Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008
WOOLAS MP, MR
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
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,
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.
Some of us who were brought up in Yorkshire know what you are
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,
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
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 threeto take forward urgently
work to develop tools and techniques for predicting modelling
surface water floodingwas 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
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.