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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 979 - 999)

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008

MR PHIL WOOLAS MP, MR MARTIN HURST AND MR DAVID WRIGHT

  Q979  Chairman: Can I welcome you to the final public evidence session of the Committee's inquiry into flooding. For cult viewers of this, because we do recognise we have built up quite a following on parliamentary television, unfortunately this will be the last time that you will be able to see flooding in all its glory. I must congratulate the members in the public gallery for the way that they have doughnutted the Minister to give the impression that there are large numbers of people here to hear the Minister. It is a secret between the Committee and yourself, Minister, that there are one or two seats that have not yet been filled, but we are always hopeful that people will come along. Can I formally welcome the new Minister of State in the Department for Environment, Phil Woolas. It is the first time in your current guise that you have been before the Committee and you are very welcome indeed. Also, can I formally put on the record that you are accompanied by Mr Martin Hurst, the Director of Water, and Mr David Wright, who is in charge of Resilience and the Institutional Framework Programme Manager. That is a wonderfully long title, Mr Wright, that no doubt we will learn more about. I know tradition is that the Minister, who has spent a long time becoming an instant expert on this subject, always does his very best to answer the questions, and I am sure you will do just that, Phil, but if your officials do want to chip in, if you would catch my eye we would be genuinely very interested to hear what you have to say. I do not say that in any way to depreciate the Minister's contribution but sometimes I know officials do have important things to say. I think it would be quite useful, Minister, as you have been getting up to speed in the Department, to ask you a very straightforward and simple question about how you would describe Defra's flood responsibilities.

  Mr Woolas: Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to your Committee. This is a very, very important session for us, as I know it is for the Committee, and I am sure the public interest is very high. I can give my reflection, Chairman, by saying in my previous role before the machinery of government change, the reshuffle, one of my responsibilities was as Minister for Civil Contingencies, so I had some perspective of the relative strengths of the Department and the Category 1 responders. My impression has been strengthened in the time I have been at Defra by two observations. One, there is a partnership with the Environment Agency and that organisation, although not formally part of Defra, is absolutely critical to our ability to plan and respond. Two, there is a very strong technical engineering and science base in the Department. That is not to say that expertise does not exist in other departments but I think it is particularly strong in Defra. That was on the upside. On the downside, my experience has been since the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 the mechanisms of planning and response have been in the foothills of learning. It has improved, and is improving, but I see it in that context, Chairman.

  Q980  Chairman: If we look specifically at the term "flood risk management", and you are quite right to emphasise the Environment Agency and we have become aware during this inquiry that there are a number of players and the fact that you talk about civil contingencies obviously underscores the role of the local authorities and other bodies which have a drainage responsibility, but how would you specifically describe Defra's responsibility in terms of flood risk management, the hierarchy of decision-making?

  Mr Woolas: I would say that the buck stops with us. I have to say it is our responsibility to make sure that flood defences are adequate, maintained and up to speed. As you rightly say, there are a large number of organisations and agencies, some in the private sector, of course, as well as in the public sector. The public have a right, and Parliament has a right, to expect that Defra, as the lead Department in this area, can give confidence that the plans are there, the flood defences are there and there is a proper long-term programme to ensure as we move forward with predictions of worse weather to come that those are adequate.

  Q981  Chairman: But if you were encountering a member of the public who said, "I am still flooded where I am and I am not seeing any sign of protection or programmes coming along", since you have taken office have you had any discussions in general terms about what, in the nicest sense, the public should be protected from? What are their expectations that might be realised and what about the ones that will not be, because not everywhere under every circumstance can be protected from flooding whatever its source?

  Mr Woolas: That is a very fair question. I think the English public have a deeper and broader understanding than perhaps some public commentators appreciate. Many of the areas that flood, particularly from river flooding, are, if I may say, used to it. There are parts of the country where they have suffered, particularly in the last ten years, with increasing rainfall, repeated flooding, and have experience of that. The difficulty in this policy area for any government in any country is the answer to the question, how much is enough? The flooding last summer was the worst we have had for 60 years and the rainfall was the highest we have had since records began, I think, in 1776. The public have an understanding that there were exceptional circumstances. Two things, I think, are expected of us, and I accept the responsibility because I think they are quite right. The first is to ensure that measures are put into place to protect the communities, villages, towns, farms and areas from flooding where that is possible, that the flood defences should be up to scratch, the drains should be up to scratch and the kit, as it were, should be up to scratch. If there are remedial measures that can be taken in people's homes and businesses, the state, if I can put it that way, should be there to facilitate those and insurance should be available in those areas. I think those are the three categories that the public would require of us. Thank goodness the English public, and I say "English" because my remit stops at the border,—

  Q982  Chairman: Indeed. I noticed the care with which you used that word.

  Mr Woolas: Thank goodness the English public are blessed with commonsense, and I am very grateful for that because there are instances where there is nothing that can be done in the face of such extreme weather.

  Q983  Chairman: One of the key characteristics of last summer's flooding was the question of surface water flooding and you mentioned in your opening remarks the expertise that was in-house in Defra. Could you tell us how that expertise has been applied since last summer to respond to the challenges of surface water flooding, apart from asking Sir Michael Pitt to conduct his inquiry because we are going to come on and probe that later. What else has the Department done?

  Mr Woolas: There is a spectrum of measures that are being undertaken, or have been undertaken, and I say this not by way of any point scoring because when I took over the job I was pleased to see the depth and breadth of work that had been undertaken already. Indeed, the Government has been consulting on surface water management from last spring and if the accusation is made, as some commentators have made, that it took the floods to make us all wake up to the difficulties, that would not be a fair charge against Defra officials who have been on the case for some time. The spectrum of measures is, first of all, the modelling of flooding from surface water rainfall is very difficult and not an exact science but, of course, in this country we have the Met Office to help us and we are working with them to model. Modelling river flooding I would not say is an easy science but it is a relatively easier process than surface water flooding. The co-ordination, of course, of the plans, the mapping, the different organisations, answering the question whose responsibility it is, is a question we have set out to answer and Sir Michael's report has pushed us quickly down that route, quite rightly. It is not a uniform picture. Of course, the big question that we faced in all of these estimates as to what resources wee required as we went through the CSR process boiled down to the question of how much is enough. The infrastructure in our country, thank goodness, was built by the Victorians.

  Q984  Chairman: Minister, whilst it has been very interesting to hear you, you have slightly drifted away from the question that I asked.

  Mr Woolas: Sorry.

  Q985  Chairman: Let me just see if I have understood what you have said. Since last summer you have carried on with work which you had already begun earlier, and we are going to ask about some of the work you have done on your pilots on surface flooding water. You have carried on with that work and it sounds to me as if you have done an internal appraisal about resources. Is that correct? When you said, "How much is enough?", that begs a question that you, as a Minister, are seeking an answer to.

  Mr Woolas: I do not think there is an answer to it. That is the difficult policy question in this area that we face for two reasons. One is what level of probability is sufficient. I am very conscious that if one's household is flooded one is not mindful of how many other homes are affected, whether it is 1,000, 100,000 or just one, it is a tragedy for the family affected, so the talk of probabilities and outcome measures, which we have to use to judge those criteria—

  Q986  Chairman: Can we just come back. Let us just have a look at what specific things Defra has done in the light of the surface water that occurred. You have got your existing programmes and you are carrying on with them. What else is on the list of activities that were christened, apart from Sir Michael Pitt's inquiry, as a result of last summer's events?

  Mr Woolas: The instruction to produce a national flood plan, both a framework plan and a flood defence plan, that involves not just coastal and river flooding but the whole of the surface, the rolling out of the urban drainage pilots and the signing off of the Comprehensive Spending Review resources.

  Chairman: That is very helpful indeed.

  Q987  Paddy Tipping: Can we come on to the Pitt Report, a good report which was out before Christmas. It has got a lot of recommendations in it, 72 recommendations, 15 urgent. How are you going to ensure that all of those recommendations are put into effect? I know it is an interim report and there is more to be done, but what is the process of monitoring and implementing Pitt?

  Mr Woolas: The Committee may be aware that by coincidence in terms of the timing of this week, but not in general terms, the Government tomorrow will be launching its future Water Strategy, which is a comprehensive policy framework for water from the cloud through the water cycle back to the sea, if I can put it as I learnt it at O level, Chairman. That policy statement will be the context in which we will ensure that the Pitt recommendations in other areas are implemented. Again, clearly the framework of activity with the Environment Agency, but also with local authorities, Internal Drainage Boards and water companies, provides us with the opportunity for regular implementation, monitoring, public information of flood defence measures in their areas and the flood framework in terms of what measures are in place to prevent and inform. My own personal view, Chairman, if I may say this, is the predictions are that the weather will get more extreme and, therefore, there is a greater urgency to this. The major mechanism will be the relationship with the Environment Agency.

  Q988  Paddy Tipping: Pitt acknowledges that there are lots of different players in this field. I guess somebody might come forward and say, "When Sir Michael has done his work, do you not want to employ him as a tsar? Do you not have to have somebody cracking the whip from the top to ensure all these recommendations are taken forward?" because you are reliant, as a Department, on other people doing some of those things for you.

  Mr Woolas: My attitude is that my greatest allies are the people sitting behind me. By public information, by making the plans for each river basin and catchment area public, by publishing the criteria as far as we can, the timetables and, of course, the resource allocations, the public and their Members of Parliament will ensure that the pressure is kept on. My plans are 25 year plans and I do not expect, nor indeed hope, to be here at that time. I think on average we last about two years, Chairman. I am trying to use this opportunity to put into place that long-term plan. In the short-term, of course, we have working parties across Government to implement the Pitt recommendations. We did accept all 15 of the immediate interim recommendations.

  Q989  Paddy Tipping: I ask this question because I can remember the report Making Space for Water in 2005, and that was a good and smart report. I have to say some of the things in Making Space for Water are in the Pitt recommendations and they were never implemented, never implemented quickly. Can you give us an assurance that this time around things are going to happen?

  Mr Woolas: Yes, I can, and, indeed, that was one of the first questions I asked when I took up the job. I think the reassurance is seen in the timescales that are involved in this policy area. Making Space for Water led to the urban drainage pilots, for example. These are not pilots that you can just launch and undertake in a short period of time, it is not a 12 week consultation, it involves rivers, lakes, concrete, flood defences and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. The Making Space for Water strategy is being implemented. Where we have had to recognise the need for a step up is in how comprehensive the plan is in terms of the geography of the country and what real reassurances we can give to Members of Parliament and the public that those plans are being implemented. I hope it is accepted by the Committee, Chairman, that we are far from complacent, that our attitude is we need and wish to learn from all experiences, but the experiences from the weekend before last and the North Sea surge, again without being complacent, were good lessons.

  Q990  Paddy Tipping: You mentioned the 15 Pitt urgent recommendations. I do not want to push you on it now but it would be helpful if you could let the Committee have a note about how far you have got on the 15 urgent recommendations and what progress has been made so far, because these were to be done as a matter of immediacy.

  Mr Woolas: Perhaps I could ask Martin to come in on the detail. We announced on 4 February, and I absolutely assure you, Chairman, that was not an announcement in anticipation of my appearance here, although had I realised it would have been—

  Q991  Chairman: What a pity! We always like to be the catalyst for action on this Committee.

  Mr Woolas: The Secretary of State announced an allocation of £34.5 million to implement the Pitt Review recommendations. This is not the total amount for the country's defences, that runs into 2.15 billion over the next three years, but specifically a ring-fenced fund for the implementation of the Pitt recommendations. On the 15, perhaps I could ask Martin to come in here.

  Q992  Paddy Tipping: Martin, do not go through them all now, just one or two highlights and drop us a note saying how you got on with them.

  Mr Hurst: There are two things that I would say briefly. One is that as Defra we are responsible for co-ordinating Government action on Pitt, so we do know where progress is on all of the recommendations and we can give you a note. Just on Making Space for Water, very briefly. There have been some big changes in the way that we do flood management in this country as a result of Making Space for Water. I would not want it to be thought that this was a report which was had no effect. Just to single out two: the new planning guidance, PPS25, which has very much changed the way that we plan for new development where it might go over floodplain, was a Making Space for Water recommendation and another example was the Environment Agency taking a strategic lead on the coast as well as on the areas it traditionally covers. I could give you chapter and verse on where we are on all the recommendations but there has been real progress.

  Q993  Paddy Tipping: Let me just ask you about the other reports that have been put forward. The Environment Agency has done a report, the Audit Commission has done a report, lots of local authorities have done reports and you will be getting a report from us when we get round to writing it. How are you going to deal with the welter of information that comes in?

  Mr Woolas: The approach that we take is that this is, as it were, above politics. This is about the security of our people and our communities. One of the experiences I found last summer was that local authorities and Members of Parliament from whatever part of the country and across the political spectrum wanted to find solutions to people's problems. We have a genuinely open attitude, and I hope that is recognised, to try to learn what lessons we can. This area brings to policy making above all else the issue of geography and the geography of the different parts of the country has to determine the plans. That is true right down to street level and each stream and beck. Anybody who has experienced flooding knows what goes on. That means the balance between ensuring that there is a fair approach, and we are talking about allocating significant amounts of taxpayers' money and local consultation, local involvement, local plans, is important. Briefly, Chairman, what I am saying is that river basins do not follow administrative boundaries; life would be a lot easier if we could have designed them in that way but we did not.

  Paddy Tipping: Finally, let me be cheeky about the announcement tomorrow. There has been a long promise that private sewers are going to be adopted. Can I just ask you to think about that.

  Q994  Chairman: You are allowed to consult a friend, or even phone one if you need to, we are very helpful like that.

  Mr Woolas: I am sure you remember, Chairman, sometimes it is difficult to remember when you have agreed something, when it has been announced and what stage it is at. We have already consulted on that point.

  Q995  Paddy Tipping: I know that, I want the final announcement.

  Mr Woolas: The response from the respondents was pretty unanimously positive, I think. That is the situation as we sit here today.

  Q996  Paddy Tipping: I have got to wait until tomorrow, have I?

  Mr Woolas: We have requested permission of the Speaker to place a written Ministerial Statement tomorrow, a policy announcement. I am not trying to hide anything, I am in a difficult position, and I think that is appreciated, but that will be in time for the Committee to be informed. One can see the commonsense of the respondents to the consultation.

  Q997  Chairman: Just a point of detail, because we are going to come on and talk about money later on. Who actually undertook the costing exercise to decide that £34.5 million was the right number to implement the 15 key priority recommendations of Pitt?

  Mr Woolas: Who did it? My officials. Martin, did you do it?

  Mr Hurst: It was produced in consultation with Sir Michael himself and produced as part of our Spending Review divvy-up. Inevitably, this is not a final number, we have to decide what he needs. If he decides he needs more then we can put some of that money into the main flood defence pot. If he decides that there are still pressures to be funded then that will be an issue for the next Spending Review.

  Q998  Chairman: Just to be clear on that, in the note perhaps you might be able to indicate the deployment of those resources because we have not seen any kind of breakdown in the ministerial announcement as to how that money is actually going to be used and it certainly was not clear in the ministerial announcement as to whether the 34.5 million was new money, or does it come from within the existing overall CSR settlement for floods?

  Mr Woolas: It comes from the settlement. It is not—

  Q999  Chairman: So it is a redeployment of monies?

  Mr Woolas: It is new money in that the settlement gives us new extra money but, you are absolutely right, it is within that—


 
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