Examination of Witnesses (Questions 979
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008
WOOLAS MP, MR
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,
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.
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,
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.
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.
Minister, whilst it has been very interesting to hear you, you
have slightly drifted away from the question that I asked.
Mr Woolas: Sorry.
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
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
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
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
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
What a pity! We always like to be the catalyst for action on this
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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