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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900 - 919)

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2008

BARONESS YOUNG OF OLD SCONE, MR PHIL ROTHWELL AND MR DAVID ROOKE

  Q900  Paddy Tipping: Some of them are precepted by over 10% next year.

  Mr Rooke: There are a range of increases. There are some reductions. One committee has certainly made a reduction in the levy for next year compared to this year but the biggest increase was 50% in one of the committees.

  Miss McIntosh: How much of the national fund in the press release today is top-sliced?

  Chairman: Can we just leave that because Gavin has some questions on it and I would like to keep all the ones on the budget together.

  Q901  Miss McIntosh: Can I just ask on the flood levy, the local flood levy? Yorkshire, I think you will accept, was probably one of the top two worst affected areas last summer, and yet it appears that Yorkshire is having to raise its own money for flood defences to the tune of £260,000 from the Yorkshire flood levy, with some extra money from the RDA. Did you make representations to the Government when the national priority scheme was introduced? Would it not have been better to have done it on the basis of those areas most likely to be at risk of flooding?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The prioritisation process takes account of costs and benefits, which include the economic costs of flooding, in particular, what would happen economically as a result of a flood, the social costs and the environmental costs. The catchment flood management strategies and also the shoreline management strategies that we are developing do give a steer towards the priority areas where funding should be allocated. Generally speaking, the regional flood defence committees will have identified most of their highest priorities through their medium-term programmes and we will be looking at schemes that are flowing from those. As we get more work done on the strategies and catchment flood management plans, we will be able to target more effectively towards the highest priority areas. Certainly, as far as Yorkshire was concerned, it is getting growth from the central funding over the next three-year period, quite substantial growth. The way in which funding was allocated nationally means that in any year it will depend on what schemes are coming forward as to how much money goes to a particular region, and Yorkshire is at the point where there are some schemes about to come forward but not quite coming forward yet into that period. Almost certainly, there are a number of schemes that will then tip the balance the other way and Yorkshire will go up and other regional flood defence committees will go down. It is wholly dependent on what schemes are funded for particular years as to what the total amount of money is but we are very pleased to say that the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee will have something like £14 million additional funding over the three-year period.

  Q902  Mr Drew: We had the debate when we met first about the issue of whether there should be a specific floods agency and you were very clear that you wanted to keep responsibilities within the Environment Agency. However, we still have some difficulties in terms of what we need to improve in terms of the co-ordination of the key agencies as they operate in this brave new world that we now live in. You already mentioned in your introduction the forecasting of potential risks and areas that would be put at risk. Can you just explain to us your relationship now with the Met Office and the division of responsibilities, and whether that is something that we need to look at in terms of our report, or is this now delineated in such a way that there is clarity of understanding of who does what?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Our relationship with the Met Office is very good. It has been all the way through the events of last summer and indeed into January. I would not have said that there was a lack of clarity about who does what and certainly we are working very closely on all the recommendations that have come from our lessons learned report and the Pitt recommendations. We have quite distinctive roles but I do think there are some common areas that we work in where we need to be sure that we are actually providing a united service to the public. David may want to talk more about particular issues.

  Mr Rooke: There are some specifics. We and the Met Office have realised that some people get confused between the Met Office issuing a severe weather warning and when we issue a severe flood warning. So we are working closely with the Met Office to see how we can improve the way we communicate to get an understanding across so there is clarity on what people are being warned about and what people are expected to do when they get one of those two warnings. That is an example that came out of the floods that we are working closely on with the Met Office.

  Q903  Mr Drew: In terms of the science base, because clearly there is a need to recognise that where we are going to go forward in terms of understanding of the flood risk is in terms of being able to really work collectively to get as good a scientific understanding of what is going on as possible. Do your scientists work hand in glove with the Met Office? How does that relationship operate? Are there regular seminars to look at the latest scientific evidence or is that really more a management issue?

  Mr Rooke: We have a number of working groups where we discuss that the Met Office what products might be required. A good example would be developing the weather radar system where, again, we partly fund improvements to the weather radar system and the Met Office partly fund. There is a whole programme of improvements planned for the weather radar network using the latest science. We have recently installed some wave buoys out in the North Sea, which again is in collaboration with the Met Office, to feed one of their models that we then use for local forecasting and warning. There is a lot of collaborative work going on and a lot of joint funding of projects going on between ourselves and the Met Office.

  Q904  Mr Drew: If we can go on to look at the issue of surface water flooding, which, as you can imagine, I have become a bit of an expert on. I was out again yesterday morning with some of my constituents looking at the implications of what happened last July and what happened a couple of weeks ago, because they did flood once more. How much we welcome both what the Pitt report says and also what has already been alluded to by Ministers and others, that in a sense, the Agency is going to get new responsibilities but in advance of those new responsibilities, how do you respond to some of the criticism I got yesterday that whenever the EA is now asked for help, the first response is "We haven't got any money"?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We welcome the overview of all inland flood risk, which will include surface water, but we see our role very much as providing an overview, providing the tools and techniques, providing a way of assessing priorities and risk, some of the mapping stuff that we have already talked about, and really working with local partnerships to produce a strategic way forward on flood risk from all sources inland. If you look at the causes of the surface water flooding, as you say, communities do feel that they are always getting the brush-off because there are a whole load of people involved who all have responsibilities. I do not think that we can see a way that that would ever change dramatically because the reality is, if it is to do with drains, it will be the local authority; if it is to do with sewers, it will be the water company; if it is to do with road run-off, it may well be the highways authority. There will be a whole load of issues to do with development and redevelopment. What is needed is a strategic look at the flood risk from all sources around a particular location, particularly in the urban areas, not only those surface water issues but also issues from river flooding and a process to co-ordinate that. That, we believe, is best done by local authorities because they have most of the levers already in their hands. They are the planning authority, they already work with the highways agency or they may be the highways authority themselves. They will certainly need to work with developers and redevelopers and, of course, the water companies are very much involved with that process because it is about how we re-engineer the drainage and sewerage systems to reflect climate change and also urban growth. The local authorities have a much stronger ability to harness all of those partners. We will play a very strong role in helping them, in helping provide ways of thinking that through, and the technologies and the techniques of drawing up surface water management plans and taking account of flood risk from all sources. That is the piece of work that we are setting off, to develop that overarching role but Defra will be consulting on what the nature of our role will be, and that will be an opportunity for everyone to comment on what that role needs to be.

  Q905  Mr Drew: In your answer there you mentioned at least six different organisations, and given that I am now faced of course by two-tier local authorities, three tiers if you bring in parish and town councils, I understand what you were saying at a strategic level but the people on the ground want to know that why they flooded has now got some answers. If it is highways agencies, the Environment Agency, in my case again BW because there is a canal, local authorities and so on and so forth, that is not really the message they want to hear. They want to know that there is a level of co-ordination that can be put in place, that people can maybe not come and give them the complete answer but can give them a way forward. Is that not something that is a real weakness? What I am worried about is what I call dispersed flooding. This is not flooding, as you say, in an urban area, where you have clear definition of what the cause is and what the effect is going to be and how you can deal with that but where you get dispersed flooding over a wide area and there are a whole series of checks and balances that have to be gone through, what is the answer to that?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I do feel that this overview role will provide a means of corralling all the agencies and organisations that need to play a role but I do not think there is any quick fix that simply says that one organisation can take over all of those responsibilities, because they are embedded in the roles that these organisations already have.

  Q906  Chairman: Hang on a minute. It is a lovely expression: "Let's corral them altogether." It is the great flood round-up led by Baroness Young on the back of her large horse, now she is back riding again. I can just see a picture of you lashing the whip and they are all coming into the great corral and they are all there saying "We have been rounded up, Baroness Young. What do you want us to do?" I am just looking at this list. You say the local authority is the planning body so it has lots of power but, to pick up Mr Drew's point, you have different responsibilities with different local authorities and, unless there is somebody who is going to crack the whip on accountability, you can have all the strategic overview in the world but, unless there is a plan and somebody is actually responsible, point by point, for the plan to deal with flood risks at a local level, you will have, again, lots of reports, lots of good intentions but very little action. Who is the person who is actually going to not just crack the whip but hold the ring from the accountability point of view?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think that will be an important part of the consultation that Defra goes to on the role because you could give us an overview role that said we would quality-assure all local authorities' surface water management plans and we would have some powers over local authorities to insist that they did them better if they have not done very well. I am not sure, bearing in mind Paddy Tipping's recent question, that that is what people want, that they want a national organisation that is going to do that quality assurance.

  Mr Drew: What they want is real local co-ordination.

  Q907  Chairman: Let us look, for instance, at a situation—I suppose Sheffield might be an example but perhaps I am going to literally get out of my depth. Let us take a situation where you have a serious highway flooding problem and your co-ordinating body, whoever it is, run by whoever, looks at an area and says, "We can see now that there are some strategic problems of dealing with run-off on to the highway from surrounding land," and the local authority says, "Yes, we accept that but the local district council have now sanctioned all these developments, they are going to increase the run-off, and we, the county council, who have the highways responsibility, I am afraid we just have not got the money to re-scope the capacity of the highway drainage system to deal with this problem. Yes, we think it is a really nice idea that we do something about our end of the problem but I'm afraid we haven't got the cash to do it. Goodbye. We are out of this." I do not know how you are going to get this integration of action, which is what I think Mr Drew is going on about.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think there are a number of bits of process that can be put in place. Catchment flood management plans, as they say, are on a catchment basis; they are pretty high-level and strategic but they will identify some of the big issues that need to be resolved but they can only be resolved by a whole load of organisations working in partnership, not by us directing them. What does work is that, if you look at some of the issues we have dealt with already, where we have managed to get voluntary gatherings together or corralling or whatever you want to call them, where we have got voluntary action, if you take the post Carlisle floods, generally speaking there there has been excellent collaboration between ourselves, the local authority, including authorities outside the boundaries of Carlisle, the water company and indeed some of the business community in Carlisle to actually produce a surface water management plan and a flood plan for Carlisle, which we are now investing in our bit of it, the water company is now investing in its bit of it, the local authority is now investing in its bit of it and that is, I think, a model for the future.

  Q908  Chairman: Given that Carlisle had to respond to a pretty horrendous situation, I could imagine everybody saying "Ooh, we have not just seen the red light; we have really got to do something about it." In many other areas they have not had quite that experience and I can see that with local authorities now, who are under considerable financial pressure, they have many demands on their scarce resources, if in the model you have described some of them would duck and weave not to do quite what has clearly happened in Carlisle, I am still not clear about who is going to crack the whip. In Carlisle the event perhaps caused the concentration of minds and the commitment to action but there will be many areas where there has not been such an event.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: There are a number of statutory requirements, under planning legislation, for example, or under the Civil Contingencies Bill, the local resilience fora, where the local authority takes the lead in bringing together all of the bodies to look at what local resilience looks like, and flood resilience, if that is an important issue in that particular locality, will be part of that statutory requirement to produce local resilience plans and there are ways in which government quality-assures those. So there are a number of mechanisms. I think the big issue for us for the future will be whether we are given a role in quality-assuring local flood risk management plans. Now, if we are given that role, it needs to be thought through what the sanctions are if our quality assurance process reveals that these plans are not up to scratch, and also it needs to be thought through what it feels like having a national body do that to local authorities, and also what we do then. If a plan is not up to scratch, what will be the mechanisms if the local authority increasingly, in a devolved way, is being given authority to spend its money much more flexibly on the priorities that they identify as the highest. If you look, for example, at the local authority performance framework, though there will be flood risk management performance indicators in the wider suite that will be audited by the Audit Commission, they may not come particularly high in the four or five priorities that an individual local authority is being encouraged to identify as being its highest focus. So I think there are some big issues that need to be resolved in the surface water role. The one thing we do not want to do is to be given this role and any quality assurance role with it without getting any funding to do it, because that is another one that is not going to be cheap.

  Q909  Mr Drew: Let us go on to that. We talked earlier about Michael Pitt's recommendations and the immediate agenda he has, and obviously, he will be outlining his final agenda when he comes to the end of his inquiry. To what extent now is flooding writ large in all the Environment Agency does? You have other responsibilities which clearly could lose out. You are not a flood agency but you are an agency responsible for flooding. How do you measure now the prioritisations? There is a real problem now that this is a huge impact area that you are responsible for, so give us a feel for how you are now trying to deliver your responsibilities.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Clearly, flood risk management is an important part of our responsibilities because it is now more than half our budget for the first time but it is not, as you say, our only responsibility. We do have a very well-structured system of objective setting and performance management to make sure that all of the objectives that we have agreed with Government to hit get fair attention. Where there is any pressure on the system, the way we are structured is that there are people who deal with flood risk management, there are people who deal with waste, there are people who deal with the other environment protection issues, there are people who deal with fisheries and there are people who deal with navigation, so the weight is not falling on everyone. The one important thing that we do need to make sure is that all of the impacts of climate change, including flooding, are built into everything we do, and that is something that is fundamental to what we do. There are climate change issues in waste, there are climate change issues in navigation, in fisheries and in environmental protection, so we are making sure that we have taken account of these climate change issues. If there is any pressure, it is probably in two places. One is people like me and the Chairman and the senior people—not the flood risk management dedicated senior people but senior people who have a generic role. We have not done a lot in the last six months except floods but, on the other hand, there is a big agenda that we have kept going at the same time. I spend a lot of my time, for example, on the waste strategy, nuclear new build and nuclear waste, so though it looks like flood is the only thing in town there are an awful lot of other things in town as well. The other place that we do need to just take account of the pressure is our regional directors and area managers. They have a generic job, covering all our functions, and at times of high drama on flood risk management they do have to put more of their time into that. If we had another issue—we have had occasions when things like waste incineration have been the biggest show in town and that has been where they have had to put their time. That is what they are there for. They are there to keep all the rest of our activity going while making sure that they put a particular focus on whatever is the most important issue at the time. So we are in fact well on the way to delivering the vast majority of our outcomes that we agreed with Defra at the beginning of this financial year at the end of this financial year.

  Q910  Mr Drew: All this is good to hear but it does depend on the people on the ground. I just wonder what your strategy is for ensuring that you have sufficient people with the right skills mix so that they can deal with flooding issues, and maybe they have other responsibilities but you can bring these people in in times of crisis. This is not just within the organisation of the EA but also outside. My own local authority is about to lose its flooding person. He has been headhunted by Tewkesbury—talk about going from the frying pan into the fire! He does not like an easy life. Those sort of jobs are clearly key jobs because local knowledge with regard to flooding is really of crucial importance. What is your view of the sort of skills agenda out there and can we fulfil that, or are we going to have to look very hard at higher education, bringing people forward and also making sure that they have appropriate experience to be able to deliver this knowledge?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I just say a couple of things and then David can talk in more detail about the work we are doing on skills? One of the things that we are involved in at the moment is looking, as our flood risk management budget goes up and our activity increases as a result of that, at how we best structure what we do in flood risk management at a regional and area level. That is a piece of work that is going on at the moment on how we help beef up the support to flood risk management in those areas. We have also, of course, in terms of the emergency phase of flood risk management, got a system whereby we can pull people in, experienced people, who may not have local experience but can bring experience from elsewhere, and also using ordinary staff who are not necessarily flood risk management staff but who can take over routine duties from staff who need to be applied solely to the emergency at the time. So there are ways in which our cross-regional support can help with that but there is a lot of pressure on some scarce skills like flood risk engineers, and David can tell you about the work that we are doing on that.

  Mr Rooke: There is a shortage, and we decided some three or four years ago, in anticipation of that shortage, that we ought to train our own staff. So we have developed a foundation degree in River and Coastal Engineering at the University of the West of England. That is going extremely well. Fifty-six graduates are already working for us. We have another 30 in training at the moment and we are recruiting a further 30.

  Q911  Mr Drew: This is a job for life, is it? If you get through the course, you are going to headhunt these people?

  Mr Rooke: We have sufficient vacancies in the organisation to take all the people who graduate from that course.

  Q912  Mr Drew: All MPs are retraining now!

  Mr Rooke: We have also, again with the University of the West of England, started a BSc course in River and Coastal Engineering and we have eight employees who are on that course. We are sponsoring undergraduates who are taking Masters engineering courses. We have 15 MEng graduates under professional training and we are launching a diploma later this year. We are also, working with the professional institutions like the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, looking at inspiring more school leavers to take up engineering, so we are working with the Royal Academy of Engineering, we are working with the universities and we are working with organisations that develop school curricula such that we can attract more young people into the sciences, then into engineering and then obviously to specialise in civil engineering and ultimately river and coastal engineering.

  Q913  Mr Drew: Is this also happening with local authorities? Are they similarly investing in their awareness of people having sufficient flood knowledge so that they can either as a full-time job or certainly as a job that they can come into ... Mr Rothwell is trying to indicate.

  Mr Rothwell: You asked earlier, Chairman, about anything we disagreed with Sir Michael Pitt about. This is not something we disagree with him about but we do feel that there is now increasing pressure on local authorities through the PPS25 and through flood risk assessments and surface water management plans to have the right qualified people in place, engineers in particular, and I think that, given the shortfall we have just discussed, it is going to be quite a challenge for local authorities, and indeed ourselves, to deal with this increasing requirement for knowledge and specialties, if you like, and this is something I think we will have to look at very carefully as to whether the agenda that is now being set is one that we have the capability to deal with in terms of the expertise and skills that are necessary.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Chairman, can I just go back to a point that we touched on which Phil Rothwell touched on there, and that is what should our role be and what should the role of local authorities be in this urban and surface water issue. We have a paper, which I am not sure the Committee has seen yet, which we have provided as an appendix to our Pitt submission which tries to lay out with reasons why we think it would work and the way it would work. Perhaps we could provide that for the Committee.

  Q914  Chairman: Did you look at any models outwith the United Kingdom of the way co-ordination is achieved before coming to your conclusions?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have not, because we are aware that when you look at other countries—France, Holland, America and I cannot remember where else Pitt looked at—the model of government is so different and the model of governance is so different that it is quite difficult to draw conclusions from that.

  Q915  Mr Drew: We went to Lyon, and I think it is fair to say that we were generally impressed by the way in which a city region has really got hold of its problems with the confluence of two rivers and has thought very hard about where it should develop, where it should not develop, and the way in which the local communes are key to the way in which that city region operates. Are there not some lessons to be learned from that experience?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I am sure that is the sort of collaboration of a number of local authorities with ourselves and other bodies that we would want to see under the proposal that has been put forward because it can only be dealt with in that respect.

  Q916  Mr Drew: Who does that? We obviously will feed that into our report.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: This is the role that to date has not been given as a responsibility to anybody and which the Government's proposal about us having a strategic overview would help bring together but we will very much need it, as it is in the city region model, to be led by groups of local authorities working together.

  Q917  Lynne Jones: We have heard about your efforts to recruit more engineers and scientists to improve your science base, which has been criticised. Are there job vacancies waiting for these people to take up, or are you going to have some reorganisation to allow you to change what has been described as a top-heavy structure with a pure science base? Are you looking to address that problem, if you see there is a problem, and will you be looking to become a much more science-focused lean machine to make sure that you keep within your budget if you are going to take on all this new scientific expertise?

  Mr Rooke: On the current remit, rather than what might be coming our way, we have sufficient vacancies at the moment within our budget to accommodate the trainees that I talked about earlier, and we are still actively recruiting.

  Q918  Lynne Jones: How many vacancies are you talking about? What proportion?

  Mr Rooke: At the moment we have about 100 technical vacancies out of about 1,200 technical staff.

  Q919  Lynne Jones: Is this due to high turnover or have you simply not been able to recruit them?

  Mr Rooke: We have struggled to recruit to some of the engineering posts. Some of our specialist engineering posts we have struggled to recruit to.


 
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