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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000 - 1019)

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008

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

  Q1000  Chairman: So something, technically speaking, is going to be a loser?

  Mr Woolas: Well, no, because we were very successful in the settlement. We were able to get a larger settlement than even the ABI had asked for before last summer's floods. In that sense, the money for implementing the Pitt recommendations is money that has not, therefore, been passed on to the Environment Agency and others.

  Chairman: We will come back to that. I do not want to anticipate looking at—

  Q1001  Lynne Jones: Can you remember what the most expensive item in the Pitt recommendations was?

  Mr Hurst: Bear in mind we do not know what Sir Michael Pitt's recommendations are yet. We know what the 15 urgent ones are and we have 72 interim recommendations that he will firm up for better or worse in the summer.

  Q1002  Chairman: We understand that, Mr Hurst, but the question was very specific about how the £34.5 million of redeployed money is going to be spread out across the 15 priority issues. Lynne Jones was asking a very specific question: out of those 15 priority areas, what is going to get the most resource?

  Mr Hurst: I think what I am saying, with my apologies, is that the 34.5 million is not for the 15 priority issues, it is for the totality of what Sir Michael Pitt concludes in his final report, of which those 15 issues—

  Q1003  Chairman: Let us ask a more straightforward question. What is it going to be spent on?

  Mr Hurst: The answer is that we do not know yet.

  Q1004  Chairman: So you make an announcement of spending 34.5 million, with Sir Michael Pitt you sit down and cost this sum of money but you do not know what it is going to be spent on. This is a rather unusual way of allocating public funds.

  Mr Woolas: We have not spent it yet.

  Q1005  Chairman: This is not fantasy money for a fantasy programme, is it?

  Mr Woolas: The decision that was taken was looked at the other way round: if we had not set aside money for a report that we are taking very seriously and during the course of the financial year we would have had to—

  Q1006  Chairman: Minister, with respect, Mr Hurst was very straightforward. He said that you had not costed out everything because clearly Sir Michael has not come to his firm and final conclusions, and that is fair enough. He produced a list of some 70-odd interim conclusions which initially had no money, it was a menu without prices, and then your Secretary of State announced that 34.5 million has been allocated towards helping the implementation of Pitt and you said that as a Department, in concert with Pitt, you had sat down and costed out something which came to 34.5 million. All I am asking is what is it that adds up to 34.5 million?

  Mr Woolas: Chairman, Martin did not use the word "costed" in that regard.

  Q1007  Chairman: I asked him the question who costed Pitt and he said it was a combination of your Department and Sir Michael Pitt. Mr Hurst, is that not what you said?

  Mr Woolas: Yes, it is what Martin said, Chairman, but the implication was that it was a detailed budget that had been worked out.

  Q1008  Chairman: He said it without moving his lips!

  Mr Woolas: Let me just put it into context for you because obviously the question you are asking is an extremely fair question. We have a budget of £62.5 million, of which £34.5 million that we are talking about for the Pitt Review is retained to fund a range of work around helping communities adapt to flood and coastal erosion impact and the measures that flow from that. How that money will be allocated is not yet determined, but the decision was taken that it would be sensible planning at this stage before the beginning of the financial year to allocate money to flow from Pitt's recommendations specifically. If we do not need that money it will go into the mainstream budget of the 1.8 billion. My view was if we did not have some money set aside and if people asked the question, "You have accepted Pitt, how are you going to pay for it?" and I had to say to you, "I am sorry but I am taking money off your constituents' flood defence funds", then I think you would perhaps have had a different point of view.

  Chairman: That is very interesting, Minister, because although I was not going to go into the funding, let us just tiptoe into—

  Lynne Jones: You could hardly be taking it out of the additional monies.

  Q1009  Chairman: Lynne, just a second. By all means ask a question. I have got in front of me the breakdown that the Secretary of State issued in terms of your budget and the 62.5 million is in the column, as you rightly say, "Retained for now in Defra". So you have now spent, if you like, 34.5 million of it but the profiling of that money shows that none of it, bar four million, is going to be spent until 2009-10. If this is supposed to be the commencement of the implementation of Pitt and the 34.5 is just slightly over half the 62.5 that you have retained, I conclude from that, if the profiling is correct, the best we are going to see in 2008-09 is two million spent on implementation of Pitt.

  Mr Woolas: No, that would not be the correct interpretation.

  Q1010  Chairman: That is how much it is. That is what your press notice says, I have it in front of me.

  Mr Woolas: That is in relation to the money specifically for the Pitt recommendations that is taken from that 1.8 billion.

  Q1011  Chairman: Sorry, Minister, you said you kept back £62.5 million—

  Mr Woolas: No, I did not.

  Q1012  Chairman: --- to help communities adapt.

  Mr Woolas: No, I did not say I had kept back. I said I had kept back 34.5 million from the 1.8 billion.

  Q1013  Chairman: Out of the 62.5.

  Mr Woolas: Out of the 62.5 budget that is from Defra's core budget.

  Q1014  Chairman: In the second column of figures in the press release it says, "Retained for now in Defra". I presume that is where this money has come from. Are we agreed on that?

  Mr Woolas: Yes.

  Q1015  Chairman: If you have used 34.5 of that to kick off the Pitt process, is that the correct number?

  Mr Woolas: Yes.

  Q1016  Chairman: The profiling of that goes 2008-09 four million, 2009-10 20.5 million and 38 million in 2010-11. I am assuming that this profile of expenditure was informed by the way that you are going to use 34.5 million of it because that is just over half of this money. On that basis I surely cannot be wrong that, if you like, Pitt implementation does not kick in until 2009-10.

  Mr Woolas: The profiling of that schedule over the CSR period reflects the fact that most of the work that we expect will be done will have a time lag on it.

  Q1017  Chairman: That is why I was asking what is it going to be spent on and what is the timescale. It sounds like things are going to happen instantaneously but not according to this.

  Mr Woolas: The timetable that Sir Michael is working towards, as I am sure the Committee knows, is to produce the final report in June/July of this calendar year, which is obviously during the next financial year. That is the first point. So it is reasonable to assume that the bulk of the expenditure will be in the next financial year. What I want to emphasise, Chairman, is the money that is available for the Pitt recommendations, should we require earlier money, money from core Defra budgets, would be available. My intention with this was simply prudent planning to ensure we had a pot of money to implement Sir Michael's report, but it is not necessarily the only sum of money.

  Q1018  David Taylor: I wonder whether we can turn to surface water drainage. In your introductory remarks you focused on assessing the infrastructure, the existing assets of the system, if you like, overland drainage, underground drainage, what state they were in, what needed to be done and how much investment was needed. This area is quite messy, is it not, quite muddy you might say, because you have got a patchwork existence of Internal Drainage Boards, you have got the historical riparian responsibilities, and you have got privatisation of the industry not all that long ago. The blend of those three factors means that the current situation in terms of responsibility is both physically difficult to define, and Water UK said it is sometimes very hard to know when a highway drain becomes a public sewer, and it is also organisationally muddled. This Committee went to Lincoln and heard from local residents, and this would be true in almost city or area, that they did not know who was responsible for maintaining particular parts of the overall drainage system. Pitt responds to that by saying a local register should be compiled with condition assessment and so on and details of responsible owners and that is a vital first step. Do you accept that? That was interim conclusion 21. Is that something the Department has taken on board?

  Mr Woolas: It is something I have taken on board, yes. My view is exactly the same as yours, that there is a complicated picture. I did the same as the Committee in a number of areas of the country, particularly learning lessons in Hull and East Yorkshire, to look at the pattern and answer the question whose job is it to ensure that this is fit for purpose, so the ensuring of the mapping, the co-ordination of the plan to bring up to speed, if that is what is needed,—

  Q1019  David Taylor: And the legal responsibility?

  Mr Woolas: --- and the legal responsibility for those processes is part of our responsibility and something we are taking on board.


 
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