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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920 - 939)

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2008

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

  Q920  Lynne Jones: What have you done with the money that you are saving from all these job vacancies?

  Mr Rooke: We have used some of that money to employ consultants to fill the gaps and to employ some temporary contractors as well.

  Q921  Lynne Jones: How much is being spent on consultants and who are the consultants?

  Mr Rooke: The consultants are engineering consultants. I do not have the figures, I am afraid, on how much we have spent on consultants.

  Q922  Lynne Jones: Perhaps you could give us some figures on your expenditure on scientists and engineers and what proportion is out-sourced.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I just comment? There has been an implicit assumption that we are top-heavy and that we spend too much on head office. I cannot quite recall what the total of our head office spend is but it is primarily on what we would call national-once projects, which is something that we do once on behalf of the country as a whole rather than having it replicated around the regions and the areas. For example, developing our flood warning developing system, which is clearly based done on a national basis. There would be a number of projects like that.

  Q923  Lynne Jones: You will have to do a lot more work in terms of surface water drainage in future, will you not, if you have this responsibility?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We will certainly have to put some investment into establishing what the frameworks are, what the processes are, that will help local authorities take this work forward. The standard methodologies, the modelling techniques and all those things will need to be funded and they will be done once on the basis of that being the most effective way of doing it for the country as a whole, developing the techniques, not actually using them in practice down at local level.

  Q924  Lynne Jones: Some of our evidence has suggested that, because of the weakness of your science base, maybe responsibility for the strategic overview should be given to the Met Office. How do you respond to that? What is the advantage of the current split in responsibilities?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I would reject any criticism of our science base, quite frankly, because it is a science base that has been developed over the years with Defra as a joint programme. It is also in partnership with a wide number of other very reputable scientifically credible bodies, and also draws widely from European-wide science programmes that are right at the cutting edge of flood risk management science and some of the other techniques, like modelling of risk assessment, so I am not sure where the criticism of our science base comes from. I suspect, if it is from other scientists, it may well be because we have not necessarily done what they wanted or funded what they wanted but, to my knowledge, until very recently, I have not heard any criticism of the science base. It is probably one of the better run science programmes between a government and an agency and has been for a number of years. In fact, as a compliment to our science ability, Defra has just devolved more of the funding for science in flood risk management to the agency which previously was held centrally by Defra.

  Q925  Lynne Jones: You do have 100 vacancies, which perhaps would be an indication that those qualified people are not rushing to be employed by you.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: That is not in science. That is in terms of our engineering capability. In terms of science, the vast majority of our science is not done in-house because that would not be the most effective way of doing it. The vast majority of our science will be conducted on the basis of us funding reputable bodies and academic institutions and other science delivery organisations and to provide the right sort of science for programmes as a whole, agreed with us and Defra and other bodies so that we are using our money most effectively.

  Q926  Lynne Jones: Do you have sufficient in-house expertise to commission that research effectively?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: If we do not, I do not know who would, because the reality is we are the flood risk agency and Defra has policy responsibility for flood risk, and the secret of successful science commissioning, in my view, is knowing what the real issues are that you want explored and knowing the right place to go to get the right sort of expertise, and making sure that you have good, well-defined projects that you manage properly and we do have expertise in that latter set of skills as well.

  Q927  Lynne Jones: So you think you have sufficient expertise for the commissioning function?

  Mr Rooke: Perhaps I could add that we have set up a number of themes and we have external people who advise us in terms of those themes, so the science programme is developed jointly between ourselves and the industry in terms of what the industry feels it needs. We are also funding a consortium led by universities, who again take a view in terms of what the science needs of the country are, and we are supporting them.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I just comment on the engineering vacancies as well? The reality as far as engineers are concerned is we are all struggling to recruit enough engineers at the moment right across the public and the private sector, which is why the Institution of Civil Engineers and various other of the engineering professional bodies and ourselves are working together to try and create interest in the school population and in university in engineering as a profession in future life, because there is a real problem of a shortage of children going into engineering degrees and a real shortage of engineering graduates, which is why we have tried some of the remedies that we have. It is acknowledged that that is potentially going to be a problem for everyone, even more so as we see big investment programmes coming forward, for the Olympics, for example.

  Q928  Lynne Jones: In previous evidence sessions though you have also acknowledged that you have difficulty in recruiting environmental scientists.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I am not aware of difficulties in recruiting environmental scientists.

  Q929  Lynne Jones: You have certainly sat there and told us that.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Most of the environmental scientists I know would bite their arm off to come and work for the agency, to be honest, because we pay reasonably well for science posts though we are not nearly so competitive for engineering posts.

  Q930  Chairman: Do not apply for the job yet! Can we move on to the question of the mapping of surface water flooding? That was obviously a feature of last summer's activity. Can you give us an update on where we are in developing our knowledge in this area of modelling and mapping the risks of surface water flooding? Have you, in doing that, involved local authorities in making an input to it, and are we likely to see any kind of mapping and indicative risk analysis during the course of this year?

  Mr Rothwell: Yes. We responded to Sir Michael Pitt's urgent conclusion or urgent recommendations that we took surface water mapping seriously and tried to find ways of forecasting where problems might lie. It is extremely difficult and I would counsel against too much optimism. However, we feel that we can produce some indicative maps this year, probably by August, by putting in place a mapping system which we can buy off the shelf, if you like, and by accompanying that with real data, which is our own experience of where flooding occurred, where local authorities understand flooding might have occurred in the past and also the water companies. We are about to embark on a series of meetings with local resilience fora where our staff will present what information we have and ask others who might have information also to marry it with ours and embellish the maps. So we are hoping by August to be able to deliver some rudimentary mapping system. Where it becomes more difficult and more complicated is that, to make this really accurate, if you ever can in fact get it to the point where you can forecast flooding ahead and warn people, is extremely difficult. Urban mapping is fraught with problems. It is a combination not just of rainfall but of the existing drainage system that is with the local authority or water company. Often water companies and local authorities do not know where the culverted streams are that carry water or that do not carry sufficient water. It is very difficult to marry all that data together in any meaningful way to give a forecast of where urban flooding might occur. At a very local level, that can also be fraught with difficulty where even speed bumps in the road or a skip parked over a drain might be sufficient to cause flooding somewhere, which is very difficult to monitor. So mapping itself is very tricky and, to add to that, currently it is very difficult to forecast the intensity of rainfall in any one area either spatially or temporally to give you the confidence that you could forecast and warn ahead of where urban flooding, surface water flooding, might occur but we are confident that by the middle of the year we should be on the way towards providing some indicative maps.

  Q931  Chairman: That is going to put a question mark with reference to flood risks in areas which hitherto have not been the subject of your mapping exercise. How is the insurance community, in your judgement, going to look at this? Up to now—and we will come on to ask some questions about this in a second—they have developed and embellished a mapping system which has been developed for coastal and river flooding which, if you like, is a proven piece of technology. Here we are going to get maps for the first time which in perhaps a rather "crude" way will identify risks in an urban situation. What are you doing with the insurance industry to enable them to understand this and deal with the risk that you now identify?

  Mr Rothwell: We talk very closely with the insurance industry and share data with them to help them with their business, and indeed, this very week on Thursday I am meeting with the ABI to talk about urban mapping and what is the art of the possible and what is not. It is extremely difficult and I do not think we have all the answers by a long way yet as to how we might provide information. For critical infrastructure we think we might be able to provide more information than we have at the moment but it is subject to ongoing discussions with ABI as to how we might use that data in the future.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I just comment because I think there are some sort of gross areas where you could say there is a really frequent risk of deep flooding which people have to take account of. One of the things that got me about the January floods was just how many roads and railways that have flooded traditionally flooded all over again, yet we do not seem to have quite grasped the messages that we have to do something to make our roads and railways more resilient. So there are areas, low spots in the roads, low spots in the railway, where the likelihood of frequent deep flooding is something that we have really got to start taking account of. The risk, I think, of mapping surface water flooding is that—and as a non-technical person, if I get this wrong, David will have to sort me out—at least when you have mapped the flood plain, you have a pretty good idea of where a river is going to ultimately go in terms of spreading out from its course, depending on a whole variety of different scenarios, and so if you are a number of feet above the thousand year outline in the flood plain, you can be pretty certain that you are not going to flood from the river. That is not the case with surface water flooding. If you get the right conditions, with a big enough downpour and something blocked, some drain or some recent development that has prevented water from flowing in the way that it used to, you can have some quite strange, unexpected surface water floods occurring, as we saw during July. That, I think, is going to be the tricky thing, that we must not in surface water flooding give people the belief that we know where every surface water flood could be, because we will never know that because of the unpredictability of it.

  Q932  Chairman: That I understand but I just want to pick you up on a piece of language you used. I wrote it down. "We have really got to start to be accountable for ... " and you put those words in the context of road and rail flooding.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: That was the royal "we".

  Q933  Chairman: It may be the royal "we" but, to come back to the line that Mr Drew was posing to you earlier, which I was following up, about co-ordination, would not that type of phrase be a bit like a red rag to a bull to Mr Drew's constituents, saying who is going to get to grips with these very basic, fundamental issues of the type of road and rail disruption which they encounter? I am not clear, again, who is going to be doing the "we"; who is the "we" that is going to get to grips with it?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: There is a current statutory mechanism for that at the moment, which is under the Civil Contingencies Bill and the role of the local resilience fora, who ought to be looking at all of the potential causes of lack of resilience in a local area and the highways agency and the providers of essential services are part of these fora.

  Q934  Chairman: I think if you asked people, they would think that those issues were not being addressed, and this comes back to who is going to sit and make certain that those jobs are actually done? Just tell me now, under the Civil Contingencies Act, who checks up if all of these things that you think ought to be being done are actually being done?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: This is one of the reasons why we believe that the Climate Change Bill should be strengthened to provide a duty on a whole variety of local authorities and providers of critical infrastructure to take account of the impacts of climate change, whatever they might be. In some cases they will be floods, it could be heat, it could be a whole variety of things, because at the moment they do not have that responsibility.

  Q935  Chairman: No, but even if it were there in law, you are still going to have to have somebody to say "Have you done it?"

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The local resilience fora are the place where the local resilience plans should be drawn up, led by the local authority.

  Q936  Chairman: You are saying "should be". I was very interested in what you said when you identified, almost in a moment of personal frustration, about road and rail. You said "I am so surprised." You are Mrs Floods, and you are so surprised that we have not actually done anything.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Let us correct that. We are at the moment the agency that has a responsibility for flooding from the coast and from rivers, and at the moment we do not have a responsibility for the overview of all flooding.

  Q937  Chairman: Yes, but you are in this. This is what you do for a living. You look after flooding, and you have made it very clear that you are the repository of a great deal of the knowledge about flooding in the country. All I am saying is that I think the public will be very interested to hear you, Baroness Young, express the kind of frustration that they feel that some of these localised but nonetheless very important issues do not seem to be being addressed, in spite of the fact that there are statutory bodies and obligations which have been there for some time, which should be leading to action on the ground, which they do not see.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Which is why I would strongly advocate the need for a statutory role for these bodies, a statutory responsibility, a duty for all of these bodies under the Climate Change Bill to take account of the impacts of climate change and ensure that their services have made adequate provision to adapt to them, because unless there is a statutory duty, we may well find that different bodies are at different stages of preparedness and at different stages of being willing to collaborate with their local resilience fora.

  Q938  Mr Williams: Mr Rothwell pointed out the difficulty when you are doing mapping for surface flooding of identifying actually where these culverts and where these drains are. Another problem, as I see it, from local experience is not only once you have found out where the drains and the culverts are, but whose responsibility it is for maintaining them. Individuals find it very iniquitous that when a drain that is taking water off a road then goes through their land that they then become responsible for maintaining that culvert. Are you taking the opportunity when you do this work to try to get some understanding of who is responsible for individual drains and culverts as well as where they are? Part of the problem is that you would have localised failure, like your skip parked on the drain or whatever, but ownership and responsibility for these structures is important as well, is it not?

  Mr Rothwell: Yes, absolutely and, as I mentioned, I think, we have been doing some initial work this year. Once you get into identifying where every culvert is and what condition it is in and who owns it, you get into much greater expenditure and much longer time horizons to do it. It would require some of the data that was held by a number of other players who have to also work with us. So I think to get the picture that you have outlined and that we would all wish to have would take a considerable amount of time and cost.

  Q939  Mr Williams: Surely, that is the key to actually finding out what the remedial action that needs to be taken is and who is responsible for taking that remedial action. When we visited Lincoln, there were issues about riparian ownership and riparian responsibility but the same problems with sub-surface structures as well.

  Mr Rothwell: I think that is right. We have mentioned surface water management plans and local authorities having responsibility for writing these in places where there are critical drainage failures or drainage problems which again are identified as critical drainage areas in the planning legislation and from our own catchment management plans. PPS25, the guidance which is now being written on planning development in the flood plain, does touch upon some of these issues about how we know where water is going to go and who manages it, and I think part of the outcome of those surface water management plan consultations will be to bring these other players in to understand the drainage system in much greater detail than we can do at the moment.


 
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