Flood and Water Management Bill

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Q 19Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): May I bring in Barry and Councillor Porter on this question, which is linked to the one David has just asked? There are two dimensions to it. One is, do you think the Bill as it stands is sufficiently clear about who is responsible for what now? I think that when many of us imagined this national oversight role for the Environment Agency, we had not envisaged that it was only for main rivers and specific types of national flooding, and that there were other types of flooding that were not going to be the responsibility of the Environment Agency but would principally be for local authorities. We imagined, I guess, a kind of horizontal split, where you had a national oversight for all flooding, and local authorities had lead local responsibility for all types of flooding.
What we seem to have ended up with in this Bill is a vertical split, which is slightly strange, seems to run the risk again of having this confusion about who is responsible exactly for what, and is, I would suggest, pretty illogical, because, as we discussed in the evidence session this morning, when the water is flowing down the streets you cannot determine what kind of flooding it is, and you need somebody at local level to take the lead and somebody with national oversight to be advising on all types of flooding. That clarity was what we were aiming for, and what I thought Sir Michael Pitt was aiming for. Are you clear that that is what we have in the Bill?
David Rooke: Yes, we are clear. We will have the oversight for all types of flooding. We will be able to draft the strategy for the Secretary of State to approve, and the national strategy will then be implemented by the Environment Agency and the other operating bodies. So there is clarity of responsibility for that strategic overview role in the Bill.
We work on a catchment basis and look after what are called main rivers, which have been approved by the Secretary of State and marked on a map to show that we can then exercise our powers. If you think of it in terms of transport, those main rivers are the motorways—the trunk roads—and we are the equivalent of the Highways Agency. We are looking after the national network of rivers. Water does not respect political boundaries, so we can take water from the catchments to the sea very effectively and efficiently. Local flood risk can be dealt with locally, and the clear recommendation from Pitt was that local authorities should have the lead on local flood risk. We believe that the Bill provides that clarity and that in practice we will all make it work because we will liaise and work closely together. In fact, the Bill puts a duty on us to force us to work together, but we would want to do that anyway. We believe it will provide the clarity that we all seek.
Councillor Barry Dare: May I comment on that? Clearly, the forum and local authorities generally welcome the initiative as set out in this Bill, but despite the reassurances that we have just had, I think there are ownership difficulties. I think there are grey areas that need to be fairly carefully solidified, so that we all know who is responsible for what. Going back to my earlier point, the main problem is that the proposals as they stand appear to be uncosted. We are actually being asked to sign a blank cheque. We local authorities are going to take responsibility under the new regime, yet we do not know what the largest, best, broad-brush estimate is likely to be of the cost implications, or how those costs are going to be met.
Councillor Gary Porter: There is a case for saying that the Bill is far too prescriptive already, so I think we would probably disagree with the suggestion that it is not prescriptive enough in terms of putting the Environment Agency at the top of the hierarchy.
The difficulty that we face in reality, as has already been said, is that flooding does not respect boundaries and it does not necessarily stick to the right political groups, even with their best endeavours to keep flood water away from their own authorities. As we have mentioned several times, we are happy to take on the responsibility that we are given, but we must have the resources to deal with it. Nobody wants to be the person who has to take the blame for it going wrong. We need the tools to fix the problem.
Q 20Martin Horwood: What I was trying to get at was whether the division of responsibility in the Bill is correct and logical.
Councillor Gary Porter: I think we all accepted that the Bill would be pretty much decimated before it got to you guys anyway because of the length of time it has taken to get this far. From what we can see, this is the best cobbling together of what is likely to get through in a reasonable time. If you started to create a full turf war between the Environment Agency and every other flood agency and local flood board, you would never get this through in the parliamentary time available.
The Chairman: I think Dr. Johnston wants to say something on this.
Dr. Andy Johnston: Thank you. We have talked about responsibility a great deal in the flood forum. At the highest level, there is clarity about responsibilities, as has been described. That is one side. The difficulty is how you square off those responsibilities in implementing any solutions when actual work needs to happen and money needs to be spent. That is where the difficulty comes through. That is why a lot of our discussions have been about the ability to self-organise at the local level so that the different bodies who have the different responsibilities are locked into meaningful, formal decision-making structures. The EA and local authorities can then share resources and be in some kind of joint decision-making structure so that we do not have to worry about what type of water is coming down the high street because a body is in place that manages flooding in its entirety at the local level.
Q 21Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Councillor Dare touched on an issue I was about to raise. The county council will be the lead local flood authority with the responsibility for developing, maintaining, applying and monitoring the strategy. As you rightly say, how on earth do you know what that is going to cost until you have developed it? Given that uncertainty, is there not a danger that up and down the country, lead local flood authorities might water down their strategy in the fear that they would not get the funding for it?
Since two and a half years ago, the problem has been identifying who is responsible for what. This is not meant to be a criticism of the county; I am also referring to other agencies. When you finally get to the level of who is responsible, you have to persuade them to carry out the work that is needed. The reply has always come back, “We’ve not got the money to do that.” There is no point in having the strategy if you are not going to be able to implement it. You obviously have a fear about that. Could you expand on it a little?
Councillor Barry Dare: As you rightly pointed out, two and a half years ago, your constituency and my county were badly affected. I was badly affected personally and was flooded for several weeks. I think there are severe misgivings. The reality is that in July 2007, it was the county council in Gloucestershire that took the lead and addressed the pressing problems. However, those were tactical problems such as how to get people into caravans and evacuate people from island sites. The Bill is concerned with the strategic way forward. I go back to what I said at the beginning: the principle is taken on board totally by all of us, but the pound sign worries me and my colleagues enormously because we do not see any clear indication that there will be financial support from anywhere except our council tax payers. Frankly, that will be unacceptable in the current climate.
Q 22Mr. Robertson: From your experience in other areas, how would this work? Would you prepare your strategy and go to the Government to say that it will cost x, and receive a reply such as, “We will give you x minus 20 per cent.”?
Councillor Barry Dare: In other areas, it works in a very simplistic way. A prescription is passed down from Whitehall and Westminster and we are expected to pay for it—it is a non-negotiable set of requirements. I read in this Bill yet another shopping list of prescriptive requirements, without any clear indication of from where the funds will flow in order to meet them. Some elements look a bit bureaucratic, if I may say so. A requirement to “write everything down” is acceptable in theory, but in practice somebody has to pay for that. I am sure you all read with interest the survey that we undertook of members of the Local Government Flood Forum. The indications are that there are severe misgivings: we have not, as a whole, persuaded “them out there” that this is the way in which their problems will be solved; it is often seen as the way in which some of our problems will be solved, and that is not the way forward.
Q 23Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I want to follow up some of Mr. Horwood’s comments. I think it would be an enormous help to the Committee if we could move on beyond the issue of resources. We know the points that you are making and the political context in which you are making them, but what I and my constituents really want to know is whether the Bill has got it right—are we setting up the right local and national structures for dealing with flood risk management? It would be enormously helpful if you tried to answer that question directly, so that we are clear about whether the Bill is right in that regard.
I would also appreciate it if the LGIU made a specific comment. I know that you made comments about the draft Bill being too centralising, so it would be helpful if we heard from you about whether the Bill now has sufficient checks and balances to stop that over-centralising tendency. I make that plea to the panel. Could you please give us a straight answer to Mr. Horwood’s question?
Councillor Barry Dare: I shall go first, as is usual on these sorts of things. The answer to your first question is: maybe. I think we are into uncharted waters—frankly, we just do not know what the solution will be. I go back to what I have said before: this is better than not having it.
Dr. Andy Johnston: On structures, we are encouraged by clauses 9 and 29. Clause 9 is about co-operation and agreements between bodies and the ability to share tasks and so on, and clause 29 is about the Secretary of State’s ability to restructure things. What we would like to see is a bit more recognition that, rather than the restructuring being some sort of top-down process, local government bodies and other key stakeholders in a particular geographical area might decide that the best way to manage flooding is some sort of either extremely formal or informal type of structure in which responsibilities are shared between certain organisations. They are then able to point out to the Secretary of State, “We have a much better way of running things here, so would you please allow us to restructure ourselves at the local level in order to do that?” In terms of clause 29 and the restructuring measure, we would like an element within those provisions that allows local government and local stakeholders to be the catalyst for that reorganisation.
We all know that the same decision-making structures and the same geographical boundaries will not work for the whole of England and Wales. Local solutions will be required, depending upon certain circumstances. So the best way is definitely bottom-up, from that point of view. The Bill’s current wording does not stop that happening, but it does not encourage it as much as I would like. That, I think, is the bottom line on that.
As for the centralising tendency within the Bill, the Bill has changed since the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee expressed its concern about that. Most of our concerns have been addressed, but a lot of the concerns are booted off into further guidance about how certain structures will work. A question was asked this morning about local authority representation on regional flood and coastal committees. The Government’s response was that they have no intention to centralise, which is good to hear, but the Bill does not say what the mechanism will be to ensure that it does not happen. There is a lot of secondary guidance and legislation that will sort out the details on that.
There is encouraging stuff on the use of scrutiny and the consultation arrangements. We have made the point that encouraging the Environment Agency, other bodies and local government to consult is a good thing, but in fact, under existing local government legislation, such bodies have a duty to involve the public and to co-operate with each other, which is a step beyond mere consultation on certain documents. It would be good if the Bill recognised that in reality such bodies will have to work together much more closely that it currently suggests.
Councillor Gary Porter: Broadly, it is a better Bill now than it was in its first draft, when people started to play with it.
Financing is not a party political point. You can have the best Bill in the world, but if you are not prepared to put in the resources that are needed, it will not work. It does not matter what you write. If you do not pay the cheque, it will not work. Do not take the funding issue as the Conservatives taking a pop at the Labour Government. It is not. If our guys had come up with a Bill without the resources, we would be saying the same thing. We must have the resources to deliver on it. We think it is a great Bill. We think the public really want it. They want somebody to be accountable. We are ready to be accountable, but we need the tools to be able to be accountable.
Q 24Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): We have heard several speakers refer to overall responsibility and to who is responsible for what. Could I ask David Rooke initially how he sees the fire and rescue service fitting in, in practical terms, on the ground and in the chain of command in emergency flood situations, rather than in the initial planning?
David Rooke: We see it fitting in under the current arrangements, which are largely governed by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Local resilience forums have been set up across England and Wales, involving local authorities, all the emergency services, ourselves, the voluntary sector and others, and they manage an emergency. They manage emergency planning on a day-to-day basis through the county council emergency planning officers. In an emergency, so-called gold, silver and bronze commands are set up and the police, the fire service and others have specific responsibilities set out in that legislation. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates all that and we are pleased and confident that the system works. It has been tested time and again, most recently during the Cumbria floods just a few weeks ago and it was not found wanting.
Q 25Angela Watkinson: Are you saying that in an emergency situation there is no confusion about who has overall strategic control over the various statutory bodies who assist in the emergency?
David Rooke: None at all. It is dealt with by the gold commander.
Q 26Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): May pick up on the point about responsibilities in the context of water catchment areas not respecting county council boundaries, nor the boundary between England and Wales? The Bill contains clauses that require councils in England to do certain things, councils in Wales to do certain things and Ministers in the Assembly Government to do certain things. Are you confident that it is clear what will happen in what could be called the interim phase, when something has been passed in this Bill, but the Assembly part is not done? How will you work with colleagues on both sides of the border to deal with complex areas, such as the Severn? Have you got that worked out?
David Rooke: We currently make it work. One advantage is that the Environment Agency covers England and Wales. We manage catchments across the England and Wales boundary on an operational basis. We will make it work if the legislation in England is implemented at a different time to legislation in Wales. Obviously, we would like to see the legislation implemented in Wales and England at the same time because the Bill will bring improvements to people, their lives and their property. Any delay in implementation or any confusion caused by the law applying differently in England and Wales would not be good for people who rely on the service that we and others provide.
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