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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020 - 1039)

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008

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

  Q1020  David Taylor: So to draw order out of what is national chaos to an extent, some very strong minded leadership is needed. Who do you think should supply that?

  Mr Woolas: I am not sure "chaos" is a fair word. It is probably fair in some parts of the country. Similarly, with reservoirs, when one looks at it across the piece there is a vast range of ownership of reservoirs. There are two answers to the question. The expertise in terms of mapping, technical knowledge, geographical knowledge and climate knowledge is clearly with the Environment Agency. The leadership has to come from us and the local authorities have a very important role indeed bearing in mind the point I made before that the systems do not necessarily follow local authority boundaries.

  Q1021  David Taylor: Pitt says that local authorities should lead that process.

  Mr Woolas: Yes, that is right, he does.

  Q1022  David Taylor: You do not seem to be convinced of that as if your Department should have general oversight.

  Mr Woolas: The local authority as the democratic local body is the obvious choice. The reason why I am hesitating and looking at this is this very important point about responsibility across boundaries. I will take the example of the East Riding. Sorry, am I allowed to call it the East Riding? It is still the East Riding as far as I am concerned.

  Q1023  Chairman: Some of us who were brought up in Yorkshire know what you are talking about.

  Mr Woolas: East Yorkshire and Kingston-upon-Hull are two separate single tier authorities but—

  Q1024  David Taylor: You can have a lead authority on that surely.

  Mr Woolas: Yes, you could do that.

  Q1025  David Taylor: You do not need to have territorial disputes or spats. You warm to the idea that local authorities could and should lead this process of establishing ownership, condition and legal obligation, do you?

  Mr Woolas: In terms of responsibility for there being a plan, I think that is the way the ball is bouncing.

  Q1026  David Taylor: Siren voices suggest that one of the key changes that will occur because of what happened last year is the Environment Agency will be given overall responsibility for all sources of flood risk. We will not come to a conclusion about whether or not that will be announced, but do you accept if you add it on to an already straitened agency with financing difficulties that are well understood then their capacity to absorb that new responsibility might be very limited indeed. Do you believe that the Environment Agency is up to it?

  Mr Woolas: Yes, I do. I think there is another policy consideration that has not been included in the debate and that is the relationship to the river basin management plans.

  Q1027  David Taylor: If we could stick with surface water drainage, we will come on to other areas later.

  Mr Woolas: My point is in planning flood defences, be they river or surface water, you have to do that in the context of your other plans. In lay person's terms, if the policy is as it is, which is to try to ensure the natural river course as best we can in order to clean up the environment rather than having artificial manmade channelling and so on, the physical relationship between that river basin and the drains and the channels and so on is part of the planning.

  Q1028  David Taylor: Minister, are you saying that you have every confidence the Environment Agency do have the capacity to absorb this very significant new responsibility and are able to operate in a more satisfactory way than the patchwork of organisations that has preceded them?

  Mr Woolas: Yes and yes, Chairman.

  Q1029  David Taylor: We had the Environment Agency in front of the Committee on Monday and Pitt's interim conclusion three—to take forward urgently work to develop tools and techniques for predicting modelling surface water flooding—was put to them, and you mentioned in your earlier remarks how complex that is to accurately map, model and forecast surface water flood risk. Even though it is complex, surely some attempts have got to be made to take us down that path because surface water flooding, and we heard from Sheffield in particular, was the key factor that split that city in two by a stretch of water several hundred metres wide. Are you agreeing with the Environment Agency who said, and I will quote their phrase if I can find it, that Pitt had not fully appreciated these complexities in his interim report? That to me sounds like civil servant-ese for "the man's mad". Are you in that camp?

  Mr Woolas: I am certainly not in the camp that the man's mad. Sir Michael Pitt is a formidable operator and has a deep knowledge. He is a civil engineer by profession and the chief executive as well, so he is an ideal choice. I am sorry, I am not quite clear what the question is.

  Q1030  David Taylor: They are saying that the Pitt recommendation to develop tools and techniques of that kind is not really a short to medium-term option but that more basic data should be used to try and at least improve the forecastability of surface water flooding taking place. I am just putting to you their reaction to Michael Pitt's conclusion.

  Mr Woolas: Can I just ask Martin to help me out on this.

  Mr Hurst: I think there is a distinction between the urgent recommendation number two that you are talking about, which Government has accepted, and the Environment Agency has already taken forward to do high level surface water mapping where it can be done, and the complexity of doing detailed surface water maps and detailed meteorological mapping across the whole piece. My understanding is that the Environment Agency are taking forward Pitt recommendation two enthusiastically but they are still talking to Michael Pitt about the generality of the issue.

  Q1031  David Taylor: High level forecasting, we are really talking about fairly crude maps, are we not?

  Mr Hurst: Yes.

  Q1032  David Taylor: They are better than nothing, is that what you are saying?

  Mr Woolas: Well, we have got the Met Office work as well. The point I was making was we have advanced research in terms of the Met Office and climate modelling to try and provide the public and agencies with better information as to what would happen if X amount of rain fell in Y area and what the relationship of that would be.

  Q1033  David Taylor: Over a set period?

  Mr Woolas: Over a set period and what the relationship of that would be. Then we have the lower level, as it were, estimates and plans for what would happen given the capacity of the drains and gulleys and so on.

  Q1034  David Taylor: We do have the topographical data necessary, do we not, Ordnance Survey and other modelling techniques.

  Mr Woolas: That is a very good point and it is one I would have thought the Committee would want to look at. Yes, in general we do but I think one of the things that Professor Coulthard taught us in the whole report, and certainly taught me, was the information was not as good as the agencies would have wanted and that was because of this fundamental point that has been made by Sir Michael and commentators, and by the implication of your questions, that the co-ordination was not there in some instances.

  Q1035  David Taylor: My final point would be that you said earlier the scale and solution to the problem is a matter of geography at national level to a certain extent, but at local level it is topography, is it not, that is the key factor?

  Mr Woolas: It is, yes.

  Q1036  Miss McIntosh: Reverting to a point you made earlier, Minister. I think you accept, and you put it in response to my parliamentary question, 50 per cent of the drains in the country are privately owned. If you respond positively to Mr Tipping's point in tomorrow's statement, where are you going to get the budget from to adopt these private drains?

  Mr Woolas: Let me draw the distinction. There are private drains that are in people's gardens, on people's land, and at the moment the practice is if those drains are damaged, blocked or whatever, water and sewerage companies take responsibility. That is the practice, it is not clear-cut but it is not a statutory obligation. Then there are those private drains that are owned by companies, organisations and other bodies. What we clearly have to do is to provide for the maintenance and repair, where necessary, of those drains. These are resources which have to be deployed anyway by somebody, unless we are to have broken sewers and drains everywhere, so it is not really a question of allocation of money, it is a question of allocation of responsibility.

  Q1037  Miss McIntosh: But the money surely must follow responsibilities.

  Mr Woolas: Yes, but the money is already generally spent by the water companies.

  Q1038  Miss McIntosh: But, if I were to take you to a street in east Yorkshire, East Riding, and show you a whole row of riparian owners who were flooded last year and who risk being flooded again, where are they going to get the money to have those drains adopted? It is a whole row of houses. As you know, the title to many of these houses did not reflect that they were responsible.

  Mr Woolas: The general principle that we will try to address will be that the private owner of the property in the case of a house should not have the responsibility to repair the drain.

  Q1039  Miss McIntosh: Could I just ask about the Pitt recommendation on the abolition of the automatic right to connect. I think you would probably agree that the Department will sign up to that recommendation. It is the interim recommendation.

  Mr Woolas: It is a very attractive policy to give strong consideration to.


 
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