Flooding: Cooperation across Government Contents


Current review

12.There are four main types of flooding; groundwater, surface, coastal and fluvial. They often happen together but strategies for dealing with them can differ.

13.Every major flood event in the last 20 years has been followed by a review (see table 1). Dieter Helm, an economist and professor at Oxford University who specialises in utilities, infrastructure, regulation and the environment, described this reactive pattern as “normal” but questioned its effectiveness:

The normal way of dealing with flood events is as follows: you have an unexpected disaster; a lot of people are terribly inconvenienced and suffer accordingly; money is thrown at the problem in emergency funds; there is a call for a review; there is a review; the review recommends spending some more money and a lot of other sensible measures; some of these things get implemented and—as I would describe them—many of them are very useful but they are essentially sticking plasters. So you wait until the event happens again and then you go through exactly the same process [ … ].7

14.In response to last winter’s floods, the Government announced a new national review and provided additional funding.8 This National Flood Resilience Review (“the Review”) will assess how to ‘better protect the country from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events.’ It will focus on four key areas:

15.This reflects exactly the process described by Dieter Helm. As he explained:

We have had a really horrible event for people. We have had some emergency money thrown at it. We are now going to have a review and so the question is: is this an opportunity, the third time round, to get it right and realise that there are substantial and structural things that ought to be done? Or do we simply say, “Look, it is bad luck. These things should not happen this often. I am sure we could find some more measures to do and a bit more money and it will be fine”?10

16.John Curtin, then acting Executive Director of Flood and Coastal Risk Management at the Environment Agency argued that the Government’s approach was “perfectly valid”:

The cycle of reviews is we have a long strategic plan for flood risk and have done for a number of years and when that meets events, you do reflect and see whether that is still the right plan.11

17.Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive Officer of the Environment Agency, set out how the Government’s latest Review would differ from past reviews:

[ … ] It feels to me like a genuine and serious attempt to think deeply and long term about the consequences for our country of climate change and changing weather patterns. The fact that we are taking our time about it, the fact that a large bunch of stakeholders from around Government are contributing, the fact that the review will want to issue a call for evidence from others I think is evidence of seriousness to do this in an intellectually robust way. Certainly, I am interested in practical outcomes, but I think it is right that we step back and take a serious look at what conclusions we draw from December before we make those decisions.12

18.Lord Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee at the CCC, who published his first statutory progress report to Parliament on the National Adaptation Programme in June 2015, criticised the Government for its lack of a long-term approach to flood risk management:

[ … ] having done a very thorough analysis and come to the conclusion that [ … ] there was a need to look again at the whole strategy that the country has for managing flood risk, the Government basically said, “No, we are perfectly happy with what we are doing”. What we have seen as a result of the December and early January floods is that the Government is now undertaking a review [ … ]. So perhaps some of the questions that we raised in our June report last summer will now come back on to the table and we will have a further opportunity to press the Government to reconsider their position that they were taking sufficient action already. [ … ].13

19.Sir James Bevan disagreed, arguing the Government and the Environment Agency were taking a long-term approach:

[ … ] The Environment Agency developed in 2009 and refreshed in 2014 its long-term investment scenarios. They look forward from now until 2065 at the flood risks that we are likely to face over the coming decades, factoring in what we know about climate change and seeking to ask what that means in terms of how we manage that flood risk. That is a pretty strategic and long-term approach. We have a six-year investment programme designed to improve flood protection for 300,000 houses over the next four to five years. That is putting a lot of money over an agreed fairly lengthy period into investment in new flood defences and, as you know, the Government has committed that it will also protect in real terms the money that we spend over the next four years in terms of maintaining our flood defences. From my background in Government, that is quite a long-term commitment and I think that is very helpful in terms of our strategic planning.14

20.During the inquiry we asked our witnesses what they would like to see come out of the Review. Almost all shared a common desire to see improvements in communication and collaboration between key organisations involved in or affected by flooding. Sir James from the Environment Agency said he would like to see moves to “think bigger and more holistically about flood risk” and involve a wide range of stakeholders in flood risk management.15 This was echoed by representatives from a range of infrastructure companies who highlighted specific issues which needed to be addressed such as funding and planning, as well as improving partnerships and collaboration between different organisations.16 Similarly, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) told us in written evidence that the Government should encourage greater co-ordination between relevant organisations to support community level resilience measures which could help raise greater awareness of flood risk within local communities, and incentivise resilience action in local and neighbouring communities.17

21.During our visit to Leeds, most businesses felt that there was a lack of communication and coordination both between frontline response organisations (for example police and fire services) and between water companies, the Environment Agency and local businesses (see appendix 1).

Past reviews

Pitt review

22.The most significant and high-profile review following a major flood event was the 2008 Pitt review. The then Government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt to “undertake a comprehensive review of the lessons to be learned from the summer floods of 2007.” The Pitt review called for “urgent and fundamental changes in the way the country is adapting to the increased risk of flooding and called on the Government to set out publicly how it will make rapid progress, and be held to account, on improving the country’s flood resilience.” Among other things, it recommend the Government should:

23.Successive governments published responses and progress reports to the Pitt review in 2008, 2009 and 2012. The Coalition Government stated that “it supports changes in response to all of the recommendations in the review.” While 83 of the 92 recommendations had been implemented by the time the final 2012 progress review was published, recommendations 87 and 88 which suggested establishing a Cabinet Committee and a National Resilience Forum were not implemented. These were intended to help to ‘improve the country’s ability to deal with flooding and implement the recommendations from the review’ and ‘facilitate national level multi-agency planning for flooding’.

Table 1: national flooding events and their associated review.19


Flood event


Easter 1998

Wide spread flooding. Thousands evacuated. Insured losses totalled £210 million.

1998 Easter Floods, Final assessment by the Independent, Review Team for the Environment Agency.

Autumn/winter 2000

10,000 homes and businesses were flooded at 700 locations. Insured losses totalled £1.1 billion.

Lessons learned, Autumn 2000 floods by the Environment Agency.

Summer 2007

55,000 homes flooded. Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, Hull and Worcestershire heavily affected. Insured losses totalled £3.4 billion.

Review of 2007 summer floods by the Environment Agency and the independent Pitt Review.

Winter 2013–14

Persistent flooding on the Somerset Levels and in Southern England Insured losses for flooding totalled £460 million. Briefer coastal flooding and wave battering damage in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Insured losses from storm damage totalled £640 million.

Government ‘annual resilience review’ (“never reported”, Daniel Johns, CCC, Q40) and the independent Worsfold Review.

Winter 2015–16

Flooding in north of England, Scotland, north Wales and parts of Northern Ireland. Insured losses totalled £1.3 billion.

National Flood Resilience Review and a specific review on Cumbria. Due to report in summer 2016.

24.Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that this recommendation had not been taken up because, “it would be a very ungainly way to try to manage Government’s business.” He argued:

If you had a committee that was just dealing with floods without any very precise agenda, you would have a lot of spinning of wheels and you would then end up with a committee on each different risk and that is not a sensible way to manage things.20

Instead the Minister described the use of the National Security Council a Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, which looks at “risks in the round.” It was this Committee that had decided to establish the flood review and the Government’s 25 year plan for a healthy natural economy.21

Government’s ‘annual resilience review’

25.Following the 2013–14 winter floods the Coalition Government established a Cabinet Sub-Committee on flooding with the aim to “coordinate strategic long-term plans on flood recovery and flood resilience, following the severe weather.” When this Committee was established it was agreed that:

The government, led by Oliver Letwin and supported by the Cabinet Office, will instigate an annual review in to the resilience of our nation. The review will consider the local, regional and national response to the extreme weather, identify blockages to effective and decisive action and make recommendations for the government’s long and short-term resilience strategy.22

At that time, Lord Krebs wrote to the Prime Minister on behalf of the CCC offering to assist the Government by providing evidence and data to support this new Committee.23 The new Committee reportedly only met three times and did not publish a report. Daniel Johns, Head of Adaptation UK at the CCC told us that the lack of a report meant that it was unclear how prepared the UK was for future flood events:

We had a formal letter in reply essentially saying that Oliver Letwin was taking forward the annual resilience review and we had meetings. It is also worth noting that the annual resilience review—which was a real review, because we have talked to the team involved—was never reported. So, even eight years or so on from the Pitt Review, we still don’t know to what extent infrastructure in this country is better prepared now than it was back then, for the kind of flood events we are seeing increasingly frequently.24

26.Oliver Letwin told us that it was never the intention of that Committee to produce a report. The Minister admitted that a lot of people were anticipating a report and that there was a failure of communication on Government’s part. The Minister however argued that what it did was more important than producing a report; “it produced a better response to flooding.”25 The Minister set out a series of actions including the creation of the Ministerial Recovery Committee; the creation of a package of measures designed to replace the Bellwin Scheme which had been judged to be inadequate; the establishment of the Somerset Rivers Authority and a new flood action plan for Somerset and something similar for the Thames Valley; and improvements in how information is shared with Cobra when flooding occurs.26

Worsfold review

27.Another review was carried out after a major flood event in 2014 by Mark Worsfold, Chief Engineer at Ofwat. He was asked by the Coalition Government to carry out an independent peer review of the maintenance of the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal erosion risk management (FCERM) assets. The Worsfold review compared and contrasted the Environment Agency’s asset management practices, policies and procedures with those in place by the Water and Sewerage companies in England and Wales. The review highlighted that this sector had, since privatisation, delivered significant improvements in efficiency and service. Based on this work the review made 33 observations and 11 key recommendations.

28.The Worsfold review was never published. When asked about the review some witnesses including the CCC and the Environment Agency appeared reluctant to talk about its contents only providing high-level summary and telling us that we had to approach Government before we could see the findings from the report.27

29.The Government subsequently shared the report with us and a copy is available on our website. When asked why the report had not been put into the public domain, Rory Stewart MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, told us:

The answer is no reason at all. As you know, having read it, it is a very technical report that basically looks at the accountancy procedures and the asset management registers and the way that the economic calculations and efficiency calculations with the Environment Agency flood management system works. We commissioned it for internal purposes, but it is absolutely not a secret and we are very happy to share it with anyone. Indeed, that has been the case since it was produced 18 months ago.28

But when we asked whether it had been shared with anybody else prior to us the Minister said “no”.29 The Government has subsequently shared the Environment Agency’s original response to the Worsfold review with us. The Environment Agency has also provided us with an update on its progress towards implementing the review’s recommendations. Both are available on our website.30

30.Over the last 20 years there has been a review following every major flooding event. Failure to take a long-term approach to flood risk management and implement fully the recommendations from these reviews - especially from the Pitt Review - may have affected the Government’s ability to respond effectively to last winter’s floods. We support the Government’s original idea from 2014 that there should be an annual national review of the nation’s resilience. The Government should work with the Committee on Climate Change to produce this. In the interests of transparency and accountability the Government should also publish an action plan alongside this yearly review setting out, using measurable objectives, its progress. The Government’s current review would be a good starting point upon which to build. This will enable the Government and the Environment Agency to be held to account for its performance in delivering those actions particularly in light of future flooding events. During this inquiry a diverse range of stakeholders shared a common desire to see improvements in communication and collaboration between key organisations involved in or affected by flooding. We hope that the Government will take this into account.

7 Q44

8 The Government also announced a review in Cumbria.

9A country more flood resilient”, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs press release, 13 December 2015

10 Q44

11 Q97 [John Curtin]

12 Q103

13 Q17 [Lord Krebs]

14 Q98

15 Q104

16 Qq206–208

17 Association of British Insurers (FDG0009) para 2.6

18Sir Michael Pitt publishes final report: ‘learning lessons from the 2007 floods’”, The Pitt Review press release, 25 June 2008

19 Insured losses figures by the Association of British Insurers (ABI).

20 Q219

22First meeting of new Cabinet Committee on Flooding”, Prime Minister’s Office press release, 13 February 2014

23Evidence to support the work of the new Cabinet Committee on Flooding”, Committee on Climate Change letter, 19 February 2014

24 Q40 [Daniel Johns]

25 Q218 [Oliver Letwin]

26 Q217

27 Qq33–35, Q105–107

28 Q209

29 Q210

30 Environment Agency (FDG0014), Environment Agency, Response to the Infrastructure UK peer review of flood and coastal risk management, November 2015

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7 June 2016