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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 779)

WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2008

MR JEREMY WALKER, DR PETER RYDER AND MR TIM FARR

  Q760  Chairman: You heard Sir Michael being very strong about building in flood plains just before he left and you represent Thames. What do you think about the Thames Gateway? Is it now being built in the right place or should we get rid of it?

  Dr Ryder: That is a very harsh question.

  Q761  Chairman: It is; that is why I had to ask it.

  Dr Ryder: Clearly the area where the Thames Gateway development is to take place is amongst the best defended parts of the country by the one in a thousand year present time standard. That is one issue certainly to be taken into account. The work that is going on in the Thames Estuary—the 2100 Project which I hope you have heard about—is actually looking to see out to the end of this century whether that is safe and sensible. The conclusion is that there are things that can be done to maintain at least that level of protection. I think if we are to have development in an area that is at any risk at all then it is hard to see why that area should not be a candidate.

  Q762  Chairman: In paragraph four of your evidence you say, "There were very few failures" (this is talking about existing flood defences) "although of course in many places defences were simply inadequate to cope with the sheer volume of water the heavy rain produced". From your collective point of view how would you explain to members of the public what they ought to be protected from and what they have to take their chances with?

  Mr Walker: Going back to the defences themselves, it is the case that a lot were tested and there were very, very few physical or power failures. Around 1,000 kilometres of defences were tested during the floods and although they did not fail about half that length of defence was overtopped, the water came over. That was down principally to the fact that they are built to a design standard which was not designed to cope with quite the amount of rain that we had during the summer event. Going on to how to explain where you put the defences and where not to put them, I do think the broad thrust of the approach we have at the moment is right, which is to get the best balance you can between the costs—in a constrained resource situation—of making investment in a defence in the first place and the benefits that it is likely to bring. The ones that get the highest score on that ratio are where you should put your money first. Over a period of time you move, as it were, down the list and you progressively pick off those with lower cost benefit ratios.

  Mr Farr: In the Midlands Region you will find exactly that exemplified because the capital schemes are prioritised on a national basis but you get quite a volatile pattern of spending in terms of what towns or cities are actually to be protected in your particular region. If a scheme goes through it is because it has met national targets rather than being a local priority.

  Q763  David Taylor: Mr Farr, what is the definition of "Midlands"? Does it include, for instance, North Gloucestershire and Tewkesbury? Does it include Upton-on-Severn?

  Mr Farr: Actually the committee is known as the Severn Trent Committee; it is two separate committees that developed and years ago merged. It is the Severn and the Trent catchment with some complications on the Welsh borders.

  Q764  David Taylor: Have you made any recommendations in relation to Upton-on-Severn in recent times and do you have any observations about work that may or may not have been recommended in relation to Tewkesbury, both of which are in your area?

  Mr Farr: I picked up on your first point about frustration and I suppose going back to that I would at some point be expected to allude to temporary defences which have to be distinguished very clearly from the demountable defences. Upton is obviously the highest profile of those places enjoying—if that is the right word—temporary defences. In fact, as it happened, about a year ago the Regional Advisory Panel (that is various groups of people who sit in similar positions to ourselves) were looking at ways in which we might devolve the responsibility for the use of those temporary defences—the deployment of them, the storage and the general management of them to bodies—closer to the scene of the event. Obviously everyone will be familiar with the experience of the defences being held up on the M5 and the difficulties surrounding that. I very strongly welcome Sir Michael Pitt's approach in terms of the direction he is going to, taking responsibility as far he can towards the local communities and local authorities. The Environment Agency is essentially a top down organisation and it struggles, I think, both in terms of resource and mindset to reach and deal with some of the bottom up issues which are, in many cases, extremely parochial and miss the radar until, of course, an event like we had last summer emerges and there are no end of examples of where things would and could have been done better. I think again preparation is key. My feeling as far as Upton-on-Severn is concerned is that it is a good example of where temporary defences have a value but they need to be put in a longer term context. The model, for example, in Scandinavian countries is that most of these are managed at a community level and they take most responsibility for it. I think there has been concern in the Agency that the organisation and preparedness of the emergency services and the local authorities is not adequate enough to allow them that responsibility at this stage. Again I think Sir Michael Pitt is on to that in trying to return some of the expertise in terms of drainage flooding issues to local authorities.

  Q765  David Taylor: What about Tewkesbury, Mr Farr?

  Mr Farr: The area flood risk manager in Tewkesbury had to actually override the modelling information he was getting because the speed at which the river was rising was greater than the model could adapt to and could take on board. Human instinct kicked in and very wisely said, "I think something's coming here, we've got to move forward". I am afraid that Tewkesbury is an example of a town that is on the confluence of two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and it is probably always going to have a problem. In certain circumstances, particularly when the Severn fills and some of it is actually water returning back up the Severn, Tewkesbury is in a very bad location in terms of its long term prognosis.

  Q766  David Taylor: Do you advise the Environment Agency on their flood risk management policy and projects in the region?

  Mr Farr: Yes.

  Q767  David Taylor: Did you have any recent recommendation or analysis of the vulnerability of Tewkesbury prior to the flooding?

  Mr Farr: Not specifically. There was not something that everyone was aware of. I think part of the issue here also is, as my colleagues alluded to, about standards of protection. Coming back to the point about building in the flood plains, the committee that I chair and represent was very strongly of the opinion that there should be no development in flood plains. I think possibly because flood plains will grow perhaps as sea level rises kick in but also because in cases like Tewkesbury you have already got a problem and if you started from scratch you might decide not to build on large parts of it. It is vulnerable. It is like Hull, another city where there is natural vulnerability and I think given the size of Tewkesbury it is always going to be hard to be on the cusp of any positive responses to a cost benefit analysis.

  David Taylor: As the three of us splashed out of our minibus at Tewkesbury we saw builders' signs of the usual type—black on yellow—indicating their River View Development. That seemed to say something, although I am not sure what.

  Q768  Paddy Tipping: By implication the spending analysis favours large urban areas rather than smaller rural areas. Mr Farr, you will be aware of the controversy in Nottingham where there are big schemes—the Left Bank Scheme, for example—that is costing multi-millions of pounds. It has a displacement effect further down the Trent to some of the Trent villages. What are your views on that?

  Mr Farr: I suppose the expression you would use is the greatest good of the greatest number. Unfortunately there are victims and there are plenty of villages that will suffer if the Left Bank Scheme goes ahead. There is an assumption of course that it will; it is simply shelved temporarily perhaps for a year while they sort out some technical details.

  Q769  Paddy Tipping: Once the Agency gets its modelling right for a start.

  Mr Farr: Yes. I think the key here is that we tried to ameliorate where possible the effects on the downstream villages and the upstream villages as well by trying to encourage them to take great cognisance of what resilience products and measures can be taken by them. As a flood defence committee we raised money from the local authorities and county councils and we have committed a substantial sum to that over the next few years to allow those villages to try to do something for themselves insofar as that is available to them. Clearly it is not all singing and all dancing but, again coming back to mindset, I think it is important that people are beginning to understand that the first thing they can do is try to help themselves. That is not always going to be possible but I think there were perhaps too many people caught out by it and yet if they had been more aware they would have picked up on the fact that they were in a much riskier position than they thought they were.

  Q770  Mr Drew: Clearly the July floods are still in our minds but of course we now have winter equivalents coming or not quite coming but one day it will come. You have obviously looked very carefully and you are going to be talking to Sir Michael Pitt. What three messages would you give from the Regional Flood Defence bodies to him to say what you think should be happening?

  Mr Walker: I think the first message would be to encourage him to stick with what he is saying in his interim conclusions about the importance of long term investment. We have seen an increase in resources; that is very welcome although, as you pointed out, it will be eroded by construction inflation costs in particular. It is possible—and indeed both Tim Farr and I are engaged in the production of a 25 year plan for the Humber Estuary and its defences—to develop very long term plans and identify broadly what they are going to cost over that period. That is being done as we speak for the Humber. It would be good to see a really serious commitment to a direction of travel which recognises that flooding is an issue for the long term for which long term commitments are essential. That would be my first message. I think my second message would be try to stand back from all the events and responses and so on and just to think harder and longer about land use management, especially in the upper catchments, and to think more and harder about how land use practices can be used to maximise water slowness (if I can pick up on the image that was being used earlier on). Thirdly I think it would be about investment in forecasting, mapping and warning systems. He makes a lot of good points about how those might be improved which I would want to encourage him to push forward.

  Dr Ryder: Particularly with reference to the surface water problem which is the characteristic you would expect from a summer time flood, the outstanding feature of it, because it is essentially caused by the very heavy rain that you are going to get at that time of year and it is of a different nature because the flooding is occurring with the water on its way into the rivers rather than coming back out of the rivers. His approach to that is very good.

  Q771  Mr Drew: I started many years ago in local government and I was always unsure what internal drainage boards did and I was certainly quite critical. Latterly I have become far more willing to accept that they have quite an important role, more than anything they have local knowledge. Would you welcome bolstering the powers of IDBs and in particular would you welcome their powers being brought inland because we have this bizarre notion that they can only operate within a mile or two of the coast or whatever and that does seem to be quite a limiting factor. Or are these people irrelevant to you?

  Mr Farr: I am involved with the internal drainage boards and I am glad you are seeing the light in that respect, but there are fundamental flaws. When asked for the three suggestions to Sir Michael Pitt one of mine was to try to join the rural and urban flooding issues together. Internal drainage boards work within internal drainage districts which invariable exclude—they draw lines round—the built up areas. It is this failure to join up the issue of the ground that I think is fundamental. On a broader basis what I would be keen to say to Sir Michael is that when you are developing what you think the local authorities might do, my instinct would be to make sure that the drainage boards and the local authorities get together and I would suggest that he prescribe the ways in which the bodies are brought together. If it is left vague it will not work so well. The expertise is there and that is probably the one thing that the local authorities are going to need in the very early stages of any changes being implemented. The other thing is that you have to bear in mind that internal drainage boards do generate their own revenue and again I think there is a model there which could be developed for bringing further sources of revenue and local spending outcomes that could be used to address some of the smaller schemes that might be missed by the bigger picture at the national level. I think there are quite a lot of templates that need to be expanded upon and looked at in greater detail and internal drainage boards are a very good example of that.

  Q772  David Lepper: We have talked a lot about expenditure this afternoon and you have heard what Sir Michael said about that earlier. I think when the announcement of the Government's spending plans up to 2010-11 were announced you did describe that collectively as a good step in the right direction, but you reminded government of the Foresight Report and the billion pound figure. Do you still feel that the levels of funding that have been committed over the next three years are adequate?

  Mr Walker: We stand by what we said and we would like very much to see the direction of travel continue into the next CSR period and then into the next one beyond that. This is not a short term business and it will require more money.

  Q773  David Lepper: So the 25 year span of planning that Sir Michael referred to and I think you have referred to as well this afternoon is something you feel the Government should give serious attention to as a very defined area of public expenditure.

  Mr Walker: I do.

  Q774  David Lepper: Irrespective of what it is doing elsewhere in terms of three years?

  Mr Walker: Yes. Clearly everybody is constrained by the amount of overall public expenditure that is available and there are a lot of competing priorities. Seeing this from a Yorkshire perspective we are in the throes—although the levels are now decreasing—of very serious flooding again this last week or so, preceded by the summer floods and of course there was a major incident in 2000 as well with a lot of local ones in between. The North Sea level is rising; we have long stretches of undefended or partly defended coast which all needs to be looked at. It does seem to me that whatever position you take on the link between the extreme weather events and climate change things do seem to be moving in a direction that makes flooding more likely and this is going to go on whether or not we manage to mitigate it in 30 or 50 years' time; we clearly have to adapt to what is going on and that does require some planning for decades and not for three years.

  Mr Farr: The catchment flood management plans are in the process of being finalised one hopes this year. They are 50 year outlooks with a regular five year review structure and behind them sit the strategies which will be shorter periods but within which there will be more detail. They are obviously trying to apply broad policy issues to the area.

  Mr Walker: Going back to the three points of Sir Michael Pitt's report, it is not simply a government responsibility; it is a responsibility that goes much wider. We would want to encourage all those concerned—the Government and the Agency—to think about what they might do to incentivise other third parties to contribute more to investment in flood risk management. Also Sir Michael's interim report talks quite a bit about individual responsibility and I think again there are pilot schemes being funded by Defra here at the moment. Finding ways to encourage individual businesses and householders to think about how they can make their businesses and properties more resistant to floods and more resilient to flooding when they do happen is also an important area that we should all be looking at in the future.

  Mr Farr: I think it would be worthwhile looking closely at the mechanisms for allowing and helping those who can offer land that will store water to protect a town. The word "compensation" always rings alarm bells in the Treasury I understand but I think it would be as well to focus on the confidence that can be generated within the agricultural and rural community to allow such methods to be promoted as means of preventing urban flooding. I think there is quite a lot of scope there.

  Q775  Chairman: Do you think having heard Sir Michael talk about value for money that we are going to get a different list of priority areas for spending than we have at the moment? One of the things I was intrigued to know was whether you felt that there were things that money should be spent on that were not. We will have to suspend the Committee at this juncture for this division and resume in ten minutes' time. The question I would like you to answer when we resume is whether in fact there are things we should be spending money on that we are not, and the reverse of that, are there things we are spending it on that we should not be? The Committee is now suspended for the division.

The Committee suspended from 5.05pm to 5.15pm for a division in the House.

  Q776  Chairman: Are you ready with your answer?

  Dr Ryder: The whole idea of us having a prioritisation process is designed to tease out against the rather complicated assessment of cost benefit, value for money, achievement of objectives that are set by ministers and so on. I think we have to go with that except that it is a long way from perfect in its formulation and it does not deal with some very important issues and it was those I wanted to draw to your attention. It does not deal very well with the issue of capital and revenue expenditure and that is a great worry. Most cost effective uses of money for flood risk are actually spent not on capital schemes but on things like development control, the avoidance of building properties on the flood plain. If you are cutting back, as is the case at the present time within Defra, on revenue expenditure you are in danger of cutting back on that very resource that is so important. Similarly there are aspects of flood warning and mapping and so on which again are revenue intensive, they use staff time and so on to be completed and they are not properly prioritised. They are under threat because they are viewed by government generally, as you know, as capital expenditure is good but revenue expenditure is inefficient and so on. So those are that areas that I think are most worrisome and within the Pitt Review there is a great focus on protection and it is understandable given the terms of reference he has, but flood risk management is really serious, it is about managing risks and there are more ways of managing those risks downwards than there are simply building our defences around them. It is getting that balance that I think is the important thing and I hope you will be able to make comments on that also.

  Q777  Chairman: Dr Ryder, time is at a premium but if you wanted to develop that thought line and perhaps jot a few notes down which might give a compare and contrast between the current approach to a problem and the suggestion that you put forward that there are different ways to skin a cat, to use a phrase, we would be very interested to read them.

  Dr Ryder: I would be happy to do that but I will just give you one more example now. The prioritisation system takes no account of funding for critical infrastructure. In many cases it is a private asset that you are protecting, not houses, so that has no weight in the prioritisation. That cannot be right, can it? So that is another good example. What we do not want as RFDCs is for the utilities to build defences completely outwith some broader strategy that we are trying to put together to protect a broader area of housing and assets that are not the ones that they own. I think there has to be an integrated approach to that.

  Q778  Chairman: I think there are many small communities too who have what I call spot problems who never seem to get a look in within the current structure.

  Dr Ryder: Have you taken on board the concept of the local levy? We mention it in our evidence to you; we mention it is £25 million. I do not know whether it is clear from our evidence as to how that is used, but unlike the flood defence grant in aid that comes to the Agency from Defra this comes through a subvention on local authorities. Remember, we have a majority of local authority members on our committee so it is not that the local authorities are not in control of the decision making about the size of that levy, but that levy is then used on local priorities, the very things you have just been talking about. I am very pleased indeed that we have that. We nearly lost that capability in an earlier re-organisation when the local levy nearly went and there was some VAT issue that kept it in and it is a very important tool.

  Q779  Chairman: To develop that point one of the things that you might care to address is the issue that if the local levy was bigger could you, in terms of actions, do more than might be achieved simply by re-ordering a point scoring system on the big spend?

  Dr Ryder: That is a big ask.


 
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