James Gray, David Drew and myself—went to Gloucestershire to see the events that were so disastrous in the Gloucester and Tewkesbury areas and we went round the Severn Trent Mythe Water Treatment Plant which was directly affected by flooding and that took a third of a million of people off water for ten to 17 days. Talking to staff it was very, very close indeed to 600,000 people in the Gloucester area losing their power and producing a short-term dark ages scenario for people affected. One of the most effective and well-argued chapters in your report is the one on critical infrastructure, chapter six. On page 102 at figure 16 you produce a strategic framework for protecting critical infrastructure and I wondered if you could explain a little bit more how what you are suggesting improves on what we have at the moment. I think it has been mentioned before that when we went to Lyon we talked to the city authorities there not about critical infrastructure particularly but some of their arrangements seemed immensely complicated and dependent on high levels of co-operation between separate organisations. This to me has a similar resonance.

  Sir Michael Pitt: The emergency services, Gold Command and others were surprised by the extent to which these sites of critical infrastructure were at such risk from flooding. During the emergency they were discovering almost day by day the implications of these sites. I do not think we should ever let that happen again. Part of the answer to your question is ensuring that local responders fully understand which sites are within their areas, just how vulnerable they are to flooding, the extent to which either the water or power companies have alternative arrangements in place if there is an emergency (sometimes they have alternative circuits for getting electricity and power or alternative sources of tap water supplies that can be laid on) and all of that needs to be deeply understood by the locality. That is the area where I think we need to do much more work. There has to be much more planning, much more engagement of what I call the category two organisations under the Civil Contingencies Act so that they are involved in discussions in advance of the next flood about what is going to happen "if". That, if you like, is one of the fundamental aspects of these proposals which would be different to what happened in Gloucestershire last summer.

  Mr Hargreaves: The big deficiency at the moment in terms of the institutional arrangements is that if you look at terrorism there is an organisation called the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure whose job is to collect from government departments and others a sense of the vulnerability and criticality of infrastructure sites across the country and then take that information and overlay onto it their understanding of the risks that terrorism poses so they can then get advice to organisations about what they might do. What we do not have is a similar set up for natural hazards, for non-terrorist risk and what we are talking about here is something that moves further down that road. So you have a body which takes the diverse range of information that is scattered across government, across the private sector, at local levels as well and brings it together and starts overlaying onto that criticality and vulnerability data information about which areas are likely to flood or which areas are likely to suffer from severe weather.

  Q746  David Taylor: So the existing organisational infrastructure for dealing with likely events of this kind, you are arguing needs to be broadened geographically to set it into a number of regional contexts perhaps as well a national context. Is that what you are saying?

  Mr Hargreaves: It is making sure that this information about which sites are particularly vulnerable to flooding is held consistently at the centre of government but then shared more widely so that people at the local level also understand which sites in their areas are vulnerable, but you use the same structure up and down the chain so it is not the case that government is terribly concerned about Mythe because it knows about Mythe because it has talked to Severn Trent but the local authority or the local police force simply have no idea because it is just not on their radar screen.

  Q747  David Taylor: It does require over the years a high degree of co-operation between very distinct organisations in the private and public sector and so on. Are you confident that that structure will catalyse such co-operation.

  Mr Hargreaves: Essentially it works for terrorism and you can use that model. You can say flooding is a different kind of risk but the institutional framework, the communication, the dialogue between the private and public sectors and between the centre and local levels works and so adapting that model and broadening it is probably the right answer and certainly what we put in the report.

  Q748  Chairman: I think it was 2004 when the Foresight Report came out and it alerted everybody to possible extreme weather events. The flooding in 2007 came along three years later and everyone went, "Oh, critical infrastructure; we need to protect it". Do you think that the utility companies were derelict in their duty in not having carried out an appraisal exercise for risk taking into account the timely warning of the then chief scientist?

  Sir Michael Pitt: What we are inviting the water companies and the power companies to do—and what I think they are already doing—is to review their priorities. They have an issue about their financial regulators; the financial regulators like Ofwat are there to ensure that the bills to consumers are payable, that people can afford to pay for their water and likewise that they can pay for their electricity. The companies have this balancing act to do between how much can they invest in protecting their infrastructure and to what extent will they be permitted to increase their charges to consumers. What we are looking for here is a change in priorities. We are saying that flood risk now is a higher priority than we thought it was previously and that those companies now need to review all of their infrastructure, look at their investment programmes and decide whether they need to invest more money in protecting those critical infrastructure sites. I think almost certainly they do.

  Q749  David Taylor: You make a good number of interim conclusions and a block of four of them relate to this very area, 55 to 58. You talk about imposing a duty for infrastructure operators to have business continuity planning; contributing information on critical sites and share it with other operators; single points of failure; and participating fully in Gold and Silver Command structures. Is it the case that we really do need a whole range of new responsibilities or, as the Chairman has implied, are the existing obligations that they have are properly delivered and professionally complied with? That seems to be the core of what went wrong in Gloucestershire in July.

  Sir Michael Pitt: The obligations placed on the companies by the Civil Contingencies Act for category two organisations like the companies are less than the obligations on category one organisations like local authorities and the Environment Agency. What we are arguing in this report is that we need to look again at the framework that category two organisations operate within. They did comply with their obligations as category two companies; this is no longer sufficient given the degree of flooding we had during the summer last year and we need to have now much closer involvement of those companies in flood risk planning and involvement when there is an emergency.

  Q750  David Taylor: The Civil Contingencies Act allows the Government presumably to designate to new areas the category two groups that you have talked about, so it does not need new legislation, does it?

  Sir Michael Pitt: No, but it needs a revision to the regulation.

  Q751  Mr Drew: Can we talk about another aspect of planning which of course is planning for development? Some of us are increasingly concerned that not only do we have infrastructure in the wrong place but we have houses—if not some communities—in the wrong place. To what extent do you think the Government needs to be much more robust in its approach towards planning? Floodplains have traditionally been good places to develop, much easier than on hills but more particularly they are easier for transport links, they are easier for larger factories and so on. Do we really need to rethink some of this? Is it possible that there are existing planning permissions that have been given that at the very least need to be very carefully evaluated before they are allowed to be continued? Is that something you are looking at?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I find it quite an experience going to relatively new housing which was built in flood risk areas where the bottoms of the houses have had to be totally gutted, where the residents there are still out of their homes as a direct consequence of flooding, and yet these properties are just a few years old. I think it is quite distressing when that takes place. I think there should be a strong presumption against building in any flood risk areas at all. If there has to be building in areas of flood risk then we want provisions in PPS25 absolutely applied and those provisions I think are much stronger and better than they have ever been before. That puts a real obligation on developers and planners to ensure that development in the flood plain only takes place as a last resort and if it does have to take place that there are the proper evaluations of flood risk, that sustainable drainage systems are introduced and applied and, in particular, I feel very strongly about the nature of construction, that it is now easily possible to harden buildings against flooding, to make them resistant and resilient to flooding. I feel very strongly about this and I suspect in volume two we might be even more firm about this particular aspect.

  Q752  Mr Drew: Would your views also hold to the extent that the danger with planning is that you could give permission in an area that is not necessarily flood plain but because your issue—which I totally understand—about what we want is slow water, that the danger is it is the law of unintended consequences. An area upstream which apparently has no flooding problems whatsoever is built on and then all of a sudden two miles down that valley, places that historically have never flooded, start to flood very seriously. It is the people downstream who will pay for it because it has not been thought through. My final point is about the role of the Environment Agency in this. The Environment Agency at the moment has only advisory powers when it comes to making recommendations to local development committees. Do you think that they should now have greater power to say that this is an inappropriate development, we will not support it and if it goes ahead because you give planning permission you, as an authority, could be liable in the future?

  Sir Michael Pitt: The first point first on new developments and developers, there is an obligation on developers to ensure that if they are proposing housing for example in an area which might not be at immediate flood risk but nevertheless could have consequential effects further downstream, they prepare flood risk management plans. In other words, those possibilities are fully evaluated long before any planning permission is given at all. The local planning authority would expect to see those plans and the Environment Agency would have an opportunity to review those plans to make sure that technically they are up to standard. The Environment Agency already has a right to be consulted on all planning applications and also has a right to ask for those planning applications to be called in by ministers for a planning inquiry and then ultimately refusal by ministers if need be. That is a relatively new power available to the Environment Agency. I think it is pretty effective; it ought to work. We ought to test it for a while and if we find that there are significant planning applications slipping through the system then I would like those powers to be strengthened even further. I think the Environment Agency is very well placed to make a judgment about whether new development is appropriate at all or properly designed if it does take place.

  Mr Hargreaves: PPS25 does make a significant difference to the way that developers and local authorities will have to operate and require them to consider not only the effects at site level but also at a local and regional level. There are a whole series of other fairly stringent aspects to PPS25 but it will take time for it to bed in; it has only been in place for around 14 or 15 months and to judge PPS25 against last summer's events is not really fair to PPS25 and we need to give it time because a lot of the things we are talking about here are actually in PPS25.

  Q753  Mr Drew: Should there ever be a retrospective power, where clearly a mistake has been made, to try to deal with that mistake at least by preventing future development because, as you well know, the problem with planning is that once you have agreed some houses you will almost certainly get more houses, even though those houses may be flooded. It is still not impossible in this country to continue to do that with all the ways in which various developers will give you assurances that this will be okay in the future. Should there be a retrospective power, where there is a problem we try to do something about it?

  Sir Michael Pitt: There are already many existing problems with current developments that have taken place in the past. It becomes increasingly difficult, I think, to unravel those problems once those awful mistakes have been made. I think the only way forward here is to take each planning application on its merits and to then deal with it in the rigorous way that we have been describing.

  Q754  Lynne Jones: In what way do you think that the modelling and mapping which clearly needs to be done will inform the planning process? One system that operates in France is that there are certain areas which are red zoned, where no planning permission is allowed; others are blue zoned where each case is looked at on its merits; and white zones where it is up to the planning authority to decide. Do we need to move towards that system? Have we got the necessary information to do that and how long do you think we might take to move to such a system if it were recommended?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I think you may have sensed from some of my earlier answers that I am a great believer in the importance of modelling and mapping. We know, for example, that the Environment Agency is able to identify what have been called "hotspots", places which, because of their geography and topography, are very likely to be areas where flash flooding can take place and those are places which can be identified on maps and can be taken into account by the local planning authority. Just standing back from the detail here, what are we saying? What we are saying is that we want more technical analysis and intellectual power applied to these issues of flooding, that we should not be caught out by mistakes, errors of judgment; organisations need to be much better informed about the implications of their decisions and in particular the implications of new developments.

  Q755  Mr Gray: Sir Michael, your chair will be occupied in a short time this afternoon by the Regional Flood Defence Committees who will be giving evidence to this Committee. Rather curiously they are not even mentioned in your interim report. None of your recommendations touched on them. What would you ask them if you were in our position?

  Sir Michael Pitt: I am due to meet them shortly so I will have the opportunity to ask the questions directly. What I would say to them is what I am saying to a large number of organisations and individuals and that is here is our report, these are the conclusions we have reached as of Christmas, how do you feel about the report? What are the things you would want to support? Are there areas where you think we have made a mistake? Do we need to extend our evaluations? I think probably the question I would like you to ask them—I will have a chance to do it myself later—is whether they feel that this report is heading in the right direction, is it good for the country? That is the main thing. Are there any improvements that they could recommend to the report?

  Q756  Chairman: Sir Michael, Mr Hargreaves, thank you very much for your contributions. Obviously we have looked with interest at your interim report. It is a bit like being at the cinema, we have had the forthcoming attractions so we are looking later in the year for the main feature when you come up with your recommendations. I hope by then we will have reported so that you will be able to take into account what we have said and blend it in with what you have said. By that time we will have the ultimate, all singing dancing answer to every question known to man on flooding and therefore we can confidently predict, I am sure you will agree, that there will be no more in the future. Thank you very much indeed for your contribution; we greatly appreciate it.

  Sir Michael Pitt: Thank you all very much indeed.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 7 May 2008