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

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency (FL 121b)


1.0  A paper outlining the respective potential future roles of the Agency and Local Authorities in relation to surface water flooding (appendix to the Agency's Pitt submission) (Q 913)


  1.1  Surface water flooding is not easy to predict and the division of responsibility between Local Authorities, water companies, the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency makes coordinated management very difficult. This is recognised in the Governments Making Space for Water Strategy and is also highlighted in Sir Michael Pitt's interim report on last summer's floods. With no single organisation having the strategic overview role for all flooding issues the differing approaches and responsibilities mean that there is no common approach to the management and operation of drainage systems, a lack of joint strategic outcomes and failure to optimise expenditure, particularly within urban drainage systems.

  1.2  We believe that the Environment Agency should be asked to undertake a strategic overview role for all forms of flooding to provide national leadership, co-ordination and advice to bodies that have roles to play in the management of flood risk for the future. Local Authorities will need to take a lead role in the local management of surface water flooding. Defra's Making Space for Water initiative and the Pitt Review have come to the same conclusion. These roles will need to be supported by appropriate powers and resources.

  1.3  On 7 February, Defra published its Water Strategy "Future Water". The Strategy sets out a vision for water management and includes consideration of more effective drainage of surface water, given the pressures of climate change, development and the analysis of last summer's flooding. The Government also announced a consultation on ways of more effectively dealing with surface water flooding on the same day. This consultation focuses on the mechanisms for developing Surface Water Management Plans (SWMPs), encouraging the use of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), and considers the role the Environment Agency should play. We have been developing our ideas on the consultation, including the relationship SWMPs could have with our Catchment Flood Management Plans (CFMPs) and the role of other undertakers. The consultation has been informed by the Making Space for Water programme and the initial findings from the Integrated Urban Drainage pilots. Detailed consideration of the role that the Environment Agency can play is presented in a paper agreed by the EA Board in November 2007. This is reproduced in full as an appendix to this note and covers both the EA role and the cost implications.

2.0  How much is spent on flood risk management scientists and engineers and what proportion of this is outsourced to consultants (Q 922)?

  2.1  The Environment Agency currently has 45 individuals contracted as engineer consultants, compared with 538 employees in specified engineering roles in flood risk management. We have nine scientist contractors as consultants, compared with 266 employees in specified scientific roles in flood risk management. In addition, many of our other flood risk management and other staff may have scientific or engineering qualifications, even though they do not perform a scientific or engineering function. Less than 8% of our engineers are contracted consultants and the equivalent figures for scientists is approximately 3%. The cost in 2007-08 is approximately £2.5 million.

3.0  The Outcome Measures that the Environment Agency will be delivering from its additional flood risk management money over the CRS 07 period (Q 959)

  3.1  The following Outcome Measure targets have been set for the Capital Programme in the period April 2008 to March 2011. These targets reflect the contribution of all operating authorities. The Environment Agency is responsible for compiling the overall programme to achieve them:

Outcome Measure
Minimum Target

OM1 Economic BenefitsAverage benefit cost ratio across the capital programme based upon the present value whole life costs and benefits of projects delivering in the CSR07 period. 5 to1 average with all projects having a benefit cost ratio robustly greater than 1
OM2 Households protectedNumber of households with improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk. 145,000 households of which 45,000 are at significant or greater probability
OM3 Deprived households at riskNumber of households for which the probability of flooding is reduced from significant or greater through projects benefiting the most deprived 20% of areas.
9,000 of the 45,000 households above
OM4 Nationally important wildlife sites Hectares of SSSI land where there is a programme of measures in place (agreed with Natural England) to reach target condition by 2010.
24,000 hectares
OM5 UK Biodiversity Action Plan habitats Hectares of priority Biodiversity Action Plan habitat including intertidal created by March 2011. 800 hectares of which at least 300 hectares should be intertidal

  3.2  In addition, we have introduced a target for 2008-09 to ensure that 70% of our high-risk asset systems are serviceable, an improvement of 5% upon our current position. The increase in delivery in comparison with the previous spending review period is evident in the new targets, but since a typical project might take three to five years to complete, the increased funding has a bigger impact towards the end of the target period. In fact, the increased expenditure during SR07 will also be used to start projects that will deliver benefits in future periods.

4.0  What preliminary work has been carried out on issuing flood warnings to people affected by surface water flooding in urban areas? Is the provision of such warnings technically feasible?


  4.1  A Making Space for Water project examined the feasibility of establishing flood warning services to cover all forms of flooding. Two forms of flooding, groundwater and surface water, have been studied in detail. The study concluded that a form of service is feasible for forewarning flood responding agencies and responsible bodies of the potential for surface water flooding, so that they can take actions to mitigate or minimise the effects of flooding on the public. The service proposed relies upon pre-identification of surface water "hot spots" and accurate forecasts of causative rainfall from the Met Office. The Environment Agency and the Met Office are currently working together to establish plans for testing this proposal and will deliver a strategy for implementing such a service on the success of the proposed trials.

Future position

  4.2  The suitability of using the information to provide the public with this warning service needs testing. In its current proposed form the coverage of the rainfall forecasts are very broad-scale (circa 30km2) and there is a likelihood for a high number of false alarms. Also the study has so far only investigated the "alerting" part of the warning service. For a flood warning service to be effective, people require information on what the flood is doing when it is happening. For this we would need to invest heavily in methods for determining the extent and potential duration of a flood, so that people know what actions to take and how long the situation will last. As such further work is required to understand the requirements of the people who will receive any proposed service to ensure that it meets their needs. Any proposed service would therefore be very different from that which the Environment Agency currently provides for flooding from rivers and the sea. There will be technical difficulties in implementing any service and a well considered strategy for doing so will be vital if it is to be successful.

  4.3  At the moment it appears that an effective flood warning service for service water flooding may be some way off. In the meantime, a sensible investment is in mapping areas at high risk of surface water flooding, so that we can identify where the need for intervention is greatest.

5.0  Who should be responsible for the maintenance of sustainable drainage systems?


  5.1  The Environment Agency view is that ownership should rest with a durable, accountable organisation that can be expected to have the financial capacity to meet its responsibilities in the longer term, if our strategic outcome of improved water quality and minimised flood risk is to be achieved.

  5.2  When considering surface water drainage, we have specific responsibilities for water quality, flood risk and for protecting water resources. We believe that the SUDS approach to surface water drainage offers the most sustainable solution for draining built-up areas in the future. It is our policy to promote the SUDS approach. We strongly advocate integrated drainage planning to respond to issues such as development pressures, climate change and deliver the requirements of the Water Framework Directive in an effective manner. Drainage issues (both foul and surface water) need to be considered early in the planning system (preferably at spatial strategy stage) and Building Regulations to ensure issues are dealt with before development commences.

Future Position

  5.3  Our submission in response to the Defra surface water management consultation will cover these issues in detail. In brief, we believe that allocation of long term responsibility for SUDS is an institutional issue (and not a technical one) and may be case specific but that both Local Authorities and Water Companies have key roles. We call for:

    —  The Government to provide leadership and support for SUDS in Government policy, in particular building on the position outlined in Defra's water strategy, Future Water, published in February 2008.

    —  Action by Government to seek opportunities to make appropriate amendments to legislation, in particular those identified in the Improving Surface Water Management consultation which accompanied the Future Water strategy.

    —  Support from OFWAT in taking forward SUDS approaches in all improvements undertaken by sewerage undertakers, and in particular a recognition of the wide benefits of this approach offers, not only for provision of effectual drainage but also for water resources and wildlife.

    —  Regional and local government to embed SUDS in the planning process and to ensure a consistent approach to drainage across planning, building control, engineering, parks and highways functions.

6.0  How do you balance the conflict between your Water Framework Directive objectives, your role as protectors of the natural environment, and your responsibilities for managing flood risk?


  6.1  To understand the challenges and opportunities resulting from the Water Framework Directive (WFD), water bodies and their current status have been identified and assessed across England and Wales. We recognise that flood risk management activities have the potential to significantly impact the status of water bodies and the wider natural environment. Our flood risk appraisal processes consider the consequences of flooding on both people and the environment and assess the impacts from measures to reduce flood risk. In this way we can identify ways to reduce unacceptable risks to life and property in ways which do not harm the environment.

Future position

  6.2  The WFD places new requirements upon flood risk management specifically to protect and enhance water bodies, while allowing for the continuation of appropriate flood risk management activities. Our current appraisal processes are being revised to include the specific tests required under the WFD. This will ensure that we continue to reduce flood risk in ways that avoid harm to the environment.

7.0  Many witnesses to the Committee's inquiry have provided examples and evidence of occasions where inadequate maintenance of rivers and watercourses seems to have contributed to local flooding last summer and on other occasions. Some criticise the Environment Agency for not having cut weeds in channels and cutting bank side vegetation. How do you respond to claims made by many organisations and people who highlight the lack of maintenance of water courses and rivers under your jurisdiction as contributing to local floods?


  7.1  The Environment Agency approach to all flood risk management activities, including vegetation clearance and dredging, is risk-based, meaning that our resources are focussed where need is greatest. We must also ensure that our activities take appropriate account of public interest and the environment. We consider carrying out channel maintenance work where it is technically sound, economically viable, and environmentally acceptable and sustainable to do so. We spend around £3 million per year on dredging in England and Wales. A further £8 million is spent on weed removal to let rivers flow freely in their natural channels. We also de-silt rivers at critical locations, where we are also the navigation authority, to allow passage for boats.

  7.2  Dredging and aquatic vegetation clearance are not always effective flood risk management tools, however. Both activities have serious, and potentially extremely detrimental, impacts on the environment. It is important to keep channels clear of blockages in built up or urban areas where the impact of flooding is greatest and where a watercourse may be confined to a single, narrow channel. However, in other locations, water courses may have both a channel—containing low to medium flows—and a floodplain, which contains the excess water during higher flows. De-silting channels in these circumstances would not increase the flow in the channel sufficiently to prevent the water from spilling out onto the flood plain, and may increase flooding in other areas downstream. Any benefits would be short-term as channels would rapidly silt up again.

Future Position

  7.3  We have developed improved analytical tools to determine where we need to carry out work and we are still working to deliver the full potential of these tools. Our work thus far, however, has not identified the need for wholesale changes in practice. The Water Framework Directive does not prohibit dredging or channel clearing. On the contrary, the Directive calls for the reinstatement of natural river channels, as far as possible. Where we can demonstrate a need for flood risk management activities in the public interest, then these activities will continue. In light of the learning from the summer flooding, the new tools available to us and the emerging requirements of the Water Framework Directive, we are taking stock of some of our practices.

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