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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1040 - 1059)

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2008

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

  Q1040  Miss McIntosh: If the Department does agree to that—

  Mr Woolas: I do not like the implication that it is just the Department.

  Q1041  Miss McIntosh: But the implication will be that the water will probably find its way and may run off somewhere else, may run off into another watercourse and cause different problems or other problems of flooding on that watercourse, so how do you envisage a solution to ensure that it is not having an adverse effect on flood risk on nearby watercourses?

  Mr Woolas: I have not seen a suggestion where it is desirable that a connection to sewers should not be there. It is a question of is it assumed, is it automatic. If one were to take new developments, it is perfectly possible in many cases to design a new development where water is recycled and put to other purposes, and there is a great lesson on this from Germany for us, but, if the non-connection were to cause, directly or indirectly, damage to the end goals, then clearly that would not be desirable, so the question is what is the right thing. My general attitude is that at the moment the rain falls onto my roof, it goes down my guttering, into my drain, into the sewer, into a treatment plant where it is, at great expense to the water customer, treated and then we put it into the river. It makes more sense to put it onto my roses and that is really what I am trying to achieve.

  Q1042  Miss McIntosh: I know that particularly you referred to the situation in Hull and there is a bit of a ding-dong at the moment between Hull City Council and Yorkshire Water as to the flooding in Hull. Yorkshire Water is constrained at the moment, all the water companies are constrained, in that they have an automatic right to connect. Would it not seem possible that you could contact your colleagues in your old Department and, where there is a planning application, actually ensure that water companies are consulted if there is a possibility that there is going to be potential flooding? The water companies are very clear about this, but they are currently constrained by the present law as to what they can do, so it seems a bit rich that they are being accused in certain quarters of contributing to flooding where they have not even been consulted on planning.

  Mr Woolas: I will be very interested in the Committee's recommendations in this area. It is a suggestion that has been put to us by the Flood Forum and one can entirely see the commonsense of it. Of course the water companies, as we all know, are in an unusual, if not unique, position as regulated monopolies, but I can see a strong argument that says that in the greater good the question of the automatic right to connection should be looked at. David is just helping me out here with a note and, yes, it is a very good point. The point that is being made to me as an aside here is that they are, at a regional level, statutory consultees, and I think the suggestion which has been made is that that should be localised, so I have not come to a conclusion on that, but, as I say, you want to see the strength of the argument in the greater good. My caution is that there may be indirect consequences to the negative and they would need to be looked at and consulted upon.

  Q1043  Miss McIntosh: I would probably say that I think there would be resource implications for the water companies in this and it is probably too late for you to adjust your statement tomorrow in this regard, but, going forward, we might make the recommendations, but the Department have actually got to take this forward.

  Mr Woolas: Yes.

  Q1044  Miss McIntosh: Just moving to urban drainage and the 15 pilot schemes that you have; I notice that there is a fair geographic spread. What preliminary findings have come out of the ongoing pilot drainage schemes?

  Mr Woolas: We have not got the findings yet.

  Q1045  Miss McIntosh: But you are actually expecting to produce a final report this autumn when the pilots are meant to be completed by spring 2008, so could you give us a date when you might be able to share the results of the pilots?

  Mr Woolas: I think the timetable, if I remember correctly and I will let the Committee know if I am wrong, is that we expect to produce the interim findings by the summer recess, I think is the timing. I am sure that is right.

  Q1046  Miss McIntosh: Do you believe that the work on the pilots will be benefiting from what you have learnt from the summer floods?

  Mr Woolas: My attitude to that is that we have this coming together of evidence, of recommendations and of expertise of the pilots. The timing of our policy report tomorrow was due to be before Christmas and we decided to put it back to allow us to look at the interim recommendations from Pitt, and that was a difficult decision because the water companies are producing their 25-year plans and the earlier notice they get of our wider policy framework, the better it is from that point of view, so, as ever in these decisions, it was a balance on the one hand and on the other, but we decided that what really mattered, the most important priority, was to ensure that there was a framework in place to implement the national flood defence plan, to give that a statutory financial policy framework so that the Agency and the other authorities could do that job. I would not say this area has been bedevilled by short-termism as I think the short term in this area is quite a long period of time, but we need a stable, long-term framework to get this into place if we are to do what, you could argue, we should be doing anyway, especially if you take into account the predictions of increased rainfall and problems of water shortage.

  Q1047  Chairman: Would I be correct in assuming that the resource implications which will come out of the conclusions will have to be met, if there are any, from within the existing Comprehensive Spending Review settlement?

  Mr Woolas: That is a very, very fair and astute question.

  Q1048  Chairman: So what is the answer? Is it yes or no?

  Mr Woolas: The answer is yes, that in our submissions to the Treasury we were of course aware of the policy developments and aware of the pilots that we are undertaking.

  Q1049  Sir Peter Soulsby: In the evidence we have had so far, we have had a lot of enthusiasm expressed for what are described as `sustainable drainage systems'.

  Mr Woolas: Did you say "enthusiasm"?

  Q1050  Sir Peter Soulsby: Enthusiasm, yes. We have also had considerable concern expressed that there is a lack of clarity about responsibility for maintaining them once they are developed. I wonder if you could give us some indication as to the degree of enthusiasm you share for so-called `SUDS' and whether the issue of responsibility for their maintenance is something that you are addressing.

  Mr Woolas: I am a complete convert and anorak for this.

  Q1051  Sir Peter Soulsby: I heard you mention your roses and guessed you might be!

  Mr Woolas: Please do not think I am teaching my grandma to suck eggs, but the situation is really serious, that we will face in parts of the country severe water stress, we will face, as we did two years ago in the South East, potential droughts, and the climate change implications as weather patterns move from north Africa through continental Europe to north Europe mean that we will have much more rain in the winter and much less water in the summer, crudely put, and there may be exceptions to that. I mentioned the Victorians earlier on and the problem in the modern world is almost that the Victorians were too good, that they built an infrastructure that has lasted which takes surface water and puts it into rivers and not into the land. Now, as a temperate, north-Atlantic climate, we have put up with that for centuries, but with climate change we cannot and that is why we are enthusiastic about SUDS.

  Q1052  Sir Peter Soulsby: It has been suggested to us that responsibility for maintaining systems once developed was far from clear, I think it was one of the Pitt recommendations, and that that actually is severely inhibiting their development which, quite rightly, they are enthusiastic about.

  Mr Woolas: It does, and one of the questions that I think your evidence has been looking at is that, as well as the need to co-ordinate the maintenance, there is also a need to have consistency of policy. There are parts of the country, for example, in agricultural areas, where drainage has been subservient to agriculture and one reaches a border and the drainage system becomes subservient to an urban area, and there are different policies even within that. That does not necessarily make sense and this is the debate we have been having, as you have, with the internal drainage boards, where they exist, but also between water companies and local authorities as well, and two-tier areas present an even greater complexity. Again, to answer your question, I think very enthusiastic, and it is certainly an area that we have looked at in depth and again it is an area that will be commented upon tomorrow.

  Q1053  Sir Peter Soulsby: You mentioned earlier, or you reminded us earlier, that your responsibility of course in this context is England. It was suggested to us, I think, by Thames Water that they do things differently and, it was suggested, better in Scotland and that the responsibilities were actually clearer there. Is that your understanding of the situation? I think they said that local authorities had responsibility above ground and drainage authorities below ground and, therefore, everything was sweetness and light north of the border.

  Mr Woolas: Well, they have a lot more rain relatively and they do not quite face the problems we face, although they may well do in the future. They benefit from, if I may say in a non-partisan way, a unitary authority structure that was imposed on them some time ago, but which makes sense from that point of view, so I would say that the organisational structures in Scotland and the water resources they have make it easier, but I still think it is very complex. Other than that, in perfect honesty, it is not an area that I have looked at in depth, so, if there are lessons to be learned from the Scotland situation and indeed Wales, I will read them with great interest.

  Q1054  Mr Drew: Could I pick up one point before I go on to talk about planning which brings you back to your previous incarnation, and that is the role of the IDBs. As someone who used to be quite critical of IDBs, I have begun to realise that certainly in rural areas they can play a crucial co-ordinating role. The problem is that they are limited of course in operation, and I never remember what the height is above sea level, but they only have a limited purview. Are you looking at whether we can widen their role because certainly it is galling that you can get one community where the IDB can be quite effective and yet you go literally a quarter of a mile further inland and they are not able to function at all?

  Mr Woolas: The answer is yes, they are. We are looking at the geographical configuration of them. I attended the annual meeting of the IDB in Peterborough and spoke in depth with them about that. I think that they rightly are looking to us for clarity of policy guidance, which reverts back to the answer to Sir Peter before. There was a fear, I think, at the end of the summer last year that we would throw the baby out with the bathwater, if I am allowed a pun, apologies for that, but I certainly do not intend to do that.

  Q1055  Mr Drew: The added advantage of course is the precept—

  Mr Woolas: They have the added advantage that they bring resources.

  Q1056  Mr Drew:—so it is a cost-free opportunity, dare I say.

  Mr Woolas: They levy their fees and they have incredible local knowledge of the watercourses. They tend, for very good reasons, to have empathy with the agriculture sector and the land, and that is very important because one cannot have a flood defence policy that is pro-urban and anti-rural or pro-agriculture and anti-urban, but you have to get the water control right and I think the IDBs bring a real level of expertise and, finally, they bring incredible commitment, and I am sure it is pretty much a thankless task, but it is very important.

  Q1057  Mr Drew: Moving on to flooding, as part of this inquiry, you may know, we went to Lyon to have a look at effectively their sustainable urban drainage. Besides the organisation which was very impressive, I think the other thing that struck us was the fact that they have red zones which means no development in those zones and they have other zones which clearly have become the opportunity to be able to disperse water into. Really what we learned was that their hold on development, even though they have got a much more dispersed system of government in France than we have in the UK and given they have greater land space which in that area does help, their ability to manage that space was impressive. To what extent, looking at PPS25, have we got to become much more assertive in deciding where we do not develop? One of the things that I raised with previous interviewees, and I raise with you, is the problem that it is not just the measurement of the potential flooding in the area where the development takes place, but the consequence of that flooding further down the valley or further down the flood plain. Now, is that something that you are talking to DCLG, your previous Department, about?

  Mr Woolas: Very much so. I think our attitude is that the policy changes that we have made have been in the right direction, and I think there is a consensus around that, that there is clearly a learning curve and there is a need for pushing hard to ensure that the powers are used properly. The debate around the flood plain, do not develop on the flood plain which is often used, misses the important point in the question that David raises. Bringing the expertise again of the Environment Agency into the equation has benefited the situation enormously. The expertise of planning officers needs to grow, and I think it will, but I think we need to push it on the point that is being made, and the fact that you can have a development not in a flood-risk area that causes floods in existing areas is a lesson that is being learned right across the country.

  Q1058  Mr Drew: So in terms of the role of the Environment Agency, agreeing that that role is enhanced by PPS25, is it not worth now just pushing that bit further to say that, where the Environment Agency has clear misgivings about a particular development, they do have statutory powers? At the moment we have the powers where you, as the Minister, could call something in, but up until this point the Environment Agency has been regularly overturned in terms of advice and quite simply you can get some planning results, adverse as they are, some years later.

  Mr Woolas: It is something that we have obviously talked to the Environment Agency about, both the Chief Exec and the Chair, it is something that the Board raised, it is something colleagues raise and it is something that Sir Michael addressed himself to in terms of the enforcement. The picture seems to be that the number of objections that are honoured, as it were, by planning committees or recognised by planning committees is on a steep curve upwards, and it started very slowly, so it is far from ruling out the point that you make. The question of course is whether the power to ask the Secretary of State to call it in overweighs in the minds of the planning committee the other consideration which would be whether the system could cope with current resources, but the picture seems to be one that is improving and I think we should have a very open mind and keep that monitored, and, if I may say, the Sustainable Communities Bill will help in that regard.

  Q1059  Mr Drew: I am sure it will and we will be working on that in due course. Finally, while we are on the Pitt Review, the recommendation that flood risks should appear in home improvement packs, has the Government accepted that or is it thinking about it or has it got misgivings about it?

  Mr Woolas: It is thinking about it. Again, part of our strategy is to call upon the public, and the statement in principle which is with the Association of British Insurers is of course very, very important indeed. Our policy goal of being able to improve, at household level, resilience and protective measures is important, and clearly the point that is being made could be argued to help towards that. In official language, it is under active consideration, I think is the phrase that we would use.


 
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