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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 884 - 899)



  Q884  Chairman: This is a bit like sort of completing the sandwich. We started our inquiry with the Environment Agency, we have had a lot of meat in between, so I hope, Baroness Young, you do not mind me describing the Agency once again as the other piece of bread on our proceedings, but I think it helps to round things off. Can I welcome you again, with your colleagues, before the Committee (for the record Baroness Young, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Mr Phil Rothwell, the Head of Flood Risk Management Policy and Mr David Rooke, Head of Flood Risk Management). Mr Rooke and I seem to be bumping into each other all the time in various ways in this inquiry, so it is a delight to see you again. Can I put on record, first of all, the appreciation of the Committee for the arrangements you made last week for our visit to Lincoln. Not only were the arrangements for the public hearing extremely good, the arrangements went very well, but the trip that you provided us with to have a look particularly the Washlands and the Lincoln flood defences were very helpful in enabling us to understand in real life what it is that we have been discussing, both in terms of the written submissions and oral evidence that we have had, so thank you very much for enabling that to happen. Let us get on with our first question. The Pitt Review seems to have followed a number of the views that you put forward in September 2007 with your own "lessons learned" inquiry. Did you have a lot of discussion with Sir Michael about your own views ahead of him publishing his interim report?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We had a lot of contact with the Pitt team, because, obviously, they were interested in getting quite a lot of information and evidence from us and also they wanted to make sure that what they were proposing was actually practical and doable, but they were very much their own people, so we do not entirely agree with everything that is in the Pitt Report but we are pleased with many of the—

  Q885  Chairman: What do you not agree with?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think it is fine tuning rather than big recommendations. We want to take a very careful look at the issue, for example, of surface water flooding, mapping and warning. We think that we can do something on a fairly broad scale for key emergency partners, but we are not sure, in fact we are pretty unsure, that the technology is either there sufficiently robustly for meteorological predictions about where the rain is going to fall or, indeed, for having fine-grain information about what impact that rain will have on surface water flooding, bearing in mind how complex all these urban settings are and how even a few hundred yards makes a difference, depending on where the rain falls, and also some of the issues of the dynamic nature of urban systems. It just takes somebody to concrete over their patio or drop the edge of the pavement and water will flood in very different ways. We want to be moving forward on the surface water issue as far as we can, but we are perhaps a bit less sanguine than Sir Michael about what is or is not possible at this current time.

  Q886  Chairman: Sir Michael has gained a lot of knowledge in a very short space of time about flooding and he has produced a very long shopping list of things which effectively constitute his recommendations, but it is a menu without prices at this stage. Have you done a back-of-the-envelope costing, by any chance, of any or all of his recommendations?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The only work that we have done so far is some very, very immediate stuff on the things that we have been asked to do within the next three to four months basically. We did not see any point in trying to second-guess the work that he is now undertaking to put prices against his recommendations for his final report. Phil Rothwell may want to comment.

  Q887  Chairman: It looks quite pricey though, does it not? There is a long list.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Flood risk management does not come cheap at all. I think, certainly for the areas which we are interested in, Pitt does a couple of things. One is it is about focusing and sharpening the collaboration and the focus of things that people are doing already: so it is about spending the existing money more wisely. I think also it is about how we get a better sense of priorities in all of this amongst partners, but there is certainly, in terms of particularly the urban flooding setting and the surface water issue, quite a range of work that needs to be done. The blessing, if there is a blessing, is that it is spread amongst quite a wide number of actors. If you look at some of the surface water issues, they have got water company actions, there are local authority actions, there will be some that can be funded through developers or re-developers, there may well be some that arise from work that the Highways Authority or, indeed, the Highways Agency need to carry out, and so to some extend it will be up to a whole range of people to put their hands in their pockets, so it will be less of a burden on one particular group of people though, of course, much of this comes back at the end of the day to either the charge payer or the tax payer.

  Q888  Chairman: We are going to look in some detail at money in a moment when Dr Strang takes up that line of questioning, but you said a moment ago, "Nothing comes cheaply when it comes to flooding." The Secretary of State today has issued a press release and he tells us that he is allocating £34.5 million which he says may be needed to implement Sir Michael Pitt's recommendations. He is not sure whether he needs all of that money, but £34.5 million does not sound like a great deal of money in the great order of things in terms of the nation's budget which we are spending annually on flood prevention. How is Sir Michael so cheap?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think you have got to look at the timescale of that and also this business of whether it all needs to come from the public purse or whether it comes from a variety of stakeholders. What Defra have allocated is really only for the next three years and, of course, many of the Pitt—

  Q889  Chairman: So, that is ten million a year to implement Pitt over the next three years.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: No, I think that is annual. Is that an annual figure, David? It is a total figure. It is really only going to kick off some of the big national things that Defra will have to fund. A huge amount of the Pitt recommendations, of course, will not, in my view, be for Defra funding to carry out, and, of course, many of the Pitt recommendations are not going to be solved within a three-year period of the Spending Review. We have always made the point that the Spending Review funding that we got from the Prime Minister in the midst of the floods was the right trajectory but that we were not yet at the right end-point. Even the Foresight study, some years ago now, pointed out that there needed to be about a billion pounds in flood risk management. Of course we are at the upper end at 800 million at the end of the three years.

  Q890  Chairman: We will come back to that, because I am struggling to understand how Pitt can be implemented so cheaply over a three-year period at a time when you also, rightly, pointed out to us that Sir Michael's next range of tasks was to cost out his proposals. It is almost as if Defra have jumped the gun and said, "Well, Sir Michael, you can have £34.5 million. That is all you are getting. Get on with it."

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: No, I think the reality is, if you look at what Pitt is proposing, it is only a proportion of that that will come from Defra funding or, indeed, from the public purse nationally, from taxation funding, and there are quite a number of Pitt recommendations that will have to be funded through the normal funding mechanisms.

  Q891  Chairman: Let me ask you about one that is not in his list, but we asked Sir Michael when he came here whether he relished the idea of almost being the nations flood Tsar? In other words, he is in a very privileged position because he has spent his time so far talking to everybody who has got anything to say about flooding, he has been out and about, he has seen flooding for himself, he seems to have very quickly acquired a great deal knowledge about flooding and one of the thrusts of what you said, what local authorities have said, just about everybody has said, is there has got to be some kind of new co-ordinatory mechanism to improve the nation's response to flooding, so has Defra had any words with you about modifying the Environment Agency to incorporate Sir Michael in some new role as the flood supremo?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: No, and I think it would be rather unwise to predicate the co-ordination for flood risk management all on one person. Sir Michael might get run down by a bus tomorrow, and that would be unfortunate, but, nevertheless, it is a rather high-risk strategy to put all your eggs in one basket. Certainly, if you look at what needs to be co-ordinated, it will depend on medium to long-term relationships being developed between a whole variety of organisations that can neither be simply swept up into one organisation nor could be co-ordinated, I think, by a single person or a single responsible secretariat.

  Q892  Chairman: I was thinking it might be when we asked him the question as to whether there would be a role for somebody like him within your agency because of the body of knowledge which he has built up. In other words, he has got an overall picture and he is not already part of the current superstructure, if you like, so here we have a new broom sweeping clean in the world of flooding who could bring things together. I was just interested to know whether Defra had probed you about having somebody like that. Maybe not him specifically, but a role created within your organisation to achieve this bringing together which everybody says is so important.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I would hesitate to propose that role, because though Sir Michael is a very fine man and has got a lot of experience now, the reality is that we want mechanisms that will be robust for several years, many years, and unless he takes a job that is totally about flood risk management, he is going to get quite rusty quite quickly. As soon as you are out of the inquiry, as you well know, things move on and your experience becomes less relevant. But certainly, if Sir Michael would like to join our Board, I am sure he would be very welcome, though I think we have to make sure that we are not setting up some sort of parallel decision-making and strategy formation mechanism that would cut across the role of the Board of the Environment Agency and, indeed, the role of other organisations that have got to play a key part in flood risk management.

  Q893  Chairman: It is not often you get a job offer like that advertised in the select committee!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We pay extremely badly.

  Q894  Chairman: Splendid. Can we look critically for a second at Pitt before we move on. You have been very kind about what he has had to say, but, seriously, are there any weaknesses in any of the recommendations that you feel you ought to draw our attention to?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Phil Rothwell, who has been working very closely with the Pitt team, will probably want to comment. I think the only concern we have got really is that we do not become over confident about the ability to warn people about surface water flooding, both because the meteorological input is not yet there and may never be either. These things vary with very small geography, the predictions about weather vary slightly slower than the weather varies, so if you have got fast-moving weather fronts dumping large quantities of water in a rather unpredictable way on systems that are also quite unpredictable because they are dynamic and you have then got to translate that into a warning to people who may be miles away at work and who we know, from experience, as yet do not do enough when they are warned, you have got to question the cost-effectiveness of a big amount of investment in that. We are moving ahead on mapping for the risk and carrying forward the Pitt recommendations, the urgent ones, but we really need to bottom out what the spend looks like.

  Q895  Chairman: We will have some more specific questions later both on communication and on the question of mapping, but Mr Rothwell, do you want to add to that?

  Mr Rothwell: The mapping one is particularly pertinent.

  Chairman: We are going to come to talk about mapping. If you can stay your hand on that until we get there, then you can have full rein.

  Q896  Paddy Tipping: Remind us: big new capital schemes are allocated and decided nationally on the basis of a cost benefit analysis. That is right?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: They are allocated on the basis of a priority scoring system, one element of which is a cost benefit analysis. There are two other elements, one social and one environmental, and then there is a thing we call a moderation process, which is basically looking at the programme that that produces and thinking: is this sensible? Are there other issues that need the application of the human brain and judgment in order to produce a balanced programme?

  Q897  Paddy Tipping: How do the Regional Flood Defence Committees fit into this?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Of course, we are in a period of change from the old system which existed five years ago whereby Regional Flood Defence Committees were allocated funding and made decisions within that funding on schemes, so there was a regional programme rather than a national programme. The changes that were made under the Making Space for Water strategy were about creating a national approach to prioritisation and a national role for the Agency in making sure that we had a consistent way of operating and a consistent way of deciding on priorities across the whole country, and that is the transitional point we are in. On a national basis, we very much work closely with the Regional Flood Defence Committees: they prepare their medium term plans, we look at what they have put forward by way of proposals. In the interests of forestalling questions about some of the allocations this year, inevitably what they put forward is more than the money that will be available. We try to restrain over exuberance on that point, because there is no point working up schemes that simply are not going to be able to be funded, and then the prioritisation process takes place, both through the priority score process and through the moderation, and we end up with a national programme which, hopefully, meets many of the needs of the medium term programmes that the Regional Flood Defence Committees have drawn up but will not meet all of them because the bill is always bigger than we have got, even with additional funding.

  Q898  Paddy Tipping: The focus of public policy at the moment is around devolving decisions and devolving resources, and it seems to me that you are running counter to that, taking decisions nationally. The second point is you talked about the EA Board. That is appointed by the Secretary of State but, as I understand it, the regional bodies are composed more than half by local elected politicians who are in touch with people who are making a levy locally. There just seems to be some tension in this arrangement.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think it is quite a useful split, to be honest. The reason why the changes were made to go to a national system from a local system was because, with the size of the programmes we have, and bearing in mind the size of some of these individual schemes that we have, it is simply not good value for money; it is not the most effective way of spending money to do it piecemeal, on a regional basis, indeed, at a time when we had more flood defence committees five years ago than we do now and they had budgets that, quite frankly, they had to save up for years before they could buy themselves a decent scheme, so it was really not an effective way of using money. If we went to the point—dream on—where we had four times as much money—I do not think we ever will and I am not sure what the number would be that we would want, and certainly not four times; I regret saying that—it might well be that you would have a sufficiently big amount to be able to devolve again but we are far away from that at the moment. There are some major benefits also in taking a much wider scale view. We are working on a long-term investment strategy at the moment and all of the advice that we are getting externally is that the more we can bring together money into much bigger programmes, the more we are able to get much better value for money. I do not think that would be possible with a regional, fully devolved situation, which is the one we have just come from a few years ago. In terms of the Secretary of State appointees and the local authority appointees, I think the system we have gets the benefit of both. The local authority appointees on the regional flood defence committees can bring both local authority and local community input. The national people who are appointed by the Secretary of State can look at the national priorities, what both Government and Environment Agency priorities are and take a view, and also benefit from the national expertise and experience that we can corral on a national basis. So we get the benefit of that and, of course, on the local levy, which is a small-ish but very important part of the budget that is still raised by the local authorities, the decisions on what is spent from the local levies lies entirely with the regional flood defence committees and the local people who raised that money in the first place.

  Q899  Paddy Tipping: Could you remind us what the total amount of the local levy is, and what proportion it is of the national pot? If you cannot do it now, you can drop us a note.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I can do it now but David will probably remember it much better.

  Mr Rooke: It is £27 million. So for the forthcoming financial year our committees have raised £27 million locally.

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