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


Memorandum submitted by the Chairmen of Regional Flood Defence Committees in England (FL 63)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    —  This summer's floods were the worst in England for more than half a century, with a much greater impact than in Autumn 2000.

    —  They cannot be attributed directly to climate change, but are consistent with the changes that are predicted.

    —  Flood defences mostly did the job they were designed to do, but were in many places inadequate to cope with the floods that occurred.

    —  Past investment has therefore paid off, but much more will be needed particularly, if as predicted, extreme weather events become more frequent, and as sea levels rise.

    —  Greater mobile heavy pumping capacity is needed and should be stored at strategic locations from which it can be moved quickly to help deal with major flood incidents.

    —  Surface water and river flooding combined. Better joint planning of investment in drainage systems and responses to extreme rainfall events is needed.

    —  Pooling of resources and joint planning is likely to be more effective than reorganisation of agencies

    —  Both regulation and incentives to voluntary action have a role in helping prepare for flood risk and increasing resilience to it

    —  The Government's announcement of £200 million more for flood defence in 2010-11 is very welcome

    —  However a clear commitment to additional resources over the next two years is essential to bring forward delayed capital schemes which are ready to start

    —  Whilst it will never be possible to prevent all flooding, a failure to invest more in adapting to this obvious and tangible risk from the changing climate will cost the country and the economy dearly.

    —  Given the pressure on public funds, partnership approaches to funding should be encouraged.

REGIONAL FLOOD DEFENCE COMMITTEES

  1.  This note by the Chairmen of the Regional Flood Defence Committees in England (RFDCs) responds to the Committee's request for written submissions to their enquiry on flooding. There are eleven statutory RFDCs made up of an independent Chair and a number of appointees by the Secretary of State for the Environment, and the Environment Agency (EA), together with members of local authorities in the region (who comprise the majority). RFDCs advise the EA on its plans and priorities for flood risk management investment (FRM) in the region, approve its business plan and account to the Agency and to DEFRA for the stewardship of FRM resources. Committees also raise a levy on local authorities for investment in local schemes. Amounts of levy vary from region to region, but in total amount to some £25 million in the current year.

BACKGROUND

  2.  The summer saw the worst flooding in England since 1953. The impact in Yorkshire, the Midlands and parts of the South West and Central Southern England was significantly greater than in autumn 2000. Those floods were described by Ministers at the time as a "wake-up call" and that message is being repeated forcibly now. What is all the more surprising is that the floods stem from heavy and prolonged summer rainfall across wide areas of the country. This is not flash flooding as a result of localised storms that might be expected in the summer, but rather the kind of event we associate with autumn or winter conditions. In addition too many communities, especially those without proper defences, are seeing repeat flooding far too frequently.

  3.  So whilst it may not be possible to ascribe recent flooding to changing climate, the severity and increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions are entirely consistent with the thrust of climate change predictions. If anything the occurrence of extreme weather events seems to be increasing sooner than predictions might have led us to expect.

THE EVENT

  4.  Existing defences generally worked as they were designed to do. There were very few failures although of course in many places defences were simply inadequate to cope with the sheer volume of water the heavy rain produced. Without these assets, flood damage and loss of life would have been much worse. In other words, previous investment in flood defences is paying off. Notwithstanding the uncertainty that attaches to a different climate, it is likely that new investment in new defences will also provide a good return. We believe that that DEFRA's recent "zero based review" reached the same conclusion.

  5.  Although the warnings of imminent flooding in the affected catchments were generally timely and reasonably accurate, this was not universally the case. In particular there were still difficulties in providing adequate warnings of the onset of flooding in areas of the heaviest rainfall, and immediately downstream from them, particularly where a combination of surface water and river flooding occurred. There is a case to develop warning services for areas that are prone to ponding or where surface drains are known to be inadequate in heavy rain.

  6.  Emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency, the water companies and local authorities generally responded well, in spite of the fact that flood response plans were not in some places designed to deal with the scale or particular nature of the floods that took place. That said we have come across instances of inadequate co-ordination.

  7.  Although additional pumping capacity was sourced relatively quickly, a faster response in this regard could have brought real benefits. Fire service pumps are helpful but generally do not have the capacity to deal with the scale of incident seen this summer. For example the Environment Agency brought very high volume pumps to assist in Yorkshire from the South West, the only region to have such machines available. Thought needs to be given to acquiring and storing emergency high volume pumps in a number of strategic locations around the country so they can be brought on stream very quickly. This will require investment in both the pumps themselves and in preparing sites for their installation where it is reasonable to expect a need for emergency capacity, but where there is no economic case for a permanent pumping facility.

  8.  The impact of surface water was very great. Increasingly intense rainfall events are overwhelming the capacity of drainage systems, especially in urban areas. So investment to improve that capacity is now an imperative. This is clearly an issue for other sectors too, including local government and the water industry, and requires a joint approach to planning the investment in drainage infrastructure (see below).

PLANNING

  9.  The combination of different sources of flooding is likely to be an ongoing issue as rainfall events become more intense. This produces challenges for a number of different agencies. It is likely that much more could be achieved through a pooling of manpower and material resources at least, through joint planning.. Although the number of responsible bodies compounds the problem we do not believe that it is feasible or sensible to try to integrate in some single body the flood related responsibilities of local authorities, the water companies and the Environment Agency. Indeed far reaching organizational change could make matters worse. The focus should be on better planning, to encompass both investment and resilience. This needs in particular to focus on urban areas and to consider how to manage the impact in all our towns and cities of rainfall events of similar scale to those in June and July.

  10.  In handling existing risks, the permissive powers of the operating authorities, including the EA, already confer some responsibility.. The introduction by DEFRA and the EA of Outcome Measures and Targets will help provide clearer and more tangible outputs, although as currently formulated they are incomplete and their effectiveness will inevitably depend upon the resources that are made available. The true costs of managing risks are not seen by those that cause or live with them; insurance diffuses such costs at present.

  11.  The EU Floods Directive and Civil Contingencies Act may provide stimuli for multi-agency planning and action, but mechanisms will be needed to ensure that this happens in practice. Regulation also has a part to play and for minimising future risks, PPS25 needs to be applied rigorously and the use of Strategic Flood Risk Assessments (SFRA) should be compulsory wherever there is a prima facie evidence of a significant risk from any source. Development proposals that do not deal properly with flood risk should be turned down. Incentives to voluntary action are also important and might be put in place through the Building Regulations and Code for Sustainable Homes, for example. Grants might be made available to assist householders to install flood resistance and resilience measures.

  12.  There is a need to think through better and plan for the threat to key infrastructure. For example a higher level of protection might have prevented the loss of the water treatment works which deprived much of Gloucestershire of fresh water. We also came very close to losing all power in most of Sheffield and Rotherham for an extended period. We therefore welcome the Government's intention to require flood defence plans for key infrastructure.

MAINTENANCE

  13.  Asset maintenance is critical. Many flood defence assets were damaged and need repair. This will have to be a priority for the Environment Agency. It is essential however that the unexpected costs, which we understand to be around £20 million, do not lead to further delays in much needed capital investment to bring forward new schemes. The EA does not hold reserves and does not have the benefit of Bellwin arrangements. These costs therefore should be a call on the national contingency reserve.

RESOURCES

  14.  Longer term it is inevitable that more resources will be needed to deal with these issues. We recognise that this is not easy and competition for public funds is intense. However flood frequency is increasing. Rising sea levels and the growing intensity of extreme weather events mean that this will continue and may accelerate over coming decades. Whilst it will never be possible to prevent all flooding, a failure to invest more in adapting to this key risk of the changing climate will rapidly come to cost the country and the economy dearly.

  15.  We therefore strongly welcome the Government's commitment to increase FRM investment to £800 million a year in 2010-11. However with construction industry costs rising at around 7-8%, well above the level of inflation, the three years between now and then will substantially erode the value of this increase. The likelihood that the increase will also be spread amongst many different bodies—the EA, DEFRA, internal drainage boards and local authorities—may diminish impact. And as noted above in the short term the EA and others face substantial bills to pay for flood response and repairs to damaged assets. Pressure on resources already means that there would be few if any new starts on capital schemes, although there are many at an advanced state of planning which could be delivered quickly. The combined effect of these factors is that the public may not see much difference on the ground for some years. Confidence in our determination to improve flood protection will be at risk, especially if further serious flooding occurs.

  16.  The Government's recent Foresight study suggested a need for an annual engineering FRM investment of around £1 billion. The commitment to increase total FRM expenditure to £800 million in 2010 is therefore a good step in the right direction, but more is likely to be needed. Only a significant increase in resources will enable the country to put in place a properly funded long term programme of investment in better flood risk management. This is not just about new capital schemes but also involves asset maintenance, improved forecasting and warning systems, better planning and resilience not least around essential infrastructure. As we state above it also needs to encompass joint planning and investment to deal with the combination of river and surface water flooding.

  17.  Bearing these points in mind we think it essential that the Government commits to year on year increases in FRM investment up to 2010-11and ideally beyond, or at least a clear direction of travel thereafter. During CSR2007, the increases need to be large enough to do two things. First the national capital programme should be given a new kickstart by bringing forward capital schemes in the pipeline which have been delayed or postponed. Secondly they should enable the necessary design and preparatory work to be carried out to ensure the most effective investment in new capital projects as the full additional £200 million comes on stream in 2010-11. Thereafter funding should recognise the recommendations of the Foresight Report (DT1, April 2004, www.foresight.gov.uk ).

  18.  It is also important to look at different sources of funding, and approaches to partnership funding arrangements with both public bodies and the private sector, including of course the water industry as well as developers, should be promoted.

CONCLUSION

  19.  We hope these initial observations will be useful to the Committee and we would be glad to elaborate on them in presenting oral evidence if the Committee so wishes.

Mike Bateman, South East
Robert Caudwell, Anglia Northern
Anthony Coe, Anglia Eastern
Tim Farr, Midlands
Clive Gronow, South West
Frank Major, Northumbria
Sinclair McCleod, North West
Bob Price, Anglia Central
Peter Ryder, Thames
Humphrey Temperley, Wessex
Jeremy Walker, Yorkshire
Chairmen of Regional Flood Defence Committees in England

August 2007





 
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