Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2008
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
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 Estuarythe
2100 Project which I hope you have heard aboutis 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.
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 costsin a constrained resource situationof
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
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 enjoyingif
that is the right wordtemporary 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 defencesthe deployment of
them, the storage and the general management of them to bodiescloser
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
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 typeblack on yellowindicating 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 schemesthe
Left Bank Scheme, for examplethat 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 possibleand indeed both Tim
Farr and I are engaged in the production of a 25 year plan for
the Humber Estuary and its defencesto 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
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
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 excludethey draw lines roundthe 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
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
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 throesalthough
the levels are now decreasingof 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 concernedthe Government
and the Agencyto 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.